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An Interview with Richard Rashke, Author of Escape from Sobibor

We had the chance to discuss his experience writing about the largest prison escape of WWII.

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  • Sobibor extermination camp, summer 1943.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On October 14, 1943, 300 Jews escaped from Sobibor, a Nazi death camp located in eastern Poland. The coordinated escape, made possible by fellow prisoners who risked their lives in this act of resistance, was the largest of its kind during World War II.

New attention was brought to this sobering true story when author and journalist Richard Rashke first published the book Escape from Sobibor in 1981, later fully updated in 2012. Drawing on interviews with survivors, it’s an authoritative account of the daring revolt and subsequent breakout. 

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the death camp escape, we had the chance to interview Rashke about what it was like to write the book, new reflections since its initial publication, and more. Keep reading to discover his perspective, and click here to read an excerpt from his book.

We’ve heard that there will be a celebration to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the escape from Sobibor.  Can you tell us a little about how the museum on the former camp site will be observing the milestone anniversary?

In 2021, with support from the European Union and Israel, Polish Holocaust educators built a Visitors’ Center and Museum in Sobibor on the spot where the undressing barracks once stood. Thousands of school children from the European Union and Israel visit each year to learn, to mourn, to remember. The museum contains exhibits with thousands of artifacts that archaeologists dug up in the camp site during years of excavation. Among them were: keys and wallets, toothbrushes and combs, nameplates and jewelry. Remembrance planners expect to fill the 500 seats in the Center’s auditorium with invited guests and the public. There will be tours and speeches but little fanfare as befits the occasion. One of the speakers is Marvin Raab, son of Esther Terner Raab, from Lublin, Poland. Esther escaped from Sobibor on October 14, 1943.

How did you first hear of the escape from Sobibor?

I stumbled on the name “Sobibor” while rummaging through the Holocaust section in the Library of Congress. The book I found it in merely said Sobibor was a death camp. I had never heard of it before. After I found “Sobibor” mentioned in several more books, I got curious and I began to check indices. I eventually found a scholarly tome with a short footnote that said there was an uprising at Sobibor on October 14, 1943; around 300 Jews escaped; around a dozen SS officers and foreign guards were killed. I said to myself: If that footnote was true, it had to be the biggest escape of World War II. I noted the irony. Didn’t Jews go to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter? I was hooked. 

What made you want to delve deeper into the story and write a book about it?

I began Escape from Sobibor as a straightforward escape story: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. On the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Washington, I was deeply troubled. I had just finished a week interviewing Shlomo, who had been a teenage planner and leader in the escape. Our final interview was very emotional. During that flight it became clear to me that to just tell a journalistic story of an historic escape was to betray the trust of the survivors who opened their hearts to me and ventured back into Sobibor to bear witness through a gentile writer. I realized for the first time that I was the spokesman, not only for the survivors, but also for the voiceless—the 160,000 men, women and children who were murdered at Sobibor. I kept pushing that thought away. I didn’t want that heavy responsibility. By the time we touched down at Dulles International Airport, I had decided to expand the story and add a new section with depth and emotion. I called it “Personal Epilogue”.

There are far fewer Holocaust survivors today than when your book was first published. How can we best keep their stories and memories alive?

Esther Raab was convinced that the best way to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive was to teach children about the Holocaust before society and their elders poisoned their minds and hardened their hearts. She began a lifelong mission to bring her story and the story of Sobibor to schoolchildren, grades six through 12. In return, she received more than 2,000 letters, each beginning with “Dear Esther”. One day, I called her and said we should do something with those wise and touching letters. I suggested an article. She said no. I suggested a play. She commissioned the play on one condition—schoolchildren must be able to understand it. To date, more than 200,000 students in America and Poland have seen Dear Esther since it premiered at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 2001. When the book Escape From Sobibor was published in 1981, I felt something was missing, but for years I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then one day, it finally dawned on me. The book was totally devoid of hope. As a result, I built Dear Esther on the dual foundations of healing and hope. Esther shows the way to healing on the stage. And the children’s letters, an integral part of the play, offer hope for the future. 

Did you strike up a friendship or lasting correspondence with any of your interviewees? Can you tell us what those relationships were like?

I had a close relationship with Esther built on mutual trust and a shared determination to make Sobibor and what happened there known to the world. During the interviewing phase of Escape From Sobibor, I found Esther to be the most reliable survivor. I trusted her so much that I would call her if I was skeptical about a story I heard about the camp. She would tell me yes, it’s true; no, it never happened. When I finished a draft of the book, I asked her to read it for errors. In return, she would ask my advice about requests for interviews; whether she should say yes or no. One of the most important requests came from the History Channel, which was planning to air the movie Escape From Sobibor. Producers asked her to introduce the movie and invited her to come to New York for the videotaping. I told her by all  means—go. It was an important opportunity to tell her personal story and the Sobibor story to an international audience. She agreed but only if I agreed to be interviewed as well. By the end of her on-camera presentation, she had everyone in the studio crying, including Sander Vanocur, the host of the show.

It’s been 80 years since the escape from Sobibor, and over 40 years since your book was first published. How has your perspective of the event and its legacy changed, if at all, during this time?

Esther says in the play Dear Esther: “There is no escape from Sobibor. Not for me...not for Poland...not for Germany...not for the world. Even God can’t escape from Sobibor.” I can’t escape from Sobibor either. I suffered when I wrote the book. I suffered when I wrote the play. Sobibor changed me. It changed the way I look at the world. It changed how I think. It changed my heart. I joined Esther’s mission to tell the world and co-founded The Tolerance Education Program, which offers free Holocaust and genocide educational tools to middle and high school teachers. Among them are: Escape From Sobibor, Dear Esther, and over 100 children’s letters to Esther, published in the book, Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor: Dear Esther.

Escape from Sobibor

Escape from Sobibor

By Richard Rashke

This true story of a revolt at a Nazi death camp, newly updated, is “a memorable and moving saga, full of anger and anguish, a reminder never to forget” (San Francisco Chronicle).

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.