Today, the world marks a memorable date - International Day for the liberation of prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. Site inosmi published a conversation with Samuel Willenberg, the last living prisoner of a concentration camp in Treblinka, about life in hell, escape and his first trip to Germany. We offer this story about the greatest tragedy in the new stories humanity to your attention.
“There were several dozens of them. They are witnesses of the worst massacres in modern history. Seventy years ago, in August 1943, they organized an uprising where nobody left alive - in the Treblinka Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland. Samuel Willenberg (Samuel Willenberg), now 90 years old, was one of them.One of the few prisoners he survived during the rebellion and waited for the end of the war. His story and even after so many years interrupt tears.
And although someone tells us something in advance, we still don’t believe
Josef Pasdera: As a Treblinka prisoner, you saw hundreds of thousands of people go to their deaths. Is it possible to describe the horrors of Treblinka in general and to describe them in such a way that a modern person can understand everything?
Samuel Willenberg: It is impossible. What to choose? People choking before dying? Corpses burning in fire? People covered with sand? And their hands still stick out of the sand ... When I arrived in Treblinka in the fall of 1942, the Nazis fell asleep to a place that was called an infirmary. Such a wooden building in the camp, similar to a medical facility. A flag with a red cross fluttered above it. After transportation, old and sick people were sent there. So that they do not interfere with the crowd that was driven into the gas chambers. People went inside, in a kind of reception at the hospital. It was clean. Warm benches covered with felt. People told each other about their diseases. They were told that a doctor would examine them soon and that they should take off their clothes. And they undressed and walked along the corridor to a gentle slope, under which was a large pit. A Ukrainian warder stood over her and shot at everyone who came. The bodies piled on top of each other, the guards then burned.
I was sent there shortly after arrival with papers taken from the clothes of the new arrivals. Kapo (privileged prisoner in the concentration camps of the Third Reich, who worked for the administration - approx. Per.) Told me to throw the papers into the fire and quickly return. I did not know what was happening in the infirmary. I just entered this wooden building and at the end of the corridor I suddenly saw all this horror. Bored Ukrainian guards with guns sat on a wooden chair. Before them is a deep pit. In it are the remains of bodies that have not yet been devoured by the fire lit under them. The remains of men, women and young children. This picture just paralyzed me. I heard burning hair crack and bones burst. There was acrid smoke in his nose, tears drew in his eyes ... How to describe and express it? There are things that I remember, but not express them in words.
— What do such moments do with a person?
- I couldn’t realize all this for a long time. The mind simply could not assimilate it. Mass extermination? This is impossible. Then you realize that you are in hell, in real hell. And you try to survive and think less. And when it already seems that you are almost hardened, something breaks you again ... It's hard to talk about it.
— Have you ever thought about suicide?
- Never. I was thinking about escaping. All the time I was only thinking about it. Not about those who stay there. We all did not think too much about others, although somewhere inside we supported each other.
— Where does the strength to live on come from in such conditions?
- I do not know, I did not think about it. Even today I do not know where the strength in everything came from in me. I hardened, although at night I often cried. After arriving, I worked in a camp brigade that sorted the clothes of incoming people. Often it was still warm. People barely had time to undress and went into the gas chambers. One day something familiar came into my hands. Brown baby coat with a bright green fringe on the sleeves. Exactly such a green cloth, my mother put on the coat of my younger sister Tamara. It was difficult to make a mistake. Next was a skirt with flowers - my older sister Itta. Both of them disappeared somewhere in Czestochowa before we were taken away. I kept hoping that they were saved. Then I realized that no. I remember how I kept these things and squeezed my lips from helplessness and hatred. Then I wiped my face. It was dry. I could not even cry.
— When, after the war, you began to talk about the horrors of Treblinka, they say that no one was particularly interested. Both in Poland and Israel
- People had other concerns. To some Poles, this may not have been very profitable. When we arrived in Israel in 1950, some Jews who lived there before the war reproached us for not fighting. And they - yes. For the State of Israel. For them, we were cowards who, like sheep, were led to death. They did not understand our position at all. One friend, we met him already in Israel, did not want to hear about the death of his parents. Even to the politicians, the founders of Israel in 1948, at first the Holocaust was not beneficial. They had their own heroes who fought for independence.
