This is a blog dedicated to a personal interpretation of political news of the day. I attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible before commenting and committing my thoughts to a day's communication.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Fading Memories

"The world cannot forget Treblinka."
"I live two lives, one is here and now and the other is what happened there. It never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always."
Samuel Willenberg, 93, Holocaust survivor
Samuel Willenberg
Samuel Willenberg  Photo credit: Courtesy

For 70 years, Samuel Willenberg lived his two separate lives. His living memory of the monstrous years he suffered, living as a young man given the job of working as a death camp inmate engaged in custodian duties. Witnessing the deaths of hundreds of thousands innocent children, women and men of all ages because they were Jewish, has haunted his other life, that of a man with an obligation to live as normal a life as possible under such impossible circumstances.

He has finally been released from those two lives. Death that destroyed the lives of those he loved when he was young, waited patiently for him. His life of living memories has now departed, along with his life of experiencing what it is to live as an ordinary individual with an extraordinary past. He was 20 years old when he became an inmate of Treblinka, where Jews were assembled on transports and railcars to a one-way destination meant to be final. Treblinka was a death camp, not a concentration camp, not a dual-purpose human-slavery-and-death-camp.

Jewish Virtual Library

Like Auschwitz, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belson, Treblinka was merely one of the more recognizable death camp names, but there were 15,000 camps altogether established by Nazi Germany in occupied Europe. Those venues were carefully selected; not too many in Germany itself, since the Germans represented, after all, a dignified, civil and cultured nation, where cultivation of the arts, love of nature and of animals came naturally to such people, who would take offence at the presence of such places in their near proximity.

One needed, after all, more than the mere prevalence of anti-Semitism to be assured that no inconvenient protests might take place at the presence of sprawling, guarded camps crowded with starving, disease-ridden people whose gassed bodies were shovelled into giant furnaces sending their reeking ashes all over the atmosphere. And there were countries deemed appropriate to the task at hand, like Austria, Belgium Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, France, Holland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia -- and oh yes, Germany as well.

In 1943, Mr. Willenberg was among a group of several hundred young Jewish men who got possession of some weapons and ran for nearby woods, after trying to set fire to the camp. While hundreds fled for the safety of the woods, most were shot and killed by the Nazi guards. Many others were caught by Polish villagers who responding to the charity and purity of heart that their Catholic faith inspired in them, brought the captured Jews whom they despised, back to the kindly custody of the Nazis.

Samuel Willenberg at Treblinka, October 2, 2013.
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. AFP

Mr. Willenberg recalled being shot in the leg, climbing over bodies that were piled high at the barbed wire fence. Despite that wound he managed to leap over the fence and run, even as he recognized the faces of many of those lying on the ground, their destinies to greet death at that fateful juncture of their lives. Mr. Willenberg did make good his escape. His appearance belied his Jewish ancestry, his facial features and blue eyes not typical of European Jews in the opinion of non-Jews. When he eventually arrived in Warsaw he joined the Polish underground.

After the war he served a few years in the Polish army, then left for Israel. There he took up the profession of a surveyor. Then he also began sculpting, his bronze pieces focusing on Jews during the war when the Third Reich was determined to exterminate Europe's Jews and succeeded to an astonishing degree, despite which no joint action took place by the Allies to disrupt that effort. When Germany surrendered, the liberation of the remaining camps, those not destroyed by the retreating Germans, finally took place.  

Jewish Virtual Library

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