Joseph Polonski

By Scott Littky
Institute for Holocaust Education Executive Director
Originally appeared in the The Jewish Press in 2022

The Amazing Story of Joseph Polonski

Joe Polonski and his wife, Bluma. Photo credit: David Radler.

Late last fall I received a call from former Omaha resident Rose Viny. She introduced herself as the daughter of Holocaust survivors Joe and Bluma Polonski. In the course of our conversation, she began to tell me the amazing story of her father and his experience at Treblinka. She then asked if the IHE would be interested in showing a new movie that had just been produced and narrated by Holocaust educator and expert, Michael Berenbaum. So, with that in mind the Institute for Holocaust Education is honored to be able to show the movie, Escape from Treblinka: The Joseph Polonski Story, on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. in the Alan J. Levine Performing Arts Theater at the Jewish Community Center.

    When speaking about her father, Rose told me he had not spoken about his experience until they went to Treblinka in 2000. She said then you “couldn’t stop him from talking, because he had so much to say.”

    Viny said her father had great insight into what his feelings were and how every moment counted in his life. He was a very private man, she said, but very studious, and was able to correct their tour guide on things such as where the train arrived at the camp.

    “My father was almost like a wolf,” Viny said. “Walking around, showing us where the train stopped, where they took the dead bodies and where they had to take the clothes.”

    Michael Berenbaum approached Polonski in 2012, one year prior to his death,  to interview him and hear his testimony. Berenbaum said he felt that it needed to be heard and documented, because Treblinka was a death camp with very few survivors, which means there were not many people who could provide testimonies on it.

    “We captured a man, and we captured a life,” Berenbaum said when asked about his conversations with Joseph Polonski. “And it’s a life that has a story worth telling. So, the question always becomes, what do you have to work with? And then how do you work with what you have? That’s the story of life.”

    Viny said it was harder for her father to be completely lucid toward the end of his life. But Berenbaum, with his history and knowledge of Treblinka, was able to understand what Polonski was saying.

    The film chronicles the life of Joseph Polonski from his childhood in Silvaki, Poland, to the Jewish ghetto, and ultimately to Treblinka. His wit and luck allowed him to become one of just two known escapees from Treblinka. After his escape, he served as an officer in the resistance, fighting Nazis until the liberation and eventually immigrated to the United States in 1949.

After the successful showing of “Escape from Treblinka: The Joseph Polonski Story;” the Polonski family has graciously allowed the IHE to stream their film for you to watch.