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A Participant's Report
by Thomas Blatt
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, "Honoring the Jewish Resistance." Originally published in 1978.
[caption id="attachment_39653" align="alignright" width="300"] Thomas Blatt, the author of this article, a survivor of the uprising at Sobibor, is shown here testifying in Israel at the war crimes trial of John Dejanjuk in 2010.[/caption]
ONE APRIL DAY in 1943, I entered the gate marked “Sonderkommando — Sobibor.” This was a death camp? Little paved streets, flowers alongside. On the right, a side rail resembling a railway station, a platform nearby. Little tidy houses in Tyrolian style. At the cross-streets, carved wood signs giving directions to the baths, canteen, theater, etc. The villas ironically had names like Gottes Heymat (God’s House), Schwalbennest (Swallow’s Nest), and others no less idyllic. Surely it was not possible for such a spot to be an extermination camp!
Our group was halted on the way to the gas chambers, and a fat SS man selected a few, including myself, a youth of 15, as replacements for workers who had just been gassed. The remainder, including my mother, father, and brother, went the way of no return.
Under the direction of Sasha Pechersky, Leon Feldhandler, and a few others, a secret group was formed to organize an uprising and destroy the camp. From a few plans they chose the following:
On a specific day, between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., certain prisoners would lure the Germans and Ukrainians under some pretense to a place where they would be silently killed. Meanwhile, those prisoners who had access to the Ukrainian guards’ rooms as Putzers (shoeshiners), and others, would steal available guns and bring them to the carpentry shop.
About 5:00, when the bugler as usual sounded the end of work, all would return to the barracks for roll call. Now the last act would be played out — the open revolt. All of us would throw ourselves on the gates and barbed wire. A special group would take the weapons storeroom and cover the escape.
The hands of the clock moved lazily to the fateful hour. October 14, 1943. The sun was inclining slowly in the west. It was a beautiful day. Would I live to see tomorrow? It was close to 4:00. All was quiet. The tension was unbearable. I watched through the open door for the arrival of the conspirators. The hands passed 4:00. Not again postponed!
“They’re coming,” whispered my friend Wycen. I looked out and saw “Kali Mali” coming through the gate with a basket... His real name was Szuajero, and he was a Russian Jew, an engineer, about 25. He was led by Benia, a kapo, also in the conspiracy, giving it a natural look. (With a kapo they had authority to move freely between sections.) They hid in the clothing of the storeroom.
A young boy named Fibbs went to a German standing nearby and asked, would he be so kind as to go to the storeroom to try on a new leather coat especially set aside for him?
SO IT HAD BEGUN. I left my regular place of work and went to the sorting area next to gate one. As usual, a certain Dutch Jew was standing guard to prevent movement between sections. Because he was so close to the storeroom, my job was to see if he realized what was taking place (he was not in on the plot) and to prevent him, or anyone else, for that matter, from leaving or going in. Tension mounting, I watched the storeroom door.
Meanwhile, in one of the many areas of the storeroom, a few “subdued” prisoners were sorting clothing: children’s to children’s, men’s to men’s, women’s to women’s. Off to one side lay the bait — shiny and smooth — a long leather coat.
The SS man entered. The workers bent to their tasks. An order from the kapo, and two inmates fetched the coat and helped the German into it. In a split second, like in a film, the picture changed. The imprisoned arms could not move from the sleeves. The flash of an axe in the hands of Kali Mali, and the Nazi fell with a split head. The workers finished him off with their knives, and in a moment the body was covered with piles of clothing and the blood was covered with sand.
Fibbs came out of the storeroom and called the next German. I was no longer tense. I became relaxed and calm. I knew there was no turning back now.
The SS man Beckman started for the storeroom. He got to the door, hesitated for a moment, as if sensing something, then headed for the valuables storeroom, where gold and diamonds of the dead were kept. Here, despite unfavorable conditions, he was also liquidated.
The next victim was SS Stoybel.
Then a 10-year-old “bootblack” boy named Drescher, sent as a courier from the first section, arrived and told us that the vice-commandant of the camp, Untersturmfeuhrer Neumann, had been killed there, as well as Grenzchutz, Getzinger, and the Ukrainian guard Klatke. He gave us a blow-by-blow account:
Neumann, on horseback, was approached by a tailor who asked him to try on his uniform, which was ready. The tall handsome officer tied the reins and went in. He took off his holster with revolver, then his jacket. Pretending to measure him, the tailor positioned him with his back to the Jewish accomplice. Once, twice, with the hatchet, and the German went to the other world. Only the loud neighing of his horse broke the stillness...
Grenzschutz was killed in the shoemaker’s shop. When he put on his shoes for a fitting, Arkady Wycen, standing behind him, carefully took aim and, with one blow of the axe, finished him. They had barely time to hide his body and cover the blood with sand when in came Klatke, the Ukrainian, calling his chief to the telephone. He never left. In similar fashion, Getzinger was liquidated.
ALL WAS WELL SO FAR I stood and waited impatiently by the gate. The older Jews, realizing by now what was going on, began to complain — that it was all unnecessary, we would have been able to live a while longer in peace, and now what will happen?
“My” Dutchman, now suspecting something, asked why SS Wolf was still in the storeroom. Nervously, I explained that we were making a revolt, and Wolf was finished. He wanted to warn a friend in another section, but I explained that he couldn’t leave. However, realizing that I wouldn’t be able to keep him, and that he could unwittingly betray our action, I called a tall Jew named Sender, who forcibly took him into the labyrinth of suitcases and, under threat of death, ordered him to be quiet.
