Content Warning: The following blog contains depictions of violence within the eyewitness account which some readers may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised.
In the second of a two-part series, Senior Fellow, Chris Webb, covers 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. Below is a first-hand witness account of the revolt:
‘I had been told to go to the tailor’s shop as soon as the Commander of Sobibor had been eliminated. As soon as I heard about it, I hurried there and faced an impressive scene. The hatmaker who also worked there had been taken by a severe nervous fit and was in hysterics. He had disassembled scissors he found in the shop, and was using one blade as a dagger, had hurled himself on Niemann’s body. In a rage, he started to stab him with all his power, while he called at each blow he struck, the names of his wife and children who had been exterminated in Sobibor.
Taken by actual lunacy, his clothes literally covered with blood, the hatter would have cut the body of the SS-Untersturmfuhrer to pieces if it had not been for our prompt intervention. We pulled him away, forcefully, from the ex-commander’s body and tied him up so as to be able to finally restrain him. Then he was kept in the next room, until he was able to recover his balance. As to Niemann’s body, it was hidden under one of the bunks they had there and we soon started to cover up the traces left on the stage of such a violent scene. We put some bundles of cloth on the ground, so as not to call attention of anyone who might accidentally come in.
Only thirty minutes were left before the whistle to end the day’s work was blown and the moment when I had to play my role had finally come. I started it right away. To perform my task and mislead the attention of the guards, I went to my shop and picked up some tools and a thick tin pipe, one of those used in the chimneys of the stoves which heated the lodgings of the Ukrainian guards and which I was responsible for maintaining. Next I went to the Ukrainians shack, under the pretext that I had to fix something there.
I climbed onto the roof and started to do something with the chimney pretending I was fixing it. I stayed there for a few minutes so as to make it clear that there were no second intentions on my part. Soon afterwards I climbed down, this time to fix the stove, since I needed a reason to be inside the place, should any guard come in and ask me what I was doing.
I soon faced two Jewish boys who worked there and made sure there was no one else inside. Luck still smiled on me. These two boys were responsible for cleaning the quarters and they also ran some other errands for the Ukrainians. They were even younger than my nephew.
Inside the shed, which was rather ample, there was a partition which was destined for the higher ranking guards in the abominable corporation. I started to observe the place, while the two youths stared at me, and they were very surprised when I headed for the place where the weapons were kept. I threw a greedy glance at the machine guns right there, within reach of my hands. These weapons were only used by the sergeants and the higher ranking elements. I finally controlled my impulses, because I and possibly the others did not know how to use them and they would not fit inside the metal pipe I carried…..
I then turned my eyes to the rifles and soon noticed that they were accompanied by their own cartridge belts, and a lot of ammunition…. I waited for some more minutes and then I heard the characteristic German song that the Jews were forced to sing when they came back from their daily tasks. That was the moment for me to act…. As soon as I heard the song, I wrapped the rifles in a blanket and asked the astonished boys to hand the bundle to me through the window, since I intended to go out and get it from the outside. However, they were terribly frightened and they refused to do what I told them to…. I had no other choice but threaten to kill them by unsheathing my knife.
With the gleam of the blade before their very eyes, the poor creatures decided to obey me. I went out of the shed with my empty pipe in my hand and the pockets full of cartridges. I went quickly round the house and stopped before the window, where I got my bundle with the weapons. I then walked towards my destination hardly able to carry all my awkward load, since the pipe was still in my hand Luck was still on my side. I had crossed the officer’s yard and I was already heading for the kitchen in Camp I, yet I had not met a single guard.
When I got there there was a group waiting for me, made up of my three relatives, and the young Russian Jews who were going to use the weapons. At the same time, the large mass of workers was returning from work singing and getting nearer and nearer to the kitchen. My mission had been thoroughly successful and we were in possession of the precious rifles and plenty of ammunition…..
When the multitude of Jews came to the yard, the great majority went into formation for the roll call. Those were the ones who knew nothing about the rebellion. However, those who did only pretended to align, since they expected the mutiny to start within the next few minutes.
The minutes were still missing for the counting when Kapo Porzyczki started to trill his whistle like mad, thus causing some kind of tumult in the camp. He was one of us. After he had heard the first unexpected whistles, the new Kapo-Commander, a Dutch Jew, who had replaced Berliner, went immediately to Porzyczki shouting that it was not yet time for the call and harshly scolding him for what had been done.
