In Conversation with Rena Smith: Daughter of Sobibór Survivor Thomas Blatt

“The pictures in my head are already so clear, of things I haven’t even seen. I am so familiar with my father’s stories, sometimes I almost feel like I was there.”

By Hannah Wilson

Born in Van Nuys, California in 1963, Rena Smith is the daughter of Dena and Thomas (Toivi) Blatt. The family moved to Santa Barbara in 1976 where Rena met her husband Kent (Ty) Smith forty years ago and raised two daughters. They remain in Santa Barbara, enjoying the mountains and sea, where Rena has worked for thirty years in the field of clinical psychology as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). Thomas Blatt died in October 2015 at home with his family at the age of 88.

Hannah: When did you first learn about your father’s experiences in Sobibór?

Rena: You know, it was one of my earliest memories. There is no beginning really, but my strongest earliest memory is of the things that my father kept in his closet at home from his experiences during the war, and of his projector. I remember the sound of it and peeking through the living room door, while my Dad showed slides about the Holocaust to people who came over. He had a lot of his images, which are also public now. Some of them would comment on the area [of Poland & Sobibór], and these are the kinds of images that I saw as a very young child. Of course, we didn’t have images of the actual camp then, but my father used other Holocaust images – for example, the picture of the boy with his hands in the air from the Warsaw ghetto.

Hannah: So, he also showed his guests quite ‘famous’ images from the Holocaust in Poland?

Rena: Yes, like the piles of glasses and the prosthetic legs from Auschwitz, and piles of dead bodies - these kinds of photos are the things I saw. We weren’t supposed to be seeing them as children, but I did. So that kind of shaped my world view from a young age.

Rena and her Father Thomas (Toivi) Blatt

Courtesy of Rena Smith

Hannah: After you had seen these images and became more aware of the Holocaust, did your father spoke to you more openly about his experiences in Sobibór?

Rena: Well, you know the story about the bullet after he escaped from the camp. [Rena refers here to when Blatt went into hiding, with two other boys, after his escape from Sobibór. They were hidden inside of a barn by a Polish farmer, who decided to shoot them and steal whatever belongings they had left. Blatt managed to survive with a bullet wound in his jaw]. So, we used to sit on his lap, and feel his chin for the bullet. We always felt that we could talk about it, and he was very open. It was a pretty prominent part of our life. Other survivors would visit, and other languages were always being spoken in the home. Stanisław "Szlomo" Szmajzner who survived Sobibór would come from Brazil.

Hannah: It seems that his experiences were also an integral part of your own childhood. How old were you when Jack Gold’s TV-movie ‘Escape from Sobibór’ was filmed, and what do you know, or remember, about your father’s experiences working as a consultant on the set? I know that he worked very closely with Richard Rashke on his book of the same title, on which the film was based.

Rena: Well, I was born in 1963, so I was in my twenties and living here in Santa Barbara. And yes, I met Richard Rashke, I visited him at home in Washington DC, and he came here as well. He is a really lovely man, but of course that was for the book, so all happened much earlier.

Concerning my Dad’s experiences as a consultant on the film, it was a very exciting time. I remember that I had the opportunity to go with him to the set, but I didn’t, and I really regret that. I know that the process of research for the book was much more drawn out, my dad traveled to other countries with Rashke. But the movie seemed to be a whirlwind. The film director and a lot of other people came to the house, or he went to LA to meet with them. It was a really important part of his life. He was still working at his shop during production, but he was obviously very distracted. And the thing that struck me most about the filming, though I don’t remember where I first heard it…but I heard about him running into the forest when they shot the escape scene, as a kind of flashback, and that was just painful to hear. It was pretty shocking to me, and I remember hearing that he was found with his glasses broken.

Hannah: Did he tell you about this happening when he got back to California?

Rena: I don’t think so, I found out later. I actually read about it first. In all honesty, I think there were a few times in his life where he had these kinds of experiences, but I had never personally seen them. I only heard about them.

Hannah: Of course. Sobibór was such a huge part of his life. Though, I get the impression that his attitude was not to ‘forget this and move on’. Rather, it was the exact opposite, you father chose to face it the past, and spend his life researching the history of it.

Rena: The thing is Hannah, he did have nightmares, horrible nightmares and they were usually about being randomly chosen to live or die, like the Nazis coming to choose people. But, just as often - though maybe not quite as often - he had very nice, fun dreams about his life in the shtetl in Izbica before the Holocaust, and with his friends as a kid. So, that’s what I remember about his experiences as a consultant, it was very consuming for him then.

Hannah: Did the film change him, or his outlook on how the story of Sobibór could be told?