A bugle resounded from the tower: the end of work. The kapos led inmates to the dormitory barracks. Everything appeared as usual. Only then did I notice how many people still did not know what was going on. Whoever was aware was not thinking of bread — he was getting ready. The line for our rations, at first almost as long as usual, quickly melted down.
The decisive moment was drawing near. Procrastination could be dangerous; the absence of the Germans could be noticed. I was in the locksmith’s shop in the first section, run by 20-year-old Stanislaw Sjmyzner. He was examining a rifle that the boy Drescher had stolen from the Ukrainan guards and smuggled in with a sack of brooms.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the SS supervisor of barracks construction appeared. He was asked to go to the barracks concerning a “broken” bunk. There he, too, was killed with an axe.
In the roll call square, there was now intensified movement. Some were bidding each other farewell, realizing they might never see each other again; others prayed; those more practical searched feverishly for money and valuables, which not long ago had absolutely no worth, and now, in case of a successful escape, would be indispensable.
The guards, stationed on towers and among the barbed wire fences, for the time being suspected nothing. They probably thought this was usual for this time of day in preparation for the roll call. Nervously we waited. Bulges in jackets and coats betrayed the presence of axes and knives behind belts. One more minute, and the revolt, inspired by the fury of revenge and hope, would burst forth.
[caption id="attachment_39654" align="aligncenter" width="680"] Twenty-five years after the uprising, Siemion Rozenfeld, Alexander Pechersky, and Arkady Weisspapier were photographed together. Pechersky, an officer in the Red Army, was the leader of the revolt, in which 300 prisoners escaped, several SS officers were killed and the camp was set aflame. Some 200,000 Jews were killed at Sobibor between April, 1942 and the uprising of October 14, 1943. The Nazis then razed the camp, but archaeological digs in 2014 unearthed the gas chambers.[/caption]
I saw Sasha Pechersky, the organizer of the rebellion, standing on a table, addressing the crowd: “Brothers,” he said, “our moment of destiny has arrived. Our organized group has killed most of the Germans. Now all of us will rise up against our oppressors. We don’t expect to survive. Our real objective is to destroy this death factory, to render it useless and, in fighting, at least to die with honor. However, whoever should by chance survive, he should remember his duty is to be a witness — to tell the world what happened here.”
Somebody shouted “Hurrah, hurrah!” Suddenly there was pandemonium. The crowd rushed toward the main gate. A Ukrainian guard, riding through just then, was toppled from his motorcycle, and gun taken, before being trampled to death by the onrushing prisoners. The guards were completely taken by surprise. Their superiors already killed, they awaited their orders in vain. Some fifteen feet from me I saw a guard, stunned, rifle in one hand, turning around on one spot.
I found myself among a group running towards the main gate. Already behind us was the gate of the rally square. Suddenly, shots. It was the German cook. Protected by the canteen wall, he was shooting from behind the corner. The remainder of the Nazi crew began to rally from their stupor and opened disorderly fire. I was at the forefront, under fire. We retreated a few yards. The masses, however, pushed us forward, until I found myself with a few others in the guards’ corridor between barbed-wire fences. Possibly, in the confusion, we had run into the entrance. In this way, we did not have to pass two barbed-wire fences and a wide, deep, and steep moat filled with water — they were already behind us. Ahead of us, only one more barbed-wire fence (we had already shut off the electricity) and fifteen yards of minefields.
We stopped. Someone was trying to cut a hole in the wire fence with a shovel. Beside him stood Stanislaw, rifle to shoulder, calmly aiming and shooting in the direction of the machine guns. I marveled at his composure.
Our group was crawling through. Behind us, new escapees pressed on and, not waiting to crawl through, tried to climb over the fence. While I was only halfway through, the fence, under the combined weight of so many, fell on top of me. Possibly this saved my life, for lying under the wires, trampled by the stampeding crowd, I saw mines exploding every few seconds. Although we had planned to touch them off with bricks and wood, no one did. They couldn’t wait, they preferred sudden death to a moment more in that hell. Had I gotten through, I would have been killed with them.
The combined noise of rifles, exploding mines, grenades, and chattering machine guns assaulted my ears. Corpses were everywhere. The Nazis kept a distance, shooting, and in our hands were only primitive knives and hatchets. The first wave of escapees had passed over me. I had to think fast. I tried to extricate myself. It was relatively easy. I simply slid out from under my leather coat (stolen in preparation) and left it tangled there.
I ran through the minefields, jumped over the wire fence holding the sign, “Caution — mines,” and I was outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of me. It was so close...
Ahead of me, stooped figures, running cautiously. We were the last of the fugitives. Down I went a few times, each time thinking I was hit. Each time I got up and ran farther... one hundred yards... fifty more yards... twenty yards... and at last — the forest.
Behind us — blood and ashes.
Thomas Blatt, born in Poland in 1927, was taken with his parents and brother in April 1943 to the Sobibor extermination camp. His family was gassed immediately upon arrival. After his escape, he hid for months until he was liberated by the Soviet army in July, 1944. His testimony has been authenticated by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Blatt came to the U.S. in the 1950s. In 1983, he interviewed Karl Frenzel, a German who had been third in command at Sobibor, who had been convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison but was released on appeal after sixteen years. It is likely that this was the first time after World War II that an extermination camp survivor spoke face-to-face with an accused camp staff member (http://sobibor.net/confrontation.html).