Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the Sobibor uprising. The reason why I call this article “the real escape from Sobibor” is not to mistake it for the movie “Escape from Sobibor” although the book and the movie are based on the event, parts of it are fictionalized.
However this is not to say it is not a good movie, because it is a good movie and although I haven’t read the book I understand it is a very compelling read.
Sobibór was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the village of Sobibór, in occupied Poland, within the semi-colonial territory of General Government, during World War II.
During the revolt of 14 October 1943, about 600 prisoners tried to escape; about half succeeded in crossing the fence, of whom around 50 evaded capture. Shortly after the revolt, the Germans closed the camp, bulldozed the earth, and planted it over with pine trees to conceal its location. Today, the site is occupied by the Sobibór Museum, which displays a pyramid of ashes and crushed bones of the victims, collected from the cremation pits.
On 14 October 1943, members of the camp’s underground resistance succeeded in covertly killing 11 German SS-Totenkopfverbände officers and a number of Sonderdienst Ukrainian and Volksdeutsche guards. Of the 600 inmates in the camp, roughly 300 escaped, although all but 50 – 70 were later re-captured and killed. After the escape, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the death camp closed. It was dismantled, bulldozed under the earth, and planted over with trees to cover it up.
By the summer of 1943, the transports to the Sobibór death camp were slowing down. The veteran Jewish prisoners sensed that the end was quickly approaching. In July, the prisoners organized an underground unit. It was led by Leon Feldhendler, the son of a rabbi from the nearby town of Zolkiewka.
In September 1943, a deportation from Minsk of Soviet Jewish prisoners of war brought to the camp a trained officer, Lieutenant Aleksandr “Sasha” Aronovich Pechersky.
The Jewish underground recruited Pechersky and placed him in command. His deputy was Leon Feldhendler.
They devised a daring plan. SS officers would be lured into storehouses on the pretext that they were to be given new coats and boots. Once inside , aided by the bold efforts of Thomas (Tuvia) Blatt,
they would be attacked by the prisoners and killed with axes and knives. Nazi weapons were to be seized, and at roll call the camp would be set ablaze. All prisoners would have a chance to bolt for freedom. Once outside Sobibór’s gates, they would all be on their own.
At 4:00 p.m. on October 14, 1943, the first SS soldier was killed with an axe. Ten more SS men were killed, as were several Ukrainian guards. Telephone wires and electricity lines were cut. Within an hour, the camp was burning, guns were aimed at the guard towers, and the first group of prisoners fled across the German mine fields surrounding the facility.
By dusk more than half the prisoners—about 300 people—had escaped. Most were killed by their Nazi pursuers or died crossing the minefields. After the revolt, some joined partisan units; others found shelter among sympathetic Poles. It is estimated that just 50 of the escapees survived the war.
Within days of the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled, and planted with trees.The gas chambers were demolished. Remnants of their foundations were covered with asphalt and made to look like a road.Four of the chambers were uncovered by archaeologists in 2014, using modern technology.
Feldhendler was among those who survived the war, hiding in Lublin until the end of German occupation. The city was taken by the Soviet Red Army on 24 July 1944, and became the temporary headquarters of the Soviet-controlled communist Polish Committee of National Liberation established by Joseph Stalin. However, on 2 April 1945, Feldhendler was shot through the closed door of his flat as he got up to investigate a commotion in an outer room. Feldhendler and his wife managed to escape through another door and made their way to Lublin’s Św. Wincentego á Paulo hospital, where he underwent surgery but died four days later. According to most of the older publications, Feldhendler was killed by right-wing Polish nationalists,sometimes identified as the Narodowe Siły Zbrojne,an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic partisan unit (name unknown). However, more recent inquiries, citing the incomplete treatment of the event by earlier historians, and the scant documentary record, have called into question this version of events.
The only concrete document found by local Polish scholars is a record of Feldhendler’s hospital admission at Wincentego á Paulo describing the injury. Dr Kopciowski wrote that Feldhendler was likely shot in an armed robbery gone bad, because he was known locally as a budding gold trader. Feldhendler’s killing was one of at least 118 violent deaths of Jews in the Lublin district between the summer of 1944 and the fall of 1946 amid the crime-wave of the so-called Soviet liberation.