When I first read Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl, I was just a little older than my oldest daughter is now. For me, like it is for most people, the book was devastating and inspiring, all at the same time. I came back to it again and again throughout my pre-high school years, looking for hope and courage in Anne’s words. I moved on to Elie Wiesel’s Night, and other Holocaust books – some biographical, others fiction – and I still read every single one I can get my hands on.
Then, it was a search for understanding, a desire to find courage and resilience in the terrible, unjust lives of people who were simply trying literally to endure. Now, I think I read more out of a sense of responsibility, a need to bear witness to these events which seem so long ago. I have had the honor of hearing many Holocaust survivors speak, and each time I am reminded that these were real people. They were just like you and me, but were targeted and victimized and murdered, for the simple reason that they were somehow different. Except they weren’t. Different, that is. They were people.
And so, when I learned that a Holocaust survivor, Thomas “Toivi” Blatt would be speaking in Prescott in honor of Yom HaShoah, or Days of Remembrance, I wanted my eleven-year-old daughter to join me.
When we arrived at the theater, I was surprised – and pleased – to see such a large crowd assembled, and then I worried that there wouldn’t be any seats for us at this ticketless event. We somehow made it up through the line, and were escorted to a pair of seats, and the ceremony began a few moments later.
Prayers were said, a short film was shown, and then candles were lit by local educators and librarians to honor victims of the Holocaust. Survivors in the audience were recognized: there were more than a half dozen. And then Mr. Blatt entered the auditorium. Even at 84-years-old and walking with a cane, Mr. Blatt looked like he could take on most members of the audience and walk away unscathed. The details of his ordeal during the war are in his book, From the Ashes of Sobibor, which I haven’t yet read, but his story was a completely different kind of Holocaust story from any that I have known.
I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak at schools, both when I was a student and since I’ve been a teacher. Last year I heard the story of a man who hid in the woods in Belarus for several years during his early childhood, among the armed partisans depicted in the film Defiance. There was the harrowing account I heard in Tucson of a woman who detailed what she lost. The most difficult loss, she said, even more difficult than losing her entire family, was losing her dignity. How, she still wondered, do you reclaim that? Her story was emotional and raw, tearful and angry.
But Mr. Blatt’s story is none of those things. His story is one of cunning and courage, of risk and audacity. The creative ways his family survived – up to a point – and the lengths they went to in their attempts to save their son were surprising, including purchasing documents to permit him to travel to Hungary in his early teens, where, they hoped, he would be safe. All was going well on the train until he was deemed suspicious, and while his papers checked out fine, the Gestapo guard somehow knew that young Mr. Blatt was a Jew. I wish I could relay the humorous exchange between Mr. Blatt and this Nazi who insisted on personally checking if Mr. Blatt was circumcised, but I doubt I could it justice without a Yiddish accent. Mr. Blatt is utterly human, but somehow larger than life, too.
Mr. Blatt and his family ended up at Sobibor, not far from their hometown village, or shtetl. Sobibor, in eastern Poland, was not a concentration camp like Auschwitz or Dachau. Sobibor was a death camp. Most of the Jews that were taken to Sobibor, including Mr. Blatt’s family, were immediately gassed after disembarking. Mr. Blatt survived because he was chosen to be a shoeshine boy for the Nazi guards.
In October of 1943, the Jews at Sobibor carried out an aggressive plan inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They killed the Nazi officers of the camp in order to escape into the woods. Mr. Blatt, age fifteen at the time, delivered false messages to lure some of the officers into situations where they were ambushed and killed. Half of the Jews - more than three hundred - were killed in the attempt, and while the remainder escaped, less than fifty ultimately survived the winter and the last eighteen months of the war. Mr. Blatt is one of six Sobibor escapees still alive today. The successful escape was so embarrassing to the Nazis that within days, Sobibor was closed, razed, and a forest of trees was planted in its place.
I was honored to witness Mr. Blatt’s story, and while I think my daughter struggled to understand this old man and his strong Yiddish accent, she was pleased that she went. This spring, she had studied the life of Eleanor Roosevelt for a living history project. And by listening to Mr. Blatt, my daughter was witnessing the story of someone whose life experiences had led to what Mrs. Roosevelt called her “most important accomplishment:” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My daughter was able to hear Mr. Blatt’s story straight from his mouth and to have history come alive for her through his experiences.
And so here’s to the power of our own personal histories. And here’s to the continuity of history and the power of connecting the dots between historical events and across generations. And, most especially, here’s to the strength, resilience and endurance of the human spirit.