— How did you react to this?
- I kept talking about what I experienced. Only nobody listened to me. We sat with friends, and everything was repeated in a circle: we started talking about the weather or something else, and it all ended with the Holocaust. And so on. It is worth talking about some kind of good bottle, and it went - you know, then such a bottle could be sold, it saved my life ... The Holocaust is deep in us.
Childhood and departure for Treblinka
- What was your family?
- The father is Jewish, the mother is Russian, who accepted Judaism right before my birth or immediately after it. The family had three children - me and my two sisters. The younger Tamara and the eldest Itta. We lived in Czestochowa. Life in Poland before the war was pretty hard, but we somehow managed. His father was a teacher and artist, then they began to hire him to paint the synagogues. Gradually, he decorated the synagogues in Czestochowa, Petrków and Opatów.
— Did you eat kosher food and observe Jewish customs?
- Dad did not eat pork. But when we went to school, mom gave us bread and 20 pennies for ham. Only we had to eat it at school, not at home.
— Did you then feel yourself a Jew, or was the war “made” you later by a Jew?
- I have always been a Jew. Although my father and I had quite Aryan appearance. Blue eyes, long blond hair. Father on the street was often confused with Paderevsky (a famous Polish pianist and politician with long blond hair - ed.), Someone asked him for an autograph ... But we were Jews, on major holidays my father and I went to Rabbi Ashe.
— It is said that, before the war, Jews and Poles lived to some extent separately from each other.
- It's true. Every nation had its own world. But with me everything was different. In Czestochowa we lived in a mixed area. I spoke Polish well. I had Polish friends, we celebrated Christmas together. I knew them, and by this I was a little different from the rest. Perhaps it saved me later. When we escaped with the rest of the prisoners from Treblinka, many remained in the woods. They did not know the Poles, did not know the language well - they were immediately caught.
— Before the war in Poland, attitudes toward Jews began to change, anti-Semitic sentiments appeared, there were pogroms. Then the Nazis entered the country, and anti-Jewish actions began. Everyone who could hide their Jewish origin tried to do it. You too?
- Yes, but it could be done only partially. At the beginning of the war, we lived near Warsaw, the first anti-Jewish pogroms passed by us. But it was still clear what was getting worse. My father had acquaintances in Opatuva, they in the church made us fake birth certificates. Pope received the name Karol Balthazar Pecoslavsky, I became Eugeniusz Sobieszawski. Sisters got something like that. Mom left her name - Manefa Popova. Due to her Russian origin, she even received a white Kennkart (Kennkarte - an identity card during the German occupation - Ed.) And we already had yellow, Jewish.
— You were afraid that someone will give you away?
- Highly. For the Jews, it was a tragedy. As soon as you went outside, the fear that someone would come up and say: "This is a Jew!" No, not the Germans. They usually had no idea what the Jews looked like, and could not distinguish them from the Poles. But the Poles were not mistaken. They knew for sure. By the way the person looked, how he behaved, how he walked - just intuitively. It is difficult to say why they determined the Jews. Władysław Szlengel, a poet from the Warsaw ghetto, accurately described this fear in one of his poems: “Do not look at me when I go past, let me go, do not say anything if you don’t have to do it”. But not everyone did. Two of my sisters, in the end, someone gave out and sent them to death.
— How strong was anti-Semitism among the Poles? Before the war.
- It was mainly about the lower strata. The Polish intelligentsia treated the Jews better. There were also many anti-Semites among her, but people did not stoop to betraying their friends. This, of course, does not mean that they actively helped the Jews. But after escaping Treblinka, I was eventually saved by Polish peasants. So it was different.
— You said that at the beginning of the war someone betrayed your sisters. How did this happen? What happened to the rest of your family?
“My father fled to Warsaw, while my mother and sisters and I went to Czestochowa.” My mother had a friend there, and a couple of acquaintances of priests. But we made a mistake. Leaving the sisters with my acquaintances, my mother and I returned to Opatów for things. Then someone gave the sisters, they disappeared unknown where ... My mother and I went to the park under the Clear Mountain, sat on the bench and wept terribly. Mom lost both daughters. Itte was 24, Tamara - 6. Absolute helplessness! Then my mother decided that it would be better if I returned to Opatów. And she stayed there and tried to look for sisters.
