75 years after the uprising at Sobibor, a Nazi death camp in Eastern Poland where 250,000 Jews were murdered, a splash of international limelight has illuminated the little known revolt in which some three hundred Jews broke out of one of the most barbaric death camps.
Much of the recent publicity is due to a campaign by Moscow to foster nationalist pride by popularizing the Russian-Jewish Pechersky who led the revolt.
For many decades after the war, Pechersky and the entire subject of Nazi persecutions of Jews was ignored in Soviet Russia. Pechersky, who died in 1990, not only went unrecognized for his noble actions, he was even jailed for a number of years in a 1948 government anti-Semitic campaign.
Not only was he a Jew, he had surrendered to the Germans after being wounded. These were both unforgivable sins under the Communist regime. Celebrating such a person was out of the question.
Today, state policy in Russia has made a total reversal, discovering in Pechersky a beloved hero who heroically led the Sobibor uprising out of “loyalty to the Motherland.” (Not because he was a Jew doing his utmost to survive.)
The Kremlin is milking the story for all its worth, creating a foundation devoted to commemorating and researching the revolt, and bestowing posthumous honors on the young Soviet-Jewish lieutenant who led it.
A state-funded, multi-million dollar film about the Sobibor revolt celebrates Pechersky’s leadership and the courage of the other rebels and escapees. The film features an all-star international cast and has been a blockbuster success in Russia.
In a generation of Russians largely ignorant of the Holocaust, the Russian “revival” of Sobibor has sent shockwaves across the country and far beyond.
Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to view a screening of the Russian production a few months ago. Afterwards the two posed for photos at the opening of a special exhibit dedicated to the Sobibor uprising.
The headlines about Sobibor force one to revisit one of the most horrific chapters of World War II; the Nazi slaughter program codenamed Operation Reinhardt which annihilated millions of Polish Jews at three extermination camps.
More victims met their end at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor collectively than at Auschwitz, yet relatively little is known about the latter two death facilities.
That is because these camps were meant to be top-secret installations and elaborate ruses were employed to keep them shrouded in obscurity. With the exception of Treblinka where most of Warsaw’s Jews were killed, the world knew little about these other demonic slaughterhouses, even after the war.
In the few recovered Nazi documents mapping out Operation Reinhardt, the camps are deceptively referred to as “Durchgangslagers” (transit camps). Secrecy, deceptions and brazen lies about “resettlement location in the Ukraine” kept the victims unaware of their impending murder until the last minute.
The three extermination camps were dismantled by 1943 after achieving their objective. All signs of their existence and the bestiality that was a norm of life there were obliterated, long before the Allies arrived.
In the Nazi war crimes trials of the 1960s in Germany and the Soviet Union, a dozen or more Nazis and guards who committed the mass atrocities in these camps were sentenced to death. The majority of those convicted were hanged, while others had their sentences commuted to prison sentences. Survivor testimony, especially that of Sasha Pechersky, was pivotal at the Soviet trials.
How the Seeds of the Sobibor Revolt Were Planted
After Belzec and Treblinka were liquidated, some of the remaining prisoners were shipped to Sobibor to be gassed. Upon their arrival, fear spread that Sobibor, too, was now slated to be destroyed and its small labor force killed. All sensed the ticking clock; they knew they were living on borrowed time.
This was the frightening backdrop against which the desperate revolt at Sobibor was initiated. The plot was mapped out by Boruch Feldhendler and Sasha Pechersky with a small circle of trusted prisoners.
Feldhendler was the son of a rabbi, a former Judenrat officer in his Nazi-occupied Polish village. He was convinced that the remaining 550 Jews of Sobibor should seize any opportunity at all to escape – no matter how remote the chances of survival.
Feldhendler initiated several escape strategies but each one fell apart. He was close to despair when he met Sasha Pechersky, a Russian lieutenant who had been sent to Sobibor with other Soviet POWs after being captured by the Germans.
Pechersky quickly realized the nature of the secret facility hidden in the forest. A day or two after being selected for slave labor, he witnessed atrocities that left him sickened. In his memoirs he describes seeing a farmhouse in Sobibor where SS guards would forcibly herd Jewish women and girls. “The bawling of the geese only partly drowned out the shrieks of the victims as they were attacked,” he wrote.
