Sobibór: The Other Great Escape

October 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the mass breakout from Sobibór death camp. Althea Williams recalls an extraordinary event that is today largely forgotten.

Not the end of the line: Sobibór station in 2009, the time of Demjanjuk's trial

 We knew our fate. We knew that we were in an extermination camp and death was our destiny. We knew that even a sudden end to the war might spare the inmates of the ‘normal’ concentration camps, but never us. Only desperate actions could shorten our suffering and maybe afford us a chance of escape. And the will to resist had grown and ripened.

(Thomas Toivi Blatt, From the Ashes of Sobibór: A Story of Survival)

Sobibór, Belzec and Treblinka extermination camps were situated in the part of eastern Poland the Nazis called the General Government. Created in 1942, they were a key element in Operation Reinhard, the plan to murder all Jews in the region and the first phase of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’, the eradication of all European Jews.

From March 1942 until October 1943 between 1.6 million and 2 million Jews and an indeterminate number of Roma and Soviet prisoners of war were killed. On arriving at the camps they would be reassured by an SS officer that their belongings would be returned and they would shortly be transported to the Ukraine to live and work but first, to prevent disease, they would be showered and disinfected. Many were so relieved after their ordeal on the cattle trucks that they ‘applauded spontaneously and sometimes even danced and sang’, recalls Eda Lichtman, a survivor. Most would be gassed and cremated before the day was out. 

The exceptions were the ‘work Jews’, a group of up to 600 prisoners kept alive to help the running of the camp. To prevent the risk of rebellion or a sense of ‘security’ fostering within this group, those selected into it were constantly killed and replaced. Thus the camp population was small and easy to supervise. Escapes were rare.

Circumstances changed in the summer of 1943. Rumours began to circulate of imminent camp closure and elimination of the workforce. The number of trains decreased sharply. In June the Belzec camp was closed, its workforce of 600 transported to Sobibór and executed. The Red Army was approaching and Himmler intended to eradicate all trace of mass extermination.

Soon after, ten people managed to escape from a work detail in the surrounding pine forest. But for every one who tried to get away, ten prisoners would be executed. When their escape was discovered 72 Dutch Jews were shot. In July 1943 a minefield with a 15-metre radius was laid around the camp. In September 100 prisoners were killed following the discovery of a tunnel. Nevertheless, another plan was hatched. One of the principal organisers was Leon Feldhendler. His cousin Esther Raab, a survivor, remembers:

We started organising and talking and it gave us something to live for again, you know, [the idea] that maybe we’ll be able to take revenge for all those who can’t.

Feldhendler knew that to stand a chance the planners needed military experience. It came in the shape of a new arrival, Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish former lieutenant in the Red Army. To avoid reprisals on fellow prisoners a mass outbreak was favoured. Few in the camp were informed of the plan in advance, to avoid risks of betrayal. The new plan required precise preparation and time was short. October was the date set, when two of the camp’s most dangerous officers – the deputy commander Gustav Wagner, known as the Beast, and his colleague Hubert Gomerski would be on leave. Blatt recalls how:

Wagner’s departure gave us a tremendous morale boost. While cruel, he was also very intelligent. Always on the go, he could suddenly show up in the most unexpected places. Always suspicious and snooping, he was difficult to fool. Besides, his colossal stature and strength would make it very difficult for us to overcome him with our primitive weapons.

Remaining SS officers would be lured individually to the workshops and killed. Phone lines would be cut and vehicles sabotaged. A group would gather arms. Two prisoners used by the Germans to supervise the others would summon the prisoners to roll-call as usual and men dressed in SS uniform would then lead them all out through the main gates. The forest was 140 metres away. There was no plan after that, it was each survivor on their own. In the words of Blatt:

We had no dreams of liberation; we hoped merely to destroy the camp and to die from bullets rather than from gas. We would not make it easy for the Germans.

On October 14th, at 4pm, it began. One after the other, nine SS men and two Ukrainian guards were isolated and killed. The phone lines were cut. At roll-call the mass of prisoners, unaware of what was about to happen, congregated as usual. But at a critical moment a guard discovered one of the dead Germans and raised the alarm. Panic ensued. Pechersky jumped on a table and shouted in Russian that there was no turning back as they would all be killed. ‘Those of you who survive, bear witness, let the world know what has happened here’, he yelled.

There were 550 prisoners in the camp that day and around 400 seized the moment to escape. As the remaining Germans and Ukrainians began firing, prisoners rushed the main gate or made for the fence, jumping over the fallen and out across the minefield. ‘Corpses were everywhere,’ Blatt recalls: ‘The noise of rifles, exploding mines, grenades and the chatter of machine guns assaulted the ears.’

We ran through the exploded mine field holes, [...] and we were outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further ...100 yards ... 50 yards ... 20 more yards ... and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes. In the greyness of the approaching evening, the towers’ machine guns shot their last victims.

Eighty people were shot by the guards as they attempted to flee. A further 170 were killed in the woods in the ensuing manhunt. Thomas Blatt found shelter in a farm but was later shot and left for dead by the farmer. At the end of the war only 58 of the escapees had survived. Many were killed by Polish militia or died fighting with the partisans or the Red Army. Himmler ordered the immediate closure of the camp. The remaining prisoners were executed.

Leon Feldhendler reached Lublin but he died in April 1945 after being injured in a fight. Some claim he was murdered by right-wing Polish nationalists. Alexander Pechersky joined the partisans. After the war he was charged with treason for having allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis. Given a long sentence in a Soviet labour camp, he was released in 1953, but was denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. He died in Rostov-on-Don in January 1990. Thomas Blatt  lives in California. He has published several works on Sobibór and has contributed to films and interviews. In 2009 Blatt testified at the trial of Jan Demjanjuk, a Sobibór guard. Sentenced to five years in prison, Demjanjuk was freed pending appeal of the conviction. He died in a nursing home in 2012.

Althea Williams is a television researcher.

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