As part of my Holocaust education programme for late Key Stage 3/Early Key Stage 4 RE, I had a scheme of work based on the key question: What experiences might make people give up, change or adopt religious belief? - Students will evaluate e.g. Shlomo Schmaltzer’s story of why he became an atheist after his escape from Sobibor.
The film ‘Escape from Sobibor’ was a brilliant resource and I’ve seen it so many times, over the years, that I know off off by heart.
This book tells the story of the revolt in the death camp and tells us what happened to the survivors afterwards.
Of particular interest to me was the young idealist, Stanisław [Shlomo] Schmaltzer (Polish spelling Szmajner). (1923-1989 – but he lived to see the vicious Commandant Wagner killed – probably he was the killer since he’d spent his life trying to track him down.) When I discovered that he had died, I wept as if he were an old friend. The film and the book are emotionally moving – and I believe education shouldn’t just appeal to reason but to spirituality.
Shlomo was born 50 miles west of Sobibor. He was bored with school and used to ‘bunk off’ to watch a goldsmith at work. That was his salvation because he made gold rings for the SS from the fillings extracted from the teeth of those who went to the gas chambers. He also got to know the habits and movements of the SS so well – the Germans love routine – that it was possible to kill them off one by one so as to facilitate the escape.
I am also interested in Thomas "Toivi" Blatt, who is still alive today. Schlomo protected him and they escaped together. Having escaped, they hid in a barn –and the farmer tried to shoot them dead – because they were Jews.
He gave evidence at the trial of John Demjanjuk who was charged with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder as a Ukrainian SS guard. Aged 82, Toivi was one of the last people alive to have survived Sobibor. He was born in Izbica, only 43 miles from Sobibor. He survived only because the SS had executed a number of so-called "work Jews" at Sobibor the day before he arrived. The camp commandant was looking for replacements and 15-year-old Thomas pushed himself forward, pleading "Take me, take me!"
His jobs included polishing SS men's boots, sorting the clothes and shaving the hair off naked women prisoners before they were driven into gas chambers pumped full of exhaust fumes. It took up to 40 minutes for those inside to die. "We heard the whine of the generator that started the submarine engine which made the gas that killed them. I remember standing and listening to the muffled screams and knowing that men, women and children were dying in agony as I sorted their clothes. This is what I live with," he said.
When Jewish prisoners scaled the perimeter fence under a hail of gunfire from the camp watchtowers, which were still manned, the ones who got over the fence were blown up by mines that surrounded the camp. Mr Blatt escaped this fate because his jacket caught on the fence. He eventually got through the minefield by jumping through the pits in the ground caused by the explosions.