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 The Revolt

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Kurt Gerstein
Franz Stangl
Sobibor Trials
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      The Uprising - October 14, 1943   

Model of Sobibor by Alexander Pechorsky

The Sobibor prisoners knew what fate awaited them. Leon Feldhendler, a man in his early thirties who had been chairman of the Jewish Council in Zolkiew, organized an underground organization at Sobibor to plan an escape.

In the second half of September, Soviet Jewish prisoners of war were brought to the camp from Minsk. A tall man, about thirty-five years old, still wearing his Red Army lieutenant’s uniform, attracted Feldhendler’s attention. His name was Alexander "Sasha" Pechorsky and the underground recruited him into its ranks and put him in command, with Feldhendler as his deputy.

Alexander Pechorsky and
Leon Feldhendler
USHMM Photo Archives

Up until the hour that had been set for the outbreak of the revolt, life in the camp continued as usual. Except for the underground members, the vast majority of the prisoners in the camp did not know what was about to happen.

The first stage of the revolt was also carried out as planned: between 16:00 and 16:30 hours, eleven SS men who had been called to the workshops were killed, among them the commander of the camp, Untersturmfuehrer Niemann. These were all the SS people in the camp that day, save for one - Frantzel - who was called to the workshops but did not come. 

The operation in Camp 1 was run by Pechorsky, while Feldhendler commanded the operation in Camp 2. The telephone and electric lines were cut, and the motor vehicles immobilized. The blacksmiths' group removed six rifles from the Ukrainian guard room, and these were handed over to the underground. (Pechowsky, op.cit., p.54; testimony of Blat, op.cit., p.81; Rutkowski, p.35; Stanislaw Shmeizner, "Me-Opole le-Sobibor," Sobibor, op.cit., p.65.) 

All of these activities were carried out without the Ukrainians at their posts or in the guard towers being aware of what was happening. At 16:45 Positzka and Czepik began assembling all the prisoners into roll-call formation. At that point the rest of the prisoners sensed that something was afoot, but they still did not know what. 

According to the plan, the prisoners of war and the members of the underground, some of them armed, took up position in the front rows. The operation plan was now disrupted. A truck that had arrived from outside the camp appeared in Camp 2 and came to a halt near the building of the camp headquarters. The driver, Oberscharfuehrer Bauer, spotted a dead SS man lying there and then saw a prisoner running from the building. He immediately opened fire on him. (Testimony of Biskowitz, Eichmann's Trial.) 

At the same time the commander of the Ukrainian guard, a Volksdeutsche from the Volga area, appeared at the roll-call square. The insurgents attacked him and killed him with ax blows. The rest of the prisoners became panic-stricken. The Ukrainian guards, who now realized what was happening, opened fire. At that point Pechorsky decided not to wait until all the prisoners were assembled, as planned, and instead began stage two of the revolt. With cries of Come on! Hurrah! the insurgents broke toward the gate and the fences, and from that moment on there was no control over what happened.

Some of the insurgents broke open the main gate and escaped from there southwest toward the woods. Another group broke through the fences north of the gate. The first of this group triggered the mines, were wounded and killed, but the others who crossed the area where the mines had already exploded, managed to flee, as they stepped over the bodies of their comrades. The planned takeover of the arms store was not carried out, but the insurgents did succeed in killing the guard and taking his rifle. Those who were armed with rifles opened fire on the Ukrainians and killed four of them. The only SS men remaining in the camp, Bauer and Frantzel, and the other Ukrainian guards returned fire. 

Alexander Pechorsky
USHMM Photo Archives

Another group of insurgents, headed by Pechorsky, broke through the fences near the SS living quarters, where, as they had correctly assumed, mines had not been laid. Other prisoners who were still in the area of Camp 2 now fled toward Camp 4. (Ibid.; Pechorsky, op.cit., p. 56; Jacob Biskowitz, 'Mi-Hrubieszow le-Sobibor," Sobibor, op.cit., p.110; testimony of Goldfarb, op.cit., p.26.) 

Of the 600 prisoners who were in the camp on the day of the uprising, 300 managed to escape. About 150 were killed by the guards' gunfire or by the mine explosions. Approximately 150 sick prisoners and those from Western Europe and Germany, who had not been let in on the preparations for the revolt, and those who did not manage to escape, remained in the camp area. Some of them got hold of weapons and continued to fight until they were killed. 

Some of those who were caught on camp grounds were shot that very same day. The others, including the prisoners in Camp 3 (the area of the gas chambers) who had taken no part in the uprising, were shot on the following day when the chief of staff of Operation Reinhard, Hermann Hofle, arrived in the camp from Lublin. (Rutkowski, op.cit., pp. 42-43; Ruckerl, op.cit., pp.196 197.) 

The Escape to the Forests and the Pursuit Word of the revolt of the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor, which reached Chelmno and Lublin after some delay because of the cut telephone lines, caused a good deal of panic at German headquarters. According to the report a revolt had broken out in Sobibor during which the Jewish prisoners had killed almost all of the SS, had seized the arms store, and, as a result, all of the security people still in the camp were in danger. The report also stated that 300 prisoners had fled in the direction of the Bug River, and there was the danger that they might link up with the partisans. 

The few SS remaining in the camp were in shock, and some of the Ukrainian guards had exploited the commotion to flee from the camp. (Testimony of Liskowitz, Eichmann's Trial.) Following the alarm that same night a large pursuit force was sent to the camp. The force consisted of a company of mounted police, a company of Wehrmacht soldiers, police and SS forces from Wlodawa and Lublin and about 120 Ukrainians from Sobibor. It numbered some 400 men. 

