Samuel & Ada Willenberg: WITNESSING TREBLINKA

15 minute read

Nelson Mandela. Anne Frank. Gandhi. Rosa Parks. Malala Yousafzai. In Australia, Pemulwuy. Weary Dunlop.

The giants are those whose innate character collides with history to become an inspiration. Samuel Willenberg was such a giant.

This snapshot of Samuel, then 90, and his wife Ada, 85, was taken in early August 2013. My assistant producer Joffa and I were in Poland, just outside Warsaw, on the research/recce (reconnaissance) trip for Who Do You Think You Are? Andrew Denton. Samuel and Ada had travelled to Poland from their home in Israel for the 70th anniversary of the Treblinka revolt, and were soon to return.

Of the estimated 850,000 – 1 million people sent to Treblinka to be murdered, only 67 survived the war. And only one was still alive: Samuel.

The purpose of our meeting was to – madly, naively, arrogantly – ask Samuel if he would consider flying back to Poland for our shoot in September to tell Andrew Denton about Treblinka, where we'd discovered a branch of Andrew’s family had been murdered. One Polish researcher expressed their disapproval we would even ask. Samuel’s story deserves an epic film in its own right, but here we were requesting he make a lengthy journey for an 8 minute segment of our show. 

And yet our request perfectly aligned with Samuel’s life mission: to tell the world (in this case, Australia) about Treblinka. He and Ada listened, then told us, Yes. Samuel’s health permitting, they would fly back to Poland a month later.

Thrilled, we ate lunch together. Samuel’s English was limited, and we spoke through Ada, but he was such an exuberant, expressive human being that we mostly understood him without translation. He was funny, charismatic, warm, kind, strong, handsome, with a great singing voice. His presence was enormous, as was Ada’s. They crackled with life. And were as affectionate and flirtatious as newlyweds

Joffa and I leave electrified, the meeting a highlight of our careers.

In the following days we became steeped in Treblinka history as we visited the site and I read Samuel’s memoir, Revolt in Treblinka.

Treblinka is arguably the most evil place ever conceived and constructed. Unlike concentration camps that later turned into death camps, Treblinka (850,000–1 million killed) - along with Belzec (400,000–600,000 killed) and Sobibor (200,000–250,000 killed) - was created purely as a death factory. Spawned at the Wansee Conference of January 1942 it was part of the 'Final Solution to the Jewish Question'.

Treblinka opened in July 1942. It was designed to appear as an ordinary labour camp with an ordinary railway station – complete with fake timetables, a fake clock, fake signs – so that arrivals wouldn’t panic as they were herded into two barracks: one for women and girls, one for men and boys. The arrivals were ordered to undress and ostensibly sent to shower. Instead, they were gassed to death. Their bodies were shovelled into an enormous pit, their corpses burnt.

As the Nazis liquidated the ghettoes they’d created across Polish cities and towns, and as Treblinka reached peak “efficiency”, 6000 people were sent here by train daily, and murdered by noon. Later, foreign Jews and Romani were killed here too. 

In the early stages of the war Samuel had been wounded fighting for Poland against the Russian Army. In the chaos afterwards, as Jews were forced into ghettos, he'd become separated from his family. His father, Perec, was a teacher and artist, and his mother, Maniefa, a Russian orthodox woman who’d converted to Judaism after her marriage. He had an elder sister, Ita, and younger sister, Tamara. 

Samuel found himself living in the the ghetto in Opatow (about 200kms south of Warsaw). On 19th October, 1942, Samuel - nineteen, tall, and blue-eyed - along with 6500 fellow Jews, was ordered to march from the ghetto to a railway line, where they were crammed into a cattle car - about 100 per car - with no toilet, not even a bucket. The train left for Treblinka early the next morning.

A young Samuel with his sister, Ita, and father, Perec.

A young Samuel with his sister, Ita, and father, Perec.

