Jews have often been accused of going to their deaths during the Holocaust like "sheep to the slaughter," but this just wasn't true. Many resisted. However, the individual attacks and the individual escapes lacked the zest of defiance and craving for life that others, looking back in time, expect and want to see. Many now ask, why didn't the Jews just pick up guns and shoot? How could they let their families starve and die without fighting back?
However, one must realize that resisting and revolting were just not this simple. If one prisoner were to pick up a gun and shoot, the SS would not just kill the shooter, but also randomly choose and kill twenty, thirty, even a hundred others in retaliation. Even if escaping from a camp were possible, where were the escapees to go? The roads were traveled by Nazis and the forests were filled with armed, anti-Semitic Poles. And during the winter, during the snow, where were they to live? And if they had been transported from the West to the East, they spoke Dutch or French - not Polish. How were they to survive in the countryside without knowing the language?
Although the difficulties seemed insurmountable and success improbable, the Jews of the Sobibor Death Camp attempted a revolt. They made a plan and attacked their captors, but axes and knives were little match for the SS's machine guns. With all this against them, how and why did the prisoners of Sobibor come to the decision to revolt?
During the summer and fall of 1943, the transports into Sobibor came less and less frequently. The Sobibor prisoners had always realized that they had been allowed to live only in order for them to work, to keep the death process running. However, with the slowing of the transports, many began to wonder whether the Nazis had actually succeeded at their goal to wipe out Jewry from Europe, to make it "Judenrein." Rumors began to circulate - the camp was to be liquidated.
Leon Feldhendler decided it was time to plan an escape. Though only in his thirties, Feldhendler was respected by his fellow inmates. Before coming to Sobibor, Feldhendler had been the head of the Judenrat in the Zolkiewka Ghetto. Having been at Sobibor for nearly a year, Feldhendler had witnessed several individual escapes. Unfortunately, all were followed by severe retaliation against the remaining prisoners. It was for this reason, that Feldhendler believed that an escape plan should include the escape of the entire camp population.
In many ways, a mass escape was more easily said then done. How could you get six hundred prisoners out of a well-guarded, land mine-surrounded camp without having the SS discover your plan before it was enacted or without having the SS mow you down with their machine guns?
A plan this complex was going to need someone with military and leadership experience. Someone who could not only plan such a feat, but also inspire the prisoners to carry it out. Unfortunately, at the time, there was no one in Sobibor who fit both these descriptions.
On September 23, 1943, a transport from Minsk rolled into Sobibor. Unlike most incoming transports, 80 men were selected for work. The SS were planning on building storage facilities in the now empty Lager IV, thus chose strong men from the transport rather than skilled workers. Among those chosen on that day was First Lieutenant Alexander "Sasha" Pechersky as well as a few of his men.
Sasha was a Soviet prisoner of war. He had been sent to the front in October 1941 but had been captured near Viazma. After having been transferred to several camps, the Nazis, during a strip search, had discovered that Sasha was circumcised. Because he was Jewish, the Nazis sent him to Sobibor.
Sasha made a big impression on the other prisoners of Sobibor. Three days after arriving at Sobibor, Sasha was out chopping wood with other prisoners. The prisoners, exhausted and hungry, were raising the heavy axes and then letting them fall on the tree stumps. SS Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel was guarding the group and regularly punishing already exhausted prisoners with twenty-five lashes each. When Frenzel noticed that Sasha had stopped working during one of these whipping frenzies, he said to Sasha, "Russian soldier, you don't like the way I punish this fool? I give you exactly five minutes to split this stump. If you make it, you get a pack of cigarettes. If you miss by as much as one second, you get twenty-five lashes."1
It seemed an impossible task. Yet Sasha attacked the stump "[w]ith all my strength and genuine hatred."2 Sasha finished in four and a half minutes. Since Sasha had completed the task in the allotted time, Frenzel made good on his promise of a pack of cigarettes - a highly prized commodity in the camp. Sasha refused the pack, saying "Thanks, I don't smoke."3 Sasha then went back to work. Frenzel was furious.
Frenzel left for a few minutes and then returned with bread and margarine - a very tempting morsel for all who are really hungry. Frenzel handed the food to Sasha.