The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Liquidation of the Camps
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C. Acts of Resistance and the Organization of the Revolt in Sobibor

The effort to preserve the secrecy of the Sobibor annihilation camp was more successful than for other annihilation camps, including Belzec (from which only one man managed to escape). The security arrange ments in Sobibor wcre very tight and severe from the earliest stages, and the number of those who escaped en route to the camp and from the camp itself was small compared to Treblinka. In the first period of the camp's operation--May to July 1942--approximately 100,000 Jews were murdered in Sobibor. But fewer transports were sent there than to Treblinka, and the total number of Jews murdered in Sobibor came to about 250,000, whereas in Treblinka the number reached 875,000. (The figure quoted here is based on research that will shortly be published in my book Treblinka--Ovdan ve-Mered, Tel Aviv, 1983)

The relatively smaller number of transports enabled better security of the camp area and prevention of escapes from it, thereby forestalling the filtering out of information about what was taking place there. Rumors about the existence of the Sobibor extermination camp only reached the nearest communities, Wlodawa and Chelm. We have very little information about escapes from Sobibor, and what there is is not based on direct testimony of escapees nor even on the testimony of people who met the escapees. We know, for example, that on Christmas in 1943, five Jewish prisoners (two of them women), along with two Ukrainian guards, escaped from the extermination area in Sobibor (called Camp 3). But a Polish farmer informed on them and in the pursuit carried out by the "Blue [Polish] Police" they managed to shoot and kill the two Ukrairuans and one of the women. As reprisal for the escape, several hundred prisoners were shot to death in the camp. (Tatiana Berenstein, "Obozy pracy przymusowej dla Zydow w Dystrykcie Lubelskirn," BZIH, No. 24, 1957, p. 16. The Blue Police --the Polish police force that worked for the Germans.)

In another instance known to us, a prisoner escaped from the main camp (called in Sobibor--Camp 1) by hiding in a freight car among piles of clothing being sent from Sobibor to Germany; he made his way to Chelm. It appears that he is the person who spread the word in Chelm about what was happening in Sobibor. When the last transport of Jews from Chelm was en route to Sobibor, toward the end of February 1943, there were indeed a number of escape attempts (Ilya Ehrenburg, ed., 'Merder fun Felker--Materyalen vegen di Retsikhes fun di Daytshishe farkhaper in die Tsyvaylik okupirte sovyetishe raiyonen', Moscow, 1944-1945. According to the testimony of Haim Poroznik [in the book by Ehrenburg, p. 15], the escape took place in February 1943.) made from the train. A transport of people from Wlodawa, which arrived in Sobibor on April 30, 1943, also resisted when ordered to get off the train at the Sobibor platform. Another such instance occurred on October 11, 1943, when the people resisted going to the gas chambers and broke out in flight. Some were killed near the fences, and the others were caught and brought to the gas chambers. (Alexander Pechorsky, 'Der Oifstand in Sobibor', Moscow, 1946, pp. 40-41. Ehrenburg, op. cit., p. 14; group testimony by survivors of Sobibor, YVA, 0-3/2352, p. 62; Ruckerl, op. cit., p. 168)

