Interview with Sobibor Survivor Thomas Blatt 'Demjanjuk Should Confess'
Suspected Nazi guard John Demjanjuk has been deported to Munich to face charges of being an accessory to the murder of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp. Holocaust survivor Thomas Blatt talks to SPIEGEL about what happened at Sobibor and why Demjanjuk should tell what he knows.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Blatt, you traveled here from California to give testimony in Munich against John Demjanjuk. Demjanjuk is accused of having participated in the murder of at least 29,000 people in the Sobibor death camp. What will you tell the judge?
Thomas Blatt: What the Ukrainian guards in Sobibor did. We were more afraid of them than of the Germans, and I was there at the same time as Demjanjuk.
The memorial at Sobibor: Thomas Blatt survived the Nazi death camp -- now he wants Demjanjuk to tell the truth about what happened there.
SPIEGEL: What do you accuse him of?
Blatt: He helped the death factory to function. Without the around 100 Ukrainians who were there, the Germans would never have managed to kill 250,000 Jews. The SS group was made up of only 30 Germans, and of those half were always on vacation or sick. We saw more Ukrainians than Germans at Sobibor, and we were terrified of them.
SPIEGEL: By "Ukrainians" you mean the foreign helpers who were trained by the SS at the Trawniki camp. Among them were many Ukrainians. Why were you especially afraid of them?
Blatt: They mistreated us, they shot old and sick new arrivals who couldn't walk anymore. And they were the ones who drove the naked people into the gas chambers with their bayonets. I often had to work just a few meters away. If someone didn't want to go on, they hit them and they fired shots. I can still hear today their shouts of "idi siuda," "come here."
Blatt: I myself saw them driving the Jews to the entrance of the death zone, the so-called Himmelfahrtsstrasse ("Ascension Road").
SPIEGEL: Did you see Trawniki men murdering prisoners with your own eyes?
Blatt: Yes. I was there when the Ukrainians shot Polish Jews who had tried to escape. And I remember endless cruelties. One time we were in the woods to cut trees. The Ukrainians wanted us to sing. But they wanted to hear Russian songs, and only the Polish Jews could sing them, not the Dutch Jews. They tormented them so much that some of them hung themselves at night in the barracks.
SPIEGEL: Weren't the guards acting under the Germans' orders?
Blatt: Many of them were sadists, the abuses weren't something they were ordered to do. Or they wanted to show off in front of the Germans. They would only leave us alone for a while if they got money or gold from us.
SPIEGEL: And where did you get these things?
Blatt: Sometimes I had to burn the murdered people's belongings, which they'd discarded before going to the gas chambers. Sometimes there were gold coins hidden in them, and they were left in the ashes. Others I found while sorting the things. The Ukrainians wanted the money to pay prostitutes.
SPIEGEL: In the camp?
Blatt: No, in the villages around there. One of the women told me that later.
SPIEGEL: And none of the guards showed anything like compassion?
Blatt: There was one, named Klatt. He was the only one who didn't hit us.
SPIEGEL: Guards like Demjanjuk were recruited by the SS from captured Red Army soldiers, millions of whom died miserably in the German camps. Did these men have a choice, if they wanted to save their own lives?
Blatt: It's true that the SS demanded they commit murder in order to live. But many other prisoners didn't get involved with the Germans. And the guards at Sobibor could also have deserted. Some of them did in fact run away.
SPIEGEL: Do you remember your arrival in Sobibor?
Blatt: Yes, it was in April 1943. I was brought there by truck with my family from my hometown of Izbica. We lived just 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Sobibor and we knew what happened there. And yet we hoped that this wouldn't mean our deaths. I suppose it's human nature to keep hoping up to the last minute. Only my father said: We'll die in any case. And I remember a man next to me peering through a hole in the truck's side and saying in Yiddish, "It's black with Ukrainians." He meant the color of the uniforms. The Ukrainians escorted us into the camp.
SPIEGEL: How did you survive the "selection," the notorious process whereby new arrivals were chosen for execution?
Blatt: There was no selection at Sobibor, the Jews were supposed to die without any exceptions.
SPIEGEL: Then how did you escape death?
Blatt: I pushed to the front as an SS man inspected our group to look for craftsmen. I hadn't learned any craft. I was 15 years old, small and thin. Maybe the SS man, the commandant Karl Frenzel, noticed my strong will. He said, "Come out, you, little one." So I was saved for the time being. Later I found out that they'd shot Dutch Jews among the work prisoners a few days before. I was supposed to fill the gap.
- Part 1: 'Demjanjuk Should Confess'
- Part 2: 'I Want the Truth'