The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Liquidation of the Camps
(3 of 4)

Underground Organization and Preparations for Revolt

From the second half of July until the middle of August 1943, an underground group was formed in the carnp under the leadership of Leon Feldhendler, who had been the chairman of the Judenrat in Zolkiew. The group was made up mostly of the heads of workshop work groups. In light of the method of collective punishment that the Germans instituted and the presence of a minefield around the camp, the underground group reached the conclusion that it was necessary to plan a large, organized escape during the course of which most of the camp's prisoners would flee. According to one of the early plans, the boys who worked as servants in the SS living quarters were to kill the SS while they slept, take their weapons and hand them over to the members of the underground. According to this plan, after the killing, of the Germans the Ukrainian guards were supposed to join the insurgents and escape with them to the forest and the partisans. This plan, however, was quickly shelved because it was feared that the boys, aged 14-16, would not be up to the task, and because the plan would have to be carried out in the early morning hours and that would give the Germans a full day for pursuit. (Testimony of Feldhendler's wife, YVA, 0-16/464; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 16; testimony of Blat. op. cit., p. 77; Matz, op. cit., p. 213)

Another plan proposed in August spoke of setting the camp on fire in the afternoon hours (or, according to another version, in the middle of the night), and, in the ensuing commotion, when the SS and Ukrainians would be called to extinguish the fire, the prisoners would burst through the gates and flee. But when word of this plan was conveyed to other groups of prisoners, they rejected it. (Testimony of Feldhendleis wife, op. cit., p. 13; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 15; Matz, op. cit., p. 213; testimony of Dov Freiberg, The Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v. Adolf Eichmann, Minutes of Session No. 64, Jerusalem, 1961 [hereafter, Eichmann's Trial])

Another plan proposed digging a tunnel, but nothing came of it. One of the major shortcomings of the underground group was the absence of someone with leadership ability and military training who would be able to work out a complex escape plan. Finally Feldhendler found a suitable person: a Dutch Jew named Joseph Jacobs, a former naval officer, who had been brought to Sobibor on May 21, 1943. (The exact name of the Dutch Jew is not certain, and there is no proof that his name was, in fact, Jacobs. According to another version, he was a journalist and fought in the International Brigade in Spain: Louis de Jong, 'Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden--In de Tweede wereldoortog', Vol. VIII--'Gevangenen en Gedeporteerden', The Hague, 1918, p. 818.)

Jacobs took it upon himself to organize the uprising together with his Dutch friends, in conjunction with the underground group. According to the new plan that was formulated, the insurgents, assisted by several Ukrainian guards who had agreed to collaborate, would steal into the arms shed in the afternoon, when the SS people were in the dining hall. The insurgents would arm themselves, burst through the main gate and escape to the forests. However, one of the Ukrainians informed, and the escape plan became known. Jacobs was seized and Interrogated about his partners in the plot. In spite of continued blows and torture Jacobs did not break and adhered to his claim that he alone planned to escape. Still, in reprisal for the escape attempt, seventy-two Dutch Jews were murdered along with him. (Testimony of Feldhendler's wife, op. cit., pp. 11-12; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 22 (according to Rutkowski, it is possible that the escape took place in July and not in August.); testimony of Freiberg, Eichmann's Trial, op. cit.)

Another escape was planned in the first half of September 1943 by six Capos, headed by the Oberkapo Moshe Sturm. But one of the prisoners, called Berliner, informed, and the six were caught and shot in full view of all the prisoners. As a reward the Germans appointed Berliner Oberkapo, but shortly afterward the prisoners also "rewarded" him, and Berliner was poisoned. (In the camp, Moshe Slurm was called "Moshe the Governor." On this, see Blat, op. cit., pp. 71-72; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 21; testimony of Izak Rotenberg, YVA, 0-3/4141, p. 3. According to Bahir, op. cit., p. 12, a Capo by the name of Positzka was involved in Berliner's poisoning.)

Another escape attempt was made in mid-September. Prisoners kept in the extermination area (Camp 3) dug a tunnel that began in their barracks and was supposed to reach beyond the fences and the minefield. The work of burrowing the tunnel was almost finished when it was discovered by the camp guards. The prisoners of Camp 3, who then numbered betwen 100 and 150 men, were shot as punishment. When the Camp 3 prisoners were being taken to be executed, the prisoners in the other part of the camp were kept in roll-call formation under heavy guard as a preventive measure. Afterward, a new group of men was transferred to Camp 3. (Testimony of Blat, op. cit., p. 76. Testimony of Jacob Biskowitz, Eichmann's Trial; Matz, op. cit., p. 213; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 16.)

