Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sobibor Part 4

From the various traditional writings about the revolt of October 14, 1943, with only slight variations, the uprising can be reconstructed: On this morning, each of the present SS men was asked in the course of the afternoon at a specified time to come into a workshop a warehouse or an office. They may want a new suit or a leather coat or to try on a jacket or a pair of shoes that belonged to a murdered inmate, come and take a closer look and examine the newly-built shelves. At first everything went according to plan. Leon Feldhendler supervised Camp II, Alexander Petcherchersky watching over Camp I. The exchange of information between the two concerned was done by young boys called "Putzer", which were able to move as servants of the SS within the camps quite freely. Stanislaw Szmajzner pretended to have to repair something on the roof of the armoury. From there he could get inside, and take three rifles and ammunition and have them smuggled out. A Czech electrician cut off all connections to the outside. Hidden money and valuables which should help them move forward after a successful escape were distributed to the insurgents.

Scale model of Sobibor marking a few of the sites.
The killing of the SS men initially worked quickly and smoothly as planned. Greed and punctuality were found to be a reliable constant of the plan. After SS Sergeant Josef Wolf was killed first in a warehouse building of Camp II while trying on a leather jacket with a blow with an axe, there was no turning back. The rebellion had begun. In Camp I  the 16-year old Yehuda Lerner struck SS Sergeant Siegfried Graetschuss down with a hatchet, who was commander of the Ukrainian guards. Lerner had, after his parents were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, previously fled from eight camps before, he was brought together with Russian prisoners of war from Minsk to Sobibor. Also Untersturmführer Niemann deputy to commander of the day, met on his horse one time in front of the assembly hall (Lagerhalle), where he was liquidated. At 16.45 o'clock in Camp II four SS-men had been killed. But SS Sergeant Karl Frenzel did not come as planned into the carpentry and Walter Ryba arrived unexpectedly in the garage and surprised one of the rebels who stabbed him to death. Because the danger was that his body could be discovered there, Petchersky decided to give the signal for the evening roll call a little earlier than usual.
This unfortunately  was the beginning of the scheduled  rebellion slowly spiralling out of control. Among the prisoners there was ​​wide unrest, and they began to diverge and ran in all directions. As an ethnic German(Volksdeutscher) tried to stand in their way, he was trapped by the crowd and killed.[This statement by the researcher is wrong, the killer was the 16 year old Yehuda Lerner, who emigrated later on to Israel.sic] They all crowded towards the main entrance. Some ran to the armoury. There was an SS man, Karl Dubois severely injured by a blow with an axe and a gunshot wound and had lost consciousness. Erich Bauer, who described himself as " Gas Meister of Sobibor", arrived unexpectedly with a truck at the gate, and when he saw the confusion, he immediately opened fire on the prisoners. The Ukrainian guards started to shoot from their watchtowers onto the fugitives. Frenzel, startled by the noise rushed forward with a machine gun and also began to shoot into the crowd. 60 prisoners who returned from Camp IV at the usual time for roll call came too late to join the fugitives. Their captors held them back when they heard the shots. They were taken to a barrack and shot during the night.

After the revolt, the bodies of SS and Ukrainian casualties were buried in Lublin.

An estimated 365 people managed to escape from the camp, about 200 of them did manage to reach the woods. Only 47 prisoners of the Sobibor camp, however, survived  the end of the war. About 150 refugees became victims and were hunted down by  German trackers or had been denounced by anti-Semitic Poles or murdered by them. The 47 prisoners had to go through  another odyssey of fear, hunger, cold and privation before they could crawl out of their hiding places or leave partisan groups until the withdrawal of German troops from Poland in the summer of 1944, often pass false identities to start a new life.
[Prior to the above events took place, Petchersky's girlfriend Luka came to the carpentry workshop. Petchersky told her what was happening, to be ready for escape within half an hour, and to change into men's clothes. Although she had been very close to Petchersky, he had never revealed to her the preparations until that very last minute. Luka was surprised about the uprising and expressed fears for the outcome. She embraced Petchersky, burst into tears, and left. After a short time, she returned dressed in men's clothes.
