The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I’m still there — in my dreams,’ said Thomas Blatt, survivor of daring escape from Nazi death camp

In this January 2010 photo, Thomas “Toivi” Blatt waits in a courtroom prior to the trial against John Demjanjuk, an alleged death camp guard. (Christof Stache/AP)

Thomas “Toivi” Blatt was certain he would die on the evening of Oct. 14, 1943.

He was 16 years old, orphaned, Jewish, a prisoner of the Nazis at one of their brutal death camps, Sobibor. And he was about to take part in one of the most daring revolts of concentration camp captives, one that nearly every participant knew was doomed.

“We had no dreams of liberation,” Blatt later wrote. “We hoped merely to destroy the camp and to die from bullets rather than from gas. We would not make it easy for the Germans.”

But some mixture of guts, grit and good luck carried him through the chaos — the Nazi guards’ indiscriminate shooting, the dangerous dash across an open field littered with land mines, the hours-long manhunt, a gunshot wound to the jaw and nearly a year of deprivation while waiting out the war in the hiding. He was one of just about 50 people who fled Sobibor on that night in 1943 and who lived to tell the world about it.

Blatt died at 88 of complications from dementia at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Saturday, according to friends and family. The boy from Izbica, Poland, who lost his family and his childhood to the Nazis, went on to become an outspoken author and lecturer on the Holocaust and a prominent witness at the trial of an alleged Sobibor guard.

But he never really left the death camp behind.

“I never escaped from Sobibor. I’m still there — in my dreams, in everything,” Blatt said in 2010. “My point of reference is always Sobibor.”

Sobibor, where he was imprisoned for half a year before the mass escape, simultaneously haunted and motivated him. It’s the place where his parents and brother were killed, poisoned in gas chambers an hour after their arrival at the camp in Nazi-occupied eastern Poland. It’s the place where he was forced to work for months, shaving the heads of doomed women, sorting clothes stripped off of people about to enter the gas chamber, cleaning the blood off boots of S.S. officers who had just driven those people to their deaths.

But it’s also the place where Blatt saw Alexander Pechersky, one of the revolt’s ringleaders, jump onto a table in the moments before the breakout to speak to the people he hoped to help free.

“Those of you who may survive, bear witness,” Pechersky said in Russian, according to Blatt’s book on the revolt. “Let the world know what has happened here.”

The rebellion was born out of desperation, Blatt later said. Sobibor was not a work camp — its sole purpose was to kill prisoners. Most of the 250,000 or so Jews who were brought there were killed within hours of arrival. Just a few hundred prisoners were spared to help run the camp, and they knew that their time, too, was short — “work Jews” were routinely executed, Blatt told the Independent in 2011.

Led by Pechersky and a Polish-Jewish prisoner Leon Feldhendler, a small group of underground members worked to discreetly pick off the camp’s German guards on the afternoon of Oct. 14. It was Blatt’s job to inform the officers that a new coat had been set aside for them, sending the men to the tailor’s shop where they would be quietly killed. The plan was for the rebels to then dress as officers and march the entire prisoner population out the camp’s front gates.

But they were discovered too soon, and one of the rebels blew a whistle for roll call, so the prisoners would gather in one place, Blatt wrote on the Web site accompanying his book about the uprising. That’s when Pechersky gave his speech, and Jews began rushing to the exit, into a hail of gunfire from the remaining guards. Others clambered up the camp’s fence, dropping onto a field of land mines on the other side.

“Corpses were everywhere,” Blatt wrote. “The noise of rifles, exploding mines, grenades and the chatter of machine guns assaulted the ears. The Nazis shot from a distance while in our hands were only primitive knives and hatchets.”

Blatt managed to evade the mines and made a mad dash toward the shelter of the forest ahead. “It was so close,” he said. “I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further … 100 yards … 50 yards … 20 more yards … and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes.”

It was the only mass escape from a World War II death camp, according to the Los Angeles Times, and the majority of participants did not survive it. Of the roughly 300 people who made it out of the camp, it’s thought that two thirds were killed by land mines, the guards’ gunfire or in the ensuing manhunt. Only about half of the escapees who survived their initial flight lived until the end of the war.

After the revolt, Sobibor was demolished, and every Jew who remained in the camp was executed.

Blatt and two fellow escapees bribed a Polish farmer to hide them in his barn, but after a few months the farmer — fearful of being caught — shot both of them and left them for dead. Blatt’s companions died, but he survived with just a wound to his jaw. He gathered his strength and moved on.

After the war, Blatt emigrated to Israel and then to the United States, where he established three electronics shops and a family of his own. He bought a house in an exclusive neighborhood of Santa Barbara. When he looked out the window, he saw boats bobbing in the crystalline Pacific — a stark contrast to the horrors he saw when he closed his eyes.

“From the pit of hell to paradise,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “Sometimes I wonder if this is a dream and I’ll wake up and be back in Sobibor again.”

The death camp was never far from his mind. His study overflowed with World War II literature and Holocaust narratives. Blatt himself wrote two books about the camp, and a manuscript for the 1987 TV movie “Escape from Sobibor.” In 1984, he traveled back to Europe to interview the commander of Sobibor’s imprisoned workers, Karl Frenzel, who had been sentenced to life in prison for war crimes but was released early for health reasons. He spearheaded the effort to preserve Sobibor as a memorial and often returned to the camp to check on its condition. Among the tall grasses and abandoned buildings, he still found burnt fragments of bone that he’d pray over, then bury.

Sometimes, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, Blatt packed up and flew to Poland on a whim because he “had to be in Sobibor.” The obsession took a toll on his life in the U.S. When his first wife left, he recalled, she told him “I don’t want to live in Sobibor any more. … I’ve lived there for 30 years.”

Blatt also spoke at the trial of Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, a native Ukrainian who was charged with thousands of counts of being an accessory to murder at Sobibor. His testimony helped bolster the prosecution’s claim that if Demjanjuk was a guard at Sobibor, he would have taken part in the killing of Jews, according to the Associated Press.

Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court in 2011 and sentenced to five years in prison, but he remained free pending his appeal and died a year later.

But Demjanjuk’s imprisonment was less important to Blatt than the trial itself.

“I don’t care if he goes to prison or not — the trial is what matters to me,” he told the Independent in 2011. “The world should find out how it was at Sobibor.”

Blatt is survived by three children and several grandchildren, according to the Associated Press. At his funeral Wednesday, the longtime U.S. Justice Department Nazi Hunter Eli Rosenbaum will deliver the eulogy. Rosenbaum was one of the prosecutors in the Demjanjuk case, and he worked with Blatt closely.

“Many now devote themselves to realizing the post-Holocaust imperatives ‘Never Again’ and ‘Never Forget.’ But for your father these were virtually sacred obligations,” Rosenbaum wrote in a letter to Blatt’s family after his death, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rosenbaum’s letter included the line from Pechersky’s speech all those years ago, in the moments before the escape that would change — and save — Blatt’s life.

Those words “ended up shaping your father’s life for the next 72 years,” Rosenbaum wrote. “‘Those of you who may survive, bear witness: Let the world know what has happened here.”