Samuel Willenberg was born in the southern Polish city of Czestochowa in 1923. His father, a painter, taught at a local Jewish school; his mother had converted from Christianity to Judaism after her marriage. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, sparking the outbreak of World War II, the family was torn apart. Samuel’s two sisters were arrested in 1941 in Czestochowa, and Samuel himself was among the 6,000 Jewish people rounded up in the Opatow ghetto in southern Poland and transported by train to Treblinka in October 1942. An acquaintance among his fellow prisoners advised the 19-year-old to tell Nazi guards who asked about his occupation that he was a bricklayer. This advice ended up saving Willenberg’s life, as he was the only one in his transport to escape the gas chambers.
Located northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka would become one of the most gruesome symbols of the Final Solution, Adolf Hitler’s attempted extermination of Europe’s Jewish population. At other Nazi camps, many prisoners were forced to do labor before being killed, but nearly all of those brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death. The camp’s total death toll was second only to that of Auschwitz, where some 1.1 million people died in the gas chambers, as well as from starvation, disease or forced labor.
A few of the youngest, strongest male prisoners (like Willenberg) were selected to perform maintenance work at Treblinka. In this role, they were forced to support and even participate in the murders of their fellow prisoners. In an interview with the BBC in 2013, Willenberg said his job was to sort through the belongings of the prisoners who had been sent to the gas chambers. One day, he saw his sisters’ clothing and understood that they had been killed. After the war, Willenberg couldn’t ever bring himself to tell his mother and father, who had managed to escape the Nazi purge, what he had seen.
By April 1943, transports had mostly stopped arriving at Treblinka, and the Nazis had begun digging up the bodies of the prisoners who had been killed and burning them on huge pyres. Knowing that once this work was completed they would be killed, Willenberg and other camp survivors hatched plans for a revolt. On August 2, using a copied key to the armory, some 200 prisoners stole weapons, set the camp ablaze and fled for the woods.
In later interviews, Willenberg described his own experiences during the escape. As he climbed over bodies piled at the camp’s barbed wire fence, he was shot in the leg, but managed to get away. His blue eyes and “non-Jewish” appearance allowed him to survive in the surrounding Polish countryside, and he eventually reached Warsaw, where he joined the Polish Home Army in its resistance to the Nazis. In August 1944, Willenberg fought in the Warsaw Uprising, which attempted to liberate the city from Nazi rule. Meanwhile, the Nazis razed Treblinka later in 1943 and turned it into a farm. In 2014, the first-ever archaeological excavation of the site revealed the unmistakable evidence of its gruesome past, from mass graves to the brick foundations of the gas chambers.
After World War II, Willenberg moved to Israel with his wife, Ada, who had survived the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, and found work as a surveyor for the Housing Ministry. Haunted by his time at Treblinka, he spent the rest of his life educating people about the Holocaust in various ways. He drew an exact diagram of the camp from memory for the use of historians, and wrote an autobiography, “Revolt in Treblinka,” that would be translated into eight languages. Beginning in the 1990s, Willenberg accompanied youth groups from Israel to Poland; he also lectured extensively in Poland, Germany and the United States, as well as Israel.
Late in his life, Willenberg began sculpting in bronze, using his artistic work to express the horrific realities of his wartime experience. “I live two lives, one is here and now and the other is what happened there,” he told the Associated Press. “It never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always.”
Willenberg died on February 19 at his home in Tel Aviv. His wife, daughter and three grandchildren survive him. In 2013, Willenberg’s daughter, Orit Willenberg-Giladi, was chosen as the architect for a Holocaust education center to be built on the site of Treblinka.