In spite of the repeated failures in organizing an escape and in spite of the heavy collective punishments--the killing of hundreds of prisoners in the camp, which caused terrible damage to the self-confidence of the organizers--the underground group headed by Feldhendler continued its tireless search for a new person able to lead the revolt and escape. This leader was now found in the person of a Jewish officer, a former lieutenant in the Soviet army, named Alexander Pechorsky. Pechorsky arrived at the camp with a group of 100 Jewish war prisoners who had served in the Red Army and had been kept at the SS labor camp in Minsk. When the Minsk ghetto was liquidated, this group. together with a large transport of 2,000 Jews, was brought to Sobibor. Most of the Minsk Jews were sent direcrly to the gas chambers, save for a group of eighty men--most of them skilled workers or prisoners of war--who were kept in the camp in order to work on the construction of Camp 4 in place of the group of Dutch Jews who had been murdered and the prisoners of Camp 1 who had been transferred to the extermination area.

The arrival of the prisoners of war, a cohesive group with battle experience and bearing the glory of the Soviet army, lifted the morale of the Sobibor prisoners. The outstanding leader of this group was Lieutenant Pechorsky. Contact between him and Feldhendler was established by Shlomo Litman, a Polish Jew and carpenter by trade who had been in the SS camp at Minsk together with the Soviet prisoners and had arrived with them at Sobibor. Feldhendler was impressed by Pechorsky's personality, and at their first meeting, which took place on the evening of October 29, already suggested to him that he organize a mass escape from the camp. In subsequent talks conducted between the two, a group was established; Pechorsky at its head and Feldhendler as his deputy. The other members of the group were four people from Feldendler's group and three from the Minsk group. (The members of the Feldhendler group were the heads of the various groups of artisans: Janek headed the carpenters; Josef, the tailors; Jacob, the cobblers, and Munik, the youth group. Members of the Minsk group were Lipman, Tziebulski and Shubayev. See Pechorsky, op. cit., pp. 26-27, 41.) The cooperation between the two groups, with Feldhendler's group contributing their experience in the camp and familiarity with its conditions and Pechorsky's people eontributing military know how and experience, led to the formulation of two plans that were supposed to make possible the escape of all 600 prisoners from the camp, including the 150 women in Camp 1. (In the Sobibor Camp there were also Jewish women prisoners. The first group was brought to the camp as soon as it was established to work in the kitchen for the SS personnel. Later, when it was decided to keep a permanent group of prisoners in the camp, women were included among them. They were working in the kitchen, laundry and in other services and were lodged next to the blocks of the Jewish male prisoners.)

The prisoners in the extermination area, who at that time numbered a few dozen, were not informed of the plans, because of the inability to establish contact with them. In light of the lessons of the past and in order to prevent treason it was decided this time not to bring the Ukrainians in on the plan. The first plan worked out by the new leadership was based on digging a tunnel 35 meters long from the carpentry shed, which was located near the carnp fence, to a point beyond the fences and the minefield. According to the plan all the prisGners in the camp were to escape, at night, through the tunnel. Pechorsky was well aware that digging a tunnel was a complicated matter that would take two or three weeks, and even if the work were completed, the attempt to get 600 people out on one night might well fail. He also was told of the discovery of the tunnel in Camp 3, and therefore an alternate plan was also worked out. It involved killing the SS people, seizing their arms, and escaping in an organized flight. And so along with the work of burrowing the tunnel, which began on October 5 (Valentin Tomin and A. Sinelnikov, Vozvrash.henie me..helatelno, Moscow, 1964.) and was carried out only at night, preparations were begun for the alternative plan.

Two of the Capos--Positzka and Czepik--who sensed that secret work was going on, realized that there was an underground organization and that plans for an escape were being made. They asked Pechorsky to allow them to join the underground. Their request was granted, for it was clear how much the Capos could help in the preparations for the revolt. And, indeed, on October 8, with Positzka's assistance, two of the leaders of the underground, Pechorsky and Litman, were transferred to work in the carpentry shop, whose location enabled them to supervise the preparations for the revolt. (Pechorsky,, op. cit., pp. 31-32; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 31.)

