The Ghosts of Treblinka, in a Tel Aviv Basement

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Ada Willenberg in the Tel Aviv basement where her late husband's sculptures, recreating scenes from the Treblinka death camp, are stored.
Ada Willenberg in the Tel Aviv basement where her late husband's sculptures, recreating scenes from the Treblinka death camp, are stored.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

From the outside it looks like any old storage room, tucked away in the basement of a residential apartment building. But when Ada Willenberg requests that her visitors stand back and look away until she’s turned on the light, it becomes clear that something extraordinary awaits them on the other side.

“I want you to get the full effect,” she says.

It is indeed a chilling effect, as 3-D renderings of scenes from a Nazi death camp seem to come to life in the light.

Cast in bronze, these sculptures are the work of Samuel Willenberg – the last survivor of Treblinka and late husband of the woman who brought us down here. “It was Samuel’s belief that this story could best be told through these sculptures,” his 90-year-old widow explains.

An unusual coincidence of events had brought me to this building on a tree-lined Tel Aviv boulevard, better known for its hipster cafés and busy bike lanes. Last April, I participated in a first-of-its-kind trip to Poland dedicated to the experiences of women during the Holocaust.

Ada and Samuel Willenberg on their wedding day in 1948. They moved to Israel two years later. Credit: Repro by Tomer Appelbaum

Of the many stories I heard there, there was one in particular I could not get out of my mind: That of Ruth Dorfmann, a 20-year-old girl who had arrived at Treblinka on January 18, 1943, on one of the last transports from the Warsaw Ghetto.

In the room where women were ordered to undress before being sent to the gas chambers, Dorfmann struck up a conversation with the young man who had been assigned to shave her head: 20-year-old Samuel Willenberg. He had been called in from his usual job of sorting the belongings of dead Jews in order to assist the regular crew of barbers, as an unusually large group of women had arrived that day.

Sitting there naked and shivering while Samuel cut off her long locks, Dorfmann asked him how long it would take for the gas to take effect and whether it would hurt. As the story was relayed to us on our trip, Willenberg could not bring himself to respond.

Before heading to her death, Dorfmann turned to Samuel and made one final request: “Please let the world know that there was once a young girl name Ruth Dorfmann,” she told him. “Let the world know that this girl dreamed of becoming an architect one day and that she wanted to live so badly.”

I later learned that this encounter had inspired Samuel Willenberg to create a sculpture of Dorfmann, one that depicted her in her final moments.

Ada Willenberg, 90, at her apartment in Tel Aviv. Her late husband Samuel's sculptures are all stored a few floors below in the basement.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I could find no information about its location – until, that is, I happened to be chatting with a friend of a friend about my trip to Poland, and she casually mentioned that her son had recently married Samuel’s granddaughter.

Stunned, I mentioned my desire to see the sculpture of Dorfmann and asked if she knew where it was located. “It’s right here in Tel Aviv,” she replied. “I’ll put you in touch with Ada Willenberg. I’m sure she’ll be happy to show it to you.

“And just so you know,” this friend of a friend added, “it’s not the only sculpture. There’s an entire collection to see.”

Samuel Willenberg's sculpture of a naked man at Treblinka who fought in the German army in World War I. “Little did he know that he was about to be shot dead,” says Ada Willenberg.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Rags and high-heeled shoes

About a dozen bronze sculptures – not quite life-size, but of significant proportions nonetheless – are on display in this relatively large basement room, located several floors beneath the apartment where Samuel spent the last years of his life. Six years Ada’s senior, he died in February 2016.

Her late husband, Ada Willenberg notes, cherished two works in particular – that of Ruth Dorfmann, and another of a father and son arriving at Treblinka. The latter, also prominently displayed in this underground exhibition space, depicts a father bending over to help his young son remove his shoes.

Samuel Willenberg's sculpture of a father and son arriving at Treblinka, which was one of two the sculptor particularly cherished, says his widow Ada.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Explaining the context, Ada notes that all Jews arriving at the camp were ordered to remove their shoes immediately and given a piece of string to tie them together so they remained in pairs. The son is gripping the string in his hands.

“Just imagine what must have been going through the father’s mind at that moment,” remarks the sculptor’s wife. “By then, he had to have known this was the end for both of them.”

Situated a few feet away is a sculpture of a terrified-looking young girl, dressed in rags with a kerchief wrapped around her head, incongruously wearing high-heeled shoes.

A sculpture by Samuel Willenberg showing a woman wearing rags and high-heeled shoes after arriving at Treblinka. She was led away by the Nazis and minutes later Samuel heard a shot being fired.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The story of this girl, as Ada relays, is that she had somehow been forgotten on the train platform after arriving at Treblinka. Not knowing where to go or what to do, she began rummaging through the crates of personal belongings left behind. An SS officer spotted her and pushed her through the opening of a fence, beyond which lay a killing pit. It was there that the sick and disabled – those not fit enough to walk to the gas chambers – were executed. Minutes later, as Samuel would relay many years later to his wife, a shot was fired.