But the interference of the Dutch Jew was not worth anything. That desperate whistling was the signal we had agreed on to start the general onrush, and the beginning of the great uprising; it was the beginning of the end. When he saw the Chief-Kapo rush at him, the brave Porzyczki drew out his knife to receive him properly. I never learned what happened between the two of them, because, at that moment the diverse rebellious groups, who had stayed in the workshops on purpose, started to appear from all sides, armed with axes, bludgeons, and knives. Meanwhile, all those who had firearms, taken from the Nazis who had been killed, started to shoot upwards, thus making the havoc even worse and leading the mob, who ran in all directions, to gather in only one block.
Then, with Nojech, Moisze and Jankus by my side I ran very fast to join the giant reckless mass. There were about five or six hundred Jews, men and women, shouting and running like madmen. Ahead of them all, the Russians were shouting –‘For Stalin!’
The brutish amalgam of maddened people started to move then towards the exit of Camp I. In the meantime, a smaller group, maybe thinking they were smarter than the others, left the main group and hurled themselves against the fences where there were also the ditches and the mines, since they thought they could cross them. From this unwise group we do not know whether any escaped because, in a few minutes the burst of the explosives started to be heard, thus increasing the general disorder and serving to alert the guards in the towers.
Meanwhile, the majority of the crowd ran straight towards the gate which led into the officer’s yard and to the Ukrainian guards. The gate was usually open. At that moment, pedalling his bicycle like mad, a guard was entering Camp I. He probably did not know anything and he had not even noticed the human mass which ran at him, inexorably. When he became aware of what was happening, it was already too late. He died instantly, trodden by the crowd, torn to pieces by the hundreds of feet of that indomitable roll.
The maddened crowd now entered the officer’s yard, right into the sector where most of their quarters were located. Near one of the buildings there were two of the criminals. By their uniforms we could see they were a Ukrainian officer and a guard. We saw the Nazi gesture as if he were commanding the guard to do something. When they noticed the crowd, they tried to run away, but too late. The compact multitude attacked them and they were torn to pieces.
The uncontrollable avalanche now headed straight to the three parallel fences near the main exit of Sobibor. The first two crumbled as if they were made of paper. The third one which meant freedom, also fell under the impact of the solid mass which came against it. By then, all along the broken fences in that sector, the ground was covered with bodies. The vanguard of the multitude had been pushed by its own rear lines and all those who suffered the first impact were torn into shreds by the barbed wire.
Stepping over dozens of corpses, the rest of the mob continued to move forward and suddenly the mines started to explode. This area did not have any ditches, but it was heavily mined, up to the main gate. Among the boom of the explosions and a sea of fragmented bodies, the maddened mass continued ahead heedless of anything else.
At that time, I had not crossed the fences yet and I had lost contact with Nojech, Moisze, and Jankus. I tried to stop for a while to avoid being forced into the forward lines. I intended to stay on the back lines since no reaction was coming from the Boches. Only the nearest towers fired some shots against the fleeing multitude. It was then that I aimed my rifle at one of the towers and fired four shots, nearly at random. I later learned that one of these stray bullets had killed one of the guards.
I did not try to reload the rifle, since I did not know how to do it correctly and also because I suddenly found myself nearly alone. I started running towards the crowd which was already quite ahead of me. Then I crossed the broken fences and stepped over the dozens of bodies of the victims of the barbed wire and the mines.
Running like mad, I soon caught up with the others. All of us kept running for the woods, as we had never done before.’
The Sobibor revolt saw the largest number of prisoners escape during the Second Wold War, it was more likely 320 people, rather than the 700 quoted (above) in the German intercepted message. Some 54 Jews managed to survive the war. 12 SS members of the camp staff were killed by the prisoners, plus 2 Ukrainian SS guards. The revolt at Sobibor caused Himmler to murder the Jewish workers in Lublin, Trawniki, Poniatowa, in the Aktion Erntefest murder operation between 3 & 4 November 1943.
To access the first part in this two-part series, please use the following link: https://www.radicalrightanalysis.com/2018/10/30/the-sobibor-death-camp-revolt-october-14-1943-part-1/
Mr Chris Webb is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and the Founder of Holocaust Historical Society. His profile can be found here:
© Chris Webb. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).