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 Sobibór did. We were more afraid of them than of the Germans, and I was there at the same time as Demjanjuk.
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 Sobibór, 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."
SPIEGEL: But the part of the death camp with the gas chambers was blocked off and you weren't able to go there.
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.
SPIEGEL: What happened to your family?
Blatt: An SS man beat my father with a club, and then I lost sight of him. I'd said to my mother, "And yesterday I wasn't allowed to drink the rest of the milk, because you absolutely wanted to save some for today." That strange remark of mine still haunts me today -- it was the last thing I said to her. My 10-year-old brother stayed at my mother's side. They were all murdered in the gas chambers.
SPIEGEL: What was your survival strategy?
Blatt: I knew that the Germans liked it when you were clean and healthy. I tried to look strong when I walked, and to keep a smile on my face. I watched out that my pants didn't get wrinkled when I slept and that they kept their creases. And I was curious, I always went around and looked for possibilities to escape.
SPIEGEL: What were your tasks in the camp?
Blatt: I had to sort the victims' belongings, shirts with shirts and shoes with shoes. A few times I also had to cut the women's hair before they went into the gas chamber. They were already naked. Sobibor was a factory -- the time from arrival to the corpses being burnt was usually just a few hours.
SPIEGEL: Did people know what would happen to them?
Blatt: The Dutch especially were completely unsuspecting. When a transport arrived, usually an SS man would hold a speech. He apologized for the arduous journey and said that for hygienic reasons, everyone needed to shower first. Then later they would work somewhere. Some of the Jews applauded. They couldn't imagine what was in store for them.
SPIEGEL: You were among the organizers of the uprising in Sobibor on October 14, 1943. How did that happen?
Blatt: It was in particular the Jewish Red Army soldiers from Minsk, who had been brought to Sobibor as work prisoners, who helped. They needed only two weeks to plan the uprising.
SPIEGEL: What was the plan for the uprising?
Blatt: We wanted to draw the SS people into an ambush individually and then kill them. To do it, we relied on the men's greed and their punctuality. And it worked. We told an officer named Josef Wolf that someone was keeping a nice leather coat for him. We told him to come at a certain time, and he did so, and the prisoners killed him. We killed a dozen SS men and an unknown number of guards. The Germans and the guards were slow in realizing what was
SPIEGEL: And how did you escape afterward?
Blatt: I wanted to climb through a hole someone had made with an ax in the barbed wire fence. But when the guard in the tower started shooting at us, some of the others started to climb the fence. The fence toppled over and my coat got caught in the barbed wire. That saved my life. The ones who ran ahead of me were blown to pieces in the minefield on the other side of the fence. I slipped out of my coat and ran away. More than 300 prisoners escaped, of whom around 50 survived the war.
SPIEGEL: And how did you get through the remaining year and a half until the end of the war?
Blatt: Freedom was difficult. If I had been a Christian boy, I'd have had a better chance. People would have taken care of me. But where could I go? There was no Jewish community anymore in my hometown of Izbica, and the Polish farmers saw us mainly as Christ's murderers. A farmer hid me and some others at first, in exchange for money we'd taken with us from Sobibor. Later he tried to shoot us. I still have the bullet in my jaw. After that I hid in the woods or in abandoned buildings.
SPIEGEL: According to documents, Demjanjuk was no longer at Sobibor when the uprising took place -- he had already been sent back to the Trawniki training camp and then was assigned to the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. His family and his lawyers argue that, at 89 years old, he's too old and sick to stand trial.
Blatt: Now people only see the old man. They don't see the man who forced people into the gas chambers.
SPIEGEL: Do you have concrete memories of Demjanjuk?
Blatt: No, after 66 years I can't even remember my father's face. But I'm certain that Demjanjuk was just like the other Ukrainian guards.
SPIEGEL: What would you consider a fair punishment?
Blatt: I don't care if he goes to prison or not -- the trial is what matters to me. I want the truth. The world should find out how it was at Sobibor. He should confess, because he knows so much. He's the last living perpetrator from Sobibor.
Interview conducted by Jan Friedmann, Klaus Wiegrefe
Sobibor was established March 1942. First commandant: Franz Stangl. About 700 Jewish workers engaged temporarily to service the camp. Actually consisted of two camps divided into three parts: administration section, barracks and storage for plundered goods, extermination, burial and cremation section. Initially, three gas chambers housed in a brick building using carbon monoxide, three gas chambers added later. Operations Began April 1942. Operations ended following inmate revolt October 14, 1943. Estimated number of deaths, 250,000, the majority being Jews.
Sobibor was the second extermination camp to come into operation in the Aktion Reinhard program. It was located in a low populated area, but was strategically placed in relation to the concentrations of Jewish population in the Chelm and Lublin districts. Local Polish workers and Jewish slave laborers began construction work on the site in March 1942. The planners were able to incorporate the experience already gained at Belzec.
The site measured roughly 1,300 by 2,000 feet, surrounded by a triple line of barbed wire fencing and guarded by watchtowers. It was sub- divided into a reception area and three camps. The reception area included the spur line and platform which could accommodate up to 20 railroad wagons. Here were also located the administration buildings, armory, and living quarters for the SS and the Ukrainians.
