WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thomas Toivi Blatt, who was among a small number of Jews to survive a mass escape from the Nazi death camp of Sobibor in 1943 and who decades later served as a prominent witness at the trial of the alleged camp guard John Demjanjuk, has died. He was 88.
Polish-born Blatt, who lost both parents and a younger brother in the gas chambers of Sobibor, died Saturday morning at his home in Santa Barbara, California, a Warsaw-based friend, Alan Heath, told The Associated Press.
Heath remembered Blatt as a "quiet and modest person" who suffered nightmares and depression until the end of his life, yet never wanted vengeance either on the Germans for the murder of the Jews or for the complicity of many of his anti-Semitic Polish countrymen.
"Despite what had happened to his family, he constantly repeated that one should not hate and he certainly bore no malice towards Germans — and urged others to do the same," Heath said on Monday.
Blatt lectured about the Holocaust, wrote two books and campaigned to preserve the site of one of the few uprisings by Jewish inmates against Nazi guards during World War II.
Until he was his mid-80s, Blatt traveled back frequently to his Polish homeland, often visiting Sobibor, his nearby hometown and a daughter from a first marriage.
Blatt was born on April 15, 1927, in Izbica, a town in southeastern Poland near Lublin that was largely Jewish and Yiddish-speaking before the war although his family wasn't devout.
Blatt was 12 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II, and was 15 when the Germans created a ghetto in the town in 1942, where he and his family were imprisoned.
When the family was taken to the extermination camp in April 1943, he was pulled out to do odd jobs at the camp, fixing a fence and sorting documents. His parents and brother Henryk were murdered immediately.
In one of his books he remembered his last words to his mother: "And you didn't let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted to save some for today."
He describes being haunted with regret for those words.
"I would give anything to be able to recreate that moment, to change it and hug her and tell her I love her, but by 1943 it was as if we were robots, moving like expressionless shadows," he wrote in "From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival."
Six months after his arrival, Blatt took part in the camp's successful uprising, in which most of the Nazis were killed and 300 prisoners escaped. Most who escaped ended up being hunted down and killed, but Blatt was among about 60 who survived the war. He eventually emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Santa Barbara, California, and owned and ran three electronics stores in the area.
In the 1980s, Blatt returned often to the camp to check on its condition, regularly finding human bones among tall grass and weeds.
"I've practically cleaned up one quarter of the place myself, picking up the bones, burying them," he told the AP in 1987.
Years later, he was a witness in the trial of the retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, which ran from 2009 to 2011. Demjanjuk, originally from Ukraine, was convicted as an accessory to murder in 2011 but he died in 2012 still steadfastly maintaining he had never served as a death camp guard. Because he died before his appeal could be heard, his conviction is not considered legally binding.
Before traveling to Germany to give testimony, Blatt told the AP in an interview in Warsaw that he wouldn't be able to identify Demjanjuk.
"I don't remember the faces of my parents right now. How could I remember him?" he said.
Nonetheless, his testimony bolstered the prosecution's case that if Demjanjuk was there as a Ukrainian auxiliary guard, he would have been involved in the extermination of Jews.
"All of them were executioners, all of the Ukrainians," Blatt told the court. He conceded, however, that the 150 or so Ukrainians who acted as guards came under the authority of the approximately 15 German SS men at the camp.
"The German was God," he testified.
In his 2010 interview, he spoke of the depression that would hit him after he would lecture about the Holocaust and first thing every morning, often after experiencing nightmares, when the reality of what he suffered would hit him again. He said that the longer he lived the more he thought about his beloved little brother, a highly intelligent and gifted boy.
"I never escaped from Sobibor. I'm still there — in my dreams, in everything," Blatt said. "My point of reference is always Sobibor."
Blatt is survived by three children and several grandchildren. A funeral will be held at the Congregation B'nai B'rith in Santa Barbara on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., said daughter Rena Smith. She said the eulogy will be given by Eli Rosenbaum, a longtime Nazi hunter with the U.S. Justice Department.
A separate memorial is being planned on Saturday in Lublin, Heath said.
David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.