Man Knows Himself
|The small, humble man sat down at his desk in his home on
Lake Washington. his tired eyes focused on the small sketch of
life in Sobibor smuggled out by his friend Joseph Rychter. he was
visibly moved, saddened as he began to retell and, thus, relive the
unimaginable ordeal, as he had done thousands of times over the past
Long before the Nazi regime was in control of Izbica, Poland, Toivi (Thomas) Blatt felt the pain of being a minority, a Jew. He felt the generations of prejudice pounding against his existence. At age six, he ran home from school every day in order to avoid being beaten by his classmates. The children of anti-Semites were taught to despise the Jewish "race" simply because they were Jews (Blatt p.i.).
At fourteen, Toivi was usually circumspect to avoid the Nazis, but one day he failed to dodge a Nazi "roundup." He fled toward a Catholic schoolmate friend, Tomasz Kwiecien, who responded by whispering an order to hide in the Kwiecien's barn. When Toivi reached the barn, the door was padlocked. Minutes later Tomasz arrived, accompanied by an SS officer. He stared directly at Toivi and shouted, "There's the Jew!" The Nazi immediately seized Toivi, but not before Tomasz could say, "Good-bye Toivi. I'll see you on the shelf of a soap store.: (Blatt, Ashes 26). Toivi somehow escaped deportation, but the Holocaust had become reality.
On April 28, 1943, the Blatts were among the last Jews to be deported out of Izbica to Sobibor. On the day before, Toivi had attempted to drink an entire bottle of milk, but his mother warned him that tomorrow would be another day and told him he should same some for later. As the train entered the camp, Toivi recalled "the gates opened, revealing what seemed to be a beautiful village. . . . Perhaps it really was a work camp, just as the Germans had said." (Blatt, Ashes 3). The men were ordered to line up separately and Toivi instinctively left his mother and younger brother to join his father hoping somehow to survive. His very last words to his mother have haunted him all his life: "And you didn't let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted me to save some for today." (Blatt p.i.). If only he could bring that moment back to tell her he loved her. Toivi survived that day by fixing his emotionless eyes on the SS commander Karl Frenzel, who chose him as his shoe shine boy while sending his family straight to the gas chamber.
Sobibor was a death camp where over 250,000 Jews were murdered. A few "lucky ones" were kept alive in order to do the undesirable "jobs" of confiscating and collecting personal belongings, carrying dead bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium, crushing the unburned bones, cleaning the gas chambers of blood and excrement, and plucking gold teeth with pliers. Innocent human beings were stripped of their dignity, youth, friends and families, heritage, and ultimately their humanity. The Nazis maintained total control through unpredictable chaos and violence (Blatt p.i).
Prisoners endured unbelievable fatigue, pain, and suffering because that was the only way to survive. If a prisoner was injured or slowed down due to exhaustion, he was typically punished with a standard twenty-five lashings or immediately murdered. When asked the worst thing he remembered about Sobibor, Thomas Blatt replied that it was being forced to torture or kill other Jews. He vividly recalled an incident when one of his friends was forced at gun point to whip another prisoner, certain that the prisoner was going to be killed and that he would be killed, as well, if he refused. The friend later recalled agonizing over whether to whip the men "gently" or try to kill him quickly, finally choosing to kill him mercifully with the whip handle. "Sometimes we envied the dead; their agony was over" (Blatt p.i.). "What I did learn is nobody knows himself . . . People think they know what they will do, but I have seen many women release their crying babies into the deadly arms of Nazi officers to save themselves." (Blatt p.i.).
The Sobibor prisoners accomplished a rare escape. They swiftly exterminated the guards without hesitation, then recklessly ran through surrounding minefields to freedom, risking all for the small chance of escape. Toivi stopped for brief shelter in a small cottage which contained an old woman, her cat, and her bird. He recalled thinking "I did want to be a cat, ... a bird, anything but a Jew." He and a friend were later hidden by a farmer below the flooring of a barn. One day the farmer moved a heavy cart over the plants above, attempting to bury them alive when Nazis arrived. When Toivi and his friend were discovered, they were stripped and pulled out into the freezing cold and shot by a Nazi youth. His friend was killed and he was shot in the neck and left for dead after he lay motionless and naked on the ground. The bullet is still in Toivi's neck, a palpable reminder of one of many escapes from death (Platt, p.i.).
