The ancient words of Kaddish echoed eerily in a quiet wheat field in a small town in Poland as family members of Josef Kopf, one of the few survivors of the Sobibor death camp, contemplated the strange twists that had brought them there.
Neither Amit Hirsch, the young man reciting Kaddish, nor his mother, Lea Hirsch, both from Haifa, had ever met great-Uncle Josef. He had been dead for 75 years. But all present knew of his heroic actions in staging the first escape from the notorious death camp, killing a Ukrainian guard and together with another prisoner, enabling 14 others to break free.
Following his daring escape, which predated by just a few months the mass uprising in Sobibor of October 1943, in which hundreds of prisoners escaped, Josef Kopf had returned to his hometown and was never seen or heard from again.
Only recently did his family uncover clues that he had been murdered by local Poles shortly after his escape from Sobibor, and was buried near the town of Turobin in eastern Poland. They traveled there last year hoping to pinpoint his burial place, and to investigate the circumstances of his death.
Through interviews with elderly Polish witnesses, they succeeded in identifying the site where a friend reportedly buried him after finding his body.
Lea Hirsch also wanted to seek out the descendants of Polish neighbors who had saved her mother, Genia Kopf (Josef’s sister), by hiding her from the Nazis for two years.
What might have remained a private family matter drew a great deal of media attention, after Russian President Vladimir Putin last month invited 12 descendants of Sobibor escapees to attend (all expenses paid) the annual Russian military parade celebrating victory over the Nazis. At the same time, the Russians celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Sobibor uprising, an event that has been ignored for decades in that country.
Lea Hirsch was among the invitees, and shared with various media outlets the story of her uncle’s heroic escape from the death camp, and her mother’s courageous rescuers.
Both dramas are especially relevant today in Poland, in the aftermath of a new “Holocaust law” passed by a right-wing government making it illegal to mention Polish complicity with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The law sparked international criticism over the attempt to suppress and distort historical truth, and spurred waves of publicity over recent books documenting Polish Jew-hunting, murder and betrayal during the Holocaust.
Holocaust Recording Inspires Family to Revisit Past
The trigger for the Hirsch family’s mission to Poland was a long-forgotten taped recording made by Genia, who passed away in 2011. Although she seldom spoke of the Holocaust to her children, she apparently was driven to document her experiences for posterity, a JTA article said.
In the recording, which the family only recently discovered, Genia recounted in detail the last time she saw her brother Josef alive and the story of her own rescue by her non-Jewish neighbor. She described how her brother had found her at the home of her Polish rescuer, Antek Teklak, just days after the Red Army liberated Turobin and eastern Poland.
Brother and sister were overjoyed to find one another alive but their happiness was tragically short-lived. Josef Kopf told Genia and Teklak that he would return to Turobin to “work out” some business that he had had before the war with “a friend.” Teklak warned Josef Kopf not to go, saying it was far too dangerous.
Genia begged her brother to stay. But Josef “just laughed and said he’d be back the next day,” his sister recalled in the recording of their last meeting.
Genia’s stirring reminiscences inspired her daughter Lea Hirsch and grandson, Amit, to undertake a trip to Poland with a twin purpose: to locate the Teklak family to thank and honor them for risking their lives to save Genia—an act punishable by death in Nazi-occupied Poland—and to find Josef Kopf’s grave and perhaps, his killer.
“Something in me just woke up, an unstoppable drive to find out what happened,” Lea Hirsch, a 65-year old mother of three children, told JTA.
In Poland, a couple of days of inquiries accompanied by incentives—cash or a bottle of vodka—yielded results. Witnesses led the family to the field where they say Josef was buried and where Amit Hirsch was photographed reciting Kaddish. Josef’s family is now raising funds to exhume his remains and bring him to Israel for burial.
A son of Antek Teklak, who had rescued Genia, then led the family to an area in his late parents’ yard, where he said young Genia had been hidden for two years. Had she been discovered, the entire Teklak family would have been executed by the Germans.
Sobibor and Operation Reinhardt
Media spotlight on Josef Kopf who survived the horrors of Sobibor but did not live to see Nazi Germany’s defeat, reopened the history of the notorious killing center from which he had escaped, and the secret Nazi operation that created it.
Sobibor was one of the Nazis’ most brutal, terrifying death camps, where some 250,000 Jews were slaughtered. Built deep in the Polish forest, surrounded by barbed wire and land mines, few of the victims, including Jewish residents living in close proximity to it, knew of its purpose before being shipped there.
Together with Belzec and Treblinka, all in Eastern Poland, Sobibor was part of the secretive Operation Reinhardt launched by Hitler in 1942 when mass murder of Jews by shooting was deemed too slow and inefficient.
Operation Reinhardt orchestrated the construction of the three death camps with a single goal: to exterminate every Jew in occupied Poland while leaving behind no evidence of their annihilation.
