Sunday, October 10, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sobibor Survivor Did His Part To Tell The Story To The World

At 15, Thomas Blatt knew what it took to survive the Nazi and SS officers at the Sobibor death camp.

He kept clean. He stood straight and walked quickly. And he was efficient in how he carried out his tasks of sorting through clothing and burning the personal papers of freshly exterminated Jews.

In the eventual uprising at Poland's Sobibor, the most successful resistance by Jewish inmates against Nazi guards in World War II, young Blatt, known as Toivi, was the perfect lure. At his bidding, guards were tempted to visit the camp cobbler or tailor, where one by one they were killed.

Three hundred Jewish slave-laborers escaped, although fewer than 52 survived to see the end of the war. Blatt, 65, lately of Issaquah, is one of about a dozen still alive.

His life mission will be nearly complete this Thursday in Poland at the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the uprising. For the first time behind a former Iron Curtain country, signs no longer say the mounds of ashes at Sobibor are the remains of Russian prisoners of war. They now correctly state the ashes are the burnt bones of 250,000 Jews.

"This and I will have peace," said Blatt, who fought for 30 years to get the site recognized and to complete two other goals: helping to make the 1987 made-for-television movie "Escape from Sobibor," and finishing a book about his experiences, due out next year.

Few witnesses left

By Nazi design, there were very few left to tell the story of the death camps. Few records were kept. Unlike concentration camps, where the able-bodied had a chance to live to work, only a few hundred worked as slave laborers at death camps. The rest, thousands a day, were cremated within 90 minutes of arriving.

The process was so efficient and seemingly benign that even Blatt, who lived 40 miles away in Izbica and had heard rumors of a "living hell," could not believe death was inevitable when he arrived, even as he watched the smoke rise from a crematorium.

Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" to get rid of "unworthy-to-live material" had started in January of 1942. Sobibor was built in April. In the next year, Blatt watched the people of his village disappear. He tried to hide but was turned in by a schoolmate, who shouted to him, "See you on the shelves of the soap store, Toivi!"

He arrived at Sobibor on April 27, 1943, with his mother, father and 10-year-old brother. At 15, he had the choice of staying with the women and children or going with his father. Instinctively, he thought his chances would be better with the men.

Years later, he would recall his final words to his mother with some regret. "Yesterday, I wanted to have a glass of milk and you said I should leave it until tomorrow." His mother looked at him sadly. He kissed her goodbye.

He later told an interviewer that what he meant was now we are dying and yesterday you were worried about milk, "but what a thing to have said at a moment like that."

He went to where his father was standing. His little brother, in turn, went over to join his mother. An SS officer looked through the crowd to replenish slave laborers lost to suicide or illness.

"Who is a carpenter?" he asked. "Who is a bootmaker?" Blatt had no trade, but he did not take his eyes off the officer, mentally pleading with him to take him. At last the officer chose him, saying he needed a new shoeshine boy.

"I was imposing my will on him," said Blatt. "I still believe in some locked-in power which you can set free in some dangerous time."

Within an hour, Blatt was sorting through clothes and recognized the dress of a woman who had been on his train. He knew his family and all who had been with him were dead.

"Nature protects people," Blatt says now. "Sobibor took away all human feelings. That is why I could remember so little of day-to-day life. It was so terrible that my mind just pushed it away."

He remembered enough, however, that later, with the help of an imprisoned guard, he reconstructed a model of Sobibor. "A train arrived here," he said pointing to a map in his Issaquah home.

The weak, the elderly, the disabled were ushered aside, later to be quietly killed, to keep the movement efficient. Passengers were told to leave their heavy luggage on the platform. Inside a long barracks, women were asked to leave their purses and small luggage. As soon as the barracks were empty, Jewish slave laborers quickly removed the baggage to another barracks to sort it into piles: money to money, glasses to glasses, lipstick to lipstick, etc.

Next the prisoners were reassured. A "pleasant and convincing" German voice apologized for the inconvenience of travel and for the fact that they could not immediately go to their quarters to relax.

For sanitary reasons, they were told, they must take a shower and disinfect. But first they were encouraged to take a postcard to assure loved ones at home they were comfortable in their resettlement.

After the cards were collected to be sent as a lure, a polite order was given to undress. People were asked to tie their shoes together so they could find them more easily later.