As his train moved through the Polish landscape and various railway stations that October morning, Samuel heard adults and children yelling at them: “Jews! They are going to make you into soap!” But it was impossible to conceive the taunts were true, and Samuel and his fellow travellers believed they were going to a labour camp. When they disembarked at Treblinka, Samuel recognised a young man from his home town of Czestochowa who approached Samuel and whispered, “Tell them you’re a bricklayer.” Soon after, an SS guard arrived and roared “Who is the bricklayer?!”. Samuel indicated it was he, and the guard kicked him into barracks. In this way, Samuel’s life was spared. Everyone else on his train was killed that morning.

Samuel met other Jewish labourers – sonderkommando – who told him they weren’t at a labour camp, but a death factory. Yet it would take Samuel several days for his mind to grasp the unimaginable horror of the place he’d been delivered to.

On his first night in the barracks Samuel saw his old history teacher, Professor Mering, who’d also been spared death in order to work. Mering told a disbelieving Samuel that his wife and daughter had been killed on arrival.

He then fixed Samuel with a fierce gaze, and said: “Here, Samuel, you are a witness to the murder of the entire Jewish people. As a former teacher, I am viewing this as a historian. Willenberg, you’ve got to live! You’ve got to break out of here! You look Aryan, you have a good accent. Nothing about you gives you away as a Jew. You’ve got to escape and tell the world what you’ve seen, and what you haven’t yet seen. That will be your duty.”

His words became a sacred obligation that Samuel fulfilled for the rest of his life.

Samuel was assigned to a work team that sorted through the masses of belongings left by the thousands murdered there daily, piled high behind the fake train station. Anything useful to the Nazi war machine - clothes, valuables, money, spectacles, suitcases, cooking utensils – was organised for re-use. All photos, birth certificates, letters, identity cards, diplomas were incinerated. They were useless to the Nazis who, besides, wanted to destroy all trace of the Jews. (It’s a myth that Nazis kept meticulous records of those they killed; the murders were on too massive a scale, and the Nazis had neither the means or inclination to preserve the names of a people they wanted to annihilate.)

As the sonderkommando trawled through the enormous heap each day, they were brutalized by their SS and Ukranian guards, and never knew when they would be killed too: frequently, randomly, someone was shot dead for a wrong look, a sneeze, or no reason at all.

One freezing day Samuel was sorting through clothes when he spotted a familiar fabric. He bent over to pick it up: it was the small brown coat that belonged to his 6 year old sister, Tamara. He knew without a doubt it was hers because his mother had extended the sleeves with green material. Clinging to the coat, as though in an embrace, was a skirt that belonged to his older sister, Ita. Samuel instantly understood his sisters had been among that morning’s arrivals. Transported here, now dead.

Most sonderkommando died of illness or starvation or gunshot. Professor Mering was murdered when his work team were no longer needed. But Samuel was among those who eked out survival. In 1943, the sonderkommando began planning a revolt. If they were to die while escaping, they could at least try to destroy Treblinka in the act. They drew inspiration from news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that Spring - despite its dire outcome - but almost insurmountable difficulties delayed their own insurgency.

However at 3.58pm on August 2, 1943 – nearly 10 months after Samuel’s arrival – the estimated 1000 Treblinka sonderkommando wielded stolen rifles, pistols and hand grenades in revolt, shooting guards, burning buildings and destroying vehicles. Most were mown down by machine guns from the guard towers within moments, but around 300 managed to escape. For the Nazis it was imperative that they were all recaptured: Treblinka was evidence of genocide, and no eyewitness to their mass crimes could be allowed to find their way into the world. The SS spared no effort in hunting down the escapees, and 200 were recaptured and shot in the following days.

Although wounded, Samuel eluded the SS. His memoir describes how he travelled by foot through forests and villages, relying on his wits and the kindness of a few Polish peasants to survive. One such Pole was a young mother in an isolated country house upon whose door he knocked on. When no-one answered, he went inside, and found her, frightened, sitting on the floor with her young son. Samuel asked for something to drink, and she fetched dark bread, butter and cheese. She then put her son to bed. Starving, Samuel devoured the food, the best feast he’d ever had. She smiled as she watched his wild dining, seeming to know where he’d escaped from. After his meal, they kissed, and spent the night together: a young man freshly escaped from hell.

