Samuel Willenberg devoted most of his 97 years to preserving the memory of more than 875,000 people who were murdered by the Nazis in the Treblinka death camp in Poland in World War II.
So his death should be getting a little more attention than it is today, because Willenberg, who was buried today in Israel, was the last survivor, the Associated Press reports.
Just last August he attended a 71st anniversary observance of the Warsaw uprising.
Subsequent generations — ours — had the luxury of hearing a first-hand account of the Holocaust. We, too, are the last generations to learn history in the first person, the AP notes.
More than 70 years after the war, the window is rapidly closing on the survivors’ ability to relay their stories. Some 180,000 elderly survivors remain in Israel, with a similar number worldwide, but more than a 1,000 die each month, and experts predict that within seven years none will be well enough to share anything of significance.
That prospect has become the central challenge of Holocaust institutes around the world. An “oral history” of testimonies has been collected and filmed, original items have been restored and exhibited, and descendants are receiving training on how to carry on their parents’ stories.
“There is a huge added value to hearing survivor testimony first hand,” said Naama Egozi, a trainer of teachers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial’s International School of Holocaust Studies. “You can read a book or watch a movie, but there is just no substitute to someone who can say ‘I was there.'”
Willenberg’s two sisters were murdered at the camp, from which he and 66 others escaped in a revolt in 1943.
They were the only avenue to history because the Nazis covered up traces of the camp.
Related: A Voice for the Dead: Recovering the Lost History of Sobibór (Spiegel Online)