UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page > Student essay
The Successful Escape From Sobibor
on: Richard Rashke, Escape From Sobibor: The Heroic Story of
the Jews Who Escaped From A Nazi Death Camp
by Kristen Dimperio
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Kristen Dimperio
I am a senior at UCSB majoring in business economics with an emphasis in accounting. I have found World War II and all of its dynamics fascinating since I was in high school. This is my third class on the history of Germany and I have been very interested in the revolt at Sobibor.
Abstract (back to top)
Richard Rashke's book Escape From Sobibor is a story about the death camp Sobibor, the prisoners there, and, most importantly, the Sobibor revolt. The revolt at Sobibor was the most successful revolt during World War II in any camp. In this essay, I argue that the only reason this revolt was more successful than other revolts was because the prisoners had luck on their side. There were four main incidents that proved the prisoners had luck on their side. The first incident was that Sergeant Gomerski and Sergeant Wagner were on leave at the time of the escape. They were two of the smartest officers in the camp, and if they had been there, "they would have sniffed the escape out like a dog" (Rashke 319). There was no reason for these two men to be on leave at the time and this proved that the prisoners had luck on their side. The second incident was the murder of Sergeant Goetzinger. The Ukrainians secretly killed Goetzinger at Sobibor before the planned escape. The Ukranians had no knowledge of the planned escape and only killed him because they did not like him. Sergeant Greischutz replaced Goetzinger, and luckily, with a new commander, the Ukrainians were even more confused when the revolt happened. The third incident was that no one noticed that the telephone wires were cut until it was too late. The fourth incident was that all of the SS officers that they tricked, suspected nothing and went along with what the prisoners had asked them to do, so the killings could go according to plan. With luck on the prisoners' side, nothing went wrong on the day of the escape.
Essay (back to top)
In the spring of 1942, three death camps were built as part of Himmler’s top-secret program, which would later be called “Operation Reinhard.” The three camps were Belzec, which opened in March and was located southeast of the large Lublin ghetto, Treblinka, which opened in June and was located northeast of Warsaw, and Sobibor, which opened in April and was located northeast of Lublin. To run the three death camps, Himmler chose ninety-six SS men who had already had experience with gas chambers, mainly from working in Hitler’s euthanasia program. Every Jewish person sent to one of these camps “was to be gassed within twenty-four hours, with the exception of between a hundred and six hundred Jews chosen to maintain the camp” (Rashke, vii). Eventually, these men and women chosen to maintain the camp would be killed as well. Within these three camps there were several revolts, but there were none as successful as the revolt at Sobibor. On October 14, 1943, over three hundred Jews, which was over half of the prisoners there, successfully escaped Sobibor, and there were forty-seven Sobibor Jews that were still alive in 1982, according to Rashke. The revolt at Sobibor was the most successful revolt during World War II in any camp. But why was the revolt at Sobibor so successful? I believe the main reason the revolt was successful, based on the evidence given in Richard Rashke’s book, Escape From Sobibor: The Heroic Story of the Jews Who Escaped from a Nazi Death Camp, was due to luck and coincidence. There were four main events, including the death of SS Sergeant Greischutz, the absence of Sergeant Gomerski and Sergeant Wagner, the fact that no one noticed that the telephone wires were cut until it was too late, and the fact that none of the guards in Sobibor got suspicious that anything was out of the ordinary that day, were important coincidences that enabled the uprising to succeed.
Of the forty-seven survivors who were still alive when he researched his book, Rashke interviewed eighteen, including Thomas Blatt, Shlomo Szmajzner, Selma Wijnberg, Chaim Engel, Esther Terner-Raab and Alexander Pechersky. Thomas Blatt entered Sobibor at the age of fifteen, did numerous jobs around Sobibor and was a watchman during the revolt. Shlomo Szmajzner was fifteen when he came to Sobibor, became the head goldsmith at the camp, and during the revolt stole guns from the Ukrainian barracks for himself and the other prisoners to use during the outbreak. Selma Wijnberg was a Dutch Jew who entered Sobibor at the age of twenty-one, and was a sorter in Camp II. A sorter was someone who sorted the belongings of the Jews who had been gassed. Chaim Engel, also a sorter at Sobibor, stabbed and ultimately killed Sergeant Beckmann, an SS officer, during the revolt. Once out of the camp, Engel married Selma Wijnberg. Esther Terner-Raab was a knitter at Sobibor, and later was a witness at some of the war crime trials of the Sobibor Nazis. Alexander Pechersky was a Russian officer who had been in and out of different camps for two years before he had entered Sobibor and became co-leader of the revolt. Later, he was called the hero of Sobibor for leading the prisoners out of the death camp. Another co-leader in the revolt was Leon Feldhendler. Feldhendler was one of the three hundred survivors who successfully escaped from Sobibor, however, he was killed by the Poles before the war was over. Together, these prisoners helped succeed in revolting against the Nazis and made history by organizing the largest and most successful revolt in any camp.