Samuel during the war

Samuel during the war

In spite of the SS’s best efforts, 100 Treblinka sonderkommando got away, and 67 of them survived to the end of the war.

Extensively damaged, Treblinka limped on for two weeks after the revolt. The last gassings there – of thousands of people from the Bialystok Ghetto – took place on the 21st August 1943. The tide of the war was now turning against the Nazis, and in coming months they dismantled Treblinka, destroying all evidence of its existence, to hide their monstrous crimes from future discovery by the Allied forces. The land was ploughed over, trees and a crop of lupins were planted, and to complete the cover-up, a Ukranian guard was installed on the site as a farmer.

The story of Samuel’s survival throughout the rest of the war is a whole other extraordinary tale, of constant hiding from the Nazis, and discerning the Poles who would offer him life-saving comradeship from those who would denounce him as a Jew. During the Warsaw Uprising of August–September 1944, he fought with the Polish resistance and then the People’s Army. He was perhaps the only fighter who had to avoid bullets from both the Nazis and fellow Polish fighters who’d discovered he was Jewish.

Before the end of the war he met Ada. She had survived the Warsaw Ghetto but her family had been decimated by the Holocaust. The first time they met Samuel told her he would marry her, but she thought he was too wild. It took some time to change her mind, but clearly Samuel succeeded. In 1950 they emigrated to Israel where, using the draftsman skills he inherited from his artist father, Samuel became a engineer surveyor for the Housing Ministry. He and Ada had a daughter, Orit, now a prominent Israeli architect.

It’s Thursday 19th September 2013 and we crew, and Andrew Denton, are near Treblinka. We’ve been filming with Andrew for 12 days now, taking him deeper into his family’s history and the dark heart of the Holocaust. Two days earlier he learnt members of the Ditkofsky family his great-grandfather left behind in the Polish town of Suchowola were sent to their deaths at Treblinka.

As always with Who Do You Think You Are?, the celebrities are kept in the dark until the camera is rolling, so Andrew has no idea what will unfold each shoot day, or who he will meet. But Joffa and I have been on tenterhooks about Samuel’s arrival for days: Will he be well enough to fly? Will his journey go smoothly? To our relief, and thanks to the effort from the production team, he and Ada arrive safely in Warsaw, and are now on their way to join us.

The drive to Treblinka, through the villages and fields where the trains passed, is sinister, but the site itself is peaceful. A forest has been planted around a memorial of 17,000 stones that commemorates the towns and shtetls whose Jews were murdered. It's as though the trees have given gentle salve, over time, to the horror that happened on this soil. Uli (cameraman), Laurie (sound recordist) and I walk around to find a spot to film Samuel and Andrew’s scene, with a good backdrop and favourable light. We’ll have only 2-3 hours – previous crews have exhausted Samuel by filming for too long – so there’ll be no time to spare when he arrives. The skies are threatening rain: there’s nowhere undercover, so no Plan B if the heavens open.

Andrew’s first meeting that day is with historian Jerzy Halbersztadt, who gives him an overview of Treblinka history, and shows him train records that indicate when the Ditkofskys would have arrived. After filming the scene, Andrew, Jerzy, and the crew go to an early lunch in the tiny museum on site, while I wait in the car park for Samuel and Ada.

When they arrive, Samuel looks fierce. He tells me that the most recent crew he filmed with got a fact wrong in the finished program, and that must not happen with us. I assure him it won’t. While Ada helps him into his wheelchair, I explain our plans, including that we’ve found a good spot for the interview, but he roars: ‘No! I am the one who knows Treblinka so I will guide Andrew around and I will decide what to show him and you must follow’. I admire his protection of truth. Of course, I agree.

Samuel leads us to a clearing in the forest and within minutes we’re ready to film. He casts aside his wheelchair to use his walking stick. It’s a critical scene and I’m tense, as so much can go wrong. The camera has to follow a conversation between Samuel, Andrew and the translator in real time, and with Samuel speaking Polish, it will be hard to follow what he’s saying, and have our camera in the right spot at the right time. What if we miss a key moment? What if there aren't enough pauses in Samuel's speech for our translator to translate for Andrew? What if Samuel leads us to a spot where the light is terrible? What if it rains?