Rena: I wouldn’t say it changed him, but I think it really made him feel much better. As in, now the world will know what happened there. It became more public now, and his outlook…I know that he was very satisfied with the work they did on the film. He thought that they did a really good job, and there wasn’t anything that he complained about. However, he did always say throughout his life, that no matter how good a representation is, you can never depict on film how bad it really was. Either way, it was a pivotal moment for him, and possibly the biggest part of his entire life.

Hannah: Absolutely. “Escape from Sobibór” could only ever provide a reconstruction, and we can never imagine what it was actually like to have been there. We also address this in our exhibition ‘Sobibór on the Screen’, and the issue of ‘Hollywood’ Holocaust films. Nothing will ever show the absolute reality. But I do think the film really succeeded in portraying the authentic testimonies of the Sobibór survivors.

Rena: Exactly, and you know there was the whole romance aspect too, so I do agree with you. The social interactions are more accurate, its slower, and it takes the viewer there. It really takes you gradually towards the escape scene, whereas the more recent Russian film ‘Sobibór’ – you aren’t really taken anywhere, you just see it. And the main focus of the newer film is Alexander Pechersky.

Hannah: So, taking you back to 1987, can you remember what it was like watching ‘Escape from Sobibór’ for the first time?

Rena: It was at the film premiere. It was very exciting, and I remember that I didn’t know if Alexander ‘Sasha’ Pechersky would be there or not. I thought that he would be, but he was not able to leave Russia. I had been really, really excited to meet him and instead, I met Rutger Hauer who played him in the film! Which was also great, as I’d seen some of his films. But I remember wishing it were the real Sasha, whom I felt that I already knew in some way.

Another thing about watching the film for the first time, is that I remember it being a very intense representation of only a small part of my Dad’s experiences – and those of the other survivors too. There were so many other amazing stories that happened before and after Sobibór. And these stories are pretty interesting, and so many in which my Dad came close to death.

Thomas Blatt consulting on the set of 'Escape From Sobibór', Courtesy of Rena Smith

Hannah: I completely agree. When we think of Sobibór, we tend to focus on the uprising, and not so much about how it was for the victims before the war, and the aftermath for those who survived. These aspects are also really important when we consider the camp's history, and the memory of those who suffered there.

Rena: Yeah, the story of what happened to my Dad afterwards was incredible. As was the fact he had been hiding in various places before he was deported to Sobibór, and he nearly died from typhus. And, of course, him being shot. Before the farmer shot my them, he had also tried to bury the boys alive by trapping them in a hole in the ground.

Hannah: These films do have a limitation as to what they can depict, and this sometimes means that the identity and representation of the survivors is reduced to just being victims in Sobibór. Did you learn anything about your father’s story from the film that you did not know already?

Rena: Actually, I think it was very close to the pictures that I already had in my mind.

Hannah: Considering this, how did it feel, then, to see a physical or visual depiction of the camp and the escape?

Rena: It was riveting, my husband was also with me at the screening. Yet, all those years ago, I still remember being very cognisant of the fact that my Dad was watching it. Like, if my Dad hadn’t been there, it would have been a very different experience. But we were in a theatre, I’m with my family, and my Dad. And so, I am not JUST watching the film. I am totally aware that in fact, my father is watching it on a big screen. I’m sure he had seen parts of it before, but I know that it was the first time that he had seen the final edit. I don’t remember seeing him animated or seeing him cry, but I remember the feeling that he was watching it with me.

Hannah: That must have been a very special moment between the two of you. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like.

Rena: Yeah, yeah. It really was. It was, of course, still a very public experience rather than something private, and the other survivors were there too. But that is really what I was feeling.

Rena and her Father

Courtesy of Rena Smith

Hannah: In terms of your own opinion of the film, and seeing it for the first time, did anything particularly bother or upset you?

Rena: I can’t remember anything particularly disturbing me. Maybe one scene, which strikes me as more intense or meaningful after years of re-watching it, is when Shlomo’s younger brother came running back from seeing the camp gas chambers. I do not know if it really happened like that, but the part when he saw the naked people helplessly awaiting their deaths was particularly upsetting.

I also distinctly remember the moment when one of the prisoners was told that his wife and family had been killed [Rena is referring to Itzhak Lichtman]- that hit me in the throat too. Another scene which taught me something, and which I didn’t have pre-existing images of in my head, featured the smaller escape attempts, before the camp uprising on October 14th.

I knew that there were earlier examples of this happening, but I couldn’t really imagine it. So, seeing this happen in the film filled in a gap for me that I could not picture, it was something new for me. For small details like this, the film helped me to imagine and filled in gaps. Though, it was interesting to realise that the visual depictions of the film were not that different from what already existed in my mind. Of course, all of these pictures came from my Dad, and he was a technical advisor. So, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be that different.

