The greatest escape from the Nazis

At Yad Vashem, families mark 75 years since the Sobibor uprising.

Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi and his Polish partner, Wojciech Mazurek, on a break in Sobibor (photo credit: YORAM HAIMI/IAA)
Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi and his Polish partner, Wojciech Mazurek, on a break in Sobibor
(photo credit: YORAM HAIMI/IAA)
For more than three decades Sobibor survivors assembled every October 14 to commemorate their audacious escape from the Nazi death camp.
The first reunion took place at the war’s end in Lublin, Poland, when they surfaced from their hiding places. In the years that followed, those who had immigrated to Israel met and reminisced about hell – the Nazis’ sadistic games, the huge St. Bernard who could tear a person apart at his master’s command, the mad rush through exploding minefields to the forest. They, who had lost their entire families, were indelibly connected, each other’s mishpucheh. Then, with the years, they grew old, fragile, began dying off, and in the late 1980s, the meetings stopped.
On October 9, 2018, for the first time, their children and grandchildren renewed the tradition by gathering in Yad Vashem’s synagogue to mark the 75th anniversary of the epic uprising, the largest escape from a German concentration camp anywhere in Europe.
Dvora Fishman, whose parents, Itzhak and Eda Lichtman met in Sobibor, spoke for all of them.
“There, in those horrific barracks, while they looked with dread at the chimneys of the gas chambers, in the terrible cold, hungry, half-naked, their dignity trampled, they tied their destinies one to the other,” she told the 150 persons assembled, including diplomats from four Western countries whose Jewish citizens were murdered in Sobibor.
“They were all young, some teenagers, torn from their families, but without a doubt, they were incredibly courageous and decisive. Such were our parents,” she said.
Sobibor was concealed by pine forests in a sparsely populated area in the Lublin district. It was the second of three death camps, including Belzec and Treblinka, constructed as part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi conspiracy to murder Europe’s Jews. The camp became operational in May 1942 and estimates of the number of Jews killed in Sobibor range from 175,000 to 300,000.
Twenty-year-old Eda Lichtman arrived in Sobibor in June, 1942, the only survivor from a transport of 8,000. She testified at a Nazi trial that took place in Hagen, Germany, but court officials travelled to Israel to take her testimony because she refused to set foot in Germany.
“Facing us are officers and soldiers with machine guns ready to shoot. I make out a large St. Bernard dog. ‘Hey, you over there,’ one of the officers shouts pointing at me. ‘You can do our washing for us.’ They pulled me and two other young girls out of the line. They take us into the camp and put us in a small barrack. My first night in the camp – a nightmare. Cries rend the air jerking me out of my plank bed. What is the meaning of the screams? The Ukrainian guards are raping the young girls before pushing them into the gas chambers.”
Fishman’s father, Itzhak Lichtman, was 28 when he arrived in Sobibor about a month earlier.
“My father said he was a shoemaker and that is what saved him,” says Fishman in a telephone interview a day after the ceremony. “His wife and his six-year-old son were sent directly to the gas chamber. He decided to kill himself. He stepped close to the electrified fence but my mother, who didn’t know him, stopped him.”
There had been some escape attempts (see sidebar, page 23) but the catalyst for the big breakout was the arrival on September 22, 1943 of a transport from Minsk that included a group of about 80 Jewish Red Army POWs, and their leader, Lieutenant Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky.
“We understood that nobody left this place alive,” said Leon (Yehuda) Lerner, who arrived on the same transport as Pechersky, in testimony he gave after the war.
Events moved quickly. October meant the Polish winter was approaching and soon the forest would be carpeted with snow. In addition, the number of transports dropped dramatically, indicating the Germans were planning to liquidate the camp. The inmates had to act fast. They chose the date after learning that several of the high-ranking Nazis would be on leave on October 14.
The daring plan depended on the Germans’ renowned punctuality. During the first stage, set for 16:00 hours, about a dozen SS men, one after the other, were lured to the workshops with promises of lucrative goods. They were killed with axes and knives and their weapons were taken. Itzhak Lichtman dispatched a Nazi in the shoemaker’s workshop when the latter came to try on a new pair of boots. Mina Bar-Eli’s father, Leon Lerner, thrust a sharp ax right into the skull of an SS officer who was trying on a coat. “I was petrified to be standing next to such a monster, truly I was filled with terror,” testified Lerner. “We knew that if we did not act, we would be killed. We wanted to die like men rather than to be led to the crematory. Before the revolt I hadn’t even killed a fly.” Yael Atzmony’s father, Dov Freiberg, was a young boy assigned to be a runner between the workshops and the leaders.
At precisely 17:00, during the camp’s evening roll call, the rebels cut the telephone lines and electricity, took aim at the guard towers as 300 prisoners escaped over and through the three-meter high double barbed-wire fence and ran through minefields to the forest. Night fell. The dappled light of a full Sukkot moon guided their way.
The manhunt began at dawn – mounted police, Wehrmacht soldiers, SS forces and Ukrainians. Surveillance planes circled above the forests.
Of the 300 prisoners who escaped, only 53 are known to have survived to the end of the war.
After the escape, the Germans dismantled the camp, demolished the structures down to the foundations, killed the remaining prisoners, exhumed and then burned the bodies from the mass graves and planted pine saplings to cover up their crimes. Five days after the revolt, SS chief Heinrich Himmler halted Operation Reinhard.
What the Nazis covered up, Israeli archaeologist, Yoram Haimi, has been uncovering for the past 11 years, one shovelful at a time. His interest in Sobibor is personal, he told the audience during the Yad Vashem ceremony. His maternal uncles, immigrants from Casablanca, were rounded up in Paris and murdered in the death camp.
Haimi and his Polish partner, Wojciech Mazurek, have unearthed 70,000 artifacts, including wedding bands, suitcase keys, coins, shoes, purses, teeth, bones and ashes. They found several door plaques engraved with the family names of deportees who believed the Nazi deception and brought the signs to hang on the doors of their new homes.
“Every item tells a fascinating story,” he said.
The dig has produced major breakthroughs with new information about the camp. The two archaeologists found evidence of 21 cremation pits whereas only seven were known before. In one they found a pendant with the Hebrew words, Shema Yisrael. They mapped what the Germans perversely called the “Road to Heaven,” a 240-meter fenced path through which they harried the naked victims to the gas chambers. After the war, the Polish government created a visitors center and paved over the area where the gas chambers once stood.
“Since there were no survivors from Camp 3 (where the mass murder took place), nobody knew how many gas chambers existed,” said Haimi. It took the archaeologists four years to obtain permission to remove the asphalt. They unearthed evidence of eight gas chambers and proof the Germans used dynamite to blow them up.
The area where the Germans built a special barrack to cut the women’s hair yielded a trove of hair pins, women’s jewelry, including a small pendant of a little girl inscribed with the words Mazel Tov and the place and date of her birth. It caused a media sensation since it was similar to the pendant that had belonged to Anne Frank. Only one Jewish girl had been born on that date in Frankfurt, twelve days apart from Frank, and researchers were able to identify her as