Next, Ada points to a sculpture of a naked man, his leg amputated. “This was a man who believed that because he had fought in the German army in the First World War, he would receive special medical treatment at Treblinka,” she recounts. “Little did he know that he was about to be shot dead.”

The collection includes a sculpture of the band that greeted new arrivals at Treblinka, and whose job was to trick them into thinking they were simply being resettled. It also includes a sculpture of prisoners carting dead bodies away. Several larger works comprised of numerous figures are devoted to the Treblinka prisoner revolt in which Samuel participated.

But it was the sculpture of that 20-year-old girl that had brought me here, and so that’s where we linger longest. Titled “Homage to Ruth Dorfmann,” it depicts a thin, naked girl sitting on a stool with long locks of hair on one side of her head, the other side completely shaven. Held together on her lap, her hands cup the fallen locks of hair.

When I ask Ada what she knew about her late husband’s encounter with this young woman, the story she shares has one slightly different, though significant, detail from the one I had heard in Poland.

Samuel did, in fact, respond when Dorfmann asked him how long the gas took to take effect, Ada tells me. “He tricked her,” she says. “He told her it would only take 10 minutes. He knew it could take much longer than that, sometimes even double that time – but what good would it do if she knew?”

Samuel Willenberg's sculpture “Homage to Ruth Dorfmann.” “Please let the world know that there was once a young girl name Ruth Dorfmann,” she told Willenberg as he shaved off her hair.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Life-saving advice

Treblinka was in full operation from July 1942 through August 1943, when the revolt broke out. During that relatively short period, an estimated 900,000 Jews were murdered there. Only 67 prisoners are known to have survived the death camp – among them Samuel, who was featured in the 2012 television documentary “Treblinka’s Last Witness.”

Born in the Polish city of Czstochowa, he arrived at Treblinka in October 1942 with some 6,000 other Jews. He was the only person on that particular transport to escape the gas chambers. A childhood friend who recognized him when he got off the train gave him a piece of advice that would ultimately save his life. “He told him to say he was a construction worker,” Ada recounts. “Of course, Samuel knew nothing about construction work.”

His artistic talents were clearly inherited from his father Peretz, who was a painter. But when Samuel began showing an interest in art as a teenager, his mother Maniefa strongly discouraged him, pointing out how difficult it was for his father to earn a living.

After the war, Samuel served as an officer in the Polish army for several years. A strikingly handsome young man, Ada says, he was based in the city of Lodz when they first met.

Samuel Willenberg's sculpture depicting the prisoners' revolt at Treblinka in August 1943.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ada had survived the Holocaust by jumping over the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto and finding non-Jews who agreed to hide her on the other side. She was barely 14 at the time and already orphaned from both her parents. She and Samuel married in 1948, and two years later moved to Israel, where they lived for many years in Udim (a small agricultural community near Netanya).

“I always wanted to live in Tel Aviv, but Samuel had this thing about living out in the country,” relays Ada. “It had to do with his traumas from the war. He somehow felt that if we were out in the country and had our own farm, no matter how bad things got, we would have food for ourselves.”

Until age 70, Samuel held a senior position in the Housing Ministry, and only after retirement did he begin to devote himself to art. Most of his Treblinka sculptures were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The collection has been exhibited in Germany, Poland and at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum in northern Israel. Although the basement exhibit room is not open to the public, Ada regularly accommodates individuals who have heard about the collection and express an interest in seeing it.

A bust of the artist by Samuel Willenberg himself.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Invitation to Berlin

Ada and Samuel traveled frequently to Poland over the years, often accompanying Israeli teenagers on school trips devoted to the Holocaust. For many years, though, they refused to travel to Germany.

That changed 15 years ago when their daughter, Orit, an architect, won a bid to design the Israeli Embassy in Berlin and they were invited to attend the inauguration. It was an invitation they could not refuse, says Ada.

“I was asked afterward whether it was difficult for me to travel to Germany,” she recalls. “My response was that considering the nature of the event we attended, quite the contrary.”

Orit, their only child, recently submitted a bid to design a new educational training center on the grounds of Treblinka. Whether or not her daughter is eventually commissioned to do the work, Ada says, she plans to move her late husband’s collection there. “That’s where it belongs – and that’s what Samuel said he wanted,” she says.

Samuel Willenberg's sculpture showing two men hauling away the body of someone who died on the train en route to Treblinka.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
A sculpture by Samuel Willenberg showing a man at Treblinka pushing a cart full of bottles.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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