Petchersky clandestinely met with Feldhendler under the guise of meeting Luka, a woman he was supposedly involved with. Luka is often described as an 18 year old woman from Holland, but records indicate she was 28 and from Germany, her real name was Gertrude Poppert–Schonborn. After the war, Petchersky insisted that the relationship was platonic. Her fate after the escape was never factually established and she was never seen alive again. During an interview with Thomas Blatt, Petchersky said the following regarding Luka: "Although I knew her only about two weeks, I will never forget her. I informed her minutes before the escape of the plan. She has given me a shirt. She said, 'it's a good luck shirt, put it on right now', and I did. It's now in the museum. I lost her in the turmoil of the revolt and never saw her again."

Luka's shirt still exists and is described on May 3, 2010 by Petchersky's daughter as:
" It is very well preserved. Light gray. Has dark-gray stripes. A little worn from wear and being often washed. Long sleeves. The shirt collar has some blurred letters of the Latin alphabet which are no longer readable".sic]
[PS: Although during their brief relationship there must have been difficulties in communications, he did not speak Yiddish, or Polish, unless he spoke German,as a number of Russians did, here is a brief extract what Petchersky wrote about Luka, who told him about her feelings and thoughts:
      "Do you know where I work? In the yard where the rabbits are. It is fenced off with a wooden fence. Through the cracks you can see the naked men, women, and children as they are led to Camp III. I look and shake as in fever, but cannot turn my eyes from the sight. At times some call out, "where are they taking us"? As though they knew that someone was listening and could answer their question. I tremble and remain silent. Cry out? Tell them they are being led to their death? Will it be any help to them? On the contrary, like this, at least, they go without crying, without screaming, without humiliating themselves before their murderers. But it is so horrible, Sasha, so horrible"! sic]  
After the escape of the prisoners there were still five SS men in the camp. Two of them were in hiding, one was seriously injured. With the help of the Ukrainian guards Frenzel and Bauer were searching for the SS-men killed and took them  into a barrack. Of the 29 SS members who were at that time the staff of Sobibor, twelve were absent that day, and  twelve were dead on the evening of October 14th, Frenzel and Bauer succeeded around 20.00 hours to restore the broken links and requested support of the border guards who were stationed about 40 kilometres in the southern city of Chelm. In the camp there were probably still another 150 inmates. The following day, a police task force arrived together with the Border Police Commissioner of Chelm, and a group of members of the armed forces(Wehrmacht) and police protection in order to pursue the fugitives, and to secure the camp grounds. In the afternoon, appeared SS-group leader Jokob Sporrenberg, the successor of Odilo Globocnik  acting now as SS and Police Leader of the Lublin district, and ordered the execution of all remaining prisoners, including the able-bodied out of camp III, by Ukrainian guards. (Globocnik had left Lublin in September 1943 together with a group SS men and a group of Ukrainian guards in the direction of Istria in Italy). Teams with a total of 400-500 men searched now the surroundings of Sobibor systematically with dogs, and even air-planes were used. About 100 escapees were killed in the course of these searches.
Himmler ordered the camp to be levelled to the ground and ensure to destroy all traces. The ammunition stored there was to be taken away. A group of about 300 prisoners from Treblinka came to Sobibor to the site and to destroy and conceal the traces of the crime. In November 1943, these last prisoners were murdered, the last SS men and Ukrainians leaving Sobibor in December 1944.
Globocnik, who continued after his transfer to Trieste was still responsible for "Aktion Reinhardt" and sent, on 4 November 1943 a message as to the completion and the resolution of the three death camps to Himmler. He in turn  thanked him on 30 November 1943: "I speak to you for your great and unique contribution which you have done in implementing the Action Reinhardt and receive from the entire German people, my thanks and my appreciation."
