After an extraordinary life of tragedy and triumph, Holocaust survivor Thomas Blatt passed away at home in Santa Barbara on Saturday, reports the Los Angeles Times. He was 88 and suffered dementia. Though 250,000 who arrived at Sobibor concentration camp never left, Blatt was one of 50 Jews to escape in the only mass breakout at a World War II death camp and live to tell the tale, reports the Washington Post. Many escapees were rounded up and killed on Oct. 14, 1943, but Blatt, then 16, convinced a farmer to hide him in a barn for months before the man shot him and left him for dead. With a bullet in his jaw, Blatt survived in a forest and eventually became a key witness in the trial of former Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk. He went on to tell the world of the horrors he witnessed through two books and numerous talks after moving to the US.
Blatt told how he was picked, apparently at random, to be a camp laborer while his parents and brother were murdered in one of the camp's recently uncovered gas chambers. He was tasked with shaving women's hair—which was then used in military footwear—cleaning the blood from officers' boots, and sorting victims' clothing. When the war ended, "I should have danced for joy. Instead, I felt empty and sad and alone," Blatt wrote. He often returned to Sobibor, which he helped preserve, though the Nazis had tried to erase all evidence that it existed. "I'm still there—in my dreams, in everything," he said. In 2011, he explained that it wasn't the outcome of Demjanjuk's trial that was important. "At least this trial will ensure that (Sobibor) goes on the record, because once the survivors and all their relatives are dead, it will be easier for revisionists to say it was a fabrication, that Sobibor, in fact even the Holocaust, never happened."