Tuesday, May 3, 2011
A chance encounter saved him from being killed on his first day in the Treblinka extermination camp
By Bethany Bell, BBC News, Tel Aviv:
Israel is marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
Samuel Willenberg, who is now 87 years old, is one of the last two known survivors of the Treblinka extermination camp.
Treblinka was one of the most notorious Nazi death camps.
Part of the Nazis' "final solution", the camp in occupied Poland was dedicated to extermination, designed for efficient mass murder.
Between 1942 and 1943 around 870,000 Jews were killed there, according to Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem.
Not many of those who were sent to Treblinka lived to tell the tale.
Yad Vashem estimates that a few hundred people escaped from the camp, but only a few dozen of those survived the war.
Samuel Willenberg was one of the survivors. His two sisters were killed there.
Sitting in his flat in Tel Aviv, Mr Willenberg, who has written a book about his experiences, said he wanted to give testimony about "the tragedy that was Treblinka".
Most people were sent straight to the gas chambers, he said.
There was "no selection, no procedure, no special striped clothes like in Auschwitz".
"Here we wore the clothes that we found after people were sent to the gas chambers and that's all. It was death."
But a chance encounter saved him from being killed on his first day in the camp.
He recognised one of the Jewish prisoners forced to work in the camp and asked him what he should do. "Say you are a builder, say you are a builder," the man told him.
As a result, Mr Willenberg said, he was "the only one that remained alive" from his transport.
Samuel Willenberg says he was the only person who survived from his transport to Treblinka "I was in shock. I couldn't believe what was happening before my eyes. It is difficult to grasp that suddenly people arrived and other people came and killed them by gas."
In the basement of his apartment building is a collection of bronze sculptures, created by Mr Willenberg to reflect his experiences in Treblinka and to preserve the memory of those who died.
One is of a girl with her head half-shaved. Another shows a father helping his son take off his shoes before being sent to the gas chamber.