Judi's Journal 5-13-2011

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The last two survivors of Treblinka

By Judi Siegal

It was one of the blackest periods of history. The Holocaust. It took the lives of 11 million people. The Holocaust. It was the systematic murder of one and a half million children. The Holocaust. It led to the extermination of two-thirds of the Jews of Europe.  The Holocaust. It destroyed a whole culture and way of life. The Holocaust. It brought out the worst evil in educated, civilized people. The Holocaust. It brought out the best of humanity in those who dared to resist. The Holocaust.  Its very name elicits sadness, terror and despair.

          Treblinka. A Nazi-occupied camp in Poland.  Here, 875,000 people were murdered by the Nazi killing-machine during the Second World War. The camp was the built for the carrying out of what the Nazis called the “Final Solution,” that is the extermination of the Jews of Europe. Upon arriving at the camp in cattle cars, the prisoners were herded off to the gas chambers, mothers separated from their children, families destroyed forever in the suffocating fumes of the Zylon B gas.

          Some, however, escaped this horrible fate.  They were the young, fit ones whose duty it was to shovel the dead bodies into the fires of the crematorium, sometimes even performing the act on their own relatives.  In this living nightmare of horror, these survivors toiled until they, too, met the fate of their predecessors. And the world stood silent because there was none to wreak justice on the Nazis.

          On Aug. 2, 1943, a group of Jews revolted by stealing weapons and setting fire to the notorious death camp.  Hundreds fled to the woods and surrounding areas but most were gunned down by the Nazis or turned over to them by the Polish peasants who lived in the area.  Sixty-seven prisoners were known to have escaped. It was these survivors who broadcast to the world the diabolical intentions of the Nazis. As soon as the news reached the Allies, the Nazis covered their tracks by burning and destroying the camp so as to show no credence to the survivor’s stories.

          Only two survivors of Treblinka are alive today and both live in Israel.  One is Samuel Willenberg and the other, Kalman Taigman, both now in their late 80s. Willenberg survived by climbing over a pile of dead bodies near the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp and then pushing himself over. His “Aryan” looks allowed him to survive before he was able to get to Warsaw and join the Polish underground. His experiences always haunted him for he had experienced things too horrible to contemplate: the murder of his two sisters, prisoners removing bodies, a father removing the shoes of his son as they entered the gas chamber and Jews standing on the rail platform imagining their fates. These and other images Willenberg captured in his sculptures which he did later in life as a way of coping with the terror he witnessed as a young man.  When asked in an interview in his Tel Aviv apartment how he survived he replied: “Chance, sheer chance. It wasn’t because of God. He wasn’t there. He was on vacation.”

          Taigman had the satisfaction of seeing a Nazi flag burned as he escaped from Treblinka but that was little consolation for the daily killing he saw going on each day in the Treblinka death camp.  He wandered for a year in the Polish countryside and after the war he and Willenberg made their way to Israel where they raised families and had careers, Willenberg a surveyor in Israel’s Housing Ministry and Taigman, an importer.  The survivors have kept in contact over the years and see each other often. While Taigman has gone back several times to lead tours of the Treblinka site, Willenberg has only done it once, citing it was too painful to return.

          While both survivors would agree their experiences were painful reminders of the worst of inhumanity to others, they feel that it is important to share their message with the world. They are concerned that the story of Treblinka must be kept alive, as horrific as it was, so that future generations may learn of the evil perpetrated there. “The world cannot forget Treblinka,” says Willenberg.  “Soon there will be no one left to tell,” says Taigman.

And soon, all too soon, the world will forget. May we take to heart the lessons of the Holocaust and remember that its evil head surfaces wherever bigotry and hatred thrive.

The Holocaust.  Its evil, its destruction, its horror, its murder.  May we remember.

(Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day occurred this year on May 1)


(Based on a interview by Aron Heller , Associated Press and various web sources.)