Lt. Aleksandr “Sasha” Aronovich Pechersky (left). US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives
A group portrait of some of the participants in the uprising at the Sobibor killing center. Leon “Leibl” Feldhendler is in the top row, far right. Poland, August 1944. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Misha Lev
Rail personnel at Sobibor. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Even in the death camps, in the shadow of the gas chambers and crematoria, Jews resisted against their oppressors. The most bold and daring acts came at the end—on the eve of liquidation of the killing centers.
By the summer of 1943, the transports to the Sobibór death camp were slowing down. The veteran Jewish prisoners sensed that the end was quickly approaching. In July, the prisoners organized an underground unit. It was led by Leon Feldhendler, the son of a rabbi from the nearby town of Zolkiewka.
In September 1943, a deportation from Minsk of Soviet Jewish prisoners of war brought to the camp a trained officer, Lieutenant Aleksandr “Sasha” Aronovich Pechersky. The Jewish underground recruited Pechersky and placed him in command. His deputy was Leon Feldhendler.
They devised a daring plan. SS officers would be lured into storehouses on the pretext that they were to be given new coats and boots. Once inside – aided by the bold efforts of Thomas (Tuvia) Blatt—they would be attacked by the prisoners and killed with axes and knives. Nazi weapons were to be seized, and at roll call the camp would be set ablaze. All prisoners would have a chance to bolt for freedom. Once outside Sobibór’s gates, they would all be on their own.
At 4:00 p.m. on October 14, 1943, the first SS soldier was killed with an axe. Ten more SS men were killed, as were several Ukrainian guards. Telephone wires and electricity lines were cut. Within an hour, the camp was burning, guns were aimed at the guard towers, and the first group of prisoners fled across the German mine fields surrounding the facility.
By dusk more than half the prisoners—about 300 people—had escaped. Most were killed by their Nazi pursuers or died crossing the minefields. After the revolt, some joined partisan units; others found shelter among sympathetic Poles. It is estimated that just 50 of the escapees survived the war.
After the uprising, the Germans destroyed all traces of Sobibór. By the end of 1943, the death camp was plowed under and crops were planted to cover the place, where, between March 1942 and October 1943, at least 167,000 people were killed. Virtually all of the victims were Jews.