Frequently, Auschwitz-Birkenau overshadows the other Nazi killing centers in the American popular imagination. For historical reasons, this is quite understandable. Both a forced-labor camp and a site for mass, mechanized annihilation, more than 1.1 million Jews from across Europe were murdered there before the Red Army arrived on January 27, 1945. That staggering figure does not nearly exhaust the number of its victims. Over 70,000 Poles, 25,000 Roma and Sinti, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war died in Auschwitz-Birkenau as well. Many of the survivors, whose books and speeches profoundly shaped our understanding of the Holocaust, passed through and out of its gates. An abridged list of them would include Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Olga Lengyel, Aharon Appelfeld, Jean Améry, Filip Müller, Maurice Cling, Rudolf Vrba, Hermann Langbein, and Otto Dov Kulka. Anne Frank, the Holocaust victim most familiar to Americans, spent several weeks there before being removed to Bergen-Belsen, where she perished. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex looms so large in discussions of the Nazi genocide that many intellectuals prefer to speak of “after Auschwitz,” of a definitive and catastrophic rupture in world history. In this type of discourse, “Auschwitz” becomes a symbol or central metaphor for the Holocaust as a whole.
Transforming Auschwitz-Birkenau into such a symbol, however, risks doing injustice to many of the victims of the Third Reich’s monstrous project of killing every single Jewish man, woman, and child on the European continent. The experiences of those in the ghettoes of German-occupied Eastern Europe or those who fell before the guns of the Einsatzgruppen (the special, mobile killing squads staffed by the SD, Gestapo, and Order Police) cannot be assimilated to the kind of industrial murder Auschwitz-Birkenau represented. We must not neglect either what happened to those who disappeared in the death marches from the camps in 1945. Moreover, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, and Majdanek, the other killing centers constructed by the Nazis in annexed Polish territory or in areas of Poland under direct occupation, deserve their own distinct historical treatments, attentive both to what was similar to Auschwitz-Birkenau and also to what was different.
This article is a brief reconsideration of a powerful example of armed resistance from one of the less familiar Nazi death camps, Sobibor. The story, gripping, inspiring, and heartbreaking at the same time, is of the uprising of October 14, 1943. The 1987 made-for-television movie Escape from Sobibor, based on the book with the same title by Roger Rashke, brought this event to life for many in the English-speaking world. Serious students of film also may know Claude Lanzmann’s 2001 documentary about the revolt, Sobibór, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 heures (Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4PM). Seventy-five years later, this history presses on us more than ever as Holocaust survivors dwindle and anti-Semites feel emboldened. The murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, by a white supremacist forces us to realize that the worst of the 20th century is not at all distant.
In the autumn of 1941 SS officers gathered in Sobibor, a small village a few miles west of the Bug River in the Lublin District of the General-Government (the area of Poland under German occupation), to examine the track and the ramp at the train station. Their visit stemmed from the transition occurring in the Hitler regime from mass murder to genocide. Mass murder perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen had already devastated the Soviet Jewish population in Belorussia (present-day Belarus) and Ukraine, with a “second sweep” soon to follow. As the Wehrmacht suffered setbacks in its advance on Moscow, and war with the United States appeared increasingly inevitable, Hitler’s meetings with Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in the late summer and fall of 1941 indicated a new and final phase of radicalization in the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish policy. Instead of forced expulsion, ghettoization, or shooting, the methods utilized for eliminating Jews since the beginning of World War II, the approach shifted to mass extermination through poison gas. Himmler depended on the head of the Reich Security Main Office, Reinhard Heydrich, who, in turn, counted on his subordinate, Adolf Eichmann, to transform Hitler’s nightmarish vision into genocidal reality. The Sobibor death camp would feature prominently in the insidious Final Solution—a program of systematic, state-directed, continent-wide genocide assembled and directed by Himmler, Heydrich (succeeded, after his assassination, by Ernst Kaltenbrunner), and Eichmann.
Sobibor was, along with Belzec and Treblinka, one of the so-called Operation Reinhard death camps. It was the easternmost of them, just across the Bug from the Reich Commissariat of Ukraine. These new extermination centers, named after Reinhard Heydrich, owed their existence to the efforts of Austrian SS Police Leader Odilo Globocnik. Globocnik worked tirelessly to ensure that camps with gassing facilities were ready to receive Jews deported from inside Poland and elsewhere. Richard Thomalla, a master mason, supervised the rapid construction of the camp complex and Jewish laborers were brought in to carry out the tasks. At Sobibor, murder operations began in May 1942. The SS transported tens of thousands of Jews from many European countries to Sobibor. Most of them, however, came from Poland, Austria, Slovakia, and the Netherlands.
