Samuel Willenburg, the last of 67 survivors of Treblinka, a World War Nazi death camp, recently died at the age of 93. Willenburg was born in Poland and arrived at Treblinka in October of 1942 when he was 19 years old. On the advice of a friend, he told the Nazi guards that he was a bricklayer, a lie that he believed ultimately saved his life. When he was sent to the prisoner’s barracks to do manual labor, “a whole town, three transports of 20 wagons went to the gas,” Willenberg told the BBC in a 2013 interview. The transports were deceptively told that they were to undress and shower before moving onward. The “shower rooms” were actually gas chambers solely designed to exterminate Jews. Willenberg was assigned the job to sort through the belongings of the people slain in the gas chambers. One day he recognized a garment among the possessions: his sister’s coat. “My little sister had a coat she grew out of. My mother had extended the sleeves with green velvet. This is how I recognized it. I can still see it today,” he told the BBC. “It was then I knew my [two] sisters had come to Treblinka. I understood that I no longer had sisters. I looked, but I didn't cry. I had no tears left, just hatred.” Willenberg carried the memory of Treblinka for the rest of his life. “It never leaves me. It stays in my head. It goes with me always,” he once told the Associated Press in an interview. Until his death, he urged the world to never forget the horrors of Treblinka.
It is difficult to conceive of the pain and loss that Willenberg experienced at the hands of his captors. It is even harder to imagine how he or anyone could forgive those who were responsible for the murder of his sisters and other loved ones among the estimated 875,000 Jews who were put to death at Treblinka. Forgiveness is even difficult for us at times where someone may have simply hurt us through hateful words or other hurtful actions. Painful and enduring memories may continue to haunt us for a lifetime.
“Authentic Forgiveness” is the title of the four-week Lifetree Small Group series for the month of March. The first episode is titled “Amazing Grace.” In an exclusive interview, meet the woman whose son’s killing spree shocked our nation as she was wrapped in forgiveness by the families of the victims in an Amish community. You are invited to join the conversation at Crossing Community Church in Room 130 on Thursday, March 10th at 7:00 p.m. Snacks and refreshments are provided. Child care is available upon request. ALL are welcome!