Aging Holocaust Survivors Lead To Urgency In Story Collection

As our survivor population ages, we will be facing this level of loss more and more: the last survivor from a specific place, the final story of a given moment.

With the passing of Samuel Willenberg early last year, one of the last opportunities to speak directly to a survivor about the uprising at Treblinka, the Nazi death camp, slipped away. While stories of Treblinka and the killing center function it served for Hitler’s “Final Solution,” as well as individual profiles from the prisoner revolt there have been documented and preserved, realizing that we have lost yet another eye witness who could provide powerful first-hand evidence of his experiences is another reminder of the urgency of our work at the Claims Conference.

While initially serving as a forced labor camp for Jews when established in November 1941, a nearby extermination camp was set up in July 1942. As a result, only a handful of prisoners in the end were spared for the purpose of maintaining operations at the killing center. Empowered, perhaps, both by news of the of the Nazi defeats in North Africa and Stalingrad, as well as from fear that the SS guards would soon dismantle and erase all traces of Treblinka to cover their tracks, a group of prisoners – the Jewish Underground – planned a revolt to take over the camp.

In August of 1943, Jewish prisoners appropriated weapons from the camp storeroom and attacked the SS and other officials guarding the camp, and set fire to a number of facilities. While the assault was stymied before the Jewish inmates could take control of the camp, the turmoil created enabled other prisoners, though blanketed by machine-gun fire from behind, to make their escape. Of the estimated 300 prisoners to escape that day, less than 100 survived the subsequent Nazi manhunt.

Over the following years, a handful of stories have been documented and books published about Treblinka, which have included descriptions of the heinous and grisly activities carried out there and the details of the Aug. 2 revolt. The voices that survived and made known what happened in that abominable place have proved invaluable as – just as the prisoners had feared – the entire camp was liquidated, destroyed by the Germans in advance of the Allied invasion, in an effort to hide the systematic inhumanity enacted over its 15 months of operation.

Earlier this year, Tony Rodriguez, one of our program officers, traveled to Poland where he observed educator training programs supported by the Claims Conference. As part of the program developed by the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London, Tony and a group of more than a dozen educators were taken to where Treblinka once stood. The site is devoid of structures and the only way to “recreate” the camp, its facilities, and the history of the more than 900,000 Jews murdered there, was through the first-hand testimony given by survivors and memorialized with stones.  This visit serves as a profound illustration of the importance of our work in research, education and documentation of the Holocaust.

Samuel Willenberg, widely believed to be the last survivor from Treblinka, settled in Israel after the war and dedicated his life to educating people about the Holocaust. During the Treblinka revolt of 1943, he escaped from the camp into the countryside, eventually making it to Warsaw, where he joined the resistance and fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. His memories helped develop one of the first maps of the death camp site and led to a 2014 archeological excavation, where the brick foundations of the camp facilities and mass graves were all identified. When Samuel Willenberg died in February of last year, one of our last opportunities to hear the story of Treblinka from someone who was there went with him.

In a 2010 interview with the Associated Press, Samuel Willenberg said, “The world cannot forget Treblinka.”

As our survivor population ages, we will be facing this level of loss more and more: the last survivor from a specific place, the final story of a given moment. The necessity of our work to collect and retain these stories, to hear these voices and to pass them on, to develop programs for education and awareness cannot be overstated.

As we commemorate the Treblinka Uprising in August, I am reminded of the strength and resolve of the Jewish people; how we have fought to overcome so much and continue to rise from the ashes. Knowing that we are slowly losing first-hand information about this place, that the knowledge bank from survivors of Treblinka has perhaps peaked, I am infused with urgency about the important work that still lies in front of us.