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The Sobibor Escape

Between 1942 and 1943, more than 250,000 perished at Sobibor. However, on 14 October 1943, it would also become the site of the most successful revolt in all of the death camps.

 

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Leon Feldhendler, the former chairman of a Jewish council in Lublin, was at the centre of the existing camp resistance, with detailed knowledge and contacts throughout the camp. However, he lacked military training. When Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Jewish Red Army lieutenant from Rostov, arrived in September with dozens of Soviet soldiers from Minsk, Feldhendler immediately sought out his contact.

Whilst many of Pechersky’s men wanted to launch a smaller escape through a tunnel, he insisted on a mass breakout. Pechersky had already endured terrible suffering at the hands of the Nazis, and was determined to strike back. Overcoming the language barrier, Pechersky and Feldhendler devised “a plan of great subtlety and utter ruthlessness”, in David Cesarani’s words. Pechersky later said of his plan:

My main goal was to kill the fascists, those who had killed all those people. Perhaps only ten or fifteen would be able to escape and get to freedom, and to tell the world the truth.

When the commandant was offsite, the group assassinated the deputy in his office, leaving the camp without leadership. As planned, the underground then killed roughly a dozen guards within an hour, luring them into buildings and setting about them with knives and axes, seizing their weapons. The insurgents then cut the camp’s communication cables.

Feldhandler then attempted to gather the 600 labourers into a roll call. Unfortunately, an SS man grew suspicious, and he was instantly killed by a prisoner. His death was witnessed by the guards in the watchtowers, who began gunning down the prisoners. Unable to breach the gate, the escapees scaled the fence into a minefield. Ada Lichtman recounted the events:

"Suddenly we heard shots […] We heard shouting, and I could see a group of prisoners running with axes, knives, scissors, cutting the fences and crossing them. Mines started to explode. Riot and confusion prevailed, everything was thundering around […] We ran out of the workshop. All around were the bodies of the dead and wounded. Near the armoury were some of our boys with weapons. Some of them were exchanging fire with the Ukrainians, others were running toward the gate or through the fences."

 

Of the 550 prisoners, 320 made it out into the woods, roughly a third of whom were soon captured. Of those who evaded capture, some joined partisan units. Roughly 60 survived WWII. 

After several days, Pechersky led a handful of the armed survivors of his unit towards Russia, effectively abandoning the Polish Jews in the woods with a single rifle. He later justified his actions to Toivi Blatt, another Sobibor escapee: “My job was done. You were Polish Jews in your own terrain. I belonged in the Soviet Union and still considered myself a soldier. In my opinion, the chances for survival were better in smaller units”.

Feldhendler survived the Final Solution, but was killed in Lublin in April 1945, reportedly by antisemitic Polish nationalists.Pechersky rejoined the Red Army and engaged in frontline combat. He would eventually fall foul of Stalin’s antisemitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans”, but was released after an international outcry. He died in 1990 at the age of 80.