The strategy was meticulously planned, from the shipping of Jewish populations of France, Germany, Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Slovakia and other countries to the killing centers; to the elaborate lies about “resettlement for agricultural work” that hid from the victims their impending murder and kept them from resisting until it was too late.
Wrapped in the tightest secrecy of all was the existence of the human slaughterhouses in these bowels of hell that annihilated 1.4 million Jews in the three camps.
In Treblinka, close to 800,000 people were murdered, with only 60 survivors. In Belzec, where more than 430,000 people were killed, a mere eight survived. In Chelmno, the first killing center established to liquidate Jews, 152,000 were killed; only seven escaped.
In contrast to Auschwitz concentration camp, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno and Treblinka were purely extermination facilities, with few of the new arrivals used in forced labor. (Chelmno was an early Nazi experiment in mass murder prior to the invention of gas chambers and crematoria. The Nazis used trucks into which victims were forced to enter after being tricked into compliance, at which point they were choked to death by exhaust fumes channeled through a hose into the sealed truck. Prisoners were then forced to burn the bodies on pyres of logs. They, too, were systematically executed by the Nazis to ensure secrecy.)
Unlike Auschwitz, in Belzec, Triblinka and Sobibor, no barracks or heaps of glasses, shoes, human hair or remains of crematoria were left behind in Operation Reinhardt.
Despite the smoke of human ash billowing from the crematoria for months, even years, the lies about resettlement, the desperate clinging to hope, and the virtual impossibility of escape made it impossible for most victims to grasp the ghastly reality awaiting them.
In October 1943, the prisoners of Sobibor revolted. It was a desperate uprising under the most adverse conditions, with little hope of succeeding. Under Sasha Pechersky, a Russian-Jewish POW, a few prisoners eliminated the Nazi chain of command by stealthily killing several camp officers. They lured these SS men into a trap with promises of luxurious possessions taken from victims awaiting them in a storeroom.
With weapons they stole from the SS, the prisoners then opened fire on their captors as more than 300 people, assembled in a pre-arranged “roll-call” by the conspirators, made a dash to freedom, cutting through barbed wire fences and hurling themselves over. Many were killed by mines planted around the camp’s perimeter and scores of others were shot. Only an estimated 57 escapees, including Pechersky, avoided being murdered in the subsequent manhunt.
The remaining prisoners in Sobibor were massacred by the Germans in retaliation, and the camp, on orders from Himmler, was dismantled and bulldozed. The murderers destroyed plans, documents and stripped the buildings down to their foundations, carting away the rubble. The gas chambers and crematoria were buried. Over them, the Nazis planted pine tree forests to further erase all traces of the horrors perpetrated on the killing grounds.
During the Nazi war trial of the 1950s in Soviet Russia, Sobibor survivors testified about the ghoulish crimes committed there, leading to the executions of more than a dozen SS men and Ukrainian guards for “crimes against humanity”—a supreme irony for Stalinist Russia.
Survivors Dov Frieberg and Philip Bialowitz also testified at the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann.
It took tremendous psychological stamina for these and other survivors to sit in a witness box and relive the soul-wrenching horrors of the death camp, groping for language to describe the Nazis’ depravity and the magnitude of the slaughter.
In Nazi War Trials that took place in Germany and Soviet Russia, survivors were often subjected to hostile cross-examination, asked questions they couldn’t answer.
What shape was the club you claim struck you, round or square? Did you see who was firing at you? Can you show me on this map of Sobibor where the opening in the latrine was that enabled you to see the victims being taken to the gas chambers? …How is it you don’t recognize it? What do you mean this isn’t Sobibor? Oh excuse me, my apologies! I didn’t realize I gave you the map upside down.”
Some witnesses were plunged into depression after the ordeal but their collective testimony educated a world all but ignorant of the depths of human depravity that drove Operation Reinhardt.
From the Ashes of Sobibor
Survivor Toivi Blatt, who was from Lublin and lost 17 family members and friends to the Nazis in Sobibor, took part in the revolt at the age of 16. He escaped to the forests, but was later shot in the neck by a Polish farmer who had initially sheltered him and two other escapees, in return for valuables they pilfered from the camp storehouse. When the bribes ran out, the farmer decided to murder Toivi and his two friends.
Blatt miraculously survived the attack and spent almost a year in the forests, hiding from the Germans and Poles and nearly starving to death. His wound eventually healed but the bullet remained lodged in his lower jaw for the rest of his life.
After liberation, orphaned and alone, he lived in Stalinist Poland until 1957 when he finally was able to emigrate, first to Israel and then to the United States.
Years later, realizing that so many people, including the majority of American Jews, knew nothing about Sobibor, he began lecturing in and outside the United States about his time at the death camp. He wrote two riveting books about these traumatic events; Sobibor: The Forgotten Revolt (1996) and From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival. (1997).