The commandant of Sobibor during the initial phase of killing was Franz Stangl. Austrian-born, like Globocnik, Stangl’s recent past mirrored that of many other Nazis complicit in the Final Solution. He had participated in the T-4 program of the killing of the adult disabled at the Hartheim and Bernburg euthanasia centers. Once Hitler, due to public outrage, ordered a temporary halt to T-4 in August 1941, Stangl was one of those reassigned to new duties. At Sobibor, he presided over the “selections” to the gas chambers in a white linen jacket. One of his subordinates reputedly comforted the terrified people with promises they would soon be transported to live and work in a Jewish state in Ukraine. To maintain the illusion, the Nazis often permitted the arrivals, particularly Western European Jews, to write postcards to loved ones, reassuring them everything was fine. Focused on doing the “job” to the best of his abilities, Stangl proved to be a most capable genocidist. According to Yitzhak Arad, 90,000-100,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor in the camp’s first 90 days alone. Transportation difficulties, then, caused Sobibor to halt operations from late July to early fall of 1942. When Franz Reichleitner took over from Stangl (who was transferred to Treblinka), the new commandant oversaw the resumption of systematic killing in October of that year.
Nazi planners divided Sobibor into three parts. The Vorlager (Fore Camp) encompassed the entrance gate, railways, and housing for SS personnel and the Ukrainian guards, dressed in black uniforms, who assisted them. Camp I held prisoners chosen for labor. The workshops for blacksmiths, cobblers, cabinetmakers, and tailors, so important to the organizers of the Sobibor Uprising, were there.
In Camp II, Jewish deportees, many of them uncertain about what was next, undressed, ceded what money and belongings they still had, and passed through the “tube.” The latter was a fenced path connecting Camp II to the gas chambers. The SS ordered the women to have their hair cut about halfway down the “tube.” They explained this as simply a matter of hygiene. Elsewhere in Camp II, Ukrainian guards took many of the ill, the elderly, and children and, with German authorization, shot them in ditches.
Camp III was a testament to monumental inhumanity. This area contained the gas chambers, burial pits, barracks for guards and for the Sonderkommandos, the Jewish prisoners compelled to do the grisliest work—the disposal of human remains. The SS and Ukrainian guards mercilessly drove prisoners into the gas chambers with whips and dogs. Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg brings up the account of a SS man temporarily stationed at the death camp, who recalled the use of a 200-horsepower, eight-cylinder engine seized from a Soviet tank releasing the carbon monoxide gas into the chambers. These facilities could hold more than 200 people at a time. Crematoria were never installed at Sobibor. Men and women living near the camp, remembered the skies illuminated, at night, by the burning of corpses in mass graves. The infernal stench simply overwhelmed.
Faced with such horror, what did human beings do? This is a very important question. Even today, after decades of education about the Holocaust, many still subscribe to crude and patently false stereotypes of Jewish passivity. Given the hellish circumstances, Jews did what they could. In the case of Emanuel Ringelblum, a Zionist and Marxist intellectual in the Warsaw Ghetto, a project to record, for the world’s enlightenment, Nazi barbarism against the ghetto’s inhabitants unfolded under his careful direction. Jews also organized escape attempts. And they fought, fought with everything they possessed.
In retrospect, 1943 was a year of resistance in the ghettoes and camps. That year, the system of terror and annihilation meticulously created by the Nazi dictatorship in Eastern Europe faced its most direct challenge. Those condemned to the clutches of the SS certainly fought for life and freedom. Yet many of them, aware of the hopelessness of their situation, took up arms in order to die on their own terms. The members of the Jewish Combat Organization initiated the best-known instance of armed resistance in impossible circumstances during the Shoah, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which broke out in April 1943 and held out for almost a month. Though crushed, word of the uprising penetrated the walls of the ghettoes and the barbed wire of the extermination sites. At Treblinka, a resistance group, calling itself the “Organizing Committee,” learned of the defiance of the Warsaw fighters and launched a revolt on August 2. Incredibly, 300 broke out and 100 of them evaded the Nazis’ manhunt. Two weeks later, on the eve of its final liquidation, an attempted break-out led by Abraham Shlonsky, Haika Grosman, and others occurred at the Bialystok Ghetto in northeastern Poland. While a few, such as Grosman, escaped, the rebels endured for a week before the Germans suppressed them. In the Vilna Ghetto the following month, the United Partisan Organization, led by Abba Kovner, a Zionist, proclaimed:
Jews, we have nothing to lose.