[Many years later, Pechersky served as the key witness at the war crimes trials of Sobibor Nazis and guards in the Soviet Union. His testimony was key to the death sentences of ten of these dregs of humanity.]
Pechersky writes that he was horrified by his helplessness and realized that all the prisoners were doomed. When approached by Feldhendler with a plea to join an escape plan, he agreed. Soon, the outlines of a strategy that included a small group of Soviet Jewish POWs and other prisoners began to take shape.
According to the various memoirs and testimonies of survivors including Toivi Blatt (The Forgotten Revolt), Sasha Pechersky, Ada Lichtman, Esther Raab, Chaim Engel, Dov Frieberg (The Last of the Friebergs), Philip Bialowitz (A Promise Made at Sobibor), Selma Weinberg and many others, the plan was divided into three phases.
In the first phase, members of the underground who had access to the warehouses and sorting sheds were to steal knives and small axes and deliver them to the command post.
Next came the organizing of six combat groups of three people each, in preparation for the assassination of the Nazis. In the second phase, the Germans were to be lured under various pretexts to selected places and killed as noiselessly as possible.
The plan called for eliminating as many SS and Ukrainians as possible within one hour, and then igniting a total revolt by the rest of the prisoners. The strategy depended on the Germans’ strict adherence to routine, and on the Nazis’ supreme confidence that systematic violence, torture and starvation had totally crushed prisoner morale.
Most important, recounted survivor Toivi Blatt, “the plan depended on German greed.”
A few young boys were given responsibilities as message carriers, stealing weapons and luring the Nazis to the traps by informing them of luxurious coats, boots and jewels obtained in the sorting of the Jews’ belongings.
Because of the functions of these young prisoners, their movements were not strictly scrutinized by the Nazis. They had access to places that were strategically important to the underground, including the Nazi quarters, canteen and the incinerator where letters, documents and other papers were destroyed.
All preliminary preparations were to be completed by 4 p.m. Then the telephone wires would be cut at both ends and the middle section hidden to prevent the Nazis from quickly reconnecting the line.
Just before five o’clock, the electrician Walter Schwarz, a German Jew, would disable the electric generator supplying power to the camp. At that point, the elimination of the SS Staff would begin. So as not to betray the action, no one was to use (at this phase) the weapons acquired from the enemy. Above all, everything had to appear routine.
If everything went well to that point, the kapo who blew the whistle for roll call would sound it a little earlier than usual. The Jews would assemble as usual but instead of waiting for the Germans, they would be led by kapos toward the main gate in regular formation.
The idea was that the guards would think it was a German order for some work assignment; this would allow the prisoners to approach the main gate without arousing suspicion. The gate would then be taken by storm and the watchtower guards killed or overpowered.
“We knew our chances of survival were terribly remote,” recalled survivor Esther Raab many years later. “We were weak and exhausted from hunger, beatings and overwork. But the planning gave us hope. In my mind [an escape attempt] was the only alternative to the gas chamber. If I had to die, they would have to waste a bullet on me.”
Eliminating SS Chain of Command
October 14, 1943, the first day of Succos, was a beautiful Autumn day. Only a very small group at Sobibor knew how fateful this day would be. The Nazis in the camp went about their business as usual. At precisely 4:00 P.M., phase one and two of the revolt began.
SS Commander Niemann rode up on his white horse and entered the tailor shop. Mundek the tailor was ready, holding the new uniform. The unsuspecting Nazi unhooked his belt with its pistol in the holster and causally tossed it on the table.
Mundek politely asked the officer to stand still while he marked the alterations with a crayon. At that moment a crushing blow from an ax hurled Niemann to the floor, his head split. One of the prisoners rushed to Sasha Pechersky’s quarters and delivered the first pistol. They embraced. Now there was no turning back.
At 4:15, Graetschus, the Nazi in charge of the Ukrainian guards, arrived at the cobblers’ shop to pick up his new boots. While Yitzchak Lichtman held the Nazi’s leg in a firm grip, pretending to pull the boots, Arcady Weisspaper and Shimon Rosenfeld slipped out from the back room and split the Nazi’s skull with an ax. Then his deputy, the Ukrainian Klatt, entered, calling his boss to the telephone. He too was attacked and killed.
In another part of the camp, 16-year old Toivi Blatt, standing at attention, was informing a SS officer that a new leather coat exactly his size had been set aside for him in the warehouse. The German took the bait and strode without hesitation toward the warehouse.
