Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sobibór Death Camp—The Impossible Escape

The monument on the grounds of the camp which was destroyed by the Germans.

It has always chapped my ass to hear people who don’t know what the hell they are talking about wonder aloud about why “there was no resistance” when the Nazis rounded up Jews and other “undesirables” or in the labor or extermination camps.  First it is another example of blaming the victim, that always popular parlor game.  And secondly it doesn’t take into account the information that Jews had—early on even they could not imagine industrial scale murder and genocide, a term that had not yet even been conceived of—or the overwhelming, highly organized force arrayed against them.  These comments come most prominently, but not exclusively, from right wingers who want to promote an armed-to-the-teeth citizenry to resist jack booted thugs and who think concentration camp escapes could be played out like in The Great Escape and other movies.
In fact many Jews who were able attempted to escape.  Others famously went into hiding, and some joined or created resistance units.  Individuals committed—and were executed for, often along with family or community members—attacks on Nazi police, troops, and local collaborators.  There were famously organized uprisings in Warsaw and other ghettos.  But most Jews swept up in the machinery of death were unprepared, confused, and needed to be protective of family.  Once in the camps those not immediately killed were worked nearly to death, starved, frozen, and subject to disease and within weeks too physically weakened to resist.
There were at least three attempts at mass breakouts from the camps—at Treblinka on August 2, 1943 and at Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7, 1944 which included an uprising which resulted in one of the crematoriums being blown up.  In those two cases almost all of the attempted escapees were killed.  But on October 14, 1943, about 600 prisoners tried to escape from the Sobibór camp in eastern Poland.  About half got beyond the wire and about 50 survived to the end of the war.  This is their story.
Sobibór was a village in a sparsely populated region of eastern Poland.  The Nazis had established 18 labor camps in the region.  The new camp near the village was constructed in the spring of 1942 to receive Jews from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Soviet POWs and screen them for assignment to the labor camps—and quickly dispose of those deemed unsuitable or unusable.  Fewer than 1,000 inmates were held there at any time.  Many of those selected for the labor camps were there for only hours or days.  The life expectancy of the rejects was days or short weeks.
The camp was largely built by local villagers and a Sonderkommando, a group of about eighty Jews from ghettos within the vicinity of the camp guarded by a squad of Ukrainians trained at Trawniki.  Upon completion of construction, these Jews were shot. 
The gas chambers at the new camp were hooked up to large internal combustion engines which pumped in carbon monoxide rich exhaust to smother the victims.  Similar technology had been used on a smaller scale using closed busses, but this was the first major application on a large scale.  The chambers were tested in April on twenty-five Jews from Krychów who were satisfactorily asphyxiated.  After that the camp went into full operations and the nearby rail platform became a busy place.
To give an idea of how efficient the operation was, it was active from May 1942 to October 1943 when it was closed and replaced by larger and more modern camps.  But in less than 18 months at least 200,000 and perhaps as many as 250,000 men, women, and children were murdered there, the vast majority of the Jews.
Jews from Poland and the USSR knew what was going to happen to them.  They arrived in packed freight cars often hysterical with fear and grief.  Many were shot on the platform when they did not respond quickly to orders.  On the other hand at least in the early going Jews from Western Europe arrived in overcrowded passenger coaches.  They had been assured that they were going to labor camps and were allowed to bring some luggage.  Their own doctors and nurses were allowed to attend the ill in transit.  Food and water during the journey were at least adequate.  These folks received the shock of a life time arriving on the same platform.  Because many were in better health than Eastern Jews, able bodied men and women were often separated immediately from their families and sent to the work camps even before they entered Sobibór.
Attractive young women and girls were often singled out and sent to the secluded forester house run as a brothel for the camp’s SS contingent.  Post war trials highlighted the experience of two Austrian actresses, Ruth and Gisela who were gang raped there over a period of days before being taken outside and shot.  Other befell the same fate.

These men slipped away from wood cutting labor gangs outside the camp.