The search itself began only at dawn. In addition, two or three surveillance planes were employed to follow the escapees in the fields and forests. The uprising on the grounds of the camp itself was quickly put down. But the search in the surrounding area under the command of Hauptsturmfuehrer Wilbrandt, which was to prevent the escapees from joining the partisans on the other side of the Bug and to prevent them from spreading the word about the mass exterminations in Sobibor, lasted for more than a week. 

After that time only the company of mounted police continued to comb the area. The escapees had split into a number of groups. (One of them, headed by Pechorsky and numbering a few dozen fugitives, assembled in the forest. They had four pistols and a rifle. At night they met up with another group and together numbered about seventy-five men. (Pechorsky, op. cit., pp.59-60; testimony of Blat, op.cit., pp. 82-83.) 

On October 15, the day after the escape, the men in the group hid in a small wood near the railroad track. The German surveillance planes that circled overhead did not notice anything. In the evening the group continued north, but on the way encountered two other escapees who reported that the Bug River crossings were heavily guarded by the Germans. Under these circumstances Pechorsky decided that a group that large had no chance of eluding the pursuit force. He argued that they must break up into smaller groups, each of which would try to get past the Germans on its own. 

He himself chose another eight men from among the prisoners of war and set out. This created some opposition on the part of the other fugitives, who feared being left without leadership, but, as they had no choice in the matter, they, too, broke up into small groups that tried to get through the danger area. Pechorsky and his men managed to get across the Bug on the night of October 19.

Three days later they met Soviet partisans from the Brest region and joined up with them. (ibid, p.69.) Other groups of escaped prisoners also managed to link up with Soviet partisan units. Feldhendler, together with another dozen or so escaped prisoners, hid in the forest for a number of weeks. He himself found shelter for two months at a Polish friend's in his town of Zolkiew. Later he. too, joined the partisans. (Testimony of Feldhendler's wife, op.cit., pp.21-22.)

Jewish partisan unit commanded by Yehiel Grynszpan in the Parczew Forest
USHMM Photo Archives

Other groups of escapees who roamed in the Parczew forest northwest of Sobibor encountered, after several weeks of searching, Polish partisans of the Armia Ludowa (People's Army) and a group of Yehiel Grynszpan's Jewish partisan unit. An instance is also known in which six fugitives from Sobibor were murdered by a local gang that posed as a partisan unit. (Testimony of Goldfarb, op.cit., pp.30-31; testimony of Biskowitz, Eichmann's Trial; Rutkowski, op.cit., pp. 45,46.) 

In the week following the escape, 100 of the 300 escapees were captured or shot to death. (Rutkowski, op.ail., p.43.) It was a great achievement on the part of the insurgents that 200 of them did manage to get away. Several factors contributed to their success. The searches, which began only in the morning hours, allowed enough time for many of the prisoners to slip away from the camp area. The many woods in the region also hampered the searches, even from the planes. Furthermore, the Germans were mistaken in supposing that most of the escaped prisoners would head east to the Bug and therefore in stationing most of their forces at the Bug crossing points. In fact, most of the fugitives, especially the Polish Jews, headed north to the Parczew forest. 

The attitude of the local population to the escapees was not uniform. Some have told of the assistance they received from the local population, whereas others stress a hostile attitude and instances of farmers trying to rob or kill the fugitives. (Testimony of Blat, op.cit.,pp.94, 97-98, 107-108) 

However the vast majority of the escaped prisoners did not live to witness the day of liberation. Some were caught and killed at later stages of the escape, and others died as fighters in the ranks of the partisans. It is estimated that from all the escapees from Sobibor, only about fifty survived until the day of liberation. Some of them, however, including Feldhendler, were killed after the liberation, on April 2, by right-wing Poles. (On Feldhendler's death, see Nathan Eck, "Sho'at ha-Am ha-Yehudi be-Eropa," Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, 1976, p.255.) 

Participants in the uprising at Sobibór.
 First row from left: second, Yosef Ertman, third Zelda from Holland, sixth, Chaim Povroznik. 
Second row: first Meyer Zis, sixth Leibl Feldhendler.
USHMM Photo Archives

Three days after the outbreak of the revolt, on October 20, 1943, the last Jews of Treblinka were brought to the camp for extermination. Afterward the camp was liquidated, its buildings dismantled, and on its ploughed-up soil trees were planted. The Sobibor revolt and the fear of similar revolts apparently influenced Himmler in his decision to order Friedrich Kruger, the supreme commander of the SS and police in the General-Government, to hasten the elimination of all the Jews still remaining in camps in the Lublin district. 

Although the uprising in Sobibor did not take place according to plan, in the end it was successful. Many prisoners did escape, and some of them did survive. 

By their act of revolt, they not only wrote an important page in the history of Jewish fighting during World War II, but also succeeded in bringing to the world, during the days of the war itself, the terrifying truth of what had been done in the extermination camps. They have also furnished detailed first-hand accounts of these two camps and have thus contributed to the history of the Holocaust period.

As mentioned on April 2, 1945, Leon Feldhendler, one of the two leaders of the breakout from Sobibor, was killed by Polish National Army troops who were actively hunting Jews ..


Yitzhak Arad
Yad Vashem Archives

Note: The materials were transcribed by Kenneth McVay of Vancouver, Canada. Mr. McVay's award-winning Nizkor Project is one of the largest collections of Holocaust-related materials in the world.


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