Sobibor: The Concentration Camp Uprising

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Poland, Sobibor - mausoleum in extermination camp.

Shortly after the events that transpired at Treblinka, Sobibor was experienced a similar insurrection. The camp functioned much like Treblinka, so great detail will not be spent on the organization of the gassings and murders at Sobibor. What remains important is who and under what circumstances did the revolt at Sobibor occur. Serious consideration for an uprising began when rumors began circulating about the camp’s fate during the summer of 1943.

Rumors of Death

Fear spread that if the camp were to be liquidated, the prisoners tasked to maintain the killing process would themselves be subject to execution. Evidence for this possibility was found in the clothing of prisoners from the killing center of Belzec. The prisoners working at that camp were transferred to Sobibor after Belzec was shut down, and subsequently were murdered. Knowing their fate those prisoners’ knowingly hid notes in their laundry, this was to be sorted by the current prisoner population of Sobibor.

The notes had a powerful effect on the prisoners, whom were uncomfortable with the idea of dying in a gas chamber, despite their exposure to the horrors of maintaining the camp and helping the Nazis murder thousands of Jews. One prisoner was quoted as saying, “If I am to die, I would rather it be while trying to escape, and get shot in the back.”

The rumors of the fates of other camps were reaching the ears of Leon Feldhendler, another Jewish prisoner of Sobibor, and prominent organizer of the Sobibor revolt. Feldhendler was convinced that “if he and the of Sobibor Jews didn’t break out soon, very soon, it would be too late…Himmler had kept his promise to Hitler to make Poland Judenrein, free of all Jews…Would the Germans be so stupid as to leave the gas chambers and six hundred eyewitnesses?”

Compelled to Act

As the rumors spread about their potential fate, the mere chance that such a fate would await them and their sheer will to overcome such a fate prompted them to act. The testimony of Moshe Bahir reveals the same sentiment embodied in a prisoner whom had just arrived at Sobibor, Alexander Perchesky, a Jew and former Soviet officer. Bahir states that, “upon arriving to the camp he [Perchesky] understood immediately what was going on and decided that is was necessary to do the impossible and to save the camp prisoners as long as they were alive.”

Perchesky, who had been captured during the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, was discovered to be a Jew while being examined by Nazi doctors. Once his ethnic Identity was discovered, he was shipped to Sobibor as a camp worker, along with a handful of other Jewish prisoners of war. Once upon his arrival, he was hastily asked by men and women of the camp to aid them in their attempts to alleviate their personal hell. Perchesky himself witnesses the horrors of the brutality of the camps, highlighting a farmhouse established by SS guards who would take Jewish women there, and proceed to rape them, with “the bawling of the geese covered the shrieks of the victims.”

The Revolt

The plan for the revolt mirrored Treblinka, in the fact that the guards had to eliminated, the camp taken over, before a realistic escape could be staged. The Jewish prisoners were to rely on attacking the guards with melee weapons that had procured around the camp. Once dead, the more experienced Soviet Jews whom were soldiers would use the camp’s stockpile of firearms to the revolt’s advantage.

This was seen as a paramount goal, and was crucial to the success of the escape. The revolt was planned for October 14, 1943, and was to be initiated at 4 p.m. Schelvis describes the emotions that were driving the participants of the revolt, as they wanted to demonstrate to their captors that, “for once, they were in charge of their own destiny” and the Jews were “prepared to go to battle for themselves and the entire Jewish community, to kill, and so to avenge the hundreds of thousands who had been slain at Sobibor”.

The revolt proceeded as plan, but the prisoners failed to gain control of the camp, as had happened at Treblinka, but the barriers surrounding the camp were breached allowing 365 Jews to escape, while hundreds had died during the escape attempt. Of these 365 that survived, only 47 would live to see the end of the war.

Sources:

  1. Schelvis, Jules. Sobibor: a history of a Nazi death camp. Berg, 2007.
  2. Rashke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  3. Novitch, Miriam. Sobibor: martyrdom and revolt. Holocaust Library New York, 1980.
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