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Prisoner Uprising at the SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor

On October 14, 1943, an uprising was instigated by a small group of Jewish prisoners at the German death camp SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor. Despite the difficulties inherent in attempting clandestine activity at the camp, the Germans were completely surprised by the rebellion, which allowed it to succeed.

Of the Jews transported to the action “Reinhardt” camp during its operation from May 1942 to October 1943, only the scarce few selected for work duties upon arrival in Sobibór avoided immediate death. Initially, only men were chosen but later women were also included. The prisoners were put to work on-site or sent to labour camps located in the vicinity. Their duties at Sobibór included work related to maintenance and expansion of the camp as well as unloading the arriving transports, most prisoners worked in workshops. Some of the men were assigned to the so-called Sonderkommando working in the isolated part of the camp (Lager III), where they were forced to perform the most horrific tasks such as emptying gas chambers and burning the victims’ bodies.

The SS personnel employed a brutal system of control, any instance of prisoner insubordination was met with ruthless punishment. For the people faced with the constant threat of death, escape was the only viable chance for survival. But any escape attempt was also punishable by death – not just for the escapees themselves but also other prisoners. In such cases, the Germans employed the principle of collective responsibility. When 28 Jews working outside the camp as part of the so called forest Kommando escaped on July 23, 1943, the remaining members of the group who were unable to escape were murdered in front of other prisoners. Despite the subsequent manhunt, 5 of the escapees managed to survive until the end of the war.

The first camp resistance groups were formed by Sobibór prisoners in the spring of 1943. The idea of organising a revolt was first conceived by a dozen or so Jews from the Lublin region, under the leadership of Lejba Felhendler, the former head of the Judenrat in Żółkiewka. His closest collaborators included Szoel vel Srul Stark, Zyndel Honigman, and Mojżesz Merenstein. Several potential variants were considered, including poisoning the members of the camp personnel or blowing up the canteen. A separate clandestine group was also established by Dutch Jews under the leadership of Joseph Jacobs, a navy officer. They planned to escape in collaboration with the watchmen. Unfortunately, they were betrayed to the Germans who murdered most of the Dutch prisoners in retaliation.

In late September 1943, a group of Soviet POWs of Jewish descent arrived at the camp from Minsk. One of them was lieutenant Alexander Pechersky, with whom Felhendler soon came in contact. The combination of the newcomers’ experience in combat and handling weapons, and the existing resistance group’s knowledge of the camp made the vision of the uprising more viable. The plan entailed clandestine elimination of all the Germans from the camp’s SS unit, getting hold of weapons, and forcing the way out through the main gate. After leaving the camp, the escapees were to disperse (to more easily evade the pursuit) and try to survive on their own. Only a small group of people were aware of the plans. For safety reasons, the other prisoners knew nothing of the ongoing preparations.

The plan was set in motion on October 14, 1943, at 3:30 pm. Conveniently, the camp commandant Franz Reichleitner and the most vicious tormenter Gustav Wagner were both away from the camp that day. The element of surprise was vital to the plan’s success. As agreed earlier, SS men were lured one by one into the workshops where they were killed and disarmed. The first to die was Johann Niemann, the acting commandant of the camp. Within several dozen minutes, 9 SS men and 2 watchmen were killed. To prevent the Germans from calling in reinforcements, the rebels cut off electricity and phone lines. At 5:00 pm, prisoners started lining up for the roll-call. As recalled by one of the participants in the uprising, Stanisław Szmajzner:

A crowd of Jews gathered in the square. As usual, most lined up for the roll-call. They had no idea about the uprising. Meanwhile, the rest only pretended to form up, expecting the rebellion to break out within the next few minutes.

Suddenly, Pechersky called out: “To the gate, comrades!,” which signaled the beginning of the uprising. The largest group started pushing towards the main gate while some prisoners headed towards the armory from which they managed to retrieve some weapons and ammunition. The disoriented SS men and watchmen started firing. The Jews returned fire but were forced to withdraw under the barrage. The only remaining path of escape was the barbed wire fence on the west side of the camp, beyond which lay the minefield protecting the facility against partisan attacks.

The evening darkness allowed 300 of the nearly 600 prisoners to escape. Many died in combat or in the minefield. The prisoners locked away in Lager III were unable to join the rest. The following day, the SS and police leader in the Lublin District, Jakob Sporrenberg, arrived in Sobibór. On his order, all Jews remaining at the camp were murdered. As follows from the report submitted by the Border Police in Chełm, “weapons had to be used on many occasions while searching the camp as the prisoners put up resistance.” At the same time, a manhunt operation was launched by the police and Wehrmacht units. By early November, the Germans managed to capture and murder most of the escapees. Only approximately 50 people, Pechersky and Felhendler among them, managed to survive until the end of the war.

After the escape, Pechersky and his companions crossed the river Bug and joined a Soviet partisan group. His unit was later incorporated into the Red Army and Pechersky himself assigned to a penal battalion. He died in 1990 in Rostov-on-Don. Felhendler and another escapee were sheltered by a Polish family near Żółkiewka. He survived until the end of the German occupation and was one of the first prisoners of the camp to submit his testimony. He was killed under unclear circumstances in April 1945 in Lublin. A dozen or so escapees enlisted with communist or Jewish partisan groups, including Eda Waldman and Icchak Lichtman who got married soon afterwards. A Polish farmer sheltered and saved Chaim Engel and his future wife, one of only two Dutch Jewish women to have survived Sobibór – Selma Wijnberg. The brothers Symcha and Filip (Fiszel) Białowicz from Izbica and Tomasz (Toivi) Blatt managed to survive under similar circumstances.

The prisoner rebellion and escape sealed the fate of the camp which had already played its horrific part in the process of the destruction of Jews. Similarly to other operation “Reinhardt” facilities, the Germans proceeded to dismantle the camp infrastructure and cover up traces of their crimes. To this end, several hundred prisoners were brought in from the death camp in Treblinka and later shot once their work was done.

1. Participants in the prisoner uprising at the German death camp in Sobibór during the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the rebellion, organised on October 14, 2013. First from the left is Filip Białowicz (1929–2016), next to him is Tomasz Blatt (1927–2015), on the right is Jules Schelvis (1921–2016) from the Netherlands, who was sent to the labour camp in Dorohucza upon arriving in Sobibór.

2. Photograph taken in August 1944. It shows, among others, the participants of the uprising in Sobibór: standing first from the right is Lejba Felhendler, first from the left – Mejer Ziss. Sitting second from the left is Josef Herszman, third from the left – Zelda Metz. / USHMM

3a, 3b. A report from March 17, 1944 containing the names of the German border police officers from Chełm, who after the uprising scoured the camp and shot the extant prisoners.

4. A dispatch of the German gendarmerie in Włodawa with information about killing a guard and escaping 28 Jews from the Sobibór camp on July 23, 1943.

Author: Jakub Chmielewski

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