Michael Burrell remembers the day that, as a fifth grader, he saw a book on a news stand with a cover that horrified him. Eugene Kogan’s, “The Theory and Practice of Hell” dealt with the Holocaust. There was an image of a skeletal person hanging on an electrified barbed-wire fence.
That image lead to his 30-year friendship with Holocaust survivor Thomas Blatt, who spoke several times in San Luis Obispo County.
Burrell recalled that in the book, there was a description of “an injection of phenol into the hearts of victims.” He asked his mother, a U.S. Army nurse in World War II about what “such an injection would do?” He was told that “it would be extremely painful, and fatal.”
She asked why he was interested. “I showed her the book. This started a discussion about the concentration camps and the genocide of the European Jews.”
When Burrell, who is now retired, began teaching history at Atascadero Junior High in 1972, he was committed to the Holocaust survivors’ code to “never forget” the events of the past.
He was influenced by a black-and-white, mostly silent film, “Archaeology.” He recalled watching as, “Slowly, shovels and rakes revealed lipstick tubes, buttons and coins, broken eyeglasses and teeth, then pieces of barbed wire and many more teeth. The camera panned back to show guard towers, barbed-wire fencing and ruined barracks coming into view. And finally, the words ‘Excavation of the site of Crematorium III at Auschwitz-Birkenau.’ ”
Burrell read Richard Rashke’s “Escape from Sobibór,” which was the basis for the award-winning 1987 TV movie with the same title. Rashke mentioned that Thomas Blatt, one of the escapees, lived in Santa Barbara.
“When I contacted him, he invited me to visit him at his home,” Burrell said. “I was welcomed by Tom and his wife, Dena.
“Tom talked about the Los Angeles Martyrs Memorial and shared his own story and some of the artifacts he had saved. These included the horrifying soap made from the fat of those murdered in the death camps, and barbed wire.”
Today, if you visit the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and adjoining Martyrs Memorial in Pan Pacific Park, you will see the scale model Blatt created of the Sobibór death camp. You can watch video of Blatt explaining how the camp operated and how he and other prisoners staged the uprising that ultimately saved his life. He wrote about this in his memoir, “From the Ashes of Sobibór,” published in 1997.
Hearing that Burrell intended to visit Poland after participating in the San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble first European tour, “Tom helped put me in contact with friends in Poland, insuring I would be able to see the history that I was so interested in,” Burrell said. “He was a driven man who could never escape the horrors he had lived through. Trusting people was very hard for him, but he trusted me enough to stay in my home, even once bringing his 17-year-old granddaughter.
“He traveled extensively, including many trips to his homeland, always reminding his audiences of the ‘abyss’ that was perpetrated by killing off a whole people.”
Burrell recalled a time in 1986 when Blatt was invited to speak at Cal Poly.
“Students were reading aloud from a French logbook, names of those deported to camps in Poland,” he said. “This reading was continuous for 24 hours. In response to this, Tom sat down and wrote 17 names of family and friends without batting an eye. The gravity of this was not lost on me. I was in tears. He had lost so many and so much. I can only imagine the terrible demons he carried with him always.
“Tom Blatt died last Saturday in Santa Barbara. I can only hope he is now at peace.”
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.