THIS WEEK saw the passing of two great men in their 90s who were – in very different ways – intricately familiar with the brutality of the Holocaust.
Aged 97, Samuel Willenberg passed away in Israel, one of the last (and few) survivors of Treblinka.
It was “unlike Auschwitz,” he said. “[It] had no pretensions to being a labour camp. It was designed for death.”
Aged 93, Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown passed away in Britain, a Royal Navy pilot who helped interrogate senior Nazis after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
He would later describe the scene he found to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, as she toured the site. Both Winkle and Willenberg spoke as they found.
Their experiences were relayed factually, with few adjectives and no emotional padding. What they said didn’t need literary emphasis. It spoke for itself.
These were men who knew that bodies burned with a “grinding and crackling sound,” not because they’d read about it, but because they’d heard it.
They knew the smell of an uncleaned one-toilet shed designed for 60 but stuffed with 250. They could tell us a thousand times. We still couldn’t relate.
As we remember the passing of ‘Winkle’ and Willenberg this week, and their extraordinary survival against the odds, we should not be afraid to wince and cry and shake our heads in disbelief at what, in life, they told us.
Because, as hard as it is, most of us have not had to carry those experiences with us for 70 years.