At the end of September 1943, Feldhelder sensed that the end was near for them and if they did not revolt soon, they would be killed, just like the others had been in the gas chambers at Sobibor. The two other death camps, Treblinka and Belzec, had already been closed down permanently. The prisoners at Treblinka had tried to escape by burning down the camp and killing some Nazis, but only a handful escaped and the others were killed. The last of the Belzec prisoners were brought to Sobibor and were shot and killed the moment they arrived. The prisoners knew that it would be their time soon enough and they had to think of a plan immediately. Some of the strongest prisoners, including Pechersky and Feldhendler, built an organization to plan a breakout for all of the Sobibor prisoners. Once they had finally come up with a strong enough plan, they decided on the date they would escape. They had first planned for the date of the escape to be October 13, however, a train filled with SS officers came to the camp to visit Sobibor that day. With so many SS officers at the camp it was too risky, so Pechersky decided to postpone the escape and, instead, wait for the next day, October 14. On October 14, everything went smoothly and according to plan. The prisoners killed as many SS officers as they could and gathered as many weapons as possible without getting caught. At 5:10 p.m. the prisoners gathered for roll call like they normally would have, but instead of lining up many of the prisoners stampeded the main gate, killed and fought against the officers who were still alive, dodged the mine fields and ran to their freedom in the woods. Out of the 600 prisoners that were in Sobibor at the time, over 300 prisoners got out of Sobibor alive. During the revolt the prisoners had successfully killed ten SS men and two foreign guards. The revolt at Sobibor is known to be the most successful revolt at any camp, including P.O.W. camps, during World War II, because the prisoners had luck on their side the day of their escape.
The first and most important incident that proved that the prisoners had luck on their side was that Sergeant Gomerski and Sergeant Wagner were both on leave during the escape. This meant that there were two fewer officers would could kill or catch them, especially since these were two of the smartest officers in the camp. During the morning of the escape, Sergeant Frenzel noticed that the shop chief was dressed much more nicely than usual, but instead of suspecting anything he just joked about it. Pechersky knew they were lucky because Frenzel was not so bright, and if Wagner or Gomerski would have been there and noticed it, they would have suspected something right off the bat. When Rashke was interviewing Terner-Raab, she explained that the only reason she survived was because Wagner was not in the camp during the escape. She explained, “He would have sniffed the escape out like a dog. He was the smartest Hitler could find. He even knew what you were thinking. Shrewd. That man was shrewd” (Rashke, 319). Before the two men went on leave, the revolt had already been planned, however, there was not a set date yet. The prisoners would have revolted if Wagner and Gomerski were there or not, but when they did go on leave the prisoners knew that it would be much easier if the day of their revolt coincided with their leave of absence. Even though this did involve some planning on the prisoners’ behalf, it was lucky for the prisoners that they actually did take a leave of absence around the time they were planning on revolting.
Another incident was the murder of SS Sergeant Goetzinger, which happened before the planned escape. The Ukrainians secretly killed Goetzinger at Sobibor and the Nazis never caught on to the fact that it was actually murder and not accidental. The Nazis believed that an explosion had killed Goetzinger. SS Sergeant Greischutz replaced Goetzinger as commander of the Ukrainian guards. “Pechersky considered the death of Goetzinger a small victory for the Organization” (Rashke, 201). With a new commander, the Ukrainians would be even more confused when the revolt happened and the prisoners would have an even better chance of surviving when the time to escape happened. Also, Greischutz was injured due to a Russian plane while returning to Sobibor from leave, which was also an advantage. This killing was not done by the prisoners, but done by the Ukrainians who had no idea that an escape was planned, and this turned out to be lucky for the prisoners at the time of the escape.
