Laurence Rees: Toivi Blatt was just 12 years old when the Germans invaded Poland. And like many of the other Jews in his town of Izbica, soon afterwards he noticed a change in the behaviour of his Catholic neighbours.
Words of Toivi Blatt: The population noticed that the Jews are second class. You do with them whatever you want without problems. A lot of them were beaten up now. In the end I was more afraid of my neighbours, Christian people, Catholics, than of the Germans, because the Germans didn’t recognize me – my neighbours did.
Laurence Rees: The Nazis persecuted the Polish Jews from the moment of their arrival in Poland in September 1939. But it wasn’t until April 1943, when Toivi was 15 years old, that they finally arrived to deport the remaining Jews of Izbica to their deaths.
Words of Toivi Blatt: About four o’clock in the morning a rifle shot woke me up. I ran to the window to look down and I saw the whole tannery surrounded by Nazis. I was apprehended, taken outside by a Nazi and pushed into a group of people surrounded by guards. I realized this was the end. What could I do?
Laurence Rees: But then Toivi saw his guard turn to light a cigarette. And so, in the chaos, with people milling around him, he seized the moment.
Words of Toivi Blatt: Seeing this I took the chance and thought I must run now if I want to live. And I simply walked out. I realized that I wouldn’t be free for too long. At that time, you know, your best friend would be the person who pretends he doesn’t know you at all. Anyway, looking around I saw my friend Janek. We were very friendly. He was a guy who slept sometimes at my place.
Laurence Rees: Toivi’s friend Janek agreed to help him, and told Toivi to go to a barn near Janek’s house. Janek said he would meet him there later. But as Toivi waited by the barn a Polish woman shouted at him to run because Janek was coming. Why should he run, thought Toivi, just because his friend was near? But he soon found out.
Words of Toivi Blatt: I turned around and I saw Janek coming with a Nazi. And it wasn’t possible to escape – the rifle was pointed at me. And Janek said to the Nazi, ‘Take him – he is a Jew.’ I said something stupid. I said to Janek, ‘Tell him that you are joking,’ and Janek said, ‘He’s a Jew! Take him!’ And Janek said goodbye to me in a way which is difficult even now for me to repeat, as even at that time there were rumours that the Nazis were making soap from human bodies. So what did he say? He said, ‘Goodbye Toivi. I will see you on a shelf in a soap store!’ Meaning I will be a piece of soap sometime, and this was his goodbye.
Laurence Rees: As a result of this betrayal, Toivi found himself back amongst the Jews in the marketplace, awaiting deportation.
Words of Toivi Blatt: I was scared. I don’t even remember how I felt. I was scared that this is the last day of my life, and when you are young and you are 15 years old, you see the trees, you see the flowers – you want to live.
Laurence Rees: Toivi, his mother and father, and the other Jews of Izbica were forced on board a freight train, which took them to the Nazi death camp of Sobibor. This was one of the infamous ‘Operation Reinhard’ camps, the biggest of which was Treblinka. Unlike Auschwitz, which was a combined concentration and death camp, the function of these Operation Reinhard camps was straightforward – simply murder. The vast majority of Jews who arrived at these camps were killed in gas chambers within a few hours of arriving. And the Jews of Izbica had heard rumours about the true function of Sobibor. But when Toivi’s transport arrived, one of the German officers called out for any carpenters to make themselves known. Toivi – even though he wasn’t a carpenter – was one of the Jews who raised his hand.
Words of Toivi Blatt: I prayed to this German, ‘Please take me!’ And I believe that my strong will in some way reached him, because I believe there’s some communication besides vocal communication between people. So I think that my strong will reached this German whilst he was pacing back and forward in front of the group, and I felt he looked at me and I said to myself, ‘God help me!’ and he said, ‘Come out you little one!’
Laurence Rees: And so Toivi Blatt became a member of the Jewish Sonderkommando at Sobibor. These were prisoners who, on pain of their own immediate execution, had to assist the Germans in the running of the camp. Now, Toivi watched as his own mother and father were led away to their deaths.
Words of Toivi Blatt: To be honest, I didn’t feel anything. You see if one of my parents had died two days earlier it would have been a terrible tragedy. I would cry day and night. And now in the same hour and the same minute I lost my father, my brother, my mother... and I didn’t cry – I didn’t even think about this. And after the war when I met survivors and asked them, ‘Did you cry?’ ‘No I didn’t.’ It’s like nature protects us. If I show any sign – I weep – I would be killed.
