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Samuel Willenberg's legacy in Poland

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Samuel Willenberg, the last survivor of the rebellion against the Germans in Treblinka death camp. His unique sculptures can now be viewed in Opatów, from which, in October 1942, he and 6,000 other people were sent to Treblinka.

Samuel Willenberg's autograph
Samuel Willenberg

Samuel  Willenberg  was  born  in  1923  in Częstochowa,  Poland,  the  son  of  Maniefa, nee Popov, and Perec Willenberg; he had two sisters, his elder Itta and younger Tamara. In  October  1942  he  arrived  at  the  Treblinka camp in a transport of Jews deported from  the  Opatów  ghetto.  Most  perished immediately;  he  was  the  only  one  who remained alive. Willenberg was in Treblinka until the outbreak of  the  rebellion  on  2  August  1943.  He  saw with his  own  eyes the  arrival  of  hundreds of  thousands  of  Jews  and  thousands  of  Roma  and  witnessed  them  being  sent  to death  in  the  gas  chambers;  his  own  sisters Itta and Tamara also perished there. Willenberg himself suffered humiliation, violence, cruelty and  extreme  viciousness  at  the  hands  of the  German  SS  staff  and  the  Ukrainian  “SS-Wachmänner” guards. Samuel  Willenberg  was  among  200  inmates who on 2 August 1943 succeeded in escaping from the  German  extermination camp in Treblinka.  At  the  moment  of  his  death  in  2016,  he remained the last survivor of the rebellion in Treblinka. Samuel Willenberg became the spokesman for good Polish-Jewish relations, speaking openly about both the tragic and beautiful events, linking these two groups of Polish citizens during the criminal German occupation.For his activities during and after the Second World  War Samuel  Willenberg  received  the highest national  honors  of  the  Republic  of Poland, including the Virtuti Militari, the Cross of Merit with Swords, the Cross of Valour, the Warsaw Uprising Cross, the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Polish Army Medal.

In January 2020, the Institute brought 14 sculptures, made by Willenberg as a result of his painful memories from the camp, from Israel. "The Image of Treblinka in the Eyes of Samuel Willenberg" exhibition, created on their basis and accompanied by an educational project, toured a number of Polish cities and was enormously popular despite the pandemic. For those who could not see it in person, the Institute of National Remembrance prepared a virtual tour of the exhibition in Polish and English. It is available here: https://lastwitness.eu/ The efforts of the Institute of National Remembrance made it possible for the sculptures to remain in Poland for one more year. The sculptures portraying the author's personal experiences as both a prisoner and a participant of the revolt in the Treblinka German death camp is accompanied by the screening of "Treblinka’s Last Witness", a documentary film produced and screened courtesy of WLRN Public Television for South Florida, which is a first-hand account of Samuel Willenberg’s life as a Jewish prisoner of the death camp.




In early 2021, the exhibition of the Institute of National Remembrance appeared in the Cultural Center in Opatów, which, after Częstochowa and Treblinka, remains the most significant place in the artist's life. It was here that before the war, his father Perec Willenberg created paintings on the synagogue walls. It also housed the ghetto established by the Germans during the war, from which, in October 1942, young Samuel was sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.

In the spring  (April), the exhibits will arrive at the "Świętokrzyski Shtetl" Educational and Museum Center in Chmielnik, located in the former synagogue. The reconstructed and restored building reflects several hundred years of Jewish history in Chmielnik, as well as life typical for a pre-war shtetl. The exhibition will be on display until the end of April.

In addition, the IPN is in the advanced stage of negotiations with the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, which is planning to exhibit the sculptures in its subordinate institutions.

The Institute’s intention has been to take care and popularize Willenberg’s legacy until the completion of the construction work at the Treblinka Museum, where it should be exhibited permanently according to the Artist's last will. Willenberg's sculptures and the accompanying educational project e.g. workshops for young people, are the best form of teaching about the tragedy of the Holocaust. Moreover, they constitute a stern warning for future generations against any form of totalitarianism. Willenberg himself – a long-time educator of young people from both Poland and Israel was also a strong believer in this approach. Currently, his work is being continued by his wife Ada Krystyna Willenberg.

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