— But your return to the Jewish ghetto in Opatów did not help you much.
- The ghetto eviction began two days after my return - October 23 1942 of the year. At first we were gathered in the market, several thousand people. Then they drove to Ozarow at the railway station. Those who could not walk, the guards shot right on the spot. Then we were loaded into wagons.
— You were 19 years old. Did you know where you are going?
- At that time I already guessed something. People said that Jews are being mass-killed. But if you just live and suddenly someone tells you that they will kill you, you won’t believe it. None of us wanted to believe in it. What, will kill the whole train? We knew we were going east. During the stops, people from the street shouted to us: “Jews, they will make soap out of you there!” Will a normal person believe this?
We came to Treblinka before morning. There were already other cars. A total of about 60. It is almost 6 thousand people. After the war I drew everything - the whole camp and the railway leading to it. And my drawings are the only remaining schemes. The Germans destroyed all the documentation. 60 cars of people ... They all did not fit on the platform in Treblinka - they had to be divided into three parts. People left the cars and walked along the platform. The Nazis there hung signs: "Cash", "Telegraph", "Waiting Room." There were even station clocks, a board with arriving and departing trains ... People went through all this, and the selection began - women with children separately, men separately, clothes taken off, shoes removed, tied with a pair. Then naked men were forced to collect all the clothes, dump them in a heap. And all were driven into the gas chambers.
— Are you not?
- When I was standing there, a prisoner approached me. I saw a familiar face. “Where are you from, son of a bitch, where are you from?” I asked. And he replied: “From Czestochowa. Tell them you're a bricklayer. ” After a minute, the SS man comes up and asks: “Is there a mason here?” I immediately blurted out: “Ich bin Maurer”. I was wearing my father's clothes in which he painted. She was in paint. Maybe, in part, I looked like a bricklayer. The guard nodded to me so that I would step aside and they would push me into one of the wooden barracks. So I became a prisoner of Treblinka. Six thousand Jews from Opatuwa meanwhile went straight to the gas chambers.
- Where are you identified in the camp?
- We sorted the clothes and other personal items left after those who went to the gas chambers. In one direction, the cars came with people, and in the opposite direction they came with their sorted things. Pants separately, coats separately, shoes separately. Another hair, shaved off before people went to death. We, of course, dismantled and values. Every day was incredibly profitable: kilograms of gold and diamonds, thousands of gold watches, millions of banknotes and coins from around the world, even from China. These things were sorted and loaded into empty cars.
Then I was transferred to work better. Our group left the camp - in the forest we collected pine branches. They were then woven between the barbed wire to hide what was happening in certain sectors of the camp. This job helped me. We had better food, and we could “trade” with the Ukrainian guards.
— What did you trade? After all, you had nothing ...
- Despite the ban, we, of course, sometimes managed to hide some valuables after transportation. It was a lot of money. And then they could be exchanged. We left the camp, the Ukrainian warder took off his cap and said: “Rebjata, děngi”. We threw something to him there, and he brought us food. We all ate together, sometimes even drank vodka. Something we managed to carry among the branches in the camp. Interestingly, no one has ever checked us when returning. Groups that went to work in the field, then in the camp, they would definitely inspect. Us - never. The Nazis probably suspected what was happening, but did not want to interfere with it.
— When did you understand what is actually happening in Treblinka and what you are a part of?
