Thomas Blatt: 1927-2015In Memoriam | Thu May 05, 2016 | 12:00am
I had the extraordinary and unforgettable privilege of knowing Tom Blatt for more than 20 years. It hardly seems possible that this brilliant, inspiring, generous, warmhearted, hugely accomplished man — and, let us say it, since Hollywood isn’t very far from here, a man with “movie star good looks,” too — is no longer with us.
I met Tom Blatt for the first time in October 1995, when he traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept an award at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I knew him by reputation; he was already a leading figure in the history, and especially the “after-history,” of the Holocaust, one of the most prominent survivors of the Shoah.
The museum’s award recognized the exceptional courage of Jewish inmates who, under the magnificent leadership of Jewish Soviet Army officer Aleksandr “Sasha” Pechersky, rebelled against the SS killers at the Nazis’ infamous Sobibór death camp in German-occupied Poland and carried out what we know today as the legendary Sobibór Uprising of October 14, 1943 — one of the greatest stories of resistance against oppression, and also one of the greatest escape stories, in human history.
Tom was just 16 years old at the time of the uprising, known then by the nickname “Toivi.” He, his parents, and his younger brother, Hersz, had been deported by German occupation forces to Sobibór six months earlier from the family’s hometown of Izbica, Poland. By the time of the uprising, at least 170,000 Jews, primarily from Poland, France, and the Netherlands, had been systematically murdered at Sobibór.
The vast majority of the victims — men, women, children, even babies — had been murdered within hours of their arrival, forced into the camp’s gas chambers by screaming, whip-wielding SS guards. And so it was, alas, for Tom’s beloved mother, father, and brother. In panic, despair, and agony so extreme as to truly beggar the expression “heartrending,” entire families were put to death amid the cries and screams of those who were soon to follow them.
Nazi Germany built and operated literally thousands of concentration camps and labor camps. But just five were human slaughterhouses — extermination camps operated for the sole purpose of committing mass murder, of destroying Europe’s Jews. Sobibór was one of those five. It was surely as close an approximation to hell on earth as has ever existed. The cruelties perpetrated every day for the year and a half of the camp’s operation are so ghastly that they nearly defy description, much less belief.
The odds of carrying out any escape from Sobibór were less than minuscule. The so-called “work-Jews” had no weapons. Subsisting on near-starvation rations, they were also severely weakened. The SS officers and guards, on the other hand, were well armed and well fed. Even if inmates could somehow cut through the multiple barbed-wire fences surrounding the camp, before being mowed down by gunfire from SS guards in watchtowers and on the ground, the area beyond was heavily booby-trapped with land mines.
Seconds before the Sobibór outbreak was to commence, Sasha Pechersky issued the instruction that would come to shape the rest of Tom Blatt’s life: “Those of you who may survive,” Pechersky declared, “bear witness. Let the world know what has happened here.”
Despite his youth, Tom played a key role in the Sobibór Uprising, in which the desperate conspirators succeeded in killing nearly a dozen SS officers and guards so that several hundred inmates could attempt to flee. The Golden Globe– and Emmy-winning CBS Television motion picture Escape from Sobibór helped immortalize the uprising, and Tom’s role in it. The filmmakers left the savageries of the camp mostly to the audience’s imagination, but even this heavily sanitized presentation of Sobibór presented such unbearable onscreen terror that I turned off the TV.
Tragically, most of the would-be escapees lost their lives during the uprising, killed by SS bullets or land mines. Almost as if by miracle, however, some — fewer than 100 men and women — managed to get away and then survive on the run for the remaining 19 months of the war. Tom was one of them.
SS officials, shocked at the daring of Sobibór’s Jewish resisters, massacred the remaining prisoners, bulldozed the camp, and erased virtually every sign that it had ever been there. As Tom later wrote, “Not only had life been taken from the Jews at Sobibór, but the memory of their very existence was being erased.”
The prisoners’ rebellion at Sobibór, like the famed uprising in 1943 at Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and other instances of wartime resistance, helped mark the return of the Jewish people to their proud biblical tradition as great fighters in defense of human life and dignity.
After the war, Tom found love and he married. He became father to three children — Hanna, Rena, and Leonard — plus six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. This was yet another personal victory over Hitler’s nearly realized plan to bring an end to his family.
Tom immigrated to Israel and then to the U.S., where he became a very successful businessman. After the unspeakable horrors he had experienced, no one would have criticized Tom if he had chosen just to enjoy the fruits of his entrepreneurial success. But Sasha Pechersky’s injunction that if anyone survived, they must inform the world of Sobibór, combined with the almost disabling memories of the camp that tormented Tom, led him to take a very different path. As Tom told the Washington Post in 1987, “I never left Sobibór. It’s with me every moment of the day. I walk down the street and I look at people and wonder, what would you have done if you had been in Sobibór? That never stops. Sobibór is my reference point.” For the rest of his long life, Tom channeled his painful memories and his grief into an impassioned quest to tell the world.
And so, starting many decades before the invention of the Internet would facilitate such an effort, Tom became almost a one-man, international Sobibór remembrance campaign.
First, he told the story of Sobibór to investigators and to judges in order to obtain some measure of justice. For 60 years, he made himself available as a witness in investigations and prosecutions of Sobibór’s surviving SS murderers. In doing so, he heroically subjected himself to sometimes cruel grilling by overly aggressive defense attorneys. And by reliving on the witness stand the depredations he had endured, he willingly reopened, in the service of justice, grievous psychic wounds that could never fully heal.
Tom’s testimony in Germany helped convict some of Sobibór’s worst perpetrators. Among them was SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel.
Tom used the occasion of Frenzel’s retrial to document Nazi crimes in a way that had never been done before, or since. Through the force of his unique personality, Tom somehow persuaded the defendant to sit down for a recorded interview, subsequently published in part. Imagine the wildly improbable, eerie, even surreal, scene: Thomas Blatt, one of the very few victims to survive Sobibór, sitting down, for fully three hours, at a small table in a hotel restaurant in Germany with one of the camp’s most notorious Nazi mass murderers.
Over the decades, he gave countless presentations — which carried an extraordinarily powerful impact — in public schools, in universities, and many other venues. He built a website — sobibor.net — that provides extensive information; he wrote two acclaimed books about the camp; he corresponded with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who contacted him with questions.
When I was with Tom, I would invariably study his face. I suppose I was looking for a sign of the bitterness one might naturally expect to find in a person whose family was murdered; who endured unspeakable brutalities; who saw the vast majority of the perpetrators unpunished; and who, for years, saw his determined efforts to prevent Sobibór from being forgotten imperiled by widespread apathy and indifference.
But I never found bitterness, or rage, in him. I did find frustration and impatience, yes. But mostly I found gentleness, kindness, and an unswerving, selfless commitment to combating the virus of hatred that continues to plague humankind.
I will be forever grateful for Tom’s many kindnesses; it is one of the greatest privileges of my life that I got to know him. He was virtually the embodiment of the post-Holocaust imperatives “Never Again” and “Never Forget.” His noble efforts, continuing into the very last year of his remarkable life, to ensure that the genocide at Sobibór and elsewhere is never forgotten, that the perpetrators are brought to justice, and that, one day, we will live in a world in which mass atrocities are never again committed — against any group — will be an inspiration to me for the rest of my days.
Eli Rosenbaum is director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice. This is an edited version of the eulogy he wrote for Thomas Blatt’s memorial.