As we start rolling Samuel greets Andrew with tremendous warmth: they instantly connect, and the shot looks beautiful. I’m relieved, and alive to the moment. Samuel walks Andrew along a track where the trains came in – a series of horizontal plinths now mark the route - speaking powerfully and eloquently about his memories of arriving here. After a while, Samuel stops and unfurls his enormous sketches of Treblinka, the world’s only visual record of the death camp. Conscious of the mass crimes they were committing, the Nazis banned photography at Treblinka, and while a handful of snapshots survive from disobedient SS commandants and guards, they show little.

Samuel’s sketches are meticulous and comprehensive, and recent archaeological work at the site has confirmed their startling accuracy. They show figures disembarking from the train, others being herded into the two barracks to undress, the enormous pile of belongings being sorted by the sonderkommando (including Samuel), the guard towers, the Lazarett (a fake medical post) where the elderly and infirm were sent to be shot, and the pit at the back of the site into which a crane piled bodies.

One of Samuel's drawings of Treblinka .

One of Samuel's drawings of Treblinka.

Samuel, Andrew, and our translator Jan sit down. For the next two hours Samuel gives powerful, angry, sorrowful, humane, and compassionate testimony to what he witnessed here. Andrew listens and asks questions with the empathy and intelligence that characterized his television interviewing. Ada – whom Samuel calls “Krysia” – is always close by, reassuring Samuel if he calls to her, giving him strength.

When Samuel starts talking about finding his sisters’ clothes, his heartbreak is palpable, and he cries: “I can’t [talk about this]! I can’t! You have to tell. Krysia, you have to tell.” But Ada encourages him to continue, and he does.

He tells Andrew he weeps now, but he couldn’t then.

It’s a profound mystery how place cuts through time. We’re at Treblinka 70 years after it closed, but as Samuel tells its terrible story the events he describes hang in the air around us.

The Nazis not only annihilated millions of lives, but all tangible evidence they'd ever existed. After retirement Samuel gave some of murdered material form by expressing his memories into bronze. People he’d witnessed at Treblinka became sculptures. A father tenderly crouching to help his young son out of his shoes before they entered the barracks. A girl arriving from the Warsaw ghetto, half mad from starvation, clutching a piece of bread. A disabled Jewish man who lost a leg in the First World War fighting for the German Army, who was sent to the Lazarett to be shot. And Ruth Dorfman, about whom Samuel tells Andrew.

This particular freezing day, Samuel had to join other sonderkommando in cutting off the hair of naked, shivering female arrivals. Many women drew hope from the haircut, thinking it was part of a disinfecting process: if they were being disinfected, surely they would live? What they couldn’t imagine is that their hair was being harvested to stuff the mattresses on German submarines, for human hair had just the right moisture resistance. One of those whom Samuel sheared was Ruth Dorfman, about 20, a lovely woman with beautiful eyes who’d recently finished high school. Unlike the other women being shaved, she harboured no hope, and knew what was awaiting. She asked Samuel how long she would have to suffer. “Only a few minutes”, he answered. His eyes full of tears, he continued cutting her long, silky hair. As she left, she gave Samuel one last look, as if to say goodbye to a cruel and merciless world, and a few minutes later he heard the racket of the motor firing up, producing the gas that killed her.

Samuel showed Andrew a photograph of his Ruth Dorfman sculpture: “I carved the way I remembered her. From my memory, with pain in my heart, and tears. It is not easy to sculpt what happened here.”

Samuel's sculpture of Ruth Dorfman

Samuel's sculpture of Ruth Dorfman

I’ve directed seven episodes of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and occasionally, as we’re filming the stories of the ancestors, a profound grace descends: I sense that the dead are with us, eavesdropping on the stories being told about them, with love and curiosity. As we filmed with Samuel I had the same feeling, except that the dead numbered in their thousands and thousands and thousands. Were Samuel's sisters here? Were Andrew's relatives, the Ditkofskys? Was Ruth Dorfman? Professor Mering? When I was 30 my sister and I discovered, to our shock, that our great-grandparents were Jews. Hannah Katzenstein and Colman Rappaport left this region of Europe in the 1890s for London, just like Andrew’s great-grandparents. Were the families they left behind – my relatives – eavesdropping too?