PETCHERSKY (The spelling of his name differs in some documents.sic)
At Sobibor
On 18 September 1943, Pechersky, along with 2,000 Jews from Minsk including about 100 Soviet Jewish POWs, was placed in a train cattle car which arrived at the Sobibor extermination camp on September 23, 1943. Eighty prisoners from the train, including Pechersky, were selected for work in Lager II. The remaining 1,920 Jews were immediately led to the gas chambers. Pechersky later recalled his thoughts as the train pulled up to Sobibor, "How many circles of hell were there in Dante's Inferno? It seems there were nine. How many have already passed? Being surrounded, being captured, camps in Vyazma, Smolensk, Borisov, Minsk... And finally I am here. What's next?" The appearance of Soviet POW's produced an enormous impression on Sobibor prisoners: "hungry hope-filled eyes following their every move".
Pechersky wrote about his first day in Sobibor:
 I was sitting outside on a pile of logs in the evening with Solomon (Shlomo) Leitman, who subsequently became my top commander in the uprising. I asked him about the huge, strange fire burning 500 meters away from us behind some trees and about the unpleasant smell throughout the camp. He warned me that the guards forbade looking there, and told me that they are burning the corpses of my murdered comrades who arrived with me that day. I did not believe him, but he continued: He told me that the camp existed for more than a year and that almost every day a train came with two thousand new victims who are all murdered within a few hours. He said around 500 Jewish prisoners – Polish, French, German, Dutch and Czechoslovak work here and that my transport was the first one to bring Russian Jews. He said that on this tiny plot of land, no more than 10 hectares, (24.7 acres or .1 square kilometre) hundreds of thousands of Jewish women, children and men were murdered. I thought about the future. Should I try to escape alone or with a small group? Should I leave the rest of the prisoners to be tortured and murdered? I rejected this thought.
During his third day at Sobibor, Alexander Pechersky earned the respect of fellow prisoners by standing up to Karl Frenzel, an SS senior officer,(he was SS-Oberscharführer,which is  a Technical Sergeant an NCO,not an officer,sic) as the incident was recalled by Leon Feldhendler.
Pechersky, still wearing his Soviet Army uniform, was assigned to dig up tree stumps in the North Camp. Frenzel was in charge because an underling was elsewhere and was in a bad mood. Frenzel was waiting for an excuse to pick on someone since he considered himself an officer and a gentleman and waited for some reason to begin his sadistic games. One Dutch Jew was too weak to chop a stump so Frenzel began beating him with his whip.
Pechersky stopped chopping and watched the whipping while resting on his axe. Kapo Porzyczki translated when Frenzel asked Pechersky if he didn’t like what he saw. Pechersky didn't bow down, shake or cower in fear but answered, Yes Oberscharfuhrer. Franzel told Pechersky that he had 5 minutes to split a large tree stump in two. If Pechersky beat the time he would receive a pack of cigarettes, if he lost, he would be whipped 25 times. Franzel looked at his watch, and said: Begin.
Pechersky split the stump in four and a half minutes and Frenzel held out a pack of cigarettes and announced that he always does as he promises. Pechersky replied that he doesn’t smoke, turned around and got back to chopping down new tree stumps. Frenzel came back twenty minutes later with fresh bread and butter and offered it to Pechersky. Pechersky replied that the rations at the concentration camp were more than adequate and that he wasn’t hungry. Frenzel turned around and left, leaving Kapo Porzyczki in charge. That evening, this episode of defiance spread throughout Sobibor. This episode influenced the leadership of the Polish Jews to approach Pechersky about ideas for an escape plan.
Pechersky's plan merged the idea of a mass escape with vengeance: to help as many prisoners as possible to escape while executing SS officers and guards. His final goal was to join up with the partisans and continue fighting the Nazis.
Five days after arriving at Sobibor, Pechersky was again approached by Solomon Leitman on behalf of Leon Feldhendler, the leader of the camp's Polish Jews Leitman was one of the few prisoners who understood Russian and Pechersky didn't speak either Yiddish or Polish. Pechersky was invited to talk with a group of Jewish prisoner leaders from Poland, to whom he spoke about the Red Army victory in the Battle of Stalingrad and partisan victories. When one of the prisoners asked him why the partisans won't rescue them from Sobibor, Pechersky allegedly replied: "What for? To free us all? The partisans have their hands full already. Nobody will do our job for us."
The Jewish prisoners who had worked at the Bełżec extermination camp were sent to Sobibor to be exterminated when Bełżec closed. 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!"
The leadership of the Polish Jews was aware that Belzec and Treblinka had been closed, dismantled and all remaining prisoners had been sent to the gas-chambers and they suspected that Sobibor would be next. There was a great urgency in coming up with a good escape plan, and Pechersky, with his army experience, was their best hope. The escape had to also coincide with the time when the Sobibor's deputy commandant Gustav Wagner went on vacation, since the prisoners felt that he was sharp enough to uncover the escape plan.
Immediately after the escape, in the forest, a group of 50 prisoners followed Pechersky. After some time, Pechersky informed the Polish Jews that he along with a few Soviet Jewish soldiers would enter the nearby village and then shortly return with food. They collected all the money and weapons except one rifle but never came back. In 1980, Thomas Blatt asked Perchensky why he abandoned the other survivors. Pechersky answered:
My job was done. You were Polish Jews in your own terrain. I belonged in the Soviet Union and still considered myself a soldier. In my opinion, the chances for survival were better in smaller units. To tell the people straight forward: "we must part" would not have worked. You have seen, they followed every step of mine, we all would perish. [...] what can I say? You were there. We were only people. The basic instincts came into play. It was still a fight for survival. This is the first time I hear about money collection. It was a turmoil, it was difficult to control everything. I admit, I have seen the imbalance in the distribution of the weaponry, but you must understand, they would rather die than to give up their arms.
Pechersky, along with two other escapees, wandered the forests until they ran into Yakov Biskowitz, and another Sobibor escapee. Biskowitz testified at the Eichmann Trial regarding the meeting:
The two of us wandered through the forests, until we met Sasha Pechersky. There were three of them whom I came across. One had weak legs. They wore white clothes made of hand-woven material. They had sunk into mud after escaping. After that, we met together. There were now five of us – we walked to the Skrodnitze forests. There we met the first Jewish partisans called Yehiel's Group (under Yehiel Grynszpan) – it was a group of Jews who had undertaken action. We engaged in sabotaging railway lines, cutting telephone wires, hit-and-run attacks on German army units."
The two Russian Jewish soldiers who Yahov Biskowitz met with Pechersky were Alexander Shubayev (who was responsible for executing SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann; was later killed fighting the Germans) and Arkady Moishejwicz Wajspapier (who was responsible for executing SS-Oberscharführer Siegfried Graetschus and Volksdeutscher Ivan Klatt; survived the war). For over a year Pechersky fought with the Yehiel's Group partisans as a demolition expert and later with the Soviet group of Voroshilov Partisans, until the Red Army drove out the Germans from Belarus.
As an escaped POW, Pechersky was conscripted into a special penal battalions, conforming to Stalin's Order No. 270 and was sent to the front to fight German forces in some of the toughest engagements of the war. Pechersky's battalion commander, Major Andreev, was so shocked by his description of Sobibor that he permitted Pechersky to go to Moscow and speak to the Commission of Inquiry of the Crimes of Fascist-German Aggressors and their Accomplices. The Commission listened to Pechersky and published the report Uprising in Sobibor based on his testimony. This report was included in the Black Book, one of the first comprehensive compilations about the Holocaust, written by Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg.
For fighting the Germans as part of the penal battalions, Pechersky was promoted to the rank of captain and received a medal for bravery. He was eventually discharged after a serious foot injury. In a hospital in Moscow, he was introduced to his future wife, Olga Kotova.
After the end of World War II, Pechersky returned to Rostov-on-Don, where he lived before the war, and started working as administrator in an Operetta theatre. The mass murder of Jews at the Sobibor death camp became part of the charges against leading Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. The International Tribunal at Nuremberg wanted to call Pechersky as a witness, but the Soviet government wouldn't allow him to travel to Germany to testify.
