On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.
Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.
As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.
Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber.
Still wearing a Soviet Army uniform, Pechersky made an impression on the broken and dejected inmates, who reportedly looked to him with hope due to his military regalia. Their sentiments were quickly validated just three days after his arrival, when he dared to stand up to a senior SS officer for abusing another prisoner.
Pechersky and several other prisoners were ordered to dig up and chop tree stumps on the camp grounds. The supervising SS officer, Karl Franzel, began whipping a Dutch Jew too weak to do the job. Pechersky immediately stopped chopping and began watching the whipping disapprovingly while resting on his ax.
Franzel asked him if he didn’t like what he saw, to which Pechersky replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, Oberscharfuher”. The SS officer then told Pechersky that he had five minutes to chop a large tree stump in two: if he succeeded, he would get a pack of cigarettes; if he failed, he would be whipped 25 times. Pechersky split the stump with half a minute to spare.
Announcing himself to be a man of his word, Franzel offered a pack of cigarettes as promised, but Pechersky replied that he doesn’t smoke, turned around, and got back to work. The SS officer came back twenty minutes later with fresh bread and butter—an unknown luxury to prisoners—and offered it to Pechersky. But he replied that the camp rations were more than adequate and that he wasn’t hungry anyway. Franzel promptly turned around and left, placing someone else in charge.
This episode of defiance spread throughout the camp, promoting the leaders of the Polish Jewish inmates to approach Pechersky about ideas for an escape. His plan merged their idea of a mass escape with vengeance—help as many prisoners as possible escape while executing as many camp officials as possible. The final goal would be to join up with local partisans and continue fighting the Nazis.
Individual inmates were assigned a particular guard to kill, who they would lure to the workshop on some false pretense and then murder with an axe, chisel, or other tool. This went on throughout the day, with the inmates gradually building up an arsenal from the weapons recovered by the dead guards. Unfortunately, a senior officer had returned earlier than expected from a supply run, discovered one of the SS guards killed, and immediately ordered his men to open fire on the Jewish prisoners. At this point, Pechersky opted to begin the revolt earlier than planned, screaming to his fellows to fight.
Of the 550 or so prisoners at Sobibor, 130 chose not to participate in the uprising and remained in the camp, about 80 were killed during the escape, and 170 more were recaptured by the Nazis during large-scale searches. All who remained in the camp or caught after the escape were executed, and within days the camp was closed, dismantled, and planted with trees to disguise it.
Pechersky and around fifty others managed to escape and survive the war. Pechersky spent over a year fighting with partisans before linking up with the Soviet Army. Per Stalin’s infamous “Order No. 270,” which severely punished Soviet troops that had been captured, he was placed in a penal legion and made to fight in virtual suicide mission. For his bravery, he was promoted to captain and received a medal for bravery. He was eventually discharged after a serious injury and sent to a hospital in Moscow, where he met his future wife. After the war, he lived a mostly quiet life until his death in 1990.
Sobibor was one of only three uprisings to occur during Operation Reinhard, the secret Nazi plan to exterminate all Jews in occupied Poland. A revolt at Treblinka in August resulted in up to 100 escapees, while one at Auschwitz-Birkenau a week before led to one crematorium being blown up, but nearly all the insurgents being killed.