Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1943: Jewish prisoners led a successful uprising at the Sobibór death camp

On October 14, 1943, an uprising was instigated by a small group of Jewish prisoners at the extermination camp at Sobibór, in German-occupied Poland, during which about 300 prisoners escaped.

Persecution of Polish Jews by the German occupation authorities began immediately after the invasion of Poland, particularly in major urban areas. In the first year and a half, the Nazis confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their valuables and property for profit, herding them into makeshift ghettos, and forcing them into slave labor.

But the segregation of Jews in ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, outlined by Reinhard Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. All anti-Jewish measures were radicalized and, under the coordination of the SS and with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed in Poland, Germany and throughout occupied Europe.

Operation Reinhard

Within months, three top-secret extermination camps were built at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. Unlike previous concentration and forced-labour camps, these three “death camps” were designed exclusively for the rapid and secretive elimination of Polish and foreign Jews, but also of ethnic Poles, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, the Roma, the handicapped, political and religious dissidents, and gay men.

By mid-1942, victims were being deported from ghettos across Europe in sealed freight trains to Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, but also to Chełmno and to the concentration camps at Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where mass killing facilities had been developed at about the same time.

Unlike at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, where the cyanide-based Zyklon-B was used, the camps at Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór, built during the so-called Operation Reinhard, used lethal exhaust fumes produced by large internal combustion engines to exterminate trainloads of prisoners.

Sobibór

Built in the woods on the outskirts of the small village of Sobibór, in eastern Poland, the Sobibór death camp became fully operational in May 1942 and Jewish men, women and children soon began to arrive by train from enforced deportations all over occupied Europe. On arrival, the prisoners were forced to hand over their possessions and made to undress before being led along the 100-metre long “Road to Heaven” (Himmelstrasse) to the gas chambers.

Because Sobibór was an extermination camp, the only prisoners who lived there were the roughly 600 slave labourers forced to assist in the operation of the camp. A handful of them were assigned to the so-called Sonderkommando, tasked with removing bodies from the gas chambers before burying them in mass graves or burning in open air ovens. Witnesses to the genocide, Sonderkommandos never lived very long themselves…

The SS personnel employed a brutal system of control, any instance of prisoner insubordination was met with ruthless punishment and any escape attempt was punishable by death – not just for the escapees themselves but also other prisoners.

The Sobibór uprising

In the summer of 1943, the Sobibór death camp saw a decline in the number of victims sent to be murdered in its gas chambers. This sparked a rumor among the Sonderkommandos and the other prisoners in Sobibór that the camp would soon be dismantled and all the prisoners murdered.

Led by Leon Feldhandle, who hailed from the nearby town of Zolkiewka, a group of Polish Jews formed a secret committee to plan a mass escape. Lacking any military experience, the committee turned to a group of Jewish Red Army POWs for advice. Within three weeks, Lieutenant Alexander Pechersky worked out a detailed plan, which was set in motion on October 14, at 3:30 pm.

SS officers were lured one by one into the camp’s workshops where they were disarmed and killed. But as the prisoners gathered for roll call, the remaining camp personnel became alarmed and opened fire, and while members of the camp resistance who had obtained arms returned fire, over 300 prisoners fled from the camp.

Aftermath

Many prisoners were shot during the escape or died in the minefields around the camp. At least 100 others were caught and killed during the massive manhunt in the days following the uprising. Of the remaining escapees who were not immediately caught, only about 50 survived the war, often with the help of the local population or by joining partisan groups.

After the revolt, the surviving SS guards secured the camp and murdered all remaining prisoners, some of which continued to fight with guns and axes throughout the night. Soon afterward, the SS brought in a group of Jewish prisoners from Treblinka to dismantle the killing facilities and erase the traces of Sobibór. They were later shot once their work was done.

The site was neglected in the first decades after World War II, and the camp had little presence in either popular or scholarly accounts of the Holocaust. It became better known after it was portrayed in the TV miniseries Holocaust (1978) and the film Escape from Sobibor (1987). The Sobibor Museum now stands at the site, which continues to be investigated by archaeologists.

In total, some 170,000 to 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibór, making it the fourth-deadliest Nazi death camp after Bełżec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. Regina Zielinski, who survived the Sobibór uprising, later said “our only aim was to dream we could get out and tell everyone.”

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.