Survival at Sobibor

by Joan Killam


The film Escape from Sobibor, written by Richard Rashke and Reginald Rose and directed by Jack Gold in 1987, is a realistic and gripping re-creation of the Operation Reinhard death camps located at Sobibor in eastern Poland. Based on the novel by Richard Rashke and filmed in Avala, Yugoslavia, the movie won a 1988 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Made for TV. Rutger Hauer won a Golden Globe for his performance in the supporting role of Lieutenant 'Sasha' Perchersky, and Alan Arkin, who portrayed Leon Feldhendler, was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Made for TV. The vivid and historically accurate depictions of the lives of the Jewish prisoners, many of whom died in the unconscionable gas chamber exterminations of over 250,000 Jewish people at Sobibor, are moving, while the unbelievable escape of some prisoners on October 14, 1943 represents courage at its highest level. The story was possible because of those who survived to tell of the horror.

After Heinrich Himmler witnessed the firing squad deaths of approximately one hundred Jews in the summer of 1941, he decided that another, more efficient method of extermination was needed. His "final solution of the Jewish problem" resulted in Operation Reinhard: the death camps at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka where ultimately 1.7 million Jewish people were murdered.

As the trains pulling boxcars packed with Jewish men, women, children, and babies arrived almost daily at the depot at Sobibor, a deceptive masquerade awaited. Festive music from a phonograph album blared over loud speakers, and the welcoming facade of the camp misled the doomed. Under assurance of death if they did not do their jobs, selected male prisoners dressed in blue jumpsuits and matching caps "greeted" new arrivals. Baggage and personal belongings were collected under the guise of being brought to the newcomers later. The make-believe porters secretly tried to warn a few of the disembarking passengers, urgently whispering phrases such as "Volunteer," "Say you have a skill," and "Tell them you have a trade when they ask."

The weary and confused travelers were then separated into several groups. The few who answered the call for shoemakers, tailors, seamstresses, and other trades were separated from the crowd. The remaining men and boys over fourteen years of age, who would become laborers, were divided from the women and younger children. A fictional typhus epidemic was used to send the elderly, women, babies, and children under age fourteen to shower, have their hair cut, and leave their clothes for disinfection. In reality, they were being sent to gas chambers.

The fictitious porters knew that death awaited the elderly, women, babies, and children who would be taken to Camp III, cleverly marked "disinfection." At the first of several barracks, the new arrivals would undress. Still naked, they walked to the second barracks where their hair was cut. Finally, the heretofore-unsuspecting prisoners moved to a third building where they would stand in line before entering a gas chamber where they would die. Poignant scenes in the film depict hundreds of naked women with their babies and children waiting outside the chamber door. Screams of those already inside the chamber pierce the air that was filled with black, billowing smoke from the crematorium. Nearby, broken-spirited male prisoners waited to cart away the dead bodies. As horrific and distressing as these scenes appear, a film cannot convey the emotions and thoughts of the wives and mothers, and sisters and daughters as they realized what was happening. Surely each twenty minutes that it took for one group's extinction was sheer mental and emotional torment for those who drew nearer the door each time a new group entered the chamber. Even very young children seemed to sense that something was terribly wrong.

After nightfall on their first day at Sobibor, as the surviving new arrivals began to look for their families and to inquire about their whereabouts, seasoned prisoners once again summoned their inner strength to utter the nearly unspeakable messages of death. In the night sky, the distant glow from the massive crematory fire was the sole funeral memorial.

As more and more trains continued to bring Jewish prisoners to Sobibor, the new arrivals were integrated into the camp population. Soon they became the experienced prisoners who "greeted" newcomers and who bore the burden of delivering death messages. Prisoners were assigned specific jobs, and examples of their daily work included sorting the clothing and personal belongings of new arrivals, as well as mending, sewing, altering and tailoring clothing, and making shoes. The prisoners also prepared the meager broth and bread that were their sustenance. Amidst such homely tasks, the Jews made friends among themselves, and some found new intimate relationships as they coped with the loss of their families.

In the film, the teenaged Stanislaw 'Shlomo' Szmajzner and his brother, Moses, learned that their family and many others had been slaughtered, and Shlomo confronted their leader Leon Feldhendler about the survivors' apparent willingness to work for the murderers. Shlomo struggled with how the Jewish people could continue to laugh, dance, and appear to have fun in the midst of such disastrous conditions. Feldhendler responded that "every day will be an agony of conscience…but what is there to do but survive…? If not, we deny life. We work for them so we may survive, and we survive for a reason: revenge. And some day we will have it."

