Behind the Headlines Remembering Sobibor — 40 Years Later

“On October 14, 1943, at about 5:00 p.m. a revolt of Jews in the SS camp Sobibor, twenty-five miles north of Chelm. They overpowered the guards, seized the armory, and, after an exchange of shots with the camp garrison, fled in unknown directions. Nine SS men murdered, one SS man missing, two foreign guards shot to death. Approximately 300 Jews escaped. The remainder were shot to death or are now in camp …”

That report was sent by the SS to Berlin on October 15, 1943. In point of fact 600 Jews had stormed out of the death camp in a carefully planned escape, led by Alexander Pechersky, a Russian Jewish officer, and Leon Feldhendler, son of a Polish rabbi.

Almost half were killed as they broke through the gates and barbed wire of Sobibor, where 250,000 European Jews had been exterminated in the 20 months of the camp’s existence.

This was the largest prisoner escape of World War II — and it was Jewish slave laborers who accomplished it. Not even Allied soldiers in the relatively humane German prisoner-of-war camps ever managed to escape in such numbers.

Of the 300 or more who made it through the gate, only about 50 survived the war — most of them betrayed to the Nazis later by Poles. Some fought and died in resistance groups, where Poles also killed them. Some survivors were saved by Poles.

STORY TOLD BY NON-JEWISH WRITER

This too little known story is dramatically and compassionately told in “Escape from Sobibor” (Houghton Mifflin), by Richard Rashke, a non-Jewish writer who is also the author of “The Killing of Karen Silkwood,” now being made into a motion picture.

Rashke’s careful research included a visit to the remains of Sobibor with a survivor, and interviews with 17 other survivors in the U.S., USSR, Brazil, Poland and Israel.

Why is the Sobibor story still so little known? When the Allies captured millions of German documents, only three referred to Sobibor, as part of Himmler’s Operation Reinhard, the code name for Sobibor, Belze, and Treblinka, where 1.65 million Jews were gassed. Sobibor, the smallest, was Himmler’s best kept secret.

INTERVIEWING SURVIVORS

How did a non-Jew successfully interview the 18 survivors? When he interviewed Chaim Engel in Branford, Connecticut, married to a Dutch survivor of Sobibor, Selma Wynberg, Engel said: “I wouldn’t talk to you if you were Jewish. You’re the first non-Jew that asked me for an interview. We’re sick of being interviewed. But we think we owe it to you and to our grandchildren.”

Rashke describes how survivors cooperated with famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, in successfully hunting down Sobibor murderers who had fled to Brazil.

Survivor Thomas Blatt, now a businessman in Santa Barbara, California, described a post-war visit to Sobibor where he overheard a Polish priest calling Jews “kikes” as the priest explained the camp to a younger priest and a woman.

This month, the 40th anniversary of the escape from Sobibor, it is appropriate to remember the 250,000 who did not escape, to whom Rashke dedicated his book — a number equivalent to the Jewish communities of metropolitan Chicago or greater Miami.

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