Inside the building lay the gleaming black leather coat. SS Wolf approached to appraise it. “Attention!” barked Kapo Bunio, who was in on the plot. “Help the Herr Unterscharfuehrer with the coat!” A prisoner fetched the coat and held it for the German. He put his arm into the sleeves and in a split second, an ax blow by a prisoner named Cybulsky killed him.
Other Nazis were summoned on similar pretexts. When carts with slave labor rations were en route to one area of the camp, SS officer Valaster, the driver, was flagged down and told that SS deputy commander Wolf urgently needed him. He entered the warehouse and was immediately knifed to death by another of the prisoners.
“With every plunge of the knife,” recalled Chaim Engel in his testimony 40 years later, “I said, “This is revenge for my father, my mother, my sister.”
Another team readied for a new attack, this one on the senior SS officer Beckman. A Jewish kapo named Pozitzky knocked at Beckman’s office door asking permission to enter for some job clarification. Permission was granted and he entered.
Immediately, Pozitzky immobilized him with a headlock and the Nazi was killed. Unexpectedly, SS officer Walter Ryba had wandered into the car garage in the garrison area. He was quickly killed.
From the main tower came the sound of a bugle announcing the end of the day’s work. As groups returned to the main square, everything appeared routine. A mass of prisoners stood in line for their meager coffee and bread as they did every day, unaware that the next fateful moments might spell the difference between life or death.
Just then, SS officer Gaulich entered the area. Shlomo Leitman immediately asked him to come to the newly built barrack because of some problem with the bunks. The moment Gaulich entered the barrack, he was killed with an ax.
Escape Plan Runs Into Hitch
That’s when the plan ran into a major hitch. The first dead German was unexpectedly discovered. Returning from Chelm, SS Bauer drove to the garment warehouse with two prisoners, Biskubitz and David. While unloading cases of vodka from the truck, one guard looked into the office and noticed a dead German.
Biskubitz describes in his testimony for Yad Vashem how this discovery precipitated the third phase of the revolt earlier than planned.
“A Ukrainian came running and called to SS Bauer, ‘A German is dead!’ Bauer did not immediately understand what he meant. But David who heard him, panicked and started to flee. Bauer ran after him and shot at him twice.”
“Sasha, hearing the gunfire, understood that something bad had happened. On Sasha’s orders, Pozitzky blew his whistle for roll call. Although it was fifteen minutes early, the kapo’s authority was never disputed and the prisoners began to gather.
“Now the news spread like wildfire. Jews from various countries, all speaking diverse languages, understood in that instant that an undreamed of moment had arrived. From their lips erupted thunderous shouts in a range of languages. Let’s Go! Forward! Hurrah! Shemah Yisroel! Revenge!
As they sprang forth, “the remaining SS men including Bauer, Richter, Frenzel, Wendland and some guards with machine guns who had initially been in shock, now effectively blocked the main gate,” recounted Toivi Blatt. “People were killed and the front line Jews fell back. Then a new wave of determined fighters pushed again forward towards in a suicidal thrust.
“Someone finally hacked open the barbed wire with a shovel. Within minutes, more Jews arrived. Not waiting in line to go through the opening under the hail of fire, they climbed the fence. Though we had planned to touch the mines off with bricks and wood, we did not do it. We couldn’t wait; we preferred sudden death to a moment more in that hell.
“The dead lay everywhere,” Toivi Blatt recalled. “The noise of rifles, exploding mines, grenades and the chatter of machine guns assaulted the ears. The Nazis shot from a distance while in our hands were only primitive knives and hatchets.
“We ran through the exploded mine field holes, jumped over a single wire marking the perimeter of the mine fields, and found ourselves the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times,” related Blatt. “Each time thinking I was hit and it was the end. But each time I got up and ran further…100 yards…50 yards… 20 more yards…and the forest at last!
“In the grayness of the approaching evening, the towers’ machine guns shot their last victims. Those of us who had miraculously escaped the bullets and mines, fled for our lives without stopping,” recalled Blatt. “The running and hiding went on for months as it seems there was no safe place for a Jew anywhere…”
Blatt’s odyssey, the tale of a 16-year old orphan alone in a hostile world, was far from over. But he was one of the estimated 57 escapees who, thanks to a string of stunning miracles, lived to see the Nazis defeated and to rebuild their lives.