Survival meant learning the ways of the SS and Ukrainian guards and learning whom to trust among one's fellow prisoners. Once Feldhendler decided that a plan must be devised for all six hundred Jewish prisoners to escape, trust became of utmost importance. Feldhendler's turning point came when the captives witnessed the shooting of twenty-six fellow prisoners following the effort of thirteen prisoners to escape. Each of the thirteen men had to personally choose one of his fellow Jewish prisoners to die along with him. Otherwise, the SS vowed to choose fifty prisoners to join the thirteen in death. Feldhendler recognized that similar repercussion, perhaps even worse punishment, would again be exacted from those remaining in the camp if only a few managed to escape. Everyone, he concluded, must have a chance at freedom.

Fortunately, as Feldhendler began to choose a circle of confidants, a small group of Jewish Russian soldiers arrived at Sobibor to provide heavy labor in the camp. Feldhendler arranged a meeting with their leader, Lieutenant 'Sasha' Perchersky. Perchersky agreed to take command of the escape plan effort. It was agreed that, indeed, the plan must be aimed at the entire camp. They could not help, however, those prisoners who worked in the extermination area at Sobibor, because they had no interaction with them and could not get messages to their barracks inside Camp III.

Feldhendler appointed a woman named Luka, who had worked briefly in the sewing room, to act as Perchersky's girlfriend. Since couples moved about the camp more freely at night, the guards often would ignore their evening strolls. This freedom allowed Perchersky and Feldhendler some time to discuss and devise the final escape plans. The Kapos, Jewish prisoners who worked for the SS and Ukrainian guards as overseers, had freer access to buildings and certain areas of the camp. All of the Kapos who could be trusted were approached about the escape plan, and they eagerly agreed to do anything they could to help. The one Kapo that the Jews could not trust was killed, a stark reminder that no one can be innocent in such times.

The basic escape plan began at 3:30 p.m. on October 14, 1943. Perchersky anticipated that the Germans' ritualistic habits and their punctuality would be to his advantage. Under his direction, the young Thomas 'Toivi' Blatt lured the SS guards to their deaths. The circle of confidants and the Kapos killed as many SS men as possible between four and five o'clock p.m. The concept was that with the SS men dead, the Ukrainian guards would not know what to do. When the bugle sounded for the five p.m. roll call, a Kapo would march the prisoners to the main gate and the tower guards would be shot. The prisoners would try to make their way across the mine fields which surrounded the camp and run for the nearby forest.

A few things did not play out as scheduled, but the prisoners adjusted and continued with their plan. The biggest problem was that one of the sergeants was not where he usually was at that time of day and could not be located. Although the sergeant discovered that the telephone and power lines had been severed, it was too late for Perchersky and his men to abort the escape plan. Perchersky quickly addressed the assembled prisoners, and they stormed the gates and fences in their flight to freedom. The remaining SS and the Ukrainian guards were able to fire their weapons into the crowd. Although many of the fleeing Jews were killed, either by bullets or by the land mines, approximately three hundred of the prisoners escaped into the woods.

In the weeks following the escape, about one hundred of the prisoners were found and returned to the camp for execution. Shortly thereafter the entire camp was dismantled, and the area was planted with pine trees in an effort to conceal the fact that a death camp had existed there. Today a monument to the dead and to those who vowed "never again" stands on the site. The survivors did, indeed, bear wit-ness to the world about the holocaust at Sobibor. If not for their courage, the details about what happened at Sobibor probably would not be known, nor would the world know of a resistance that worked.

In the Court of Hagen in the Federal Republic of Germany, twelve of the SS men from Sobibor were brought to trial in hearings that lasted from September 6, 1965 to December 20, 1966. Kurt Bolender, the former commander of extermination Camp III, committed suicide during the trial. Karl Frenzel, the Sergeant who almost thwarted the escape, received a sentence of life imprisonment. Only five of the remaining SS men received prison sentences, which were mere three to eight years each. Some of the Ukrainian guards were tried in the Soviet Union, and in a 1962-1963 trial in Kiev, ten Ukrainians received death sentences. Another was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In June 1965, three other Ukrainian guards were sen-tenced to death. Most of the SS men and the Ukrainians who served in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were never brought to trial.

Sobibor survivors Thomas 'Toivi' Blatt, Stanislaw 'Shlomo' Szmajzner, and Esther Terner-Raab served as technical consultants for the film Escape from Sobibor. Blatt has authored several books including From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival and Sobibor: The Forgotten Revolt --A Survivor's Report. Szmajzner's book, Hell in Sobibor: A Tragedy of a Young Jew, and Alexander Perchersky's The Uprising in Sobibor are other outstanding examples of literature produced by holocaust survivors. Many oral histories have been published in recent years, including The Journey Back from Hell: An Oral History - Conversations with Concentration Camp Survivors by Anton Gill. For an excellent book on the death camps in Poland, read Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps by Yitzhak Arad.