Samuel Willenberg, Last Survivor of Treblinka Revolt, Dies at 93

After participating in the heroic revolt and setting 'hell on fire,' Willenberg joined the Polish resistance, fighting the Nazis in Warsaw, then becoming an artist in Israel.

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Samuel Willenberg
Samuel WillenbergCredit: Courtesy
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Samuel Willenberg, the last survivor of the famous Treblinka death camp revolt who also fought in the Warsaw Uprising, died Friday at the age of 93.

Born in 1923 in Czstochowa, Poland, Willenberg's mother was an Orthodox Christian who converted to Judaism and worked as a nurse, and his father was a teacher and artist. In October 1942, when he was only 19, Willenberg was taken to the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where over 800,000 Jews from Poland and Greece were exterminated alongside some 2,000 Romani people.

Holocaust survivor Samuel Willenberg displays a map of Treblinka extermination camp at his house in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010.Credit: AP

While at the camp, Willenberg was tasked with sorting the belongings of those sent to their deaths. Later in his life, he said he remembered learning the fate of his two sisters, Ita and Tamara, by coming across their personal items in one of the piles.

In August on 1943, he was one of the leading members of the camp's underground as it launched the heroic revolt, opening fire at Nazi SS forces and setting parts of the camp on fire, later leading a mass storming of the camp's fences while sustaining live fire from the Nazi guards. Most of the 200 people involved in the revolt perished on the fence or in the camp's vicinity – but Willenberg survived.

"We set hell on fire," he once recalled. "There was a lot of confusion. Everything was on fire, and the bullets whizzed in our ears. Every second someone else fell, I jumped over bodies. In the meantime, everyone had run towards the fence, with many falling after being gunned down," he told the Israel Hayom daily two years ago.

Though he was wounded in his leg, Willenberg managed to make it into the surrounding Treblinka forest. "I had to jump over the bodies and got shot. To this day I have a bullet in my leg," he told the daily.

After the revolt, he relocated to the Polish capital, Warsaw, where he joined Polish partisans and took part in the famous Warsaw Uprising of 1944. After the war, he joined the Polish army and attained the rank of lieutenant. His mother and father survived the war by pretending to be non-Jewish Poles.

In 1950 he moved to Israel and worked as the chief measurer for Israel's Housing Ministry. Upon his retirement, he began to work as an artist, predominately a sculptor, with his art focusing on the Holocaust. Throughout his adult life, he returned to Poland with delegations of schoolchildren to tell his story.

His famous memoir, "Revolt in Treblinka," was published in 1986 in Hebrew and 1989 in English. In 2014 his life story was told in "The Last Witness," a Polish documentary; after the war, he also received a number of honors from Poland.  

Willenberg resided in Tel Aviv, with his wife, Ada, a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw. He is survived by their daughter, Orit Willenberg-Giladi, a prominent Israeli architect. She designed the new educational center in the camp.

Two Israeli soldiers help Samuel Willenberg, the only living survivor of an August 1943 prisoner rebellion at Treblinka, to light a candle in a memorial ceremony at the camp on October 2, 2013. Credit: AFP

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