Hannah: That is a fascinating point, it is really a representation of the survivors’ memories isn’t it? And I understand that this is why the film was praised for being historically accurate – because of the survivor input. Speaking more generally, then, what impact do you think ‘Escape from Sobibór’ had on public awareness of Sobibór, particularly in the US where you and your father lived?

Rena: Well, certainly nowadays there aren’t as many people who have seen it as there was in the 1980s. But for the older generation it certainly had an impact. Even now when it is shown on TV, my phone starts ringing, and people call me to tell me about watching the movie. Sometimes it is shown on special history channels. But at the time, I believe it was a breakthrough film. My Dad started using clips of it in his lectures as well. I remember thinking that Hollywood does certain things, to represent certain things…so in terms of the conglomeration of something like the Holocaust, the art of film is to represent an event that happened, with some Hollywood mixed in there. But for me, the film really was okay in this context.

Blatt's silhouette projected onto a scene from 'Escape from Sobibór', in which the actor playing him is confronted by an SS guard.

Hannah: Yes, and of course this film was made to be viewed on a Sunday evening in the living room of American families – so on the one hand, you need to make something ‘entertaining’ that people will want to watch, that is not too traumatic. It had to be saturated. On the other hand, I think that the film did a good job of depicting the violence and also the cruelty of the guards. With this in mind, then, what did you think of Konstantin Khabensky’s more recent adaptation of the uprising, ‘Sobibór’?

Rena: Well, I saw that film in a special screening at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). They actually asked me to be on a panel, with the author of the book it was based on, and the Russian director as well. The event focused on cinematic issues, but at the end, the questions people asked me were more personal. The audience were more interested in that, and wanted to ask me: ‘Was it really like that?’ and ‘What would my dad have thought? And ‘did this scene happen?’. In particular, the scene in which the prisoners were forced to act like horses was a hot topic. I of course told them that this scene did not happen in real life, rather, it was added with creative liberty. But I don’t think they understood. Of course, this does happen in movies, to emphasise how intensely cruel something is.

I can say that the film was a lot like the original: the story is the same. But you know, the story is the story, and it unfolds in a certain way. The scene with the prisoners acting like horses, and the Nazi’s behaviour and the frenzy was actually the best scene in my opinion, even if it didn’t happen. I think this part is what set the film apart from the 1987 version…it was almost like an orgy. The way it was filmed, worked up into a whirlwind and it was so intense. We hear this phrase ‘orgy of violence’, and this scene really represents this.

Hannah: I would agree that the new adaptation was a lot more graphic in terms of explicit violence and sadism. These scenes are overwhelming, even if they did not happen in such a way.

Rena: I do think that it was a good thing to do – and almost impossible to truly depict. It brought the mood, the attitude, the atmosphere, the cruelty, the sadism….it made an image that encompassed all of that.

Hannah: Do you think that this fictional scene makes the film, and the story of Sobibór less authentic? Is this a problem?

Rena: I think it could, yeah. At the premiere in LA, people really wanted to know if it happened like that, and I said no. I felt a bit guilty, because I did not go on to address the creative issues we are discussing here. I hope they understood that this kind of artistic leeway often occurs in historical film, but so much was happening at the time it was very overwhelming. Anyway, I think that the exposure that the film received, and the power that it has to tell the story, is bigger than the views of say a Holocaust denier. It cancels that out, for me.

Hannah: That is true, and it did bring public awareness of Sobibór back into the contemporary, for a new audience and younger generation who might not ever see Jack Gold’s ‘Escape from Sobibór’. Its interesting to see how the story was redeveloped, even though it was more violent and not always factual. I think these kinds of manic scenes are almost expected from a war film now.

Rena: Yes, and this one is even more romantic as well. The Russian adaptation was definitely more focused on the strategic uprising plan, and missed the interpersonal relations of the survivors, and their everyday life in Sobibór. And visually it was also very dark and moody.

But I must add, Hannah, that I am an extremely visual person. I have a very graphic memory, and I have pictures in my head of things from a very early age. So, when I see the scenes of Sobibór represented on film, it’s not so shocking or disturbing to me. I’ve already visualised it! So, it’s hard for me to say what is maybe more intense and what isn’t. Seeing bodies in a gas chamber, for instance: I didn’t even recall that scene in the most recent adaptation. The pictures in my head are already so clear, of things I haven’t even seen. I am so familiar with my father’s stories, that sometimes I almost feel like I was there. And when I watch these films, it’s very personal to me as well.

The curators of ‘Sobibór on the Screen’ give their thanks to Rena and her family. Written in Memory of Thomas (Toivi) Blatt.

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