At 3:30 p.m., on the day of the revolt, Leon Friedman, an electrician and shoemaker in the camp, cut all the phone wires at Sobibor. This was almost two hours before the prisoners ran out of the camp. If any officer would have, by chance, needed to make a phone call, he would have noticed that the phone lines were dead and suspected that something was wrong. Again, with luck on the prisoners’ side, none of the officers needed to use the phone until they realized the revolt was happening and the prisoners were already escaping.
During the day of the revolt, the prisoners tricked many of the SS officers to come into their barracks to “try on a new coat or a new pair of boots,” but instead the prisoners killed them. All of the SS officers that they tricked, suspected nothing and went along with what the prisoners had asked them, with the sole exception of Sergeant Beckmann. Drescher, the Putzer, had asked Sergeant Beckmann if he wanted to see a new leather jacket that was made just for him. Beckmann agreed, and headed for the storeroom where other prisoners were planning on killing him, however, once he got there he hesitated. “The Nazi turned around as if he sensed something was wrong or had just remembered he had something more important to do than to try on clothes” (Rashke, 216). This did not stop the prisoners from killing Beckmann, though; later in the day Engel and two others went to Beckmann’s office and killed him there. Many of the other guards did not notice that anything was wrong or that anyone was missing and if anyone did get suspicious the prisoners killed them. A very lucky break occurred when Engel was killing Beckmann. Wijnberg was outside Beckmann’s office and had heard him screaming but during this time a truck came towards the office, and luckily the driver did not hear Beckmann being killed. In this and other cases the prisoners had several lucky breaks, either because guards were not smart enough to notice, or they were killed before they could take action. Some could argue that the fact that no one noticed the killings was not lucky at all and was just careful planning on the prisoners’ behalf. However, there was so much unpredictability in the camp that no one could have planned for every case scenario. There were so many things that could have gone wrong that no one could have planned for, but they were lucky enough that they were never caught.
Even though there is much evidence to prove that this revolt was successful, many argue that it was actually not successful. Some people may think the uprising at Sobibor was unsuccessful because not all of the prisoners escaped and many of the prisoners who did escape were killed just outside the boundaries of the camp. Some argue that forty-seven was not a large number of survivors. They also argue that because of this revolt the liquidation of the other camps were accelerated in fear of another revolt. However, the liquidation of camps, including Sobibor, was inevitable. The prisoners at Sobibor knew that if they did not revolt, no one would get out. So even though forty-seven may not be a big number, it would have been zero who survived the war if the revolt had not happened. These escaped prisoners were able to tell the world about the atrocities at Sobibor. Another argument against the success of the revolt was that many people do not believe that the Holocaust ever happened, or do not care if it did or did not happen. Many of the survivors fear that history may repeat itself because of this attitude. However, if it were to ever happen in our history, “there will be one difference in the future – [the prisoners] will not go like sheep. [The prisoners] will fight” (Rashke, 306). Sobibor serves as an example to future political prisoners and victims of genocide.
Three hundred prisoners escaped on October 14, 1943, and forty-seven were able to survive the war. This plan to revolt was well thought out and probably much smarter than many of the other escape plans that were more spur of the moment. However, this plan still had its weaknesses and most were not convinced that they were even going to survive through it. Even Perchersky, the co-leader of the revolt, was unsure, he “knew he would kill a few Germans, but they’d never make it to roll call. So many things could go wrong, that surely one would” (Rashke, 202). But, with luck on the prisoners’ side, nothing did go wrong and the prisoners of Sobibor successfully executed the most successful revolt in World War II.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/25/09)
Reinharz, Jehuda, “Escape from Sobibor (Book),” Library Journal
107.17 (Oct. 1982)
Schulkin, Carl R., “Escape From Sobibor: A Personal Review Essay,” Pembroke
Hill School, http://schulkin.org/escape.html
Blatt, Thomas Toivi, From The Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival
(Jewish Lives), (Northwestern University Press, 1997), 242 pages. (amazon
Kazik (Simha Rotem), Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter, (Yale
University Press, 2002), 200 pages. (amazon
Jennifer Rosenberg, “Sobibor Uprising” http://history1900s.about.com/od/holocaust/a/sobiboruprising.html
Richelle Budd Caplan, “Escape Under Fire: The Sobibor Uprising”, Yad
Vashem On-line Magazine (2008), http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_yad/magazine/data6/Sobibor.html
Thomas Toivi Blatt, “Sobibor – The Forgotten Revolt”, (2002) http://www.sobibor.info/
Wikipedia, “Sobibor Extermination Camp” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sobibor_extermination_camp
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: