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Jewish Resistance Fighters Pulled Off the Largest Prison Escape of WWII

In October 1943, 300 Jewish prisoners escaped the heavily guarded walls of the Sobibor extermination camp.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 14, 1943, 600 Jews imprisoned in the Nazi extermination camp Sobibor became part of the largest prisoner escape of World War II. In an act of defiance and bravery, a small Jewish resistance group within Sobibor planned and executed a revolt that provided the camp's prisoners with a chance to escape. The efforts of their resistance allowed 300 prisoners to flee the camp—50 of whom survived through end of World War II.  

Related: 29 Eye-Opening Books About the Holocaust

Located near the Eastern border of Poland, Sobobir was largely isolated. Set apart from nearby cities, Sobobir was surrounded by forests. Trees were planted along its perimeter, in an effort to further conceal it. In addition to the trees beyond, barbed wire fencing and a minefield 50 feet wide surrounded the camp. Despite the barriers which encircled it, the main purpose of Sobibor was not to keep prisoners in, but rather to kill all who entered. 

Sobibor was created as part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of occupied Poland. Opened in May 1942, the camp was run by German and Austrian personnel, with Soviet prisoners of war acting as additional guards. 

With the intention of mass extermination, those who ran the death camp killed almost all of the Jews who arrived on transports. Nazi forces sent 20 freight cars at a time to be unloaded. The Jews packed into the train cars were stripped of their belongings and clothing and sent directly to the camp's gas chambers. 

In all, it is estimated that between 170,000 and 250,000 Jewish people were exterminated at Sobibor in the 18 months the camp operated. 

Related: Escape from Holzminden: The Greatest POW Camp Break of WWI 

Only a small number of those who were transported to Sobibor were separated to work rather than be immediately executed. Those left alive were forced to work in one of the camp's three sections; working in the guards' workshops in Camp I, unloading transports in Camp II, or exterminating and burying Jewish arrivals in Camp III. 

The Jews working in Sobibor began to organize a year after the camp first opened, in the spring of 1943. Around this time they heard news from Belzec, one of the other two extermination camps created in Operation Reinhard. Belzec had been shut down and, upon its closure, its remaining workers killed.

Fearing a similar outcome for themselves, a group of prisoners within Sobibor organized a resistance. Their work proved to be life-altering and even life-saving. 

On October 14, 1943, in the course of their revolt, those within the resistance killed 11 German officers as well as additional prisoner of war guards. The uprising they incited helped the prisoners overrun the officers and guards who had contributed so severely to their suffering. As a result, 300 Jews were able to escape the camp. Though 100 of the escapees were recaptured in the searches that ensued, 50 individuals survived to see the conclusion of World War II.

Escape from Sobibor collects the stories of 18 of these 50 survivors, to share the incredible bravery and strength of the prisoners of Sobibor.




Escape from Sobibor

By Richard Rashke

As far as Leon Feldhendler was concerned, the end had come as he had known it would, as he had sensed it would for weeks. If he and the other Sobibor Jews didn’t break out soon, very soon, it would be too late. The transports had stopped. Himmler had kept his promise to Hitler to make Poland Judenrein, free of all Jews. Why did the Germans still need Sobibor? And the Russians were coming. Sooner or later, they would cross the Bug River. Would the Germans be so stupid as to leave the gas chambers and six hundred eyewitnesses?

Related: The Courageous Acts of Resistance That Led to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The end was in the air, borne to Sobibor on the wings of whispers and rumors. The Jews in Warsaw, Feldhendler heard, had fought the Germans to the very end. There was no more ghetto there; just rubble. The last Jews in Bialystok also had attacked the Germans rather than be dragged off to Treblinka, he’d been told. There was no more ghetto there, either; just rubble. Feldhendler knew that Warsaw and Bialystok were the last large ghettos in eastern Poland where the Nazis kept a labor force. Apparently, they no longer needed the labor.

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  • The entrance to the Erbhof in Lager II.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The end was in the air at the other two death camps as well. The Jews in Treblinka had revolted, according to his Ukrainian informant. They burned down half the camp, killed a couple of Nazis, but only a handful had escaped. The Germans had closed Treblinka permanently.