Laurence Rees: As part of his work at the camp, Toivi helped deal with the arrival of other Jewish transports. And Jews from outside Poland often arrived in complete ignorance about the true nature of Sobibor.
Words of Toivi Blatt: So a Dutch transport of about 3000 Jews arrived at the main station, Sobibor. There a group of Jews were called the Bahnhof Commando – 20 people – open the doors of the wagons, and help with the heavy luggage. So we helped them with their heavy luggage and later we were told to divide women and children one side, men the other side and later the women were taken away. The men were left, because first the women went to their deaths. I was with another few young men standing, yelling. I asked them to leave their luggage – women were told to leave their handbags, just throw them on the side. At that point I noticed their eyes – in the women’s eye some kind of anxiety, they were afraid. Because what do you have in a handbag – the most important stuff. One woman didn’t want to leave it and the German hit her with a whip. They went straight to a yard, a big yard, and there was a German we called ‘the angel of death’, or ‘the doctor’, or ‘the priest’, because he was talking to them so nicely. To the group he apologised for the three day travel from Holland but now he said they’re in a beautiful place, because always Sobibor was beautiful. It was in a forest. And he said, ‘Now for sanitary reasons you need to go have a shower and later you will get orders to leave here.’ The people clapped ‘bravo’ and they undressed themselves nicely and untied their shoes and they went straight through a room maybe about 200 feet long to a barrack and there I was again. I was waiting for them.
Then the women started getting completely nude, young kids, young girls and old ladies and I was a shy boy – I had never seen a nude woman and I didn’t know where to look. But I needed to cut their hair. So they gave me long scissors. I didn’t know what to do with the shears. So my friend who was many times there in this barrack, he said, ‘Just cut the hair, you need to cut it very close.’ So I am asked to leave a little bit, especially by the young girls, not to cut much. They didn’t know they will die in a few minutes. Once their hair was cut, they were told to go further up from the barracks just a few minutes to the gas chamber. And I'm sure that this trap was so perfect, I'm sure when they were in the gas chambers and gas came out of the shower heads instead of water, probably they were thinking that it was some kind of malfunction. I remember once a transport from Holland, it came in the middle of the night. 3000 people arrived and when they were already taken out of the gas chambers to be burnt I remember thinking it was a beautiful night, the stars – and 3000 people died. Nothing happened. The stars are in the same place.
Laurence Rees: In October 1943, Toivi Blatt took part in a mass breakout from Sobibor, organized by a group of Jewish Red Army prisoners who had recently arrived and had been selected for the Sonderkommando.
Words of Toivi Blatt: One person started to yell, ‘Hurrah!’ and I started to run. I ran with the biggest group of people through the gate on Camp One, and exactly at that time I saw a Ukrainian officer with a bicycle drive in, he was immediately torn from the bicycle and killed and his pistol was taken. Somebody with an axe started to cut a hole in the fence. And suddenly there was a burst of fire from the tower and people started to fall, people standing in the line to go through the hole were falling down. So nobody waited any more and they started to climb the fence. At that point I was halfway in the hole to go through the fence, and suddenly the fence collapsed under the weight of the people climbing, pinning me down. My first thought was – this is the end, people were stepping over me, and when finally they didn’t, they stopped stepping, the barbed wire points cut into my coat, not letting me out, but pinning me down. But finally I had a stroke of genius – I left the coat in the barbed wire and I just slid out. And started to run, and I was probably the last one to run – because we had about 200 yards as far as the forest and I was running to the forest. I fell down about two or three times – each time I thought I’m hit but I did get up, nothing happened to me and I did run to the forest, 100 metres, 50 metres, finally the forest.
Laurence Rees: Most of the 300 people who escaped from Sobibor in October 1943 did not survive the war. But Toivi managed to do just that and make a new life for himself in America.
Words of Toivi Blatt: People ask me, ‘What did you learn?’ And I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, ‘Where is North Street?’ and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good or bad people in these situations. Sometimes, when somebody is really nice to me, I find myself thinking, ‘How will he be in Sobibor?’