Alexander Pechersky on the Revolt and Escape
From the Sobibor Death Camp
In his own words...
Alexander Pechersky was born on the 22 February 1909 in Kremenchuk, in the Ukraine. A lieutenant in the Red Army, he became a Prisoner of War in October 1941.
After trying to escape in May 1942, he was taken to Borisov, where a medical examination exposed him as being of Jewish extraction. He was sent to Sobibor death camp on the 22 September 1943 as a Jewish POW, along with some other soldiers and approximately 2,000 Jews from Minsk.
He was among eighty men selected by Hubert Gomerski for carpentry work, all the others on their transport were immediately taken to the gas chambers by Karl Frenzel.
Only twenty-two days later he managed to lead – together with Leon Feldhendler, a Polish Jew - the revolt on the 14 October 1943. Another four days later he and a group of his Soviet comrades succeeded in crossing the River Bug and joining the partisan bands – which later became part of the regular Soviet army.
He spent a short period in hospital in 1944. He never received any commendations for his heroic deeds, quite the contrary, the Soviet authorities regarded anyone who had worked either in Germany or for the Germans as a traitor, and he ended up instead with a prison sentence of several months.
Pechersky outlined his thinking in planning the revolt at the death camp:
My aim was first to kill the fascists who had already murdered so many Jews at Sobibor. Maybe that would allow only ten or fifteen of us to make a run for freedom, so that we could tell the world the truth.
To be honest I was not really all that confident about my plan, but I never mentioned that to the members of the committee, I wanted them to feel they were not powerless, and that we could indeed stage a revolt and escape.
For some time I discussed the plan only with my friend Leitman. I knew him as a quiet, strong and intelligent man. After giving it a lot of thought, we decided to present the plan, which had been worked out in detail, to Feldhendler and a few members of the committee.
I imposed one condition, that if we were to go ahead and execute the plan, killing the SS officers would be done only by men appointed by myself. I wanted them to be eliminated by teams of two, with a Soviet soldier in charge.
The reason was that I knew the characters of my men, I was well aware that if anyone should waver at the last minute, or even one hand should tremble, the entire revolt could fail. A single scream would be enough to cause hysteria; after that, restoring calm at the camp would be impossible.
I also imposed one other condition, "I will take your opinions into account, but I will have the final say. If I say this is how it will be done, then that is the way it will be done.
Pechersky described after the war what happened in Camp I after the roll-call signal was given:
People came streaming from all sides. We had previously selected seventy men, nearly all of them Soviet Prisoners of War, whose task it was to attack the armoury. That was why they were in the forefront of the column.
But all the others, who had only suspected that something was being arranged but didn't know when and how, now found out at the last minute, they began to push and jostle forward, fearing they might be left behind, in this disorderly fashion we reached the gate of Camp I.
A squad commander, a German from Near-Volga, approached us, "Hey you sons-of –bitches," he shouted, "didn't you hear the whistle?" So why are you pushing like a bunch of cattle? Get in line, three in a row!"
As though in response to a command, several hatchets suddenly appeared from under coats and came down on his head.
At that moment the column from Camp II was advancing toward us. Several women shaken by the unexpected scene, began to scream. One prisoner was on the verge of fainting. Another began to run blindly, without any direction. It was clear that under these circumstances it would be impossible to line up the people in an orderly column.
"Comrades, forward," I called out loud. "Forward," someone on my right picked up the slogans. "For our fatherland, forward!"
The slogans reverberated like thunder in the death camp, and united Jews from Russia, Poland, Holland, France, Czechoslovakia and Germany. Six hundred pain-wracked, tormented people surged forward with a wild "hurrah" to life and freedom.
Pechersky described what happened when the guards realised the revolt had started:
The guards on the watchtower opened intensive machine-gun fire on the escaping prisoners. The guards who were at and between the barbed-wire fences joined them.
Yanek the carpenter aimed and shot at the guards on the watchtower, the machine-gun fell silent. The locksmith Henrick used the captured sub-machine gun to silence the gunner from the second watchtower. But this machine gun continued to fire incessantly.
The remaining SS –men tried with automatic fire to cut-off the way of the crowd of prisoners.... The main body of the prisoners turned toward the fences of Camp I. Some ran directly over to the minefields. According to the plan, stones and planks had to be thrown on the mines to explode them, but in the confusion nobody did it.
Many found their death there, but they paved the way to freedom for the prisoners who followed them. A special group started to cut the fences close to the house where the commander of the camp lived.
When I passed by this house, I saw Frenzel crouching behind another house and shooting with a sub-machine gun. I shot him twice with my pistol but missed him. I did not stop.
