My CARR Blog for October will cover one of the most courageous events of the Second World War, where Jewish prisoners, against all the odds, rose up against their captors in the Sobibor death camp, in South-Eastern Poland. This blog will be in two parts, part one will cover the initial phase of the revolt. The second part will cover the break out and aftermath.
Sobibor was the second death camp constructed as part of the Aktion Reinhardt mass murder programme headed by Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader for the Lublin District. The first death camp constructed was Belzec and the last one was Treblinka. They were all killing Jews with murderous efficiency during 1942 and 1943. It is estimated that some 1.6 million Jews were murdered during this period. Sobibor was initially conceived as an overflow camp for Belzec, and the lowest number of victims were recorded there, an estimated 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor. In the main, these were Polish Jews, but Jews were also deported from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland and France to the Sobibor death camp.
On September 22, 1943, some 2,000 Jewish Soviet Prisoners of War were taken from the labour camp on Sheroka Street in Minsk to Sobibor, and amongst them was Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky. It was Sasha along with Leon Feldhendler, a Polish Jew from Zolkiewka, who had been deported earlier in 1943, to Sobibor.
One of the long-time inmates Stanislaw Szmajzner, who had been deported to Sobibor on May 12, 1942, from Opole Lubelski, along with his mother and father, sister, and brother. Stanislaw was selected to work along with his brother Mosze and cousin Nojech Szmajzner, and nephew Jankus Rotter by Gustav Wagner, one of the most brutal and dangerous members of the SS-Garrison. Stanislaw wrote in his memoirs, ‘Hell in Sobibor,’ his account of the uprising. Here, he takes up the story of the initial stages of the revolt:
‘October 14, 1943 was dawning. It was a day like any other day. We got up at our usual hour and all went to the yard, so that the general call could be made. Right afterwards we headed for our habitual work….. At about 3:30 in the afternoon, smartly riding his beautiful horse, the acting Commander-in-Chief Niemann came to the tailor’s shop to try on his new uniform with Mundek the tailor. The officer was an enthusiast of horseback riding and he used to ride through the different areas of the camp. He reined his horse in front of the shed and a Jewish boy immediately ran to hold the animal’s bridle, while the imposing henchman dismounted.
Niemann entered the tailor shop and Mundek promptly brought the jacket for him to try on. While he was putting it on the commander, he tried to divert his attention, by turning his back to the mirror. The German had let the tailor do with him as he pleased, as he did not suspect the trap which had been set for him.
Meanwhile, Oberscharfuhrer Graetschus, with his impudent face and his grotesque gait, headed for the shoemakers shop to fetch a pair of boots he had ordered. This officer was the Commander-in- Chief of the Ukrainian guards and his activities extended over the whole group. The ‘Boche’ entered the shack and was promptly asked to sit on a bench, while Szol, the shoemaker, went for the boots. In the same way that things had happened in the tailor’s shop with Niemann, the Nazi had just been lured into a trap, without suspecting anything.
While these events were taking place in Camp 1 and we were sending minute reports about them to our elements in Camp 2, the latter answered us by sending some heartening news. They had already stabbed to death three terrible German officers: Vallaster, Nowak and Beckmann. In that place, the plan was being followed to the letter and everything was going well.
In the tailor’s shop, while Mundek tried the uniform on Niemann, well hidden in one of the rooms was a brave Russian youth called ‘Leon’, one of the fifty Jews taken from the transport which had come from the Soviet Union, in which the ‘Politruk’ (Pechersky) had also come.
The boy held a sharp axe in his hand and was only waiting for the right moment. At the same time that the tailor pretended to be fixing the collar of the jacket, he also turned the officer in the ideal position for the blow to be struck. When the moment came Leon left his refuge, tiptoed towards the German and split his head with his axe. The commander of Sobibor was out of the fight, the first to die.
Minutes later, at the shoemaker’s, the Nazi Graetschus was sitting, calmly waiting for Szol to bring him his boots. He too, did not know that inside the shed there was someone in hiding, holding an axe. Instead of getting his boots, what the henchman got was a violent blow with that weapon. But the man did not die right away and desperately tried to shout, but this was prevented by Szol’s quick action and the rest of his group. While the chief shoemaker covered the German’s mouth with his own hands, the others fell on him and finished the killing with axes and knives. The body was immediately hidden in one of the rooms inside the shed and the front room was cleaned of any traces of what had happened. After the second ‘Boche’ had been eliminated we sent the message to Camp 2 and in answer they told us what was happening there. In the two fields, a total of five officers had already been wiped off the map.
Meanwhile, at the tailors, as soon as he had killed Niemann, Leon had taken possession of his gun, a magnificent ‘Walther’ pistol duly loaded. Outside the shop, the boy who had been holding the horse’s bridle, and who had been drilled beforehand, had left the place taking the horse with him, to the stables, so as not to rouse suspicions. Armed with the pistol, Leon had also left the place, where he had just paid his important role.’
For the sake of historic accuracy, other accounts have been consulted, to establish who performed the killings of the SS officers, mentioned above, as understandably much confusion and uncertainty reigned at the time:
- Johann Niemann, was killed by Alexander Shubayev.
- Siegfried Graetschus was killed by Arkadij Wajspapir and Jehuda Lerner.
- Josef ‘Sepp’ Vallaster was killed by Itzhak Lichtman and Shaul Flajszhakler.
- Rudolf Beckmann was killed by Chaim Engel.
- Anton Nowak was killed by unknown assailant.
For more contextual information about Sobibor, please visit the Holocaust Historical Society’s account here: https://www.holocausthistoricalsociety.org.uk/contents/sobibor.html
Mr Chris Webb is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and the Founder of Holocaust Historical Society. His profile can be found here:
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