- Immediately on the first night in the camp, the man who saved my life came to my hut. It was Alfred Bam, my neighbor in Czestochowa. He immediately told me directly: “Boy, you are at the plant of death. Here everyone is being killed. They will kill you and me. ” You hear it, but still do not want to believe. But reality gradually persuades. The camp was a clear schedule. From morning to evening a few receipts. Women - to the left, men - to the right. Men remain on the street, women go to the hut. There they must undress and be ready. In winter, steam came from this hut. Everywhere steam, and in it these women go to the gas chambers. Women - separately, men - separately. Never together. - How did you know where they were going and what was happening to him? - It was so clear. Later we met with groups of Jews who worked with gas chambers. This was a separate part of the camp, where we could not get. They told scary things. Like Ukrainian guards, they force frightened people into gas chambers and cut off arms and other body parts to those who tried to defend themselves. How they pulled children out of their mothers and threw them at the wall. The guards had dogs, and they were often released on frightened and naked people. Thus, about 400 people were always driven into the gas chamber and diesel engines were turned on. After 40 minutes everyone was dead. The prisoners pulled them out while they were still warm ... Then a team of workers broke their golden teeth out of their jaws, and the next team transported the bodies to open furnaces, where everyone was burned. Through each such brigade passed about 200 prisoners. Every day this number had to be supplemented with new ones, just received, because one of the prisoners committed suicide, someone threw the Ukrainian guards into those pits where they burned dead bodies. Just for fun ...
— Sorry, but I have to ask about it. What happens to a person when he hears or sees such things and knows that he, unwillingly, is a part of all this?
- You want to survive, and your mind is dulled. It is like a blow to the head. All the time I remembered only one thing: "You must survive, you simply must survive and one day tell everything." It was scary. In Treblinka, a million people met their deaths. The figures are about 700 - 800 thousand people, but that's not counting the children. If you add them, the number of dead will reach a million. In this mass of everything only random moments remain in the memory, all this simply cannot be contained.
— Can you talk about something?
- Once, somewhere in January 1943, I got into the barracks, where they cut the women. In front of the gas chamber, prisoners were always shaved. I did not do this, but that time I was sent there. And here is a girl sitting in front of me. And quietly asks me how long this path to death will last. She knew, I knew. I told her that ten minutes maybe less. I lied, in fact, the whole process took longer. She told me that she had recently passed the final exams and that her name is Ruth Dorfman. She was beautiful. And so she rose from this stool and went to the door. There she turned again and looked at me. She seemed to say goodbye. Not with me, but with the whole world. Such fragmentary moments remained in the memory ... The father after his arrival took off his little son's shoes. The man already knew what was going on, but the child still did not suspect anything. Dad took off his shoes and still tied them together with a cord ...
— Guards, camp leaders - who was it? What kind of people were these?
- The worst were the SS. Often these were alcoholics and sadists, who enjoyed unreasonable shooting at prisoners. One of the worst SS men was the Angel of Death - August Miete. There were a few more, scary monsters. They kindled this hell. The rest just walked beside us and shouted for us to work.
— You mentioned Ukrainian guards. Are they any different from the Germans?
- It was the same sadists. They did not hide their hatred of the Jews. Without any sympathy, they could kill hundreds of people in the hospital without batting an eye. The Germans kept separate from the Ukrainians and also followed them. They could not be left without control, so that they would not steal anything valuable in the camp and would not establish contacts with prisoners. Ukrainians were not even allowed to beat us in front of the SS. This partly placed us, the prisoners, in an advantageous position: things went through our hands every day for millions of dollars, and the Ukrainians had to beg for crumbs. We exchanged with them and thus received valuable food. And they in the neighboring villages spent money on booze and prostitutes.
— The Czech Jew Richard Glazar was in the workers' teams in Treblinka with you. Later, he, like you, escaped and published a book of memoirs “Treblinka. The word is like a children's patter ”(Treblinka, slovo jak z dětské říkanky). Do you remember him?
- Yes, we were together in a group that went to the forest. Glacier was different from the rest. We, Eastern European Jews, went to the camp in ordinary rags, not paying too much attention to how we look. Czechs - no. Glacier has always been elegant. Perhaps because of this, the rest did not accept him. They did not accept me either, because I did not speak Yiddish. Glazar, in my opinion, either.
After the war, we met. In 70, someone called me in an apartment in Tel Aviv. With a strong American accent, he invited me to his villa and said that he would have some former Treblinka prisoner. I went. In the garden of the villa was a path. I sat on the bench at the end of this path and waited. Suddenly a beautiful couple appeared. Everyone was looking at me, and I started to sing in Czech: Ona se točí, má modré oči, ona se točí dokola ... ("She turns around, she has blue eyes, she turns around ..."). It was a song Glacara. Everyone in the camp sang something in their native language. He immediately shouted: "Katsap!" So they called me in the camp. It was he. Intelligent. He wrote a good book, although he has no regrets about Eastern European Jews.
