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Escape From Sobibor: A Personal Review Essay

Carl R. Schulkin
Pembroke Hill School

         In the "New Afterword" to the 1995 reprint of Escape From Sobibor, Richard Rashke makes explicit what was already implicit in the original 1982 edition.  He forthrightly challenges historians of the Holocaust to reexamine a "flawed premise" of much of their writing.  Unconsciously accepting the flawed premise that "if the Nazis...did not give it much significance, it wasn’t significant," Rashke argues, historians have distorted the nature of the Jewish response to the Final Solution.  Most historians have mistakenly portrayed Jews "as a flock of sheep on the road to slaughter," he insists, "causing intense suffering and irreparable damage to the Jewish people."  He offers his own book as an antidote.  The story of the escape from Sobibor and those who survived it, he argues, "represents the buried stories of hundreds of thousands who fought and died in ghettos no one ever heard of; who tried to escape on the way to camps but never made it; who fought back inside camps but were killed anyway; who managed to escape only to be recaptured and executed; who formed or joined partisan groups from the woods of Vilna to the forest of the owls and who never saw liberation...."  I find Rashke’s argument very convincing, and I would like to encourage others who teach about the Holocaust to join me in reexamining the way we present the Jewish response to the Final Solution to our students.

        Rashke’s book provided the basis for a film of the same title which was first televised in 1987 and which is still available on videocassette.  The film, which tells the story of the planning and successful execution of a mass escape from one of the three major Operation Reinhard death camps, Sobibor, in eastern Poland, has been widely used by teachers to illustrate Jewish resistance to the Final Solution.  Rashke’s book, however, goes far beyond what is depicted in the film.  In fact, Rashke notes in his "New Afterword", a sequel to the original film, tentatively subtitled "The Aftermath," had already been scripted, when its sponsor, the Chrysler Corporation, decided not to proceed with the project in face of a lawsuit filed by a chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee.  Without making any judgment about the appropriateness or the merits of the lawsuit, I think it is unfortunate for those of us who teach about the Holocaust that the sequel was never made.  I hope that someday the sequel will be filmed, if possible, in a manner acceptable to those who objected to the portrayal of Ukrainians in the original film.

        My primary purpose in this review essay is not to summarize the contents of Rashke’s book, but rather to make and briefly elaborate upon the argument that every teacher who wishes to do justice to Jewish resistance to the Final Solution should read Escape From Sobibor.  The book contains important details about the planning and execution of the escape which are not depicted in the film, and the final third of the book raises important issues concerning the behavior of Poles and Ukrainians (and presents much valuable evidence about the behavior of many different Poles) that every teacher should take into consideration.

        The film follows the book faithfully in most respects, but some of the subtleties and complexities of the day-to-day operation of the death camp and the planning of the escape are inevitably lost in the telescoping of events and the creation of a few composite characters in the interest of time.  The viewer may also fail to appreciate what the careful reader cannot avoid being impressed by: Rashke’s meticulous research and scrupulous honesty in differentiating between fact and opinion.  The author succeeds in recreating for the reader the sense of urgency felt by the organizers of the escape plot, especially its principal leader, Leon Feldhendler, in face of their fear that the Nazis might soon liquidate the entire camp.  The film omits this important context.  The author painstakingly recreates the manner in which longtime prisoner Leon Feldhendler makes contact, feels out and negotiates with a group of Russian Jewish POWs and their leader , Alexander Pechersky, who arrive at Sobibor belatedly in September 1943.  Rashke indicates that the Russian POWs were probably sent to Sobibor and received better treatment because the Nazis were planning to collect and rehabilitate captured Russian weapons and ammunition there to aid the German war effort.  Again, the film omits this important point.  Finally, the film greatly oversimplifies the complexities of communication among the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor and omits the key role of Solomon Leitman, who acted as both interpreter and go-between for Feldhendler and Pechersky, who had no common language to enable them to converse directly.