Talk about the possibility of resistance and escape began to circulate at the end of 1942 or beginning of 1943. One of the ideas raised was poisoning the SS people. (Ibid., p. 186. Adam Rutkowski, "Ruch oporu w hitlerowskim obozie stracen Sobibor," BZIH, No. 65-66, 1968, pp. 14-15) But all of this early talk did not lead to concrete results, and for the period until the middle of 1943 we have no reliable information on organizing for escape. In late June 1943, after the liquidation of the camp at Belzec, the 600 prisoners who still remained in the camp were brought to Sobibor. They were told that they were being brought to Germany to work, but when they arrived at Sobibor they were removed, in groups of ten, and shot on the spot. From a note found among the clothing of the murdered, the Sobibor prisoners learned that those who had been killed were from work groups in the Belzec camp. The note said: We worked for a year in Belzec. I don't know where they're taking us now. They say to Germany. In the freight cars there are dining tables. We received bread for three days, and tins and liquor. If all this is a lie, then know that death awaits you too. Don't trust the Germans. Avenge our blood! (There are several different versions of the exact wording of the note; possibly there was more than one. Testimony of Leon Feldhendler, 'Dokumenty', Vol. I, 'Obozy', p. 207) The Sobibor prisoners now understood with greater certainty what fate awaited them. The slowed-down tempo of transports at the end of July--because of the cessation of the transports from Holland-- added to the feeling that the end was approaching. All this led to more intensive organization by the underground and more attempts to escape from the camp. A short time after the murder of the people from Belzec, two prisoners cut the camp fences one night and succeeded in getting away. On the following day at the roll-call, twenty arbitrarily selected prisoners were shot to death in reprisal. The SS men announced that this method of collective punishment--for each prisoner to es- cape ten would be shot--would be used in reprisal for all instances of escape. (Testimony of Tomasz (Tuvia) Blat, YVA, 0-3/713, pp. 69-70; Moshe Bahir, "Ha-Mered ha-Gadol be-Sobibor," 'Pirsume Museum ha-Lohamim ve-ha-Partizanim', April 1944, p. 12)

Previous to that event, one night in June 1943, the prisoners were suddenly taken from their barracks and kept for a number of hours under heavy guard by the Ukrainians; then shots were heard from the area of the camp's fences. On the next day the prisoners learned from the Ukrainians that Soviet partisans had tried to get near the camp. (Testimony of Z. Ida Matz, Dokumenty, Vol. I, Obozy, p. 213. It should be noted that in the various sources concerning partisan activity in the Sobibor area, no mention is made of any outside attempts to attack the camp.)

It should be noted that in that same period there were several instances of Ukrainian guards fleeing and joining the partisans. As a precaution against escape by both prisoners and guards alike, and against partisan activity in the area around Sobibor (especially east of the Bug), in July 1943 Wehrmacht soldiers laid a minefield 15 meters wide around the camp. In addition, west of Camp 1 a water channel was dug between the prisoners' barracks and the conifer thicket in the camp. In direct response to the escapes by the Ukrainians, the camp commanders decided to arm only those guards actually doing guard duty, and they were each given only five bullets. When they learned of the escapes, the prisoners tried to establish contact with the partisans via the Ukrainians. (Rutkowski, op. cit., pp. 16-17; testimony of Blat, op. elf., pp. 69-70) They were unsuccessful.

On July 5, 1943, Himmler ordered that Sobibor be converted into a concentration camp whose installations would serve as a depot for captured Soviet ammunition, which would be reprocessed by the camp's prisoners. According to this order the camp was to be placed under the concentration-camp administration in the head office of the SS. (Ruckerl, op. Cit., p. 176) Following the order construction work for storing the captured ammunition was begun in the northern part of the camp (called in Sobibor--Camp 4). At the same time, a work group that came to be called the Wald-Kommando ("forest commando"), numbering forty people (half of them Jews from Poland, and half Jews from Holland), began to work cutting down trees in a forest several kilometers from Sobibor. The wood was needed for construction of the new installations. A squad of seven Ukrainians and two SS men was assigned to guard the work group. One day two of the prisoners (Shlomo Pudhalebnik and Yosef Kurz, both of them from Poland), accompanied by a Ukrainian guard, were sent to gel water from the nearby village. on the way there, the two killed the guard, took his gun and fled. When the incident was discovered, work was immediately stopped, and the men of the Wald-Kommando were taken back to the camp. Suddenly, at an agreed-upon signal, the Polish Jews in the group broke out into a general flight. Ten of them were caught, some were shot while fleeing, and only eight managed to get away. The Dutch Jews in the Wald-Kommando decided not to join in the escape attempt, fearing that their lack of knowledge of the language and unfamiliarity with the region would grearly diminish their chances of finding refuge. The ten prisoners who were caught, among them the Capo, were brought to the camp and were shot in full view of all the prisoners. (Testimony of Blat,, op. cit., pp. 74-75; Matz, op. cit., p. 212; testimony of Abraham Wang, who was one of the members of the forest commando who succeeded in escaping, YVA, 0-3/4139, pp. 6-7)

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