Death is certain.
Who can still believe that he will survive when the murderers kill systematically?
The hand of the hangman will reach out to each of us.
Neither hiding nor cowardice will save lives.
Only armed resistance can save our lives and honor.
Kovner’s undoubted heroism in the face of German troops moving into the ghetto did not stir the population to rise up, however. So, with no better option left to them, he and hundreds of fighters managed to get out. Would Sobibor also follow the route of open insurrection?
Answering that question concentrates our attention on Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Soviet Jewish officer. Thanks to the research of Dutch scholar Selma Leydesdorff, who lost two grandparents at Sobibor, we understand his life and achievement much better. Born in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, in 1909, Pechersky came from an assimilated Jewish family. During the First World War, his family moved to Rostov-on-Don. Surviving the Russian Civil War, which was especially brutal in Ukraine, he became attracted to the ideas of the Bolsheviks and pursued interests in theater and the arts.
On June 22, 1941, the opening day of Operation Barbarossa. Pechersky’s life changed forever. He was conscripted immediately. Stationed at the headquarters of the 596th Howitzer Regiment of the Soviet 19th Army, he experienced in Belorussia the darkest days of the German invasion. He was quickly promoted to technical quartermaster, essentially the rank of a 1st lieutenant. When the 19th Army tried to stem the Wehrmacht’s advance to Moscow in October, Pechersky’s unit was encircled and he was captured. Thereafter, he witnessed first-hand the brutality the German Army meted out to Soviet prisoners. Imprisoned first at a site near the Russian city of Smolensk, his captors moved him to Borisov, northeast of Minsk, the Belorussian capital. In both camps, he succeeded in concealing his Jewishness. At Borisov, he contracted typhus but lived through the illness without receiving any medical care from the Germans.
Peckershy’s toughness and good fortune would serve him well. In May 1943, after an escape attempt, German officials transferred him from Borisov to Stalag 352, one of the most atrocious prison camps of World War II. Up to 80,000 soldiers from the Red Army died in this camp at Minsk between July 1941 and August 1943. Held in the so-called Waldlager (forest camp), in the nearby village of Masyukovchina, Pechersky’s luck appeared to have run out that August when a German investigation of which men had been circumcised led to the discovery of his Jewish identity. The camp officials promptly shut Pechersky into an underground cell before removing him to the part of Stalag 352 set up in Minsk itself. The Germans kept him there until September 18.
That day, a train packed with 2000 people, many of them Soviet soldiers, brought Pechersky into Sobibor. Thankfully, the Nazis committed a gigantic blunder right away, one that would come to haunt them. They selected about 80 of the soldiers to be spared immediate death. Instead, they would do labor. Pechersky was one of them. He convinced the SS on his arrival that he knew carpentry. This lie saved his life. Once there, he and the other Soviets sought out the underground group already founded under the leadership of Leon Feldhendler, a Polish Jew and son of a rabbi. Before his deportation, Feldhendler had served in a Judenrat (Jewish Council), a political body created Poland’s Jewish communities to ensure compliance with German edicts. Having spent almost a year in the camp, he knew Sobibor very well. Seeing his own plans for escape repeatedly thwarted, Feldhendler feared that time was running out. He could not have known that Himmler had already decided to end extermination procedures at Sobibor and turn the place into a concentration camp. And it likely would not have mattered. Without Feldhendler’s knowledge, contacts, and determination, the uprising would have never stood a chance.
The two men conceived one of the most daring plans of the Second World War. They did so right after some 2700 Belorussian Jews had been liquidated at Sobibor. Recognizing the skills of the Soviet soldiers, Feldhendler agreed to Pechersky having greater authority in the organization. On October 7, they met and played chess. A key part of their discussion during the game was to determine whether a tunneling operation might succeed. Could they evacuate 600 prisoners, the number still in Sobibor, after nightfall? The two leaders decided against it. There would not be enough time to get everyone out before dawn.