        In the final third of the book, Rashke tells the story of the trials and tribulations of many of the three hundred Jews who joined the mass escape attempt.  In addition to thought provoking interviews with a number of survivors, which cast considerable light on the issue of how one explains who survived and who perished, the author explores in great depth the relationship between the Jews who had escaped and the non-Jewish Poles who inhabited the Lublin district of eastern Poland.  Rashke very carefully delineates the variety of responses that non-Jewish Poles exhibited toward Jews and presents enough important examples to permit the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.  At the beginning of the third section, entitled "The Forest," Rashke recounts how Toivi Blatt, Esther Terner-Raab and Shlomo Szmajzner were alternately assisted by Poles at great risk to themselves, refused assistance, threatened, robbed or betrayed.  Toivi was first given food by a poor peasant woman who refused to accept any payment (245), turned away by a former acquaintance in his hometown of Izbica out of fear of the Germans (246), then hidden for several months in exchange for substantial payments by a farmer named Bojarski who had done business with his father (247-252).  After months of hiding Toivi and two other young men, Bojarski eventually betrayed the three Jews for reasons which are difficult to determine even today.  Esther Terner-Raab headed for her hometown of Janow, where, after being assisted by a kindly Polish farmer along the way, she found refuge with a wealthy Christian farmer that her father had befriended.  The farmer, Stefan Marcyniuk, hid Esther, her brother and Esther’s friend Samuel, at great risk to himself and his family from late October 1943 until liberation by the Red Army in July 1944 (254-261).  Shlomo Szmajzner, by contrast, was successively robbed, shot at, and assisted by a series of Polish partisans and farmers (265-270), leaving him bitter and distrustful of Poles to the end of his life.  When he was interviewed in the late 1970s, the former goldsmith told Rashke that he considered the Poles "worse than the Germans" (301).  And both Shlomo and Toivi left Rashke with the impression that they were both "very bitter," that they had both "known some good, kind Poles, but not many" (311).

        Although Rashke himself may, at times, permit the understandable resentments of Shlomo and others to upstage his own reflections, any experienced teacher will welcome this opportunity to engage the crucial issue of Polish attitudes and behavior largely on the basis of the abundant evidence he presents.  In this connection, instructors will also find it very rewarding to consult Sobibor survivor Thomas Blatt’s recent memoir, From The Ashes of Sobibor, the final chapters of which document numerous instances of non-Jewish Poles helping young Toivi survive after his betrayal by Bojarski and his wounding by Bojarski’s accomplices.

        Finally, as far as the Ukrainians are concerned, I must plead ignorance and apologize for my inability to quickly and easily research this important area.  I can sympathize with those Ukrainians who object to Rashke’s book because it portrays many Ukrainians as willing collaborators with the Nazis.  Extrapolating largely from survivor testimony, Rashke leaves his reader with the impression that most if not all of the non-German guards at Sobibor were Ukrainian.  In one of the few places in the final third of the book where Ukrainians are mentioned, Rashke records a comment by a Jewish partisan leader that Poles and Ukrainians in the area bordering the Bug River "hated Jews so much" because the Russian Orthodox priests in that region had taught them that "Jews were both Christ-killers and dangerous revolutionaries" and they "believed their priests" (275).  Yet it is difficult to see how, other than perhaps in a footnote or two, Rashke could have presented a more balanced account without digressing and adding largely peripheral material to an already lengthy treatise.  Perhaps a brief mention in this connection of the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Galicia, Metropolitan Andreas Sheptysky of Lvov, who defended Jews and encouraged his followers to hide them from the Germans (Michael Marrus, The Holocaust in History, 101) would have helped.

        Richard Rashke’s Escape From Sobibor has forced me to consider whether I devote sufficient attention in my Holocaust studies class to Jewish Resistance to the Final Solution.  I have concluded that I do not and that I should incorporate more information from his book as a partial corrective.  It has stimulated me to learn more about the uprising at Treblinka and resistance in other concentration camps.  It has called my attention to the importance of Jewish partisan groups.  Finally, it has provided me with abundant examples of the behavior of non-Jewish Poles which I can present to my students and challenge them to draw their own conclusions.  These are some of the reasons that I regard Escape From Sobibor as an important work which I believe everyone who teaches about the Holocaust should read and ponder.

Works Cited

Thomas Toivi Blatt, From the Ashes of Sobibor. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Richard Rashke, Escape From Sobibor. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

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