Related: 10 Survival Stories That Reveal the Power of the Human Spirit

The last of the Belzec Jews were dead, too—the five hundred the Nazis had kept there since December to dig up six hundred thousand corpses and burn them. When Sergeant Paul Groth had brought the gravediggers to Sobibor by train, Kommandant Reichleitner was so afraid they would rebel that he locked up all the Sobibor prisoners and opened the boxcars one at a time. The SS and Ukrainians shot the Belzec Jews on the spot. After one carload had been murdered, the Nazis called out the train brigade to toss the bodies into the miners’ wagons. Then, after locking up the train brigade again, the Nazis murdered another carload. Many of the last Beizec Jews had left notes in their pockets on scraps of paper: “If they kill us, avenge us.”

Feldhendler wished he could. It was clear now that of the three death camps, Sobibor was the only one still open. But for how long? His Ukrainian contact had said there was a rumor among the staff that Sobibor would be closed by the end of October. In the light of what he already knew, that made sense to Feldhendler. The Jews had to escape by November in any case; the early winter snows would make a break nearly impossible after that. But when? And how?

Related: Colditz Castle: The World War II POW Camp the Nazis Considered Inescapable

Feldhendler, Esther’s cousin, was a tall, handsome man in his mid-thirties, the son of a rabbi, who walked and spoke with a quiet air of authority. He had been in Sobibor for nine months and had made it his business to know everything—each move the Nazis made, the chain of command, where the land mines were buried, which Blackies could be trusted in a pinch, every escape idea, each shift in mood and morale. He sifted, analyzed, and schemed.

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  • The view of Camp I at Sobibor in the summer of 1943. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Young Jews like Esther, Toivi, and Shlomo looked up to him as to a surrogate father and moral leader. He led prayers on holy days and encouraged everyone. “Don’t give up,” he used to say. “Don’t let them get to you. Resist. Fight back. Hold on.” They listened carefully, for he was educated and well-bred, a man who thought about things and seemed never to act rashly. They felt a certain unselfishness in him, almost as if he had taken on his broad shoulders the responsibility for every Jew in Sobibor. And he had.

Ever since January, Feldhendler had been building a team—the Organization—to plan a break-out. A trusted group of leaders, all shop chiefs—Shlomo, Szol the shoemaker, and Mundek the tailor. But when the mason and carpenter had dug under the fence in the spring, and the Nazis had retaliated by killing ten Jews, locking the barracks at night, and mining the fields, Feldhendler knew the Jews’ only hope was a mass escape. He and the Organization had talked seriously about several plans.

The first centered on Drescher, an 11-year-old Putzer. He was the youngest boy in the camp, a shrimp, bright, gutsy, camp-wise. The Nazis treated him as the Sobibor mascot, their frisky, little Jewish terrier. Drescher and the other Putzers, who rushed to the Officers’ Compound at five in the morning to shine boots, were to kill the Nazis in their beds, steal all the guns they could find, and smuggle them back to the Organization. Feldhendler would distribute the guns, and the Jews would make a break while the Ukrainians and Germans still alive were wiping the sleep from their eyes.

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  • Two German officers with a german shepherd and geese in the summer of 1943 in Camp II at Sobibor. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The second plan centered on Esther’s friend Zelda, who worked in the North Camp, sorting and cleaning captured Russian guns. She and several other women who worked there would smuggle grenades under their dresses into Camp I. Key men in the Organization would blow up the canteen (while the Nazis and Ukrainians were eating), the Administration Building, and the officers’ barracks, depending on how many grenades Zelda and her girls could smuggle. The Jews would then make the break.

Related: Anne Frank and Her Life in the Secret Annex 

The third plan centered on Feldhendler himself, who was the only member of the Organization to work in Camp II, sorting clothes. He and a few men he could trust would set several of the barracks on fire to create a diversion. While the Nazis and Ukrainians ran to put out the fire, the Jews would make a break.

The plans were risky, almost suicidal, but Feldhendler would pick one anyway, unless the Organization could come up with something better soon. That was unlikely. 

Want to keep reading? Download Escape from Sobibor now.

Additional sources: Encyclopia.USHMM.org

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Featured photo of a Trawniki unit in front of Camp III at Sobibor in the spring of 1943 via Wikimedia Commons