Can we grieve for a man we don’t know?
If he was a holocaust survivor who was part of a group that led a revolt and escaped from Sobibor we might. If he was someone who reminded of us of our grandfather, our father, people we knew throughout our lives, we might. If he were a groyser mensch, a man who despite everything that happened to him, felt love for others, we might.
Thomas “Toivi” Blatt, 88, one of the last survivors of the Sobibor uprising, the only mass escape from any Nazi death camp, died in his home in Santa Barbara, California this past weekend. Born in the small Polish town of Izbica, he and his family were deported to the death camp in 1943 at the age of 16. Within an hour, his father, mother and younger brother were gassed and burned.
Blatt later wondered how he had been spared — he was short and very thin and Sobibor was purely an extermination camp. People were either shot or gassed upon arrival. Yet, somehow, when the commandant Karl Frenzel asked for tradesmen to step forward — out of the line to be gassed — “I gave Frenzel a penetrating look ‘pick me’ and somehow, I don’t know how to this day, I influenced him with my mind, and he said, ‘you little one, come…’”
In Sobibor, Blatt was taken into a small resistance cell in the camp led by Baruch Leon Feldhendler, a rabbi’s son who later joined forces with Sacha Pechersky, a Russian Jewish soldier who was deported to Sobibor from Minsk. Together, they plotted a revolt, killing with their bare hands, a Jewish Kapo named Berliner, along with several members of SS, using knives and hatchets. Having seized a few guns they shot their way out of the camp but the camp was surrounded by mine fields and many who fled were killed by mines or by SS bullets. Blatt and a few dozen others made it to the nearby forest. Many were hunted down and killed within the coming days. Blatt himself was shot in the jaw, but managed to survive in the forest for the rest of the war.
In the late 1950s, he emigrated first to Israel and then shortly afterward to the United States. Blatt saw it as his life mission to document what took place at Sobibor. He traveled regularly to the site where the camp once stood. “I’ve practically cleaned up one quarter of the place myself, picking up the bones and burying them,” he said in 1987.
What sparked the revolt at Sobibor like at no other camp?
It happened that a group of Jews from Lublin who worked at a nearby concentration camp Belzec were abruptly taken to Sobibor. Of course, they were lied to, but in the cattle cars and trucks, they figured out that Belzec was being liquidated and that now they too were in their final hours. Some of them had the presence of mind to write notes and put it in their shirts and pants, knowing that the Nazis would be having Jews sort through their belongings after their death. One of them wrote, “We know we are being killed and the same thing will happen to you. We will not be defeated. Avenge our deaths.”
Toivi Blatt whose job it was to sort through the clothes of the dead, found one such note and passed it through to members of the resistance cell. They had to get out of hell, he explained. They were all going to die anyway, they might as well kill.
My generation in America, born in the 1960s and 70s, knew of no earth-shattering wars, plagues, persecutions or famine, yet we had a particular relationship with the survivors. We became, like it or not, as the writer Irving Howe once said, “witnesses to witnesses.” They were our mothers our fathers, sometimes our grandparents, aunts and uncles. They were the men we knew in shul.
The first time I learned about Sobibor I was 8 or 9 years old. To my mother’s dismay, I had ordered a book called “They Fought Back” by Yuri Suhl and read it with a strange relish. In it there is a chapter dedicated to the revolt in Sobibor. This made a tremendous impression on me. I had known survivors only (to my child’s mind) as a pitiable, passive group, but these people at Sobibor did not just accept the blows and the shots. They fought back and won. The Jews humiliated the SS at Sobibor! This was a revenge fantasy that was no fantasy at all.
Not too long ago, a PBS special on Sobibor was released. Blatt was interviewed at length. I was surprised to learn that Blatt in 1983, uneasily consented to meet with the commandant Frenzel who though he had received a life sentence, had been released from a German prison after 16 years on a technicality. According to the transcript of the meeting, Frenzel “apologized.” Blatt gives no absolution. He just wants to face the murderer and to fill in the facts for posterity. The one who fought back no longer fought back in the same way. Blatt preaches no hate, no vengeance, only memory as he patiently chronicled, recorded and re-chronicled the facts, as he called them.
In watching the film, where Blatt and a few other survivors are interviewed, I got the sense that their stories and their very lives had become for us like the notes that Jews of Belzec passed on to Blatt and the others at Sobibor. “Don’t forget us.” In their last years, our job has been to lay a pillow beneath the heads of our witnesses, our survivors, our heroes — those that saw the old world and gave birth to us in the new, those who saw what we will never see.
Everyone is fond of the Talmudic expression “he who saves one Jewish life, it as if he has saved a whole world” One may also say today, we who have lost this one life, we have lost a whole world. These men, these gorgeous, men, brave, thoughtful, Jewish to their core, they have entered us. We will never forget them.