Rise and Escape
“How did the uprising begin in Treblinka?”
- The fact that something strange is happening in the camp, I learned only in winter. Everyone was terribly suspicious. People did not communicate at all - perceived each other as a danger. But then there was a chance. Work teams were tasked to repair and complete the building in the camp where the warehouse was supposed to be. weapons. It was possible to get there through large iron doors. It looked like they were nineteenth century. Our locksmiths had to make a new lock and key. One was given to the Germans, the second was secretly hidden. This access to weapons was our chance.
— Did you really plan to take over the whole camp?
- We were naive. Terribly naive. Everyone thought that with a pair of stolen rifles we would organize a riot, we would be like soldiers and hurray ... The power of fantasy is great, but the reality was cruel. From that warehouse we had some grenades and rifles. The first shots were heard on the second of August (1943 of the year - approx. Ed.) Somewhere around four in the morning. One prisoner managed to blow up the gasoline tank. There was a strong explosion. To think that we will all flee into the forest is just a utopia. The Germans started shooting from the watchtowers and quickly took control of the situation. The first who began to run, shot. Some prisoners did not join the rebellion at all. Those with big noses, Jews, like from German cartoons, where could they hide? The elders, those for 40, did not fight either. They knew that they should not jump over the barriers around the camp. But we still tried. And through the wire, barricades and dead bodies of friends, we fled from the camp. Then through the railways and on, quickly and thoughtlessly. During the escape, I felt that something hit me in the leg. The boot was filled with blood, but I was rushing on.
— You as prisoners must have been very conspicuous. Were you wearing camp clothes?
- No, there were no special robes in Treblinka. Everyone walked in that he had gathered himself from piles of clothes. But so it was easy to recognize us. Shaved, thin - at first glance it was clear who we are. I eventually separated from the rest and tried to act independently.
- Probably some kind of instinct. I do not know. Then I understood. When the Germans later searched for fugitive prisoners, they asked the people in the neighborhood: “Where did they run?” And the people said, one group went there, the other went there. And I was alone. Maybe that's why I eventually survived.
— Did you have any money with you?
“About a hundred dollars, Alfred Bam’s friend gave them to me.” He himself could not escape. Some of the prisoners had diamonds and other valuables. They thought it would save their lives. But the Poles immediately took away and handed over the fugitives as soon as they found out that they had valuable things with them.
— Nobody betrayed you. How is this possible?
- I have no idea. I guess I was just lucky. Maybe I took the right risk. And I also had no obvious Jewish features, and I spoke Polish well. For four days I was hidden by Polish peasants. But I could not stay with them for a long time - the camp was too close, the risk was great. - They were afraid? - Awful. I was scared too. Most of all on the way to the village of Vulka Nadgorn. She was not far. I spent the night in a haystack, and Ukrainians appeared before morning. They searched for escaped prisoners, fired everywhere. But fortunately, they did not find my shelter. In the morning I arrived at the Kostki railway station. Now it is no longer there - the road stopped working later. Next to the station was a small grocery store. I waited until all customers came out and entered. The saleswoman was young. She gave me a drink and told me what was happening in the district. As the Germans are looking everywhere, how they threatened to kill her cousin. And still she gave me 20 zlotys and cigarettes to boot. Then I quickly disappeared from the store. Meat vendors began to appear at the station. They were heading to Warsaw. Among them was one woman - she helped me in the end. She allowed to call herself Aunt and bought me a train ticket. I helped her load heavy bags. And already at about noon I was not far from Warsaw. There I later joined the uprising and waited for the end of the war.
— Who from your family survived?
“My father presented himself as a deaf-mute, and finally he waited for the end of the war in Warsaw. We were together. Mother survived thanks to her Russian origins in Czestochowa. My two sisters stayed in Treblinka. Like hundreds of thousands of other people.
After the war
“When was the first time you started talking about Treblinka?”
- Shortly after the war, in 1947. Lady from the Jewish Historical Commission came to me, collecting memories. Then I was at the bottom, drank terribly. My friends and I took vodka and drank it to silence. Then this lady began to do an interview with me. They were not very good.
— Did you want to take revenge after the war?