Karl Frenzel, who had ordered Thomas Blatt's family to the gas chambers, sat across from Blatt in an interview after 16 years in prison. "It was terrible, very terrible ... You don't know what went on in us, and you don't understand the circumstances that we found ourselves in," Frenzel said calmly. Blatt recalls thinking, "Was he asking me to understand and feel sorry for his sufferings? ... Surely he wasn't comparing his nightmares to mine." (Blatt, Sobibor 123-126).
Thomas Blatt has accomplished much after his escape, joining the resistance army to fight the Nazis in Poland, immigrating to the U.S., and becoming a successful businessman. He has dedicated his life to writing and speaking about Sobibor. He seems sad, tired, and unfulfilled, finding it difficult to "believe in a God who could let so many people suffer."
As the Holocaust has slowly faded into history, many have attempted to analyze how a civilized, educated society could fall into the hands of Hitler and support mass genocide. How can twenty percent of Americans believe that it is possible that the Holocaust didn't happen? (Lipstadt xi). Though Hitler's genius as a leader is undisputed, he took advantage of three aspects of Post World War I Germany that led to his rise to power: loss of pride; economic disillusionment; and the higher moral goal of building the Aryan "super race." Konrad Lorenz wrote, "pride is one of the chief obstacles of seeing ourselves as we really are, and self-deceit is the obliging servant of pride." (296) The need to restore pride in Germany was an unlikely sole explanation for the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, however.
Some authors emphasize the attitude toward Jews as a "scapegoat" excuse for imperial domination to improve Germany's economy. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin (156) effectively discount the "scapegoat thesis" pointing to racism as the dominant factor. Hitler ultimately placed elimination of the Jews above winning the War. "Above all I charge the leaders of the nation and those under them to scrupulous observance of the laws of race and to the merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry" (157). Although Hitler may have offered the higher moral ground of creating a "super race" to Germans that were able to deny what was going on around them, it appears impossible that the Holocaust could have occurred without prevalent racism. Bernard Lewis concludes that "... racism in the modern sense, ... ideologically rationalized and institutionalized structured hostility, discrimination, and persecution, appears in advanced rather than primitive societies." (21). Humans are uniquely capable of taking "higher morals" to extremes, such that "...our emotional allegiances to cultural values ... can have such devastating effects as unbridled militant enthusiasm when it infects great masses and overrides all other considerations by its single-mindedness and it specious nobility." (Lorenz 274).
Perhaps the most plausible single explanation for human behavior during the Holocaust is the instinct for survival. Desmond Morris (80) points to survival instincts as a potential source of human violence: "...Where a group commits an atrocity against innocent bystanders, or full blown warfare, they all belong to a completely different category of behavior. These are not cases of aggression, they are examples of symbolic hunting turned sour ... the victim is depersonalized and becomes not the rival but the 'prey'." Thomas Blatt more simply explains the behavior of those involved in the Holocaust as based on the most fundamental instinct for survival. Throughout his Sobibor experience, man's inhumanity to man occurred in the imposed setting of the threat to individual survival. The thing that frightened him most was the animal within: "I was afraid that, how very fragile the civilization ... given the right circumstances could crack and people could become beasts." (Blatt p.i.).
Blatt, Thomas (Toivi). From the Ashes of Sobibor. Evanstown, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997.
Blatt, Thomas (Toivi). Personal interview, Seattle, Washington. 1 January 1997.
Blatt, Thomas (Toivi). Sobibor, The Forgotten Revolt. Issaquah, WA: H.E.P., 1996.
Lewis, Bernard. "The Historical Roots of Racism." The American Scholar. Winter 1998: 17-25.
Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1993.
Lorenz, Konrad. On Aggression. New York, NY: Harcourt Brrace & Company, 1966.
Morris, Desmond. The Human Animal. New York, NY: Crown, 1994.
Prager, Dennis and Joseph Telushkin. Why the Jews? New York NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1985.
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