BAT YAM, Israel – They are believed to be the last two survivors of the most chillingly efficient killing machine of the Nazi Holocaust: the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland.
Samuel Willenberg and Kalman Taigman, 87-year-old Israelis, are devoting their final years to trying to preserve the memory of the 875,000 people systematically murdered in a one-year killing spree at the height of World War II. Nearly all of them were Jews.
Only 67 people are known to have survived the camp, fleeing in a brazen revolt shortly before Treblinka was destroyed. Following the recent death of a prominent chronicler, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial says the two Israeli men are now the final living link to one of the most notorious death camps in human history.
“The world cannot forget Treblinka,” said Willenberg.
“Soon, there will be no one left to tell,” added Taigman.
Treblinka holds a notorious place in history as perhaps the most vivid example of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plot to rid Europe of Jews.
Along with the lesser known Belzec and Sobibor camps, it was designed with the sole intention of exterminating Jews, and Treblinka was by far the deadliest. Victims, transported there in cattle cars, were gassed to death almost immediately upon arrival.
Only a select few – mostly young, strong men like Willenberg and Taigman, who were both 20 at the time – were spared an immediate trip to the gas chambers and assigned to maintenance work instead.
On Aug. 2, 1943, a group of Jews stole some weapons, set fire to the camp and headed to the woods. Hundreds fled, but most were shot and killed by Nazi troops in the surrounding mine fields or captured by Polish villagers who returned them to Treblinka.
The survivors became the only source of knowledge about Treblinka, because the Nazis all but destroyed it in a frantic bid to cover their tracks.
Willenberg said he was shot in the leg as he climbed over bodies piled at the barbed wire fence and catapulted over. He kept running, ignoring dead friends in his path. He said his blue eyes and “non-Jewish” look allowed him to survive in the countryside before arriving in Warsaw and joining the Polish underground.
Later in life, he took to sculpting to describe his experiences. His bronze statues reflect what he saw – Jews standing on a train platform, a father removing his son’s shoes before entering the gas chambers, a young girl having her head shaved, prisoners removing bodies.
“I live two lives, one is here and now and the other is what happened there,” Willenberg said in an interview at his Tel Aviv apartment. “It never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always.”
His two sisters were murdered in the camp. He described his survival as “chance, sheer chance,” choking back tears. “It wasn’t because of God. He wasn’t there. He was on vacation.”
In all, the Nazis and their collaborators killed about 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The death toll at Treblinka was second only to Auschwitz – a prison camp where more than a million people died in gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor.