Eli Rosenbaum (for delivery November 4, 2015, Congregation B’nai B’rith, Santa Barbara, CA)
Remembering Thomas Blatt
I regret deeply that I am unable to leave Washington, DC, to be with you in Santa Barbara today. I am so moved that Tom’s family has nonetheless invited me to contribute a remembrance of my friend – and my longtime hero – Thomas Blatt, a great humanitarian and a courageous pursuer of justice and truth.
I had the extraordinary and truly unforgettable privilege of knowing Tom Blatt for more than 20 years. I last saw him just seven months ago, when I got to spend some wonderful hours with him in his combination home-office-and-archive and later at one of his favorite local restaurants. It hardly seems possible that this brilliant, inspiring, generous, warm-hearted, hugely accomplished man – and let us say it, since Hollywood isn’t very far from Santa Barbara, 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, DC, 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. I had been invited to the award ceremony because of my position then as director of the unit at the United States Department of Justice responsible for tracking down, investigating, and prosecuting Nazi war criminals who escaped to this country after World War II.
The Holocaust Museum’s award was conferred in honor of 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 Sobibor death camp in German-occupied Poland and carried out what we know today as the legendary Sobibor Uprising of October 14, 1943 – one of the greatest stories of resistance against oppression, and also one of the greatest escape stories, in the annals of human history.
Tom was just 16 years old at the time of the uprising. He was known then by the nickname of “Toivi.” He, his parents, and his younger brother Hersz had been deported by German occupation forces to the Sobibor camp 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 already been systematically murdered at Sobibor. 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 scenes of panic, despair, and agony so extreme as to truly beggar the expression “heart-rending,” entire families were put to death amidst 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 Nazi camps were human slaughterhouses – death camps, extermination camps, operated for the sole purpose of committing mass murder, of destroying Europe’s Jews. Sobibor was one of those five camps. It was surely as close an approximation to hell on earth as has ever existed. The cruelties and terrors perpetrated there, every day for the year-and-a-half of the camp’s operational existence, are so ghastly, so gruesome, so grotesque, that they nearly defy description, much less belief.
The odds of carrying out a mass escape, or any escape, from Sobibor were less than minuscule. After all, the so-called “work-Jews” had no weapons of their own. 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. The camp, moreover, was enclosed by multiple sets of barbed-wire fencing. And even if inmates could somehow cut through those fences before being mowed down by gunfire from SS guards in the watchtowers and on the ground, the area beyond the fencing was heavily booby-trapped with land mines. Traversing those minefields without getting blown to bits was yet another near-impossibility.
Seconds before the Sobibor outbreak was to commence, Sasha Pechersky issued to his fellow resisters 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 uprising at Sobibor, in which the desperate conspirators succeeded in killing nearly a dozen SS officers and guards in order to make it possible for several hundred inmates to attempt to flee. In the Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning 1987 CBS Television motion picture “Escape from Sobibor,” Tom was portrayed by actor Jason Norman. The widely viewed CBS film has helped immortalize the Sobibor Uprising, and Tom’s role in it. The filmmakers were compelled to leave the savageries of Sobibor mostly to the audience’s imagination, but even this heavily sanitized, PG-rated presentation of the reality of Sobibor proved too much for me to handle. There came a point, during the film’s initial 1987 airing, at which I simply could not bear the onscreen terror any longer, and so I turned off the TV.
Tragically, most of the would-be escapees lost their lives during the uprising, killed by SS bullets or by landmine detonations. Almost as if by miracle, however, some inmates – fewer than 100 men and women -- managed to get away and then somehow survive on the run for the remaining 19 months of the war. Tom was one of them.
SS officials, shocked at the daring and success of Sobibor’s Jewish resisters, subsequently massacred the remaining prisoners, closed the camp, bulldozed it, and erased virtually every sign that it had ever been there at all. As Tom later wrote, “Not only had life been taken from the Jews at Sobibor, but the memory of their very existence was being erased.”
The prisoners’ rebellion against the murderous SS at Sobibor, like the famed uprising earlier in 1943 at Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and other instances of wartime Jewish resistance, helped mark the return of the Jewish People to their proud biblical tradition as great and valiant fighters in defense of human life and human dignity.
After the war, Tom found love and he married. He became father to three children – Hanna, Rena, and Leonard – plus, so far, 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 and his family line.
Tom immigrated to Israel and then to the United States. In this country, he was a very successful businessman. After all the unspeakable horrors that he had witnessed and experienced at the hands of the Nazis, no one would have criticized Tom if he had chosen just to enjoy the fruits of his entrepreneurial success and spend what turned out to be his 70 years of postwar life enjoying the comforts available to him in this country.
But Sasha Pechersky’s injunction that if anyone survived, they must inform the world of what had happened at Sobibor, combined with the almost disabling memories of Sobibor that tormented Tom, led him to take a very different path. He had witnessed so much horror – too much, really, for any person to experience without suffering deep emotional wounds. Not surprisingly, he was, indeed, permanently scarred. As Tom told The Washington Post in 1987, “I never left Sobibor. 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 Sobibor? That never stops. Sobibor 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, Sobibor remembrance campaign.
First, he told the story of Sobibor to investigators and to judges, in order that some measure of justice might be obtained. For some 60 years, he repeatedly made himself available as a witness in investigations and prosecutions of Sobibor’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 depradations he had endured at Sobibor, 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 Sobibor’s worst perpetrators. Among them was former SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel.
