It's hard to comprehend how many people were murdered at the extermination camp Treblinka—up to 925,000, second only to Auschwitz's 1.1 million. Just 67 people were known to have made it out alive. Now, Treblinka's last known survivor has died. The Associated Press reports that Samuel Willenberg died in Israel at the age of 93.
The AP writes that he was one of the few men who were not killed immediately upon arrival at the Nazi camp. Facilities at Treblinka included both a slave labor camp and an extermination camp where Jews and Romani were murdered in gas chambers. Treblinka's main goal was to exterminate the prisoners it admitted. The few young, male laborers spared, like Willenberg, were forced to support and even participate in the murders. Though the camp was destroyed by retreating Nazis trying to hide the horrific evidence of their work near the end of the war, it has since been excavated by archaeologists, who uncovered mass graves and physical evidence of gas changers.
In 1943, Willenberg participated in the notorious uprising at the camp, escaping under gunfire and running away, managing to get out despite being shot in the foot. Willenberg was one of the few who survived the brutal manhunt that followed. He returned to Warsaw where he joined the Polish resistance, fought in the Warsaw Uprising, and then, after the war, moved to Israel. He told the BBC’s Adam Easton that though he saw the bodies of his sisters at the camp, he never told his parents, who survived the war, that he knew they had been murdered there.
Willenberg spent the remainder of his life educating others about the Holocaust. Like many other survivors, he put his emotions and memories into art, creating haunting sculptures of the camp, the uprising and other pieces of art.
“My artistry is my memory,” he told Yad Vashem’s Sheryl Ochayon in 2011. “My ability to remember what my eyes saw…I remember pictures. I see pictures from ‘there,’ even today.”
It is uncertain just how many Holocaust survivors are still alive today—as of 2015, they numbered as few as 100,000 and that number is quickly declining. With the death of every eyewitness, the living memory of the murder of Europe’s Jews recedes a bit further into the past. But each death also serves as a reminder to cling that much harder to the memory of what happened at camps like Treblinka—and the obligation to pass along the history of the Holocaust to future generations. Willenberg will live on as Treblinka's last survivor, but so will his haunting sculptures of his experiences there. “My artistry is my memory,” he told Ochayon. “My ability to remember what my eyes saw…I remember pictures. I see pictures from ‘there,’ even today.”
Editor's Note, February 23, 2016: Since Willenberg's death was reported, a few families have come forward to note that others who survived the camp are still alive. The Times of Israel shares the compelling story of Leon “Poldek” Ryt.