What they settled on as the alternative was an idea that would require synchronization, skill with weapons, a willingness to risk everything, and sheer luck. Only a small group knew anything about it. Weapons had already been gathered—hatchets, axes, razors, knives, and a few rifles as well. A Kapo, one of the Jewish inmates picked by the Nazis to enforce their orders inside the camp, had been won over. German officials would be invited to the workshops and killed. This had to be done within an hour, before the 5pm roll-call. Then the summons to rush the front gate would be given. There would be enough daylight to eliminate the SS, sow confusion among the Ukrainian guards, and flee. Yet with the shorter October days, the Nazis would not have much time before darkness set in.
Pecherksy insisted that he have control over who did the killing. Claude Lanzmann’s film on the uprising, cited earlier in this article, has an incredibly candid conversation with Yehuda Lerner, a participant in the revolt. Lerner reconnects viewers to the atmosphere in Sobibor. It is chilling when he describes his readiness to kill Germans. Simultaneously, it is also inspiring that people who had been menaced with certain death and oblivion discovered the courage to wage counter-violence against their would-be murderers. Pechersky and Feldhendler gave them hope.
Originally, Lerner and the others would start the rising on October 13, which, remarkably, was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. The leaders postponed the breakout when a group of SS men unexpectedly showed up for a short stay. Instead, it would happen on October 14. Good fortune crowned the decision for postponement. No transports arrived in Sobibor on the 14th. Moreover, Commandant Reichleitner and one of his chief adjutants, the sadistic Gustav Wagner, were on leave.
At 4pm, the conspirators in Camp I acted. Pechersky monitored everything from the cabinetmakers’ shop. The prisoners relied on the punctuality of the Nazis and on their greed and vanity. After inviting him to try on a new coat in the tailors’ workshop, Alexander Shubayev, one of Pechersky’s fellow soldiers, dispatched Johann Niemann, the SS deputy commandant, with an ax-blow to the head. His body was pushed under a bed. A second Nazi followed fifteen minutes later. He, too, was slain. Shortly thereafter, Lerner and Arkady Wajspapir finished off Siegfried Graetschus, who directed Sobibor’s Ukrainian contingent. Another Nazi succumbed while he looked at a pair of boots. In all, about a dozen SS met their end through these ruses. Runners kept everyone informed of the progress made. Seizing the Germans’ weapons, Pechersky’s men awaited the next steps.
Just before 4:30, the insurgents cut the telegraph and telephone cables, preventing the remaining Germans from notifying their superiors. Feldhendler’s people got control of Camp II. The roll-call at 5 loomed. Elsewhere in the camp, things did not go so smoothly. The attempt to take the armory failed. Karl Frenzel, upon discovering the deaths of his colleagues, rallied the few remaining SS. When the Kapo called everyone to line up for roll-call near the front of the camp, no SS men showed up. Then, the inmates realized what was at hand and became restless. Sometimes in this mayhem, Pechersky briefly addressed the inmates and spoke to their courage, their fury, and their sense of justice. “Forward, comrades! For Stalin! Death to the fascists!” These words connected the uprising to the heroics of the Bolshevik Revolution while ignoring Stalin’s betrayal of the Revolution and the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. According to Thomas Blatt, one of the participants, Pechersky enjoined those who managed to escape to “let the world know what happened here.” Rallied by the short speech, scores of Jewish prisoners surged toward the front gate. German and Ukrainian fire claimed many of them before they could get to it. The Soviets, including Pechersky, and those who had hidden arms shot back. Some frantically cut through the barbed wire. Others, far more desperate, climbed the fence and took their chances with the mines the Germans had planted outside the wire.
After getting through the fence, Pechersky recalled, he ran across an open field before getting to the treeline. He also remembered seeing a number of inmates picked off in that field by Frenzel’s pursuing shooters. Once in the forest, Pechersky and some of his comrades cut away from the larger group of escapees. He justified that decision on the basis of survival. Smaller groups had a better chance of slipping past the Germans and Polish collaborators who might turn them in for a reward. Many of the Polish prisoners had already headed west. Meanwhile, Pechersky ordered his men to move only at night. They walked single-file and never uttered a word to one another. During the day, they concealed themselves as best they could.
