If we are going to talk about survival—or about courage, for that matter—we should talk about Sobibór. Sobibór was a Nazi concentration camp built in a remote part of Poland near the German border. Brought into operation in April 1943, Sobibór received regular train loads of prisoners, almost all Jewish. Like other Nazi concentration camps, Sobibór was also a work camp, both for prisoners skilled in certain trades and for unskilled labor, such as body removal. Sobibór was not the largest concentration camp, but it ran with murderous efficiency. Records show that by October 1944 a quarter of a million people had been murdered there, and some argue the casualties were significantly higher.26
Sobibór presented two distinct faces. Upon arrival to the camp, those selected to be killed received a polite welcoming speech from the Nazis (sometimes dressed in lab coats to project expertise and authority), and heard classical music played over loudspeakers. The door to the extermination “showers” was decorated with flowers and a Star of David. Touches like these encouraged them to go quietly and calmly to what some surely realized was their death. In contrast, those who were selected for work were shown a more overtly violent face, suffering arbitrary beatings and sometimes killed for even the smallest failure in cooperation. As at other concentration camps, if individual prisoners even attempted to escape, other prisoners would be killed as a reprisal. (At Auschwitz it was common practice for the SS to kill ten random prisoners for each escapee.)
Sobibór is a lesson for us because it became the site of the most successful—and also the most audacious—concentration camp uprising during the entire Holocaust. A small number of prisoners recognized that it was only a matter of time until they, too, were murdered, and decided that it was worth the risk to escape. However, they knew that those left behind would suffer the consequences of their act. So they hatched a bold plan to allow everyone in the camp to escape.
This was not an easy task. The camp was surrounded by multiple razor wire fences and a minefield, beyond which was forest. In addition to the SS, the camp had SS-trained guards of various Eastern European nationalities, guards who had themselves been brought in from POW camps. The perimeter of the camp had bright lighting systems and numerous machine gun towers.
A breakthrough came with the arrival of a group of Jewish-Russian POWs, with whom the long-time prisoners joined together and devised an escape plan. But to avoid being discovered, they had to keep the plan secret from all but a small group, meaning that the majority of the prisoners would be expected to escape at a moment’s notice without preparation. A Russian POW leader, Alexander “Sasha” Aronowicz Pechersky, understood the benefits. “As a military man, I was aware that a surprise attack is worth a division of solders. If we can maintain secrecy until the last minute of the outbreak, the revolt is 80 percent accomplished. The biggest danger was deconspiration.”27 In preparation for the escape, the conspirators used their trade skills to make or steal knives and axes small enough to conceal in their clothes.
At four o’clock on the day of the escape, they sprang into action. Carefully but quickly, they began to lure SS guards into private locations one by one, under various false pretexts. Then, small groups of prepared prisoners would quickly and quietly kill the SS men by striking them on the head with an axe, or by covering their mouths and stabbing them to death. Within an hour they had killed eleven SS men, half of the SS guards present at the time, and concealed the bodies. At five o’clock they came together for evening roll call, but they arrived slightly early, before the remaining SS men had gathered. Their plan was to avoid the minefield by simply marching as a group to the front gate, as though they were on their way to a work detail. Upon reaching the gate, they hoped to shoot the two Ukrainian guards present and then rush out the front way.
Though they had been lucky so far, one of the bodies was discovered at the last moment, before they could make for the front gate. The Russian Sasha made a very brief “every man for himself” speech and encouraged everyone to escape immediately. The camp then burst into chaos, with some proceeding to the front gate, and others breaking their way through the fence and taking their chances with the mine field. All had to deal with machine gun fire from the guard towers.
Of the roughly 550 prisoners, 150 were unwilling or unable to escape. Some were separated in a different subcamp and were out of communication, and others simply refused to run. Anyone unable or unwilling to fight or run was shot by the SS. About eighty of those who did run were killed by the mines or by hostile fire. Still, more than 300 people (mostly with no preparation) managed to escape the camp into the surrounding woodlands.
Tragically, close to half of these people were captured and executed over the following weeks because of a German dragnet. But since they would have been killed by the SS regardless, the escape was still a remarkable success. Better yet, within days of the uprising, humiliated SS boss Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp shut down, dismantled, and replanted with trees. (See, they don’t always rebuild.)28 And a number of the escapees joined friendly partisan groups in the area and continued to fight the Nazis (including Sasha, who later returned to the Red Army and was sent to a gulag by Stalin for “allowing” himself to be captured in the first place).
The survivors would spend decades mulling over the escape. In many ways, they could hardly have hoped for better luck. If their actions had been discovered any earlier, it’s very possible that everyone in the camp would have been executed. Furthermore, it’s simply amazing that half of the group—very few of whom had any weapons, survival, or escape and evasion training—managed to avoid capture by the Nazis.
They certainly would have benefitted from further training or preparation, although in this case that was at odds with their priority of security. Another issue identified by survivors was that almost all of the firearms went to the Russian POWs, meaning that most escapees were defenseless. They also lacked prearranged cells or affinity groups, and many people who did know each other became separated during the escape. A further problem was the fact that the prisoners did not have contact with Allies or resistance groups who could have helped to arrange further escape or provide supplies or weapons. In the end, a large number of escaped prisoners ended up being killed by anti-Semitic Polish nationals, including some Polish partisans.
Despite these issues, we can learn a lot from this story. The prisoners made remarkable use of their limited resources to escape. The very fact that they attempted escape is inspiring, especially when literally millions of others went to their deaths without fighting back. Indeed, considering that so many of them lacked specific combat and evasion skills and equipment, it was solely the courage to fight back that saved many lives.