In 1948, during the Soviet persecution of Jews known as 'Rootless cosmopolitan' campaign, explained as the removal of subversives who lacked full allegiance to the Soviet Union, Pechersky was fired from his job and imprisoned along with his brother. Only after Stalin's death in 1953 and mounting international pressure for his release, was Pechersky freed. His brother however succumbed to a diabetic coma while in prison. Pechersky was permitted to resume working at a small amateur musical theatre but this time at a demoted position.
The Soviet government prevented Pechersky from testifying at the Eichmann Trial in Israel, only allowing a short deposition in Moscow which was controlled by the KGB. In 1963, he appeared as a witness during the Soviet trial of 11 former Ukrainian guards at Sobibor; all of whom were convicted and 10 of whom were executed. According to his daughter in an interview, Pechersky was prevented by the Soviet Union government from testifying in multiple international trials related to Sobibor. The final time Pechersky was refused to leave the country and testify was in 1987 at a trial in Poland, and according to his daughter, this refusal "just crippled my father. He almost stopped getting out of bed and instantly aged."
Alexander Pechersky died on January 19, 1990, and was buried at the northern cemetery in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. As of 2009, Pechersky's daughter, granddaughter and two great-grandsons live in Rostov-on-Don (his niece, her son and their descendants live in the United States).sic]
Alexander Pechersky (third from left) and other members of his group, former Soviet prisoners of war, Jews who were in Sobibor and who lived in the Soviet Union. A gathering in memory of the uprising.
The main instigators for the murder of European Jews, Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Heydrich were dead at the end of the war, or had avoided responsibility by suicide for their actions. Even the most responsible for the Planning and Organization of "Aktion Reinhardt" could not be brought to justice: Odilo Globocnik had after his arrest by the British military personnel on May 31 1945 committed  suicide in Italy, his deputy, Christian Wirth was killed in May 1944 by Italian partisans. Only a small proportion of men who killed in the Sobibor , were indicted by German courts. Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, who had succeeded to escape from Italy to Brazil and lived there until its discovery in 1967.  He was sentenced after his extradition to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1970 by the District Court of Düsseldorf to life imprisonment and died shortly afterwards in his jail cell. Also Gustav Wagner, his deputy at Sobibor, escaped to Brazil. When he was discovered his extradition to Germany was likely, he committed suicide. However, there were rumours that he had not taken his own life.
In Kiev in the 1960s Ukrainian guards were indicted in two trials for crimes in the camps of "Aktion Reinhardt" by Soviet courts. Alexander Petchersky appeared there as a witness. The court imposed 13 death sentences and one life imprisonment.
The following is a brief extract from another source for which I did not receive permission to use as background material, or publish:
October 14 was a clear, sunny autumn day. It began as any routine day-with morning roll call and the prisoners dispersing to their workplaces. The atmosphere was tense, however. Many felt that something unusual was going on that day. A sharp eye would have noticed that some of the prisoners had put on their best clothes and boots. Those who were privy to the secret of impending uprising removed money and valuables from their hiding places in the hope that this would increase their chances for survival once they were outside the camp. The Underground Committee even directed the members of the Underground to remove any valuables in the workshops or warehouses and distribute them among the trustworthy prisoners.
   Pechersky was at his command post in th carpentry workshop from the morning hours. Through the window he had a good view of the square in Camp I. With him was another prisoner of war, Simon Rosenfeld. The main group of about twenty Underground members, mainly prisoners of war, were working in the nearby barrack, under command of Leitman, preparing wooden bunks. These prisoners had been selected by Pechersky. Leitman and Yanek to carry out the liquidation of the SS-men and the breakout from the camp. Among them were Boris Tsibulsky, Alexander Shubayev, and Arkady Vaipapir. Feldhendler , who was to command the action in Camp II, had taken up his position in the warehouse in that part of the camp from the morning hours. Communications between Pechersky and Feldhendler were handled by some young "putzers" who were able able to move freely between Camp I and II. Yanek was in charge of coordinating the "invitations" of the SS-men to workshops in Camp I. According to the plan, this was scheduled between 16:00 and 16:30 hours.
