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From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival


Memoir by Thomas Blatt, 1997

Fewer than 60 prisoners survived the Holocaust to tell the world of the death camp Sobibor. Now, over half a century later, fewer than a dozen remain. Thomas Blatt is one of these few. His memoir From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival tells of a boy thrust into an extermination camp in which at least 250,000 Jews perished.

In the preface, Blatt states that his book has no "dominant message except the struggle of a teenager to survive." Yet, the book does have a dominant message—one of courage, perseverance, and remembrance. It is the story of a boy who at the age of sixteen witnessed his entire family (father, mother, and younger brother) sent to the ovens to be turned into ashes and who vowed to live to tell the world the horror he had seen.

Blatt's style is factual and straightforward. Emotion seems only to exist between the lines. But Blatt's accounts are often strikingly memorable. He recalls the words of his schoolmate who betrayed him to the Nazis, saying "I'll see you on a shelf of soap in a store someday." Similarly, Blatt's reproach to his mother for refusing him an extra glass of their carefully rationed milk are the unremarkable words of a teenager—except they were the last words he ever spoke to her. He had no chance to follow these harsh words with ones of love. Fifty-five years later Blatt is still haunted by his thoughtless remark.

Born in Izbica, Poland, Blatt and his family experienced occupation by the Germans followed by a brief respite under the Soviets and then renewed German occupation. Seeing their town transformed into a transit center, Blatt's parents hoped to save their elder son by securing false papers for him and sending him to Hungary. Unfortunately, that decision proved disastrous. Blatt was captured, jailed, and then hospitalized, nearly dying of typhus before finally returning home. Yet, whatever his situation, Blatt demonstrated an uncanny ability to plot the course that would mean his survival.

His book underscores a theme of nearly all survivor accounts, that luck was crucial to survival. Upon arrival at Sobibor, Blatt wills the Nazi officer to select him to live. He is one of only a few men who are chosen to work. The rest are sent immediately to the gas chambers. Hunger, brutal labor, and the sadistic violence of the SS turn each day into a gauntlet of unpredictable danger. One day a kapo could be a fearsome oppressor and the next day a savior, as he pitches in to help Blatt meet an almost impossible work quota. A few days later the same kapo is beaten and poisoned to death by his fellow kapo s.

The stark, objective tone of Blatt's book expresses well the trials of a boy who must reject all feelings to survive, whose life depends on working for the hated Nazis; he must destroy the documents of the thousands of prisoners who walk off the train and into the gas chambers.

Blatt's book is immensely valuable for the insight it gives into the Sobibor revolt and the planning that preceded it. Here again, Blatt's luck continues. He survives the revolt only because a collapsing fence temporarily pins him down, preventing him from being among the first to cross the minefield. Later, the farmer who hides Blatt and his two friends decides the situation has become too dangerous and shoots them. The farmer thinks Blatt is dead, and Blatt escapes death only because his would-be executioner decides to wait until morning to bury him.

Such moments of utter heartlessness alternate with stories of selfless generosity: the peasant woman who gives Blatt and his companions food even though they have no money to pay; the farmer Petla who allows Blatt to tend the cows and invites him to share the family's simple meal, a gesture that gives Blatt hope that there might be a better world.

For Blatt, liberation does not mean safety. He has no loved ones to greet him, no home to which he can return. In Izbica, he is seen as an intruder by his neighbors who fear that he may reclaim his family's property. In the end, Blatt must flee his home for good.

From the Ashes of Sobibor is the story of a courageous boy who vowed that he would live to witness for those who died, for those whose lives had been reduced to the ashes of Sobibor. It is an invaluable memoir of the Holocaust.

—Marilyn J. Harran

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