In Honor of Thomas Blatt

When I was growing up in our house on Yuma Trail in Bisbee, Arizona, my father was the storyteller in the family.  He could tell a mean Three Billy Goats Gruff—“Who’s that tripping across my bridge?”

I’ve since learned, however, that not all trolls live under bridges in fairy tales or even under bridges at all.  I hear from them occasionally.  I suspect some of them have their search engines set to track down key words, and the name Thomas Blatt is probably one of them.  Another might be the word Sobibor.  Within minutes of this post appearing on line, I expect I’ll start hearing from some of those folks.  They will come out of the woodwork in order to assure me that a: the holocaust never happened; b: Sobibor didn’t exist; and c: Thomas Blatt was a liar.

Let the comments come as they will.  I’m writing this post anyway.

Thomas Blatt died last week at age 88, after years of dementia.  Given his past, I’m sure the images that haunted his tortured mind in those final years were unthinkable to the rest of us, and I can only say that I trust he rests in peace.  He was a Jewish boy growing up in Poland when his family was rounded up and shipped off to Sobibor.  You hear about still living survivors from some of the concentration camps, but Sobibor was a death camp.  People went in through the gates and died in gas chambers.  A few prisoners were kept alive for a while and used as worker bees to remove the dead bodies; to sort their clothing and shoes; and to remove the silver fillings from their mouths.  Thomas was one of the workers assigned to do those terrible tasks, and in sorting the clothing, he found the ones that had belonged to members of his own family.

Thomas survived because he was part of 300 inmates of Sobibor who overpowered their guards and escaped.  You can read the whole story in his book, Sobibor: The Forgotten Revolt.  He and a fellow inmate were hidden by a farmer who later turned on them and shot them, killing the one.  Shot in the face and with a bullet lodged in his jaw, Thomas played dead.  He spent the remainder of the war hiding out in the forest.

He later immigrated to Israel where he  married an American woman.  They moved to the US but divorced in 1986.  She said she didn’t want to live in Sobibor because she had lived there for “30 years” as Thomas struggled with his memories of what had happened there.  As for the camp itself? It was razed at the end of the war.  Trees were planted.  All records were destroyed.  It was as though, by destroying the camp, they could wipe all knowledge of it from the face of planet.

Thomas Blatt begged to disagree.  He spent the remainder of his working years, traveling the country and telling his story in hopes that Sobibor and what happened there would not be forgotten.  He returned to Sobibor time and again, searching for the bones of gas chamber victims in the newly growing forest and making sure that those bones were given a proper burial.

I had the honor of meeting Thomas Blatt in the late eighties or maybe the early nineties.  We sat drinking coffee together in a Seattle restaurant that no longer exists.  He told me his story.  I listened and stored it away in my heart for future reference.  When it came time to write Lying in Wait, I used much of what he told me that day as the background for my fictional story.

Yes, I write mystery fiction—the kinds of books you can buy in better bus depots everywhere.  But in writing Lying in Wait, I felt as though I was helping in Thomas Blatt in carrying out his lifelong mission.

I was born in 1944.  I was a babe in arms when he , a traumatized, wounded young man, was fighting to stay alive in the forest outside Sobibor.  Until that day over a cup of coffee, a woman who had grown up as a member of the Warren Community Church in Bisbee, Arizona, had never heard of Sobibor.

Thomas Blatt’s passion in life was to make sure the people who died there were not forgotten. I hope that by writing Lying in Wait I somehow did my small part.

RIP, Thomas.  You were and are an inspiration.13