On October 8 and 9 heavy rains fell on the camp. The strearning water penetrated the tunnel and utterly wrecked it. It was clear that the tunnel escape plan had to be abandoned. At this stage eight of the prisoners of war decided to escape from the camp. Pechorsky learned of their plan and managed to talk them out of it by stressing the heavy punishment that would be meted out to the other prisoners in reprisal for their escape. (Pechorsky, op. cit., pp. 32-34.) Now the only remaining plan was the alternate plan; it was very complicated and required precise planning, and the prisoners had very little time left. October 13 was set as a possible date for the outbreak of the revolt, for according to the information that the prisoners had, a group of SS men, among them two of the most dangerous--Wagner and Gomerski--would then be on homeland leave in Germany. On October 10, the eve of Yom Kippur, the camp authorities allowed the prisoners to assemble in the women's barracks. The underground leadership used this opportunity to confer, and it was decided to begin the armed uprising very soon. (Tomin-Sinelnikov, op. cit., pp. 153-155; Ruckerl, op. cit., p. 195.)

On October 12, at 21:00 hours, the leadership of the underground met in the carpentry shed. Ten people took part in this meeting. (The ten included Capo Positzka. On that day, eighteen sick prisoners were taken to Camp 3 (death camp), and this seriously affected the morale of the other prisoners. (Pechorsky, op. cit., p. 43; testimony of Blat, op. cit., p. 78.) Pechorsky presented the plan of the revolt that was to take place the following day. The plan was divided into three stages.

Stage A: Between 15:30 and 16:45

The quiet liquidation of some of the SS men who would be asked to come, each separately, to the workshops for clothing or shoe measurements, for inspecting carpentry work, etc. Feldhendler was put in charge of asking the SS men to the workshops. At the same time, the rest of the SS people would be killed inside the buildings at the various places of work. These activities would be carried out in utmost secrecy in order that they not be discovered by the other prisoners or the Ukrainian guards. This operation was assigned to special groups of two or three men each, comprised of prisoners of war and long-time prisoners.

Each group had its own special task. Two other men were assigned to cut the telephone line that ran from the camp's headquarters, across Camp 2, to the security forces in Wlodawa, and to cut off the electricity in the camp. Another group was to sabotage the camp vehicles. The boys and young girls who worked in the SS living quarters were given the job of removing the ammunition and grenades they found there and delivering them to the insurgents. It was also decided to try to break in secretly to the Ukrainians' guard room and remove rifles from there. Positzka was supposed to take a group from Camp 1 to Camp 2 (the central part of Sobibor was called Camp 2), where the housing of some of the SS people was located, to help eliminate the four SS men who were there.

The time for the outbreak of the revolt was fixed on the assumption that the separate elimination of the SS people could only take place during work hours. Also, the hour had to be close to nightfall, in order to facilitate escape.

Stage B: 16:45

The Capos Positzka and Czepik would get the prisoners into roll-call formation in the center of Camp 1, as was done every day. The prisoners of war and the underground people were to occupy the front rows and then the Capos would lead the men toward the exit gate. On the way to the gate the insurgents would seize the arms shed. When the Ukrainian guards would become aware of what was happening and open fire, the insurgents would return fire, and the quiet operation would turn into an armed revolt. The insurgents would break open the gate and break through the southern fence, near the SS quarters, on the assumption that mines were not laid in that area.

Stage C

Escape to the forests and joining up with the partisans. This stage was not worked out in any detail, and each of the escapees would have to find his own way to refuge. (Pechorsky, op. cit., p. 43; Rutkowski, op. cit., pp. 31-32.)

About forty prisoners and POWs were privy to the secret of the revolt.

October 13, the day set for the uprising, arrived. But on that day an unexpected German inspection committee arrived at the camp, and the heads of the underground therefore decided to postpone the revolt. That even,ing another meeting was held at which it was decided to carry out the plan the following day. The implements that would serve as weapons--knives, axes, specially sharpened shovels and other tools--were distributed to the members of the underground. (Testimony of Blat, op. cit., p. 78; Rutkowski, op. cit., pp. 30-31; Abraham Margolis, "Mi-Varsha le-Sobibor," 'Sobibor--Mahane ha-Avadon ve-ha- Mered, Tel Aviv, 1979, p. 72 [hereafter, Sobibor])

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