“I know that after the war there were groups of Jews who wanted to search for and kill the SS men.” I was also full of hatred. In Czestochowa, I was looking for a police officer who arrested my sisters. But physical revenge didn't bother me. I saw so much blood that I no longer had the strength to do it.
— Some of your old friends and those with whom you were in the camp refused to go to Treblinka after the war. You go. Why?
- Someone did not go due to the fact that he could not talk about Treblinka. My wife and I came to Treblinka from Israel for the first time in 1983. It was the 40 anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, and the communists allowed us to go. Since 1987, we go to Poland regularly, two or three times a year. Mostly with groups of Jewish youth.
— After all that you have seen, can you forgive the Germans?
- No I can not. You can forgive someone who has done something by mistake through carelessness. But not the one who did these terrible things voluntarily, deliberately, with pleasure. I'm not just talking about SS men. This death camp was created by intelligent people - doctors, engineers, builders.
— Wine transferred from fathers to children? What with the young Germans?
- I visited Germany quite recently. My daughter is an architect. She won the competition for the project of the new Israeli embassy in Berlin. My daughter asked me if she should do this. I think she was waiting for my refusal. But I said that for me it is an incredible honor: the daughter of a prisoner Treblinka will propose the project of the embassy of our state in Berlin. When the embassy was built, we went to the grand opening. Until that moment, I hated everything German. Hated German language, German products. But still not escape from it. For example, I specifically bought a car from America. Ford Cortina. I paid for the car and was terribly proud of it. And the seller then shows me the engine and says: "Look, what a wonderful economical engine ..." He was German. I almost had a blow.
— Did you leave the car?
- I was forced, he had already been paid.
— And what about the Germans themselves?
- Recently, Aktion Sühnezeichen invited us to Germany. They arrange trips of German youth to the places where the Nazis committed the most terrible crimes. They were in Treblinka and saw my book there. They found out that I was alive and invited me and my wife to talk. They organized an exhibition of my sculptures about Treblinka. The exhibition traveled around Germany for a whole year, it was in various places. Then I changed my mind about the younger generation of Germans. At first I was scared of them. When they came to my exhibition, they were so strange, with colored hair ... But they sat on the floor and listened with interest. It always makes an impression ... With Aktion Sühnezeichen's staff, we really got close. When we were saying goodbye, my wife burst into tears and said: “This is terrible. I am in love with you, and I cannot forgive myself for this. ”
You know, on the facade of the Israeli embassy in Berlin, designed by my daughter, there are six characters. They remind 6 of the millions of Jews killed during the Holocaust. But on the side there is another symbol - the wall. It means the opening of a new stage of history. Build new relationships, but remember what happened.
Samuel Willenberg, 90 years. Born in Polish Czestochowa in a mixed marriage. The father was Jewish, the mother was Russian, who converted to Judaism. After the outbreak of World War II, he fought in the Polish army and was wounded. In the autumn of 1942, as a Jew, he was sent to a concentration camp in Treblinka, where all Jews were killed in gas chambers immediately after they entered. The exception was a small part of randomly selected people who helped support the work of the camp. Prisoners-workers should have been eliminated later. This also applies to Willenberg. In August 1943, Willenberg participated in an armed uprising in Treblinka, thanks to which, around 200, prisoners of the camp were able to escape. Several dozen of them - including Willenberg and the Czech Jew Richard Glazar - survived to the end of the war. Samuel Willenberg participated in the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944, and for his courage after the war, he received the Polish military order Virtuti Militari. In 1950, Willenberg emigrated to Israel, where he still lives. His wife, Ada Lyubelchik, lived the war in the Warsaw ghetto as a child of the Jews. The end of the war, she waited only thanks to the help of Polish participants in the resistance. In Israel, Villenberg and Lyubelchik had a daughter, Orit, today a famous Israeli architect. Samuel Willenberg wrote a book of memoirs The Rise in Treblinka (Povstání v Treblince). He is also known as an artist and sculptor. Shortly after the uprising, the camp in Treblinka ceased to exist, the Nazis destroyed the camp’s tracks. The world learned about Treblinka only because of witnesses such as Mr. Willenberg.
The author is a permanent correspondent of the Czech Television in Warsaw.