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January 17, 2013

Lessons from the Holocaust

Sobibor survivor — one of five living — to speak at CANDLES Museum tonight

TERRE HAUTE — Prison movie buffs and Holocaust students alike can get a dose of reality tonight in Terre Haute from Thomas Blatt.

On Oct. 14, 1943, about 600 Jewish prisoners of the Nazi death camp Sobibor, many of whom were ex-Soviet army officers, launched a revolt against the Germans who had already gassed more than 250,000 on those same grounds. Of that starving 600, only 300 made it past the barbed wire perimeter. Of the 300, only 53 lived long enough to see the Soviet Union liberate Poland the next year. Of that 53, Blatt is one of five still living.

He was 16 at the time of the escape.

CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 1532 S. Third St., will offer a screening of the film “Escape from Sobibor” tonight beginning at 6:30. Blatt served as a consultant for that 1987 film, in addition to authoring both “From the Ashes of Sobibor” and “Sobibor — The Forgotten Revolt.”

Blatt, who turns 86 in April, said he’s never felt guilty about surviving, rather he feels committed to passing on the story of what can happen under the rule of a dictator, what can happen when prejudice runs amok.

“I want to pay back in a way. Because I survived, is a miracle,” he said through a heavy accent while eating salmon, broccoli and rice Wednesday evening inside the Hilton Garden Inn.

Born in Izbica, Poland, in 1927, Blatt was the son of a World I veteran who provided for his family through sales at a “concession” earned through his military service. But in 1939, the Germans, under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, took over the country and initiated a series of harrowing assaults on the Jews there. At the age of 15, Blatt was imprisoned for escaping the Jewish ghetto to which his family had been assigned, but he managed to escape that prison and make it back home.

But on April 28, 1943, Blatt, his father, mother and younger brother, were packed onto a truck and shipped to the prison camp at Sobibor, a place they knew to be a camp where people were exterminated. His parents and brother were killed in the gas chambers there shortly after arriving, and Blatt himself was placed in the camp’s labor force.

Plotting together for several months, he and fellow prisoners launched their revolt in October, and the 16-year-old was among the few who managed to get out alive.

“There was no place to go,” he said, explaining that life outside Sobibor wasn’t much safer for a Jew.

While born a Pole, Blatt’s first language was Yiddish, Polish his second. Grant Spangler, who travels with Blatt, explained that just as an American can distinguish between those born in the Midwest from those of more southern states, anyone in Poland at the time would have recognized Blatt’s accent as Jewish. Following the revolt, the Nazis spread the rumor that the escapees had stolen great sums of money, and everyone in the impoverished, war-torn country was hunting them.

Without shelter or food, Blatt and others hid in the forest and drank water where they could for some time before a Polish family took them into hiding. But it wasn’t long before they were discovered, and he was shot during his escape from that location.

Among the stacks of pictures, news clippings and books he brought to the hotel, was one of a small metal cup in which he’d taken his one meal a day while in Sobibor. The meal was described as warm, black liquid and some bread.

Spangler pointed out this October will mark the 70th anniversary of the revolt.

“That’s a long time, and Tom still has nightmares every night,” he said, explaining he’s been a friend of the family now 43 years, ever since Blatt gave him his first job while a high school student in California.

His family murdered, and without any money, Blatt emigrated to America in the 1950s, ultimately owning three retail stores in California before selling them off in his retirement. Two of his children live in the U.S., while another two and his grandchildren live in Poland.

In addition to this evening’s presentation, Blatt will speak today at Terre Haute South Vigo High School. He said when speaking to students, he tries to convey a sense of justice, right and wrong, and history.

Spangler recalled how after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Blatt advocated caution against discriminating against all Muslims for the crimes committed by a few. The memories of his own youth remain, and he urged people to refrain from prejudice, even though anti-Semitism remains high in many parts of the Arab world.

“Tom was destined to survive and tell this story. It was destiny, flat-out destiny,” he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

Speaking from experience: Thomas Blatt (right), a survivor of the Sobibor concentration camp, displays a photo of himself speaking at the 50th anniversary of the escape in 1993 in Poland.  With him is Grant Spangler, who has assisted Blatt in his studies. Below, author Doug Cameron of Rockford, Ill., reviews some of the documents with Blatt.



 

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