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Kurt Thomas

Kurt ThomasKurt Thomas (Brno 11 April 1914) was taken to Sobibor via the ghetto of Theresienstadt. In the sorting barracks he had to sort clothes and belongings of victims who had been gassed. As an orderly he later managed to save the lives of several prisoners by letting them rest longer than allowed. When he had climbed across the fence during the uprising he refused to hurry: ‘I don’t have to run anymore, I am a free man’.

Born Kurt Ticho, he attended grammar school in his hometown. He served as a telegraph operator in the Czech army. After the war he saw to it that SS Frenzel was arrested in Berlin. Kurt Thomas died on 8 June 2009 in Columbus, Ohio.

"we hid in a cellar"
After the German Wehrmacht marched into Prague in March 1939, the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, while Slovakia became a German puppet state. From that point far-reaching restrictive measures were imposed on the Jews, later they were persecuted and deported. In March 1942 all Jews from the Moravian town of Boskovice, near Brno, were moved to Theresienstadt by order of the Germans, from where they were taken to a concentration camp in Trawniki in East Poland. Among the prisoners who arrived here on April 3rd, was 27-year old Kurt Thomas, who immediately after finishing grammar school had worked in a clothing factory and had served in the Czechoslovak army. From Trawniki the prisoners had to walk to the ghetto of Piaski, which was fenced off with barbed wire. Inside the ghetto raids and executions took place all the time. It was a lucky coincidence that Thomas was put to work together with a group of other men on a farm in the nearby village of Siedliszcze. He befriended the farmer, who gave him some food. ‘Occasionally,’ Thomas recounts, ‘I would walk to the Piaski ghetto to deliver some provisions to my parents and my sister.’ At the end of October the Nazis forbade the Jews to work outside the ghetto. Shortly after that the ghetto residents were warned of an impending raid. ‘Together with other people we hid in a cellar, but were discovered by the police and a few thousand Jews were made to walk to the station of Trawniki under indescribable circumstances. On the way there the weak and the sick, who were near exhaustion, were shot.’

"I was one of the first who jumped out of the car"
From Trawniki the prisoners were taken to Sobibor in boxcars. On arrival, Thomas did not have the faintest idea what kind of camp it was. ‘I was one of the first people who jumped out of the car as the sliding doors opened. The men and boys were told to line up on one side, and the women and children up to the age of six on the other side. Then an SS officer appeared, SS-Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner, as I found out later. He asked for cobblers and textile workers. I raised my hand, and he picked me and about forty other people.’ Thomas was put to work in the sorting barracks, where clothes were sorted that were left behind by Jews who were gassed. He had to help sort the clothes into men’s clothes, women’s clothes, new, used, slightly more used garments, and rags. Anything that could give away the Jewish origin of the clothes had to be removed.

After working in the sorting barracks for a while he was transferred to a room where only small luggage was processed. These items sometimes contained money. Thomas started a deal with the Ukrainian guard Dabizja. ‘He stole like a magpie and often visited me. I made a deal with him that if I gave him a couple of hundred zloty he would give me one kilo of sausage and a bottle of vodka in return. In time this became a habit. The vodka I gave away because I didn’t drink, but I ate the sausage. That’s what kept me going.’ The regular camp diet was extremely sparse. Black ersatz coffee in the morning, a weak extract of water and chicory, watery soup in the afternoon, occasionally with pieces of potato in it, and in the evening one slice of bread - to be divided among ten men - with an occasional spoonful of marmalade.

"I lied that I had been a Red Cross soldier"
There were no provisions in the camp to take care of sick Arbeitsjuden. If an SS officer felt someone was too sick to work, according to Thomas he would yell: ‘Follow me to the Lazarett’, a euphemism for Lager III, where the gas chambers were and executions were carried out. In early 1943 the regime was relaxed and sick prisoners were allowed to recover for three days. The Dutch doctors Soubice and Nink, who were not allowed to practice their profession in the camp, urged Thomas to apply for the position of orderly because he turned out to be immune to typhoid fever. Both doctors would advise and assist him. When Thomas applied to the camp leadership, Frenzel asked him about his medical qualifications. ‘I lied that I had been a Red Cross soldier in the Czechoslovak army, when in reality I was a telegraph operator.’ As Sanitäter Thomas arranged that sick prisoners could often recover longer than the prescribed three days. Just before the uprising Frenzel found out that some Arbeitsjuden had been sick for weeks. ‘He told them to fall in and ruthlessly sent them to Lager III. As he was beating me with his whip he yelled at me that the next time would be my turn.’

It never came to that. After a transport of Jews from Minsk arrived at Sobibor, including about one hundred Jewish-Russian prisoners of war, serious plans were prepared for an escape from the camp. The already existing underground committee led by the Pole Leon Feldhendler, immediately made contact with the Soviet soldiers in preparation of a mass escape on 14 October 1943. Thomas was part of the select group who prepared the uprising. He said nothing about the plans to his girlfriend Minny Kats from Haarlem. She would not survive the uprising, while Thomas managed to climb over the barbed wire fencing and run to safety in the forest. Approximately three hundred prisoners had escaped; those who did not want to or were unable to get away - another 300 or so people - were executed that same evening. ‘Outside we heard the shooting in the distance.’ Many escapees were tracked down by the SS or reported to the Germans by Polish farmers in return for a bonus.

"I used a bucket as a toilet"
Thomas’ goal was to return to the farm in Siedliszcze, where the farmer had been kind to him. The roads were too dangerous, so he walked through the fields and after four days he reached the farm. The farmer put him up in a small shed. ‘It had a straw roof, so I wasn’t cold. He brought me food there. With the money I still had he bought a blanket for me. Inside the shed there was only room to kneel or lie down. He gave me a bucket I used as a toilet, which he emptied once a week.’ In the last week of June 1944 Thomas saw through a small hole in his shed female Red Army soldiers in the farmyard. When he left the farm a few days later the farmer urged Thomas not to walk through the village, ‘because if the villagers found out he had saved a Jew they would kill him.’

One week later Thomas joined a Czechoslovak military unit. In December 1944 he was sent to the front to fight the Wehrmacht. Via Krakow and Lemberg the Czechs moved towards Slovakia and on 12 May 1945 they arrived in Boskovice. In 1948 Thomas emigrated to the United States.

Kurt Thomas

Marianne Thomas

Listen to the interview of
Jules Schelvis with Kurt Thomas

Watch an interview on YouTube
with Kurt Thomas and other survivors

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