The eighty-nine-year-old artist was visiting Warsaw with his wife for the screening of a documentary about his war-time experiences.
Willenberg told the Catholic Information Agency that even though he is an atheist, having lost his faith while in the Nazi German extermination camp of Treblinka, the death of Pope John Paul II was for him like the loss of a family member.
The artist said he hoped that the sculpture would be installed in front of St Augustine’s Church on the territory of the former Jewish Ghetto.
The sculpture shows the Polish pontiff with his eyes set on the Torah and the tablet of the Ten Commandments.
“I had the highest respect for the Polish Pope and I made the sculpture as a gesture from my heart,” the artist said.
“To see it in front of a church in what once was the Jewish Ghetto would be a beautiful crowning moment of my life’, he said.
Samuel Willenberg was born in Częstochowa in 1923.
In 1942, in spite of possessing false documents identifying him as an Aryan, he was arrested and sent to Treblinka.
Upon arriving at the camp, he claimed to be a brick mason and thus succeeded in avoiding death in a gas chamber.
He participated in a prisoners' revolt in August of 1943, during which he was able to escape.
He later fought in the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupiers, receiving several military distinctions for his valour.
In 1950 he left Poland for Israel with his family. There he worked for many years in the Ministry of Land Development.
Upon retiring, he enrolled in the People's University, where he studied painting, sculpture and art history.
In 1994 he was once again granted Polish citizenship.
His book Revolt in Treblinka, published in 1986 in Hebrew, has been translated into many languages, including Polish.
The documentary Just the Two of Us, by Israeli film-maker Tzipi Baider, tells the story of Willenberg and Kalman Taigman, the last living survivors of the revolt in the Treblinka extermination camp.
The film shows them revisiting the place from which they fled 68 years ago. Samuel Willenberg lost his two sisters in Treblinka, while Kalman Taigman lost his mother there.
The film was included in the programme of the ‘Jewish Motifs’ Festival recently held in Warsaw. (mk/nh)