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This week in history: the Sobibor Uprising

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 17 2012 4:52 p.m. MDT

Young people from the Dror School in Israel at the site of the former German Nazi death camp of Sobibor, in eastern Poland, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. Dror school is trying to find remains of the camp still hidden in the ground in order to redraw its shape. The Nazis burned the camp to the ground to erase all trace of it as the Soviet Red Army was approaching.

Czarek Sokolowski, AP

Enlarge photo»

On Oct. 14, 1943, 600 Jewish inmates at the Sobibor death camp in eastern Poland revolted against their Nazi captors and attempted a mass escape.

Poland had been overrun by the German war machine in September 1939, and immediately brutal Nazi policies toward Jews were put into place. By 1942, however, a program of genocide had become the regime's guiding principle. To facilitate this, Hitler's henchmen created a system of extermination camps throughout Poland. For the first time in human history, assembly-line principles were applied to the slaughter of human beings. These camps were factories and murder was their only product.

Though the Nazis employed thousands of concentration camps throughout Europe before and during World War II, the extermination camps were unique in their dedication to the eradication of an entire people — the Jews. While murder was common in concentration camps, it was the very reason for the existence of the extermination camps. The six main extermination camps were Auschwitz (actually a network of concentration camps attached to a death camp), Chełmno, Belzec, Majdanek, Treblinka and Sobibor.

Once arriving at these camps, most inmates would be stripped, their valuables stolen and then taken to special “showers,” which dispensed either carbon monoxide or a chemical compound called Zyklon B. Several of the Jewish arrivals, however, would be kept on as workers to help with the killing of later arrivals and the processing of their valuables. These Jewish workers knew it was only a matter of time before they were terminated.

Among the Jews of Sobibor, many held out hope for some sort of escape, but it wasn't until the arrival of a host of Jewish Red Army POWs in late September 1943 that the plotting began in earnest.

In “The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War,” historian Martin Gilbert writes, “The slaves of Sobibor were preparing to revolt, led by these Red Army veterans. Among the Red Army men, now captives, was a Jew who took the lead in planning revolt, Alexander Pechersky. Aged 34, Pechersky had been a student of music before the war, writing music for plays in his hometown of Rostov-on-Don. He had gone to the front the very first day of the war.” The day after he arrived in the camp, the escape committee appointed Pechersky its leader.

The date for the breakout was set for Oct. 14. Together with fellow inmate Leon Feldhendler, Pechersky the night before handed out knives, axes and shovels — anything that could be used as a weapon. The next day, the crudely armed inmates individually invited SS officers and their Ukrainian auxiliaries into barracks or workshops around the camp. One by one, the Jews ambushed and killed the unsuspecting Germans, striking their first blows for freedom since arriving at the camp. Though they had succeeded in whittling down the SS numbers, plenty of heavily armed guards remained.

In “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945,” historian Saul Friedländer writes, “The first phase of the plan, the liquidation of the SS personnel, succeeded almost without a hitch; although the second phase, the collective moving through the main gate, soon turned into uncontrolled fleeing, more than 300 inmates succeeded in escaping to the surrounding forests. Pechersky and his group crossed the Bug River and joined the partisans.”

Approximately half of the 600 inmates at Sobibor escaped into the forests. Two hundred had been shot outright during the escape, the others murdered only after army and police units had been called in as reinforcements, presumably after the situation had already been relatively pacified.

Gilbert writes, “Many of the escaped prisoners joined partisan units: One of them, Semyon Rozenfeld, a Russian Jew who later joined the Red Army, was in Berlin on the day of victory.”

Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Treblinka uprising that same year, the rebellion of the Sobibor Jews stands as an important chapter in the history of the Holocaust and remains a powerful reminder of the necessity for courage and daring in the face of evil.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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