Well before the time of Frenzel’s re-trial in the 1980s, Tom had become convinced that concerted action needed to be taken, outside the realm of courts and trials, lest Sobibor fade into historical oblivion, just as the Nazis had intended in 1943 when they destroyed virtually all traces of its existence. Tom used the occasion of Frenzel’s re-trial to document Nazi crimes in a way that had never been done before and has never been done since. Somehow, through the force of his unique personality, he persuaded the defendant to sit down with him for a recorded interview, and Tom then arranged for publication of parts of the resulting transcript. Imagine the wildly improbable, eerie, even surreal, scene: Thomas Blatt, one of the very few victims to survive Sobibor, 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. Imagine how supremely difficult it was for Tom to control his emotions and his instincts when Karl Frenzel was sitting just a few feet away from him. But he summoned the inner strength to do so, and the result was that he made a major contribution to history and to remembrance of the Shoah.
Even before the Frenzel confrontation, Tom had expanded his remembrance campaign in a variety of ways. For example, he accompanied American author Richard Rashke to Poland and also to Russia, where he introduced him to Sasha Pechersky. Rashke’s resulting and outstanding 1982 book, “Escape from Sobibor,” which was later made into the CBS motion picture of the same name, was the first publication on Sobibor to reach a broad audience. Tom made innumerable trips to Poland, at his own expense, during and after the Cold War, to convince authorities to designate the Sobibor site a historical landmark and to construct a proper memorial there. Following intensive negotiations that he led with the Polish Government over many years, those goals were accomplished.
Over the decades, he gave countless presentations, in public schools, in universities, and so many other venues. Wherever people were willing to learn about Sobibor, Tom would go. I was present for a number of those presentations – including, of course, the one that Tom gave at our offices at the Justice Department. I saw firsthand the extraordinarily powerful impact that his presentations had on his audiences, including on my colleagues and me.
Amazingly, Tom continued his lecturing activities right up into the spring of this year. For a period of recent years, Tom’s good friend Grant Spangler traveled with him to cities throughout the country and made sure that Tom was safe and got where he needed to be. I would learn of some of these expeditions from Grant’s occasional e-mails, which would inform me that, for example, “[We’re] here in Terre Haute!” I never knew where the Tom-and-Grant duo was going to show up next, but Grant’s e-mails formed something of a running travelogue for me!
Tom did much more – more than I have time even to summarize adequately. He built, again at his own expense, a superb website – sobibor.net – that provides extensive information about Sobibor. Tom wrote two acclaimed books on the camp. He corresponded by mail and e-mail with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who contacted him with questions about Sobibor.
I will be forever grateful for Tom’s many kindnesses to me personally. It is one of the greatest privileges of my life that I got to know him and had multiple opportunities to learn from him. His noble and indefatigable efforts over so many decades, continuing into the very last year of his long and remarkable life, to ensure that the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany at Sobibor 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 atrocity crimes are never again committed – against any group – will be an inspiration to me for the rest of my days. Tom was virtually the embodiment of the post-Holocaust imperatives “Never Again” and “Never Forget.”
When I was with Tom, I would invariably study his face. I suppose I was looking for a sign of the bitterness that one might naturally expect to find in a person whose family and so many of his co-religionists were murdered; who endured unspeakable brutalities at Sobibor and additional cruelties in the perilous months that he was on the run following the uprising; who saw that the vast majority of the perpetrators went unpunished after the war; and who, for years, saw his determined efforts to prevent Sobibor 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. The same has been true with respect to the other Sobibor survivors I have been privileged to meet – Esther Raab, Philip Bialowitz and Samuel Lerer. The world must continue to learn from their splendid example.
I want to make special mention of the positive response I received when I reached out to Tom in early 2009 to ask him to consider testifying, despite his already advanced age and various medical travails, in the trial of former Sobibor SS guard Ivan Demjanjuk in Munich. Tom’s compelling courtroom testimony helped German prosecutors win Demjanjuk’s conviction in 2011 on more than 28,000 counts of serving as an accessory to murder. My wonderful German colleague, Kirstin Goetze, who helped ensure that Demjanjuk was prosecuted for his crimes, put it well in an e-mail she sent me upon learning of Tom’s passing: “His testimony in Munich was one of the greatest moments for survivors and [for] memorializing those who perished. The [court’s] judgment honored his willingness to tell the truth to all of us.”
To conclude: Until Tom Blatt launched his multifaceted and tenacious remembrance efforts decades ago, what happened at Sobibor seemed indeed to be on the verge of being forgotten by the world. Tom could not forget. His personal memories of the ghastly cruelties he had witnessed at Sobibor haunted him and, as he told me when I last saw him, brought on depression and many, many nightmares, continuing into this very year. However, despite the terrible memories that his Sobibor memorialization efforts and his trial testimonies revived, he persisted in those activities. For he was, throughout his life and despite his gentle manner, a fighter, in the best sense of the word. And we can now say, with complete confidence, that his sacred mission was successfully completed during his lifetime: Sobibor’s victims will never be forgotten. No one individual bears as much credit as does Tom Blatt for having ensured the attainment of that result.
I trust that Tom’s family will be comforted by many special recollections of him – and also by the knowledge that the unflagging efforts made by Rena and other family members to ensure his well-being and his ability to continue his work in his last years, and especially to relieve his pain in these last very difficult weeks, are a model of love and caring and, yes, of valor.
Tom Blatt is now in G-d’s protective embrace. And so, at long last for this great and courageous man, for this seemingly tireless champion of both juridical and historical justice, there are no more nightmares, no more screams of anguish and terror, no more battles and struggles. We ask that his loving family be comforted among the Mourners of Zion.
And as we say in our faith at times such as these, may Tom Blatt’s memory be a blessing for his family. It surely will be a blessing for the Jewish People and, indeed, for all humanity.