The first camp held the Jewish prisoners required to service the SS men and Ukrainians. Enroute to the second camp from the platform where buildings were the deportees left their luggage and clothing.
Within the second camp was an enclosed area, entirely shielded by tree branches intertwined with the barbed wire, where deportees undressed in the open before proceeding up a fenced in passageway called `the tube1 towards the shaving hut for women and the gas chambers. Also in camp two were storage huts for clothing and valuables.
The third camp was the most remote area and was screened by trees. Inside was the brick building housing three gas chambers, about 12 feet by 12 feet, each of which could hold about 160-180 people. Carbon monoxide generated by a diesel engine mounted outside was piped into the gas chambers. The corpses were removed from a second door and buried in huge, specially excavated pits. Carts, and later trolleys on a small rail track, were used to carry deportees who were too infirm to walk to the burial pits where they were shot so as not to delay the killing process.
In April 1942, Franz Stangl, an SS officer with a background in Operation T4, arrived to take command. Stangl commanded a mere 20-30 SS men, mainly from the T4 program. There was also a guard company of Ukrainians. About 200 to 300 Jews worked in teams at the gas chambers and burial pits. They cleaned out the killing rooms, removed gold teeth from the corpses and pushed trolleys heaped with bodies towards the pits. About 1,000 Jews worked at the platform cleaning up the rail trucks and removing debris, and in teams at the shaving hut, the undressing barracks and in the sorting sheds.
From May 1942 to July 1942, approximately 100,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor. They came from Lublin, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria (mostly via ghettos in Poland or Theresienstadt). They were told on arrival that they had arrived at a `transit camp1. The platform and adjacent building was designed to reassure them. They were then separated according to gender and age: children went with the women. They were divested of their luggage and valuables, forced to undress and driven up `the tube1, men first, to the gas chambers. Women were shaved at a hut situated along `the tube1. The actual killing process took about 20-30 minutes. The `processing1 of a convoy of 20 wagons took about 2-3 hours.
Between August and September 1942, the murdering stopped while repairs were made to the main rail track feeding Sobibor, and the number of gas chambers was increased to six, three on either side of a central corridor. This enabled the SS to kill about 1,200 people at the same time. The bodies were burned in the former burial pits. The camp, now under the command of Franz Reichsleiter, continued operations in October 1942 and worked through to spring 1943.
Over this period, about 70-80,000 Galician Jews, 145-150,000 Jews from the General-Government and 25,000 Slovak Jews were murdered. In March 1943 the first transport of French Jews arrived. Between March and July 1943, 19 Dutch transports brought 35,000 Jews from Holland. In the last months of its operation, Sobibor was used to murder the Jews of the Vilna, Minsk, and Lida ghettos. It is estimated that 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor.
In July 1943, Himmler, who had visited the camp in February, ordered that it be converted into a concentration camp. This edict effectively served a death notice on the Jewish workers who then organized a resistance movement and worked out an escape plan. It was led by Leon Feldhendler.
He was subsequently assisted by Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish officer in a transport of Red Army POWs which arrived in the camp in September 1943. The uprising was launched on October 14, 1943. In the fighting, 11 SS men and a number of Ukrainian guards were killed. Three hundred Jews escaped, but dozens were killed in the mine field around the camp and dozens more were hunted down over subsequent days. Of the Jews who broke out, 50 survived to the end of the war. The camp was liquidated in October 1943 and the site disguised as a farm.
On 19 July 1942, on the eve of the Great Action concerning the Jews of Warsaw, Himmler visited Sobibor, one of the “Aktion Reinhard” death camps in the Lublin area. On the same tour he also visited the SS Training Camp at Trawniki, where a number of photographs were taken.
He ended his tour with a visit to the “Aktion Reinhard” headquarters in Lublin, and following discussions with Globocnik, concluded that with the completion of the death camps, the Jews of the Generalgouvernement could be exterminated.
While still in Lublin on 19 July 1942, Himmler issued an order to “HSSPF Ost”, Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, to complete the deportation of all of the Jews of the Generalgouvernement by 31 December 1942.
In early March 1943, Himmler once again visited the “Aktion Reinhard” Headquarters and the death camps of Sobibor and Treblinka. In anticipation of Himmler’s visit the camps were thoroughly cleansed. Karl Frenzel (Sobibor), testified at his trial regarding this visit:
"The visit was announced a few days ahead. The leadership of the camp took steps to make order in the camp… I was ordered, together with some Unterführer’s and Ukrainian guards, to take over the outside security of the camp and guarantee Himmler’s personal security. When Himmler visited the gassing installation in Camp III, I guarded the surrounding area.
I remember that afterwards all the Unterführer were assembled in the canteen, and Himmler delivered an address to them…”
In honour of Himmler’s visit a special gassing of several hundred young Jewish girls took place. This is confirmed by the testimony of SS-Oberscharführer Hubert Gomerski who served at Sobibor: "I remember the visit of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler in Sobibor, I saw Himmler with the whole group going in the direction of Camp III."
Read eyewitness accounts of Sobibor here.