The next stop, Blatt recalls, was a kiosk where a German collected watches and jewelry and gave out fake claim numbers.

Blatt believes people sensed something was wrong when they were packed into the 12-by-12-foot "baths."

The sound of a heavy engine pumping in carbon dioxide was soon mixed with a horrible mass scream that in the next 15 minutes subsided to quiet.

The workers all recognized the sound. Blatt believes the next load of people, by then in the barracks, could only make out the engine noise. By the time they were in the undressing yard, the first group had been cleared out, the gas chamber cleaned and the bodies were burning.

Blatt's duty was to tend to another fire to burn private papers and photographs, wiping from existence any memory of the people just exterminated. His own memory was forged by the fire.

"Mine, for some reason, does not fade," he said.

Escape was only option

The laborers sensed that prisoners in concentration camps might someday be freed, but that the Germans would never allow word out about the death camps. They knew their only hope was escape and a plan was agreed upon.

Germany was retreating to the west and emptying Polish ghettos into the death camps as they fled. They separated Russian prisoners of war who were Jewish and sent them to the camps, too.

That was their mistake, said Blatt. The POWs were trained warriors and still a proud lot, unlike the others, who had been under occupation for four years.

Some 7,000 Jews were being gassed at Sobibor a day, more than the work force could handle, and so 70 Russian POWs were added. They were enough to tip the balance.

On the appointed day, many of the SS officers were gone. Blatt was recruited to act as messenger to lure the remaining officers to their deaths, setting up appointments with the bootmaker, the tailor or with someone in the warehouse.

Blatt would tell an officer his new boots were ready to try on or that a beautiful leather coat had been found in his size. Could he make an appointment for a fitting? One by one, more than 20 officers were killed.

The guards in towers, however, couldn't leave their posts. So the prisoners lined up for food at 5 p.m. as was their tradition. The plan was that they would march, as if ordered, to the front gate and escape before the guards could figure out what was going on.

But a German officer's body was discovered and two boys ordered to help panicked and ran. One was shot, which tipped off the prisoners that the plan had faltered.

One of the insurrection leaders leaped to a table and made his plea. Anyone who survived must tell the story of Sobibor. Young Blatt, 10 feet away, took the message to heart. And then they fled to the gates and fences. Blatt was about to escape through a hole cut in the fence when the it collapsed.

He was trapped underneath, which he believes saved his life. Sobibor was the only camp surrounded by mines. They were detonated by the first people to run across the fields.

Half the laborers escaped but they were still Jews, still wanted. Rumors surfaced that the Sobibor escapees all had their pockets lined with diamonds taken from the gassed Jews and that they were hunted down in the forests by robbers.

Blatt and two other boys hid with a Polish farmer until he, too, panicked and shot them. Blatt feigned death until he could escape and today still has a bullet lodged under his jaw.

After the revolt, the Germans leveled Sobibor and planted pine trees. There are still loose bones on the site as well as mounds of ashes. Thanks to Blatt's efforts, a kindergarten built on the site has been converted to a small museum, although a Catholic church remains.

"One thing I learned: Nobody knows what he would do in a bad time," said Blatt. "People do a lot of unbelievable things not compared to the size of their power and muscle."

Thomas Blatt is a speaker for the Washington State Holocaust Educational Resource Center, 441-5747. He chairs the Holocaust Sites Preservation Committee, which is raising funds to erect two more signs at Sobibor, in French and in German. Contributions can be sent to 19427 S.E. 14th St., Issaquah, WA 98027. ------------------------------------------ `REMEMBER THE CHILDREN' ------------------------------------------ "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story" opens a three-month stay Tuesday at the Seattle Center Pavilion.

The traveling exhibit was created by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and is on permanent display there.

Admission is $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for children under 18 and $2.50 for seniors. The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday through Sunday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays.

In conjunction with the exhibit, a lecture series for adults begins Oct. 21. It includes "Reunion," Oct. 21; "Fighting Back," Nov. 11; "The Role of Ordinary Men," Dec. 16; and "The Holocaust and Contemporary Issues," Jan. 16.

The lectures will begin at 7 p.m. at the Seattle Center Pavilion. Admission is $5 and include admission to the exhibit.

For more information, call 441-1768.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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