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Moving eulogy for Holocaust survivor Willenberg

  • Samuel
JERUSALEM - Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday eulogised Samuel Willenberg, believed to be the last remaining survivor of the Treblinka death camp, who died last week Friday in Israel at the age of 93.
by JNS.ORG AND TIMES OF ISRAEL | Feb 24, 2016

But when international news agencies announced the death of Willenberg, referred to as “the last survivor of Treblinka”, it transpired that Willenberg was in fact, the final survivor of the August 1943 Treblinka prisoners’ revolt.

A healthy 89-year-old living in the southern Swedish city of Boros, Leon “Poldek” Rytz is no stranger to escaping death - also Treblinka. Through a combination of miracles and help from fellow prisoners, as a teen he twice escaped the Nazis, including once from Treblinka.

Seeing this misunderstanding in print, Rytz’s daughter Louise contacted The Times of Israel, pointing out: “My father Poldek Rytz is also a survivor from Treblinka, and is also still alive…

Rytz, like many Holocaust survivors, was imprisoned in several different Nazi camps, including Treblinka, Majdanek, and Bergen-Belsen.

At Willenberg’s funeral, Pres Rivlin said: “Just over a year ago I met Samuel for the last time. On Polish soil... With a trembling voice he spoke about the day he arrived at the death camp. He spoke about the man who whispered in his ear telling him to say “constructor” and thus probably saved his life. The entire transport which arrived with Samuel at Treblinka - 6 000 people - were sent to the gas chambers. None survived.

Willenberg was born in Poland in 1923. He was a teenager when the country was invaded by the Nazis in 1939. At age 19, he was sent to Treblinka, where on the advice of a fellow prisoner he posed as a bricklayer in order to survive. He was the only person among the Jews who were brought to the death camp on his transport who didn’t die in the gas chambers.

He participated in the Treblinka revolt of 1943, managing to escape the camp. Later, in Warsaw, he joined the underground resistance and participated in the 1944 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In 1950, Willenberg immigrated to Israel.

Leon “Poldek” Rytz was born in 1927 in the small Polish town of Warka. When he was still a baby, the seven-member Rychwold family - Rytz changed his name later - relocated to Warsaw, where father Szlomo co-owned and managed a tea import company. However, by 1939, his father, pressed into service to the Polish Cavalry, was killed, leaving mother Lea alone to raise their five children just as the Nazis occupied Warsaw.

Rytz was eventually among the many Jews captured and taken to the Warsaw Umschlagsplatz, a square located near the Jewish Ghetto. There, he says, “I found myself together with a lot of other horror-filled children”.

The mass transport of Warsaw’s Jews, the Grossaktion Warsaw, began on July 22, 1942, when Jews were deported on packed freight cars largely to the brand-new Treblinka death camp, located northeast of Warsaw. The deportations from Warsaw continued until the uprising when most of the ghetto - and its Jews - were decimated.

Treblinka continued operating through October 19, 1943, and according to historians, as many as 10 000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the camp per day. Up to 900 000 Jews were murdered in the gas chambers there, along with some 2 000 Romani.

After his capture in Warsaw, Rytz was transported south, to the Majdanek death camp, where he stayed for a few days. He was then again forced onto a train and taken to Treblinka.

“When I arrived to the camp by train, a man by the name of Jozef Kaufman, who was a friend of my father before the war, recognised me and pulled me out of the line of people leaving the train. He told me: ‘If you go with them, you will be dead within 24 hours,'” recounts Rytz.

Some time after Rytz’s arrival, Kaufman told him that they must escape Treblinka to survive. No easy task, with Nazi guards and “cruel” Ukrainian and Lithuanian soldiers, who “killed people in the line just if they stopped,” says Rytz.

Rytz, Kaufman and another man jumped from a train taking them to another death camp.

After a few nights in a forest, the pair joined the Polish partisans, with whom they participated in different missions with the goal of blowing up railway lines and bridges.

“After some days we received word that the partisans were planning to kill us, as they too did not like us Jews,” writes Rytz.

The pair escaped the partisans, but were soon captured again and taken to a forced labour camp in the German-occupied town of Skarżysko-Kamienna, about 150 kilometres south of Warsaw.

At the labour camp Kaufman and Rytz decided to attempt another escape, through a sewer, and also with a third prisoner.

“The spotlight fell on the first man who came out of the sewer pipe, and he was shot. As we came out, we raised our hands so we were captured and taken back to the camp,” writes Rytz.

In 1944, as the Russians encroached on Nazi-occupied territory, Rytz was transported to Czestochowa and then to Germany, to the Buchenwald subcamp Dora-Nordhausen. On the way to Buchenwald, Rytz was separated from his protector and companion, Kaufman.

In February 1945 Rytz was taken 300 kilometres away to Bergen-Belsen, where he was placed among the Russian prisoners of war. Ahead of Bergen-Belsen’s April 1945 liberation by British forces, Rytz had already left the camp, taking advantage of the increasingly “chaotic” situation.

In the spring of 1945, a co-operation of some 300 Swedish Red Cross and Danish government workers set about rescuing prisoners from concentration camps. In Sweden, Rytz, along with other Jewish youth, was put under the protection of the Zionist organisation Hechalutz (the Pioneer) and sent to a “Kibbutz school” to prepare for resettlement in British Mandate Palestine.

Rytz stayed in Sweden, where he worked in textile and eventually established his own company in 1955.

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