   At ten o'clock in the morning, at a short meeting of Pechersky, Yanek and Leitman, Yanek informed the others that the SS-men had been asked to the workshops. Untersturmführer Josef Niemann, the acting commander of the camp, was scheduled to come to the tailor workshop at four o'clock to be measured for a suit. At the same time, Oberschaführer Göttinger, the commander of Camp III, was to come to the shoe makers shop. Frenzel would be coming to the carpentry between 16:00 and 16:30 to check on a new cupboard. Other SS-men were asked to come to the workshop at intervals of fifteen to thirty minutes later.
   Pechersky was satisfied, everything seemed to be under control. He asked Leitman to send him the commanders of the battle teams one by one so that he could brief them about their assignments. The first to arrive was Shubajev.  Pechersky told him that at three o'clock he, together with another prisoner of war called Senia would go to the tailor shop armed with axes. Their task was to kill the Germans who would come there. When Tsibulsky came, Pechersky explained to him that his task was the most important. He, together with two other prisoners would be taken by Capo Pozyczka to Felhendler in Camp II. They were to liquidate the Germans there. Pechersky stressed that Tsibulsky would be the first to start the whole operation. The first blow that he would inflict, the first murder of an SS-man, would raise the prisoners' spirit and symbolize the point of no return. Once the liquidation of the SS-men began, only one way remained for the prisoners-to go ahead with the uprising and escape. The alternative was death in immediate reprisal for the killings. Tsibulsky assured Pechersky he would carry out his assignment.
   Arkady Vaispapir was next. Pechersky told him that he and Yehuda Lerner, a Polish Jew who had come to Sobibor with the Minsk transport, would take up a position inside the shoemaker shop. They had to eliminate the three SS-men who had been asked to the workshop. Nachum Plonicky and Alexey Vaitsen's assignment was to command a group of Underground members at the head of the prisoners' columns while they were marching from the evening roll call toward the gate at the last stage of the uprising. They also had to command the take-over of the SS arms store, distribute the captured weapons to the Underground members, and fight the camp guards, until the unarmed prisoners could reach the forest. Only then would they, too, retreat to the forest. Two other prisoners of war, Jefim Liwinov and Boris Tabarinsky, were put in charge of a battle team that was to cut the barbed wire fence near the camp commander's house, in case the escape through the gate would be impossible and prisoners would have to use this route from the camp.
   All the briefings were complete by noon. Zero hour was approaching. Everything seemed to be ready.
In the afternoon there was an unexpected development. At two o'clock Unterscharführer Walter Ryba came to Camp I and took  Capo Pozyczka and three other prisoners and led them away.  Ryba was armed with a sub-machine gun, which was peculiar because usually the SS men carried only pistols. This raised Pechersky's suspicion that the Germans suspected that something was going on in the camp. He connected this with Frenzel's visit to the carpentry workshop at noontime, when his attention was drawn to Yanek's new clothes. Frenzel mockingly asked Yanek whether he was preparing for a wedding. He left without further questions. The fact that Pozyczka was taken away also endangered an important part of the uprising plan. It was he that had to take Tsibusky's battle team to Camp II. Extremely disturbed about the whole matter, Perchersky asked Yanek to find out where Pozyczka had been taken. Pechersky passed an hour of nerve wracking tension until Capo Czepik came and informed him that Pzycska and the other prisoners with him had been taken to Camp IV to pile up wood. Since Ryba was not accompanied by an Ukrainian guard, he had taken a submachine gun. This calmed Pechersky's suspicions, but the problem who would take Tsibulsky's team to Camp II remained.
Pechersky asked Czepik to take Tsibulsky and his men to Camp II. Czepik answered that he was not authorized to leave Camp I, and proposed that the uprising be postponed until the next day, when Pozyczka would return to his usual post.Pechersky rejected this proposal, things had already gone to far and any delay would gravely endanger the entire plan. Too many prisoners already knew abut the planned uprising and about its leaders, and it could leak out to the German camp authorities at any moment.

Der Ort des Terrors, Vol. 8 'SOBIBOR', Publisher: C.H.Beck oHG, München 2008. Researcher/Author: Barbara Distel. Translated from German by: Herbert Stolpmann. Sponsored by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Krupp von Bohlen Foundation.

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