He traveled the world to interview fellow Sobibor survivors, incorporating their testimonies in a separate documentary. He also served as a prominent witness at the 2010 Munich trial of Sobibor camp guard John Demjanjuk.
Heroism is Not Only Someone With a Gun in His Hand
Toivi Blatt, who passed away in 2015, wrote about scenes of heroic resistance he witnessed in Sobibor “at the edge of the grave,” by victims who had no weapons. “Heroism is not always someone with a gun in his hand,” his listeners were told.
“I remember people running back to the barracks (where their luggage had been taken) and grabbing a prayer shawl which they hid at the risk of their lives,” Blatt, who was not religiously observant, told an audience.
“Their families had been murdered. There was no hope of salvation inside or outside the camp. Perhaps they no longer wanted to live but the Jewish faith prohibits suicide. So as the guards advanced, they wrapped themselves in their taleisim and prayed. This was their way of defying the Nazis in their final moments; proclaiming ‘we are still Jews who believe in our G-d.’”
Blatt said he would forever recall how Sasha Pechersky jumped up on a box moments before the revolt began, yelling, “Brothers, each one for himself! Whoever survives must tell the world what happened here!”
“We had few dreams of liberation; we didn’t expect the revolt to succeed,” Blatt said in one of many interviews. “I was sure I would die. But I prayed, ‘G-d, if I have to die, let it be a fast death by bullets, not a slow one by gas. And if You allow me to survive, I will never forget my promise to tell the world about Sobibor.’”
Like many survivors, Blatt remained haunted by his experiences for the rest of his life. Although he went on to raise a family and become a successful businessman, “I never escaped from Sobibor,” he said at the 2010 Munich war trial. “In my dreams, I’m still there, running for my life, in a frenzy to get away. That is the price I pay for surviving… My point of reference is always Sobibor.”
He made countless trips to the site of the camp, finding bones of the victims scattered among the tall grass and weeds. Whispering a prayer, he would bury them, lamenting how no one cared enough about the victims to bury the remains.
Discovery of Sobibor Gas Chambers Stirs World Interest
In 2014, Sobibor’s buried gas chambers were discovered deep in the forest. Guided by survivor accounts, an international archeological team headed by Yoram Haimi of the Israeli Antiquities Authority had relentlessly excavated the area for several years. The team finally uncovered the foundations and remains of four gas chambers.
As one wall after another was unearthed, the archeologists compared their measurements with information recorded in survivor testimonies. They matched precisely. Each chamber measured 16 feet by 23 feet, and served as death cells for 70 to 100 people at a time.
Beyond authenticating survivors’ accounts, the discovery of the gas chambers in Sobibor drew interest in international media, bringing Nazi atrocities once more to the forefront of world attention.
For many decades, despite the war crimes trials of the 1950s, the existence of Sobibor and the subject of the revolt were taboo in Russia. Sasha Pechersky, who died in 1990, was never recognized by the Soviets or by post-Communist Russian authorities. He was even jailed for a number of years in a 1948 government anti-Semitic campaign.
Not only was he a Jew, he let himself be taken prisoner by the Germans! These were dual disgraces in the Communist era. Celebrating him was out of the question.
In the aftermath of the discovery of Sobibor’s gas chambers, Russian authorities today have also “discovered” Pechersky. They created a foundation devoted to commemorating and researching the uprising, recasting the leader of the revolt as a hero and bestowing posthumous honors on him.
A state-funded, highly promoted film about Sobibor, which has been called the “goriest of its kind” in terms of graphic displays of Nazi atrocities,” celebrates Pechersky’s leadership and the courage of the other conspirators in the uprising.
President Putin even invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to view a pre-screening of the film in January. Afterwards the two attended the opening of a special exhibit dedicated to the Sobibor uprising.
Moscow’s belated outpouring of admiration for the Sobibor revolt has struck some as highly political, likely aimed at projecting the image of Russia as the liberator of Europe from Nazism.
Re-inventing Pechersky as a national hero who was motivated by “love of his country” in leading the uprising, as scenes in the Sobibor film suggest, fits in neatly with the government’s broader purpose.
Few seem to realize that Russia’s new interest in Sobibor might open up questions about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, in which over 2 million Jews were killed.
The slaughter of 27,000 Jews in Zmevska Balka, a ravine outside Pechersky’s hometown of Rostov on Don, one of the largest massacres of the Holocaust, was perpetrated by the Germans with the help of Russian collaborators.
In Soviet times and long afterward, Moscow silenced discourse about Nazi persecution and the victimization of Russian Jews, crudely recasting Soviet wartime history. Knowledge of the Holocaust in Russia today is abysmally low, and the subject of Russian complicity with the Nazis altogether taboo.
Will the current Russian fascination with Sobibor end up altering that long-running policy?
Part Two of this article will describe the planning and execution of the revolt in Sobibor and the miraculous escape of hundreds of prisoners.