Some prisoners were held at the camp for longer periods as laborers including attending the gas chambers and crematoria.  Some were assigned, under heavy guard, to wood cutting beyond the camp wire for fuel for the crematoria pyres.  From time to time one would melt away into the forest and make an escape.  Some of those who did managed to find and join resistance units operating from the near wilderness.
In the spring and summer of 1943 rumors began to circulate in the camp that it was to be shut down.  This was based on a reduction in the numbers of incoming prisoners.  In actuality this was due to new camps being opened.  At this point SS officials actually had plans to expand Sobibór.  Fears of what might happen to them seemed confirmed when survivors of the Bełżec camp, one of the first Polish extermination camps which were closed, arrived at the Sobibór rail station only to be immediately shot in mass.
Polish Jews on some of the labor gangs began to organize an escape committee by late summer.  They knew that they would have to act relatively quickly before it inevitably became their turn in the gas chambers.  In September several Jewish Red Army prisoners from Minsk arrived.  Although there was initial distrust between the Poles and the Soviets, several of the POWs joined the plot and provided some military experience and leadership.  The plan was brutal in its simplicity.  On signal, prisoners would overpower and kill all of the SS men and Ukrainian guards in the camp, using hidden homemade weapons and then taking the arms of the Nazis.  They would go from barracks to barracks liberating the inmates and march out the front gates.  The Soviets and those who wished to join them would head east to try to link up with Russian troops.  Others would scatter and make their way as best they could.
On October 14, 1943 under the leadership of Polish prisoner Leon Feldhendler and Soviet POW Alexander Pechersky quickly managed to quietly overcome and kill 11 SS men and unknown number of guards.  But they were discovered and the alarm went out. Under intense fire inmates ran for their lives scrambling over, under and through the fences as they were able.  About 300 out of the 600 prisoners in the camp made it out, but they had lost cohesion.
158 inmates were killed by the guards during the escape attempt or died in the minefield surrounding the camp.  107 others were captured over the next few days as SS troops, guards, and police swept the woods.  All were immediately executed.   Of the remaining survivors 53 died of other causes before the end of the war—many of starvation, freezing to death, or illness as they hid out in the forests.   About 50 eluded capture, made it to Soviet lines, and survived the war.
After the uprising a furious Heinrich Himmler ordered the remaining prisoners killed, the camp closed, dismantled, and the ground planted with trees.  The gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed, burried, and covered over with an asphalt road way.  They were rediscovered in archeological excavations in 2012.  The site of the camp is now Polish historic site.  Monuments on the grounds and at the railway station and a small museum commemorate the dead and the uprising.  The Dutch, who lost more than 36,000 citizens famously including the Jewish Gold Medal women’s gymnasts from the 1928 Olympics, have contributed funds to the upkeep and maintenance of the site as well as newly installed signage.
After the war SS commandants, officers, and guards were tried for war crimes.  One of the most celebrated cases took years.  John Demjanjuk had been a Ukrainian POW when he was recruited along with many others as a camp guard.  He was trained at the Trawniki concentration camp.  He served as a tower guard at Sobibór.  And would have been among those who opened fire at the fleeing escapees.  After the war Demjanjuk made his way to the United States as a displaced person.  He became an American citizen, married and raised a family, settled in a suburb of Cleveland where he worked as a mechanic at a Ford plant.
In 1975 Demjanjuk was finally identified as a Ukrainian collaborator and his Nazi ID from Trawniki turned over the Justice Department, which began deportation proceedings against him two years later.  He fought his deportation for years, claiming at first that he was misidentified, and later that he was a guard but had taken part in no executions or shooting.  Israel issued an extradition request for him in 1983 and he was deported to trial there in 1986.  Despite controversy over the authenticity of the SS identification card and other issues, on April 18, 1988 Demjanjuk was convicted in the Israeli court of being the notorious guard known to prisoners as Ivan the Terrible.  He was sentenced to death.
After serving more than 5 years in solitary confinement during appeals, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the ground of new evidence that identified the real identified Ivan the Terrible as another Ukrainian, Ivan Marchenko. 
Demjanjuk was released to return to the United States. In 1993, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he was a victim of fraud on the court, as lawyers with the Office of Special Investigations had recklessly failed to disclose evidence. In a report submitted to the Sixth Circuit prior to the Israeli acquittal, Federal Judge Thomas A. Wiseman, Jr. concluded that American federal officials had erred in asserting that Demjanjuk was Ivan the Terrible, but that evidence instead pointed to Demjanjuk playing  a lesser role as an SS guard. After the Court of Appeals remanded the matter to Judge Wiseman, Judge Wiseman dismissed a denaturalization petition in 1998, effectively restoring Demjanjuk’s citizenship.
In 1999 the government filed a new civil complaint against Demjanjuk asking again for denaturalization on the grounds that he was a guard at the Sobibór and Majdanek camps in Poland under German occupation and at the Flossenburg camp in Germany. It also accused Demjanjuk of being a member of an SS-run unit that took part in capturing nearly two million Jews in the General Government of Poland.  In a new trial in 2002 he was again stripped of citizenship.  He lost an appeal in 2004 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
In December 2005 an immigration judge ordered Demjanjuk’s deportation to Germany, Poland, or the Ukraine. He sought protection under the United Nations Convention against Torture, claiming that he would be prosecuted and tortured if he were deported to Ukraine. Chief U.S. Immigration Judge Michael Creppy ruled there was no evidence to substantiate Demjanjuk's claim.  
Demjanjuk lost more appeals in his lengthy battles, finally exhausting them all.  Then Germany served extradition papers seeking custody of him.  Finally after another round of appeals seeking relief from the extradition, Demjanjuk was finally deported on May 11, 2009.  On July 13 prosecutors charged him with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder.  The aging and ill man could only briefly attend court sessions each day and his lawyers asserted that due to the complexity of the case it would take up to five years to try the case.  They ask that the case be dismissed due to his age, infirmity, and unlikelihood that he would survive the trial.  Then the Ukrainian government interceded on his behalf arguing for mercy.  None the less the trial got underway in November.
On May 12, 2011, Demjanjuk, then 91, was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews and sentenced to five years in prison.  He was released pending appeal and died in a German nursing home on March 17, 2012.  The German high court then invalidated the conviction since the appeal could not be heard.
Justice ground slowly for the accused guard.  It ground not at all for the dead of Sobibór.