Pechersky’s group received food and information about the whereabouts of German patrols from the local populace, who were often startled and frightened by the sight of these armed men. Finally reaching the Bug, they swam across the river on the night of October 19-20. Having returned to Soviet territory, they established contact with a group of partisans a few days later. Many of the Polish Jews who went in the opposite direction had their own harrowing stories of encounters with Polish resistance fighters and with collaborators happy to turn them into the Germans for reward money. The wait for the Red Army to liberate the area, which did not happen until the summer of 1944, seemed endless.
300 of them—and that number leaps off the page—escaped during the commotion at Sobibor. Leydesdorff believes 184 could not escape. Scores of prisoners came so close to making it out. The Germans mowed down 41 of them during the uprising. 58 out of the 300 who escaped lived to see the war’s end. Terribly, some of those who got to the forest, feeling weary and exhausted, returned to Sobibor—and to certain death. Still, 58 survived.
Operations at Sobibor ceased right after the uprising. SS men killed those inmates who had not escaped. Subsequently, on Himmler’s orders, they totally dismantled Sobibor’s killing facilities, bulldozing much of what had been there and planting trees to cover the site. Jews from Treblinka, compelled by the Nazis to aid this work, were executed once they completed their tasks. While some German-trained police remained there until the spring of 1944, the intent of the SS leadership was for the extermination center to have never existed. And this was only the beginning.
The barbarity with which Himmler reacted to the Sobibor Uprising can now shock only the willfully ignorant. What he did to surviving Jewish laborers in the Lublin District of occupied Poland exemplified the “ingenuity” of his organization. Fearing further rebellions, the Reichsführer-SS implemented Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival). This truly bloodcurdling code-name masked coordinated acts of savage mass killing.
On November 3, 1943, Himmler’s men liquidated two work camps at Trawniki and Poniatowa, both subcamps of Majdanek, shooting thousands of workers in pits. On the same day at Majdanek itself, SS guards separated Jews from other prisoners. At gunpoint, they were then forced to strip, place their hands behind their necks, and climb down into trenches, supposedly anti-aircraft trenches, dug just outside the camp fence. Many of these individuals died atop the corpses of others already gunned down. The Germans also transported Jewish workers from nearby labor camps there to be murdered. For hours, loudspeakers blasted music to drown out the shots and screams. At least in scale, the unspeakable horror of November 3 at Majdanek eclipsed everything before and after in the genocide. 18,400 perished that day. No other massacre by the Nazis—and there were hundreds of massacres of Jews—in one location and in one twenty-four period matched it during the Holocaust. In total, over 42,000 Jews were murdered as part of the operation. With Harvest Festival, the Nazis established a new benchmark for radical evil.
Some scholars put the number of the murdered in Sobibor at 250,000. Researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offer a significantly lower estimate of 170,000. Feldhendler made it through the genocide, only to die, reportedly, at the hands of Polish anti-Semites in April 1945. Pechersky wrote his own account of the events, testified against Ukrainian collaborators on trial in the USSR in 1962, and provided statements to a West German trial of Sobibor perpetrators in 1984. Despite his commitment to communist politics, he felt, with good reason, the Soviet regime disdained him and used the KGB to intimidate him. In his later years, Pechersky cherished his contacts with other survivors and the reunions with the Sobibor fighters he could attend. He passed away in 1990, at the age of 80, after the release of Rashke’s book and the 1987 movie.
In 2018, the Russian-made film, Sobibor, directed by and starring Konstantin Khabensky as Pechersky, has renewed attention in the history of the Sobibor uprising. Hopefully, the motion picture will generate a new round of discussion and debate about the significance of this momentous event and the other acts of resistance which preceded it in Hitler’s annihilation system. Each phase of the Nazi genocide (ghettoization, mass shooting, the extermination camps, the death marches) must be studied with care and rigor without “Auschwitz” or any other single aspect or site of that horror overtaking the others. The more serious and sustained our commitment to such historical knowledge is, the better we will be able to combat those present-day reactionaries who want to deny this history occurred or, even worse, to kill again in its name.
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Friedländer, Saul. The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3 Vols. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.
Leydesdorff, Selma. Sasha Pechersky: Holocaust Hero, Sobibor Resistance Leader, and Hostage of History. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Rashke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience. London: Deutsch, 1974.