In Holocaust survivors’ obituaries, horrific places like Treblinka are mentioned alongside recollections of happy marriages and personal achievements.
When Samuel Willenberg died in 2016, the world lost its final witness to the horrors of the Treblinka extermination camp. As the camp’s last survivor, Willenberg was a crucial voice; he told stories that needed to be heard. In the years after the war, he studied fine art and became a renowned sculptor, depicting scenes and people from Treblinka in his creations. Through his sculptures, he was able to convey the Holocaust to generations that will never know its horrors firsthand.
Now, nearly seven decades after World War II, the day is approaching when the last of the Holocaust survivors will be gone. Yet even in death, their stories remain vividly alive — if you know where to look.
The place to look, it turns out, is within their obituaries. Holocaust survivors and their families know the importance of sharing their memories; as the survivors die and loved ones are called on to distill their lives into a few paragraphs, mentions of horrific places like Treblinka show up alongside recollections of happy marriages and personal achievements.
These obituaries are more than loving reflections of survivors’ legacies; they’re also valuable historical documents.
Take a glimpse into the past.
Morris “Moishe” Kornberg was, like Willenberg, dedicated to telling the stories of the Holocaust to ensure that younger generations know about this awful chapter in history:
Aside from his brother, Arie, who immigrated to Palestine in 1933, the remainder of his family was sent to Treblinka, where they met the same fate as the other six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Moishe was deported to Auschwitz in 1941, where he slaved for four years in a coal mine. He was on two death marches between concentration camps before being liberated in Theresienstadt on May 3, 1945. … Moishe understood the importance of sharing his life story so that history would never repeat itself, and frequently spoke to children and teens at schools across the country.
Thaddeus “Ted” Stabholz‘s obituary details the amazing resourcefulness of the people in the Warsaw Ghetto, who ran an underground medical school where he received his education:
The Nazis incarcerated all the Jews of Warsaw along with him in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite the most horrible conditions in the ghetto, the underground medical school was created. Dr. Stabholz attended the school for almost 2 1/2 years. Lectures were held from 1-4 a.m. seven times a week. The medical students during the day worked in the hospital, which overflowed with patients with such illnesses as typhus and hunger disease, as well as with Jews who were badly shot just for the sport by the S.S. The medical students worked 12 hours a day. After the liquidation of the ghetto, Dr. Stabholz was “lucky” to escape the extermination camp of Treblinka, where over 300,000 Warsaw Jews were gassed.
Stabholz was among the many Holocaust survivors who later told their stories:
Dr. Stabholz is the author of the book “Siedem Piekiet” (“Seven Hells”) which was a detailed memoir on his life during the Holocaust. The book has been translated from Polish into English and Hebrew. He also gave hundreds of talks about his experiences in the Holocaust so that people would know what prejudice against any group could lead to.
Alice Herz-Sommer had an experience so inspiring that an Oscar-winning documentary was created to tell her story. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life won the 2014 Academy Award for best documentary — short subject. It detailed how Herz-Sommer brought much-needed snatches of joy to herself and her fellow prisoners through music:
Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin —Theresienstadt in German — where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred. An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin, and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. Yet she remembered herself as “always laughing” during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.
Michael Dziengel was a teenager during the Holocaust, but his youth didn’t stop him from being a hero. His obituary tells the story of how he helped another family escape the German invasion of his Polish town — and how he found love in the process:
Michael became a Holocaust survivor at this young age when his entire family was killed at Treblinka by the Nazis. Michael survived because he helped Dina Melnick and her five children escape from Pultusk. The oldest of Dina’s five children, Nancy, who was 13 when they left Poland, became Michael’s wife five years later. After taking the Melnick family to Wyszkow, Michael tried to go back to Pultusk to rescue his own family. The bridges were bombed, and he was told that if he went back to Pultusk, he would be killed because it was already in German control.
Michael Baum, also a teenager during the war, shared stories fit for an action hero, related by his family in his obituary:
Since the age of 16 he endured years of Nazi labor camps and concentration camps. Michael often shared stories of his daring escapes from ghettos and death camps, jumping from a moving train headed to Treblinka and hiding for months at a time in the wilderness.
His obituary also included a postwar love story:
After liberation, Michael and other survivors were sent to Mittenwald, Germany where they were housed in abandoned hotels and participated in nightly beer drinking and dancing to celebrate their freedom. During this time, Michael met, and quickly married, the love of his life, Ida Baum, who was also a recently liberated Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. Emerging from the Holocaust as one of the sole survivors of his family at age 21, Michael, along with Ida, left Germany in 1948 and (immigrated) to the United States, where they would build their new lives together and set out to pursue the American dream.
Riva Kremer survived multiple concentration camps, later escaping to America. She lived to 100 after finding her way to Houston:
She, along with her daughter, Linda Penn, endured the horrors of the Holocaust, experiencing stays in concentration camps including Treblinka — where she lost her husband and son — Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Trawniki, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. They also endured the Grodno, Poland Ghetto and the Death March.
Aron Goldfarb‘s heartbreaking story included words from his father that inspired him as he struggled to make it through the war:
When the Germans took Aron from his father, the last words his father said to him were, “Go, my son … maybe you will survive”. … Aron’s family was sent to the Treblinka concentration camp in 1941, while Aron and his older brothers Itzhak and Abraham were sent to the Pionki labor camp. Another brother, Jacob, would survive the war by escaping to Russia. In 1944, Aron with his brothers and friend Zisman Birman escaped from the camp and fought for survival in the forests of Poland.
Zelda Gordon‘s obituary calls her “a fighter,” and it includes the stories to prove it:
(S)he survived seven death camps, including Treblinka, Majdanek, Lublin, Blizin, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and lost every member of her immediate family to the Nazi’s plan of extermination of the Jewish race and other minorities.
Zelda later used her wartime horrors for good, speaking out and raising funds to help others:
They spoke of their experiences at the Waldorf Astoria and went on across country and spoke to many organizations along the way about what had occurred in Europe the past decade. By participating at these fundraisers, they were able to help survivors less fortunate than them. Settling in Los Angeles with the help of Ely’s brother Julius, they never stopped helping other Jews as well as other troubled peoples from all over the world. After Ely’s death in 1986, Zelda continued her charitable work and continued educating both the community at large as well as the young people, who were so eager to hear her stories and learn how miracles can really happen.
Sigmund “Siggy” Boracks‘ obituary tells of the horrors he experienced during the war:
His parents, Chaim and Golda (Gucia) Boraks, and his younger sister Basia, along with his extended family, perished at Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942. “Siggy” was sent to Blizyn labor camp and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. There his arm was tattooed with the number B-2039. In late 1944, “Siggy” was sent to Kaufering labor camp near Munich, Germany, which he described as worse than Auschwitz. After a “death march” across southern Germany, “Siggy” was liberated at Dachau concentration camp by American troops on April 29, 1945. His only surviving relative was his uncle, Gustav Boraks, who participated in the Jewish revolt at Treblinka in 1943 and escaped.
In his later years, Siggy became a Holocaust educator, telling his stories — and those of others — to new generations to ensure we’ll never forget:
Asked why he never removed the tattoo on his arm, “Siggy” answered: “I’m not embarrassed by it. The people who put it there should be embarrassed by it.” In his presentations, “Siggy” described the horrors of the Holocaust, but his central message was one of tolerance. “You can’t blame everybody for somebody,” he said.