A large group of prisoners under the command of Leitman tried to cross the barbed –wire fences close to the main gate. The guards on the watchtower aimed his fire on Leitman's group.
I was one of the last to leave the camp.
After reaching the forest Pechersky recalled:
For some time we continued to hear shots from rifles and automatic weapons. This helped us orient ourselves. We knew that there, behind us, was the camp. Gradually the shooting became more distant until it died down altogether. It was already dark when shooting broke out again from the right, it sounded distant and faint.
I proposed that we continue going all through the night, and that we should go in a single file, one behind the other. I would be in the front. Behind me, Tsibulsky, Arkady(Vaispapir) would close the line. No smoking; no talking; no falling behind; no running ahead. If a man in front lies down, all would do the same. If a rocket flared up, all would lie down at once. There must be no panic no matter what happened.
We were out of the woods, for about three kilometres we walked through an open field. Then our path was blocked by a canal about five to six metres wide. The canal was deep, and it was impossible to wade through it, so we walked along the shore of the canal. Suddenly i noticed a group of people about 50 metres away. We all lay down at once, Arkady was given the task of investigating who they were.
At first he crawled on his belly, then he rose and ran up to the group. A few minutes later he returned, "Sasha, they're ours," he announced. " They found wooden stumps lying by the shore and are crossing over to the other side. Kalimali (Shubayev) is with them." We all crossed over the canal on these wooden stumps.
Shubayev had no news about Luka, but he had seen Shlomo (Leitman). He said Shlomo was wounded before he managed to get into the woods. He had continued to run for a distance of about three kilometres and then his strength gave out. He begged to be shot.
What horrible, painful news that was! To break out of the camp and on the way to freedom to remain lying helpless.
By now our group numbered fifty-seven people, we covered another five kilometres and then heard the rumble of a passing train. Before us lay a broad open stretch of land, sparsely covered with short shrubs.
We stopped. It was getting close to dawn, time to give some thought to the question of where we should spend the day. It was clear that the Germans would be pursuing us during the day. The woods in these parts were not very thick and could be easily combed in all directions.
I talked it over with Tsibulsky and Shubayev, and it was decided that the best thing to do would be to scatter around the bushes, precisely because it was an open space, not far from the railway line. Therefore it wouldn't occur to anyone to look for us there. But we would have to camouflage ourselves well, lie motionless, and not utter a sound.
Before we took to the bushes, I sent out a few people to comb through them carefully for some distance on all sides. Throughout the day airplanes circled overhead, some quite low over the bushes where we lay.
We heard the voices of Poles who worked on the railway, our people lay glued to the ground, covered with branches, no one moved until it grew dark, that's how the first day of our freedom passed. It was October 15, 1943.
Night fell, as we rose from our places we noticed two figures approaching us. They moved cautiously, we guessed at once that they were our people. It turned out they had already been as far as the Bug and were now returning from there.
"Why didn't you cross?" we asked.
They reported that they had entered a hamlet not far from the river and were told that Germans had arrived at the shore during the night and that all crossings were heavily guarded.
We walked in single file, in the same order as yesterday: Tsibulsky and I were in front ; Shubayev and Arkady were the last in line. After walking for about 5 kilometres we entered the woods and stopped.
It made no sense to continue together in so large a group, we would be too conspicuous; also it would be impossible to provide food for so many people. Therefore we divided ourselves into small groups, each going its own way.
My group consisted of nine people, including Shubayev, Boris Tsibulsky, Arkady Vaispapir, Michael Itzkowitch, Semion Mazurkiewitch. We headed east, with the polar stars as our compass. The nights were starry.
Our first aim was to cross the Bug. To do that we had to find the proper place and the proper time. In quiet, deserted hamlets we obtained food and received vital information and directions. We were warned which places to avoid and where it would be advisable to stay over because there had been a breakout from the Sobibor camp, where people were being burned, and the Germans were combing the entire area in search of the escapees.
We started out for the Stawki hamlets, about 1.5 kilometres from the Bug. Subayev who had been sent on a reconnaissance with two of his comrades, knocked at one of the little houses to ask if they could come in. A young man answered positively in perfect Russian.
Aside from him, there was a woman, a baby in a cradle and an old man, Subayev asked if they knew where in the area might be a good place to cross the river, because they were POW's who had escaped and wanted to return
home, to Donbas and Rostov.
After staying silent for a long while, the young man replied he did know of such a place. After Subayev had come back for us and the woman had given us some bread to take along, the young farmer led us to a place not far from the river and left us there.
That was on the night of 19 October. Two days later we met the first partisans near Brest; they were from the Worosjilow group.
Holocaust Research Project