The Nazis, during World War II, were notorious for their extermination and or concentration camps. These two were used interchangeably, although it didn’t really matter to the millions of Jews who fell victims to these camps. To them, whatever you called it, it only meant one thing: Death. Out of the many camps the Germans built, six of them fall into the definition of death camps: the most famous one was the Auschwitz Camp, then there were also Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Sobibor, where a not much-known uprising happened in 1943.

Road to Heaven Was the Path to Hell

Sobibór german extermination camp. (Azymut (Rafał M. Socha)CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the outskirts of the small village of Sobibor in eastern Poland, near the woods, lies a pathway called the “Road to Heaven.” Those who took the path were led to a large open clearing where an unusual white pyramid welcomed them. Despite the name, this was the last path that around 170,000 to 250,000 people took before they were sent to their death in the Sobibor camp that was built for the sole purpose of murdering Jews in German-occupied Poland. Along with them were those from the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Bohemia, and Moravia— men, women, and children all lined up to be gassed in the chambers on an industrial scale.

By the spring of 1943, the number of Jews sent to the chambers began to dip. Rumors that the camp would soon be closed down and dismantled started to spread among the prisoners and the slave laborers of the camp. To them, it meant one thing: death for the Sonderkommandos.

Sonderkommandos

The Jews were forced, under the threat of being killed, to help dispose of the gas chamber victims after they were gassed. These people, euphemistically called Sonderkommandos, were treated quite differently than other prisoners; they were given rations, better accommodation, and access to things like cigarettes and medicines in the camp. Often when they were recruited, they had no idea what was waiting until they were given their first task, which often included carting away their family members’ bodies. Their “privileges” didn’t last long as they were often killed after three months, burying them along with the Nazis’ dirty secrets, not unless they had certain skills that were useful to their commanders.

Two SS officers posing at Sobibor with geese in the Lager II “Erbhof.” The geese would be herded back and forth during gassings since their calls drowned out the screams. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When the rumors about the camp’s closure started circulating, the Sonderkommandos feared that they would soon be dispatched, regardless of their usefulness before. There was only one thing left for them to do: to escape before they were all put to death. And so they formed an underground committee led by Leon Feldhendler, the son of a rabbi who hailed from the town of Zolkiewka. Soviet soldiers soon arrived and became POWs, adding to the number of their underground committee. One of them was Lieutenant Aleksandr Aronovich Pechersky, who was discovered to be Jewish after an inspection revealed he was circumcised and then sent to an SS-run Jewish slave labor camp before he was transferred to Sobibor.

Escape Plan

With Pechersky as the new leader and Feldhendler as second-in-command, they devised their plan.

First, they collected and hid their crude weapons that were made in the camp’s workshops. They would then lure the SS officers into two separate buildings by telling them that new uniforms and boots had arrived and they had to try them on. Once there, they would take them out and hide their bodies. Once all of them were gone, the prisoners would then raid the armory, set the buildings on fire, capture or kill the Ukrainian guards, and then all the remaining six hundred prisoners would walk out of the gate and escape to their freedom into the woods. After all that, they would all fend for themselves.

An aerial photo of the Sobibor area of Poland showing the camp and its immediate surroundings (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Carrying Out the Plan

October 14, 1943, 4 PM. The plan was set in motion, and they began the killings. It was Unterscharfurher Josef Wulf who fell the first victim when he was lured to a storeroom as planned and was smashed in the head with a wielding ax as he was trying the coat on. His body was hidden, and the prisoners proceeded for their next victim, who was taken out and hidden the same way.

The problem arose when they killed Scharfuhrer Kurt Beckmann. A Ukrainian guard discovered his body and sounded the alarm. Pechersky knew at that moment that the plan would not happen, and the only thing left for them to do was to breach the fences and run across the minefield, which would obviously not turn out well.

The prisoners sprinted through the breaches in the fences as the guards opened fire on them with machine guns. Those who made it past the fence were lost in the minefields. Only a few managed to get past them with the help of those who cleared the explosives and died ahead of them.

Many others were found and killed the following days using dogs and tracker planes. Others joined up with local partisan groups, and there were some who were killed by mistrustful locals. All in all, only around fifty Sobibor escapees managed to survive, Pechersky and Feldhendler included.

The camp was torn down a few days after the uprising, and those prisoners who didn’t manage to escape were either killed or sent to a different slave labor camp.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to join SOFREP now for just $0.50/week.