In 1987 Escape from Sobibor was filmed as a British made-for-TV movie starring Rutger Hauer and Alan Arkin which was also shown on CBS TV in the states.  Hauer won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Soviet POW leader Lieutenant Aleksandr Pechersky.


  1. The term 'Polish extermination camps' is offensive and incorrect. The German Nazis established the camps on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

  2. While towards the end of your article you refer to Poland as occupied, the terms "in Poland" should read "German occupied Poland", or "occupied Poland" in the whole article. "Nazi occupied Poland" would not be acceptable as Poland was occupied by another state, not a political party.

  3. Dear Patrick,
    Interesting blog but there is an issue with para 11, sentence: "...one of the first Polish extermination camps which were closed,...".
    This contains an offensive inaccuracy albeit it was probably an inadvertent error.
    There were NO "Polish extermination camps". All the camps were Nazi German. This camp, like some others, was built and operated by the Nazi Germans following their invasion and the brutal Nazi German OCCUPATION of Poland.
    It is also worth noting that the occupation and camps were instruments of the sovereign GERMAN state and NOT the Nazi (political) party.
    The word "Polish" must not be used as a sloppy shortcut to describe geography since it confuses the responsibility for the camp. The victims are being mixed up with the actual German perpetrators.
    It would also be less misleading when writing about this geography to state "in German occupied Poland" rather than just "in Poland".
    Eg: Para 3, "...the Sobibór camp in eastern Poland" would be more truthful and accurate as: "... the GERMAN Sobibór camp in eastern (Nazi) OCCUPIED Poland".
    The distinctions are important.
    Thanking you in the hope of your understanding.
    Best Regards,

    PS. When President Obama made a similar mistake, he was quick to apologize and issue a correction.

  4. Mr. Murfin, I am a student of history as well as the son of a World War II Polish Army officer who was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, so I read with interest your account of Jewish resistance within Nazi death camps. You're correct; contrary to common belief, many Jews did try to resist, though in most cases, unsuccessfully. However, permit me to join a few others in commenting on the following passage: "Fears of what might happen to them seemed confirmed when survivors of the Bełżec camp, one of the first Polish extermination camps which were closed, arrived at the Sobibór rail station..."

    It's clear that you know that during the war Poland was occupied by the Germans (and, at various times, by the Soviets, generally Russians). More to the point, Poland, as an independent state, did not exist during that time. Hence, even phrases like "occupied Poland" and "sparsely populated region of eastern Poland" are, arguably, inaccurate. (The part of pre-war Poland that the Germans named the "General Government" ["Generalgouvernement"] was not, in any sense, Poland, either.) Nevertheless, descriptions such as "German-occupied Poland" have been used for decades by historians, so most knowledgeable people can accept them as reasonably acceptable.

    The more significant inaccuracy lies in the use of terms like "Polish extermination camp," "Polish concentration camp" and "Polish death camp." Such terms are not just historically incorrect, but they represent an injustice to a nation that, for almost six years, not only fought tenaciously against both the Nazis and the Soviets, but also, by most measures, suffered more than any other nation under the brutal occupation of both totalitarian occupiers. I believe that most media references to "Polish death camps," "Polish concentrations camps" and the like result from careless editing or simple misinformation. Nevertheless, in an America that is (unfortunately) ill-informed about history in general, and about World War II in particular, such terms foster, or reinforce, harmful and unjust misconceptions about the primary responsibility for history's most grievous atrocities.

    I respectfully request that you post a correction clarifying that there were no Polish death camps, only Nazi German camps, and that, in fact, all such camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Chełmno, Majdanek and Tręblinka) on formerly Polish territory were established and operated by the German occupiers of Poland. It also bears mentioning (if only to inform generally uninformed readers) that their inmates and victims included many non-Jews, most prominently, Poles.

    I also suggest that your paper's style guide be revised accordingly to help prevent similar errors in the future--and to avoid offending your readers in the Polish-American community, which includes a dwindling number of German concentration-camp survivors, as well many others whose parents or grandparents either passed through or were killed in such camps.

    Finally, permit me to point out that, as a result of efforts by the Kosciuszko Foundation and other Polish American groups The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other major media organizations have revised their style guides to emphasize the fact that the camps in question were Nazi, not Polish. I'm sure you join me in the hope that others can be similarly informed and led to avoid related errors in the future--primarily, in the interest of journalistic accuracy, but also to avoid offending the Polish American community, which includes a dwindling few survivors of Nazi camps, as well many others whose parents or grandparents either passed through or were killed in such camps.

    Andy Ladak