The sensation passed as fleetingly as it arrived. What remained was a conviction: telling the stories of the dead was a way of honouring them, and taking revenge on the Nazis.

As Samuel’s testimony drew to a close the power eased out of his voice until it was a whisper: “I live two lives simultaneously – one in the past, and one in the present. It’s always with me. It’s difficult to describe. It accompanies me all the time.” 

Ada told me she’d never seen Samuel give such a powerful interview. It began to lightly rain. As we filmed our cutaways – details of Samuel’s drawings, wide shots – our moods lightened. We hugged, we cried, we laughed (yes, laughed), stills were taken, we thanked Samuel and Ada and they, needlessly, us. We’d done our jobs. We’d told the story.

Soon after Samuel and Ada left it began to downpour, the skies weeping.

The following evening in Warsaw we met up with them again. It was the night of Sukkot, the annual Jewish festival that traditionally marked the end of harvest. The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich (whom we’d filmed with earlier in the week), had invited us all to a Sukkot dinner. First we went to shul (mass) in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of prayer in Warsaw. As women, Ada, Joffa and I were were relegated to an upstairs balcony. After ruminating on the sexism of the Abrahamic religions, I couldn’t help but grin at the sight in the pews below: listening to the Rabbi’s songs in Hebrew, each wearing a yarmulke, were Samuel, Andrew, and Uli, our German cameraman, who’d been confronted in his own unique and profound way during the week’s filming.

After shul we went to a nearby Sukkah – a temporary hut with a roof open to the sky, topped only with palm branches. We were less that 100 metres from the site of the Warsaw ghetto, and members of Warsaw’s surviving Jewish community were with us, partaking in this ceremonial feast that’s endured for millennia. Samuel and Ada were honoured guests. When Samuel was invited to speak, he said: “After what I saw at Treblinka I can’t believe in God. But I do believe in tradition.” We responded with the greatest of toasts: “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”)

During the meal Rabbi Michael said to me: “You know Jane as long as you live, you’ll never tell another story like this one.”

Our last meeting with Samuel and Ada was the following morning, our day off. In a café underneath our hotel we joined them and their friend Grazyna as they shared their plans for a Holocaust Education Center at Treblinka, hoping it would be built while Samuel is still alive. Currently Treblinka has only a tiny council museum and, unlike Auschwitz, is not even on the World Heritage List. They were worried about who and what would give witness to Treblinka once Samuel was gone. They asked us to do what we could to raise awareness for the need in Australia. Then, with warm smiles, they told us to waste no more time with them, but go off and see Warsaw!

We flew to Israel the next day. Samuel and Ada followed two days later, and invited us for dinner at their home in Udim, but our long shoot days in Jerusalem far away, and our inability to change our Israel departure date, meant it wasn’t possible. I promised to return to Israel for dinner with both of them, and it’s a private sadness that will never happen.

Last Saturday evening I checked my phone and saw an email from Oren, our Israeli fixer, who’d facilitated our meetings with Samuel and Ada. It simply said, “Willenberg died”. Grief for one so old is usually tempered by the length of their life, but I felt a kick in the guts, a stab of pain in the heart. The grandest tree in the forest had been felled, and the accompanying almighty crack reverberated all the way around the world.

Samuel, this massive spirit who’d clung so tenaciously to life – through war, Nazi persecution, Treblinka, and the Warsaw Uprising – had finally released his grip.

By Sunday morning, all the major international newspapers had published the news online: “Last Survivor of Treblinka Death Camp dies”. Samuel lived 3 days past his 93rd birthday. 

- February, 2016

PS. When Ada and I spoke a few weeks later, she said, "I know we had a lot of time together, but it wasn't enough. I miss him. I wish he was still here."