President Reuven Rivlin was among those attending the funeral Monday of Samuel Willenberg, the last remaining survivor of the revolt at the Treblinka death camp in Poland, who died on Saturday at the age of 93.
The funeral took place at Moshav Udim on the coastal plain.
Willenberg was born in 1923 in Częstochowa in southern Poland. He was 16 when World War II broke out with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.
At the age of 19, he was rounded up with the Jews during the liquidation of the ghetto in Opatow in southern Poland, and sent to Treblinka.
Acting on the advice of another Jewish prisoner, he posed as a bricklayer upon his arrival at the extermination camp. He was the only person from his transport not to perish in the gas chambers.
Willenberg took part in the 1943 revolt at Treblinka, becoming one of the few hundred who managed to escape the camp.
He went to Warsaw, found his father, and joined the underground resistance, using his mother’s maiden name of Popow. He also took part in the 1944 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.
Willenberg moved to Israel in 1950 with his wife and his mother, where he joined the civil service. After retirement, he found success as a sculptor and held several international exhibits of his work, which focused on the Holocaust and his own experiences in Treblinka.
In his eulogy, Rivlin recalled meeting Willenberg for the first time just over a year ago during a trip to inaugurate the Jewish Museum in Warsaw.
“Samuel described courageously and with endless compassion what had happened to him… The entire transport which arrived with Samuel to Treblinka — 6,000 people — were sent to the gas chambers,” he said.
“He told me about his two sisters who were murdered. Seventy years have passed since then, but when he talked about his sister, aged six, whom he left and to whom he could never return — how he found her coat that their mother had sewed, among the belongings of Jews sent to their deaths at Treblinka — Samuel still cried. He never stopped missing them.”
Rivlin added: “One of his sculptures is located at the President’s Residence. Every time I walk past that statue I remembered what Samuel told me. ‘I will not live forever. But my sculptures will speak for me.’ And now they will speak in his place. Every month, a thousand survivors pass away. The number of firsthand witnesses is dwindling. Time is running out. We must do everything possible to help the survivors live out the rest of their lives with dignity.”
More than 850,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka in a period of just 13 months, Rivlin said.