There is a fascination with stories about the Holocaust. Maybe it has to do with trying to understand pure evil. Maybe it is an exploration of the depths of man’s inhumanity toward man. Maybe it’s a terror that could happen again, to anyone who is somehow chosen to be a victim, and that could be any one of us. And just when one thinks, “Enough, I don’t have to read or see any more of these stories,” another one comes along, bringing its own compelling detail — and the fascination continues.
Elsewhere in this newspaper, in the Arts & Lifestyles section, there is an article about a film, recently shown at Suffolk County Community College, telling the story of a different Holocaust survivor. I’m writing today about Thomas Blatt, who died this past Tuesday at the age of 88, and who was one of those escapees from the Sobibor extermination camp after a massive revolt by the prisoners. I had never heard of this particular death camp, nor of an uprising there, and so I read his obit with interest.
Blatt was 15 and his brother just 10 when they were taken from their largely Jewish village in the Lublin district of Poland, along with their parents and neighbors, and put into a ghetto by the Nazis in 1942. From there, they were deported to Sobibor, where Blatt’s family was gassed immediately after arrival. For some reason, Thomas, who was fair and blue-eyed, was pulled out of line by one of the guards and given odd jobs to do, thus being spared his family’s fate. His jobs included fixing fences, burning documents, cutting the hair of women before they were herded into the gas chambers and sorting the victims’ belongings.
“I recognized my mother’s clothes and I realized my parents were no longer alive,” Blatt said.
Six months after he arrived, there was an uprising and mass escape from the camp, with some 300 prisoners running for their lives. Only some 60 managed to survive the war, including Blatt; the other escapees were hunted down and executed by the Nazis. There had been about 150 Ukrainian guards and 15 German SS officers at the camp, and many of them were killed in the escape. The site was knocked down and bulldozed by the Germans, who were trying to hide the death camp and the event. Blatt hid for almost a year until the advancing Russian troops pushed back the German army from Poland, despite having been shot in the jaw by a Polish farmer during the escape.
Blatt eventually emigrated to Israel in 1958 and the United States a year later, ultimately settling in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he lived with his family and owned three electronics stores. Years after he had arrived in America, he was asked to testify at the trial of alleged camp guard, John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker who had been living in Ohio. Blatt wasn’t able to identify the accused, but he became a prominent witness for the prosecution with his many details about the brutality unleashed on the prisoners by all the Ukrainian guards. Demjanjuk was found guilty but died before his appeal could be heard.
“I never escaped from Sobibor,” Blatt said. “I’m still there — in my dreams and in everything. My point of reference is always Sobibor.” Described as “quiet and modest,” by a longtime friend, “Blatt suffered from recurrent nightmares and depression, and said, “Witnessing genocide is overwhelming; writing about it is soul shattering.” But according to his friend, he never harbored malice toward the Germans, the Ukrainians or those Poles who were anti-Semitic in his lifetime. He urged others to do the same. He worked tirelessly, traveling back and forth to Poland, to preserve the site of one of the few uprisings by Jewish inmates against Nazi guards during World War II.
Blatt was haunted by regret all his life for the last words he said to his mother just before they were separated at the death camp. “And you didn’t let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted to save some for today.” He fervently wished he could have instead hugged her and told her how much he loved her. Blatt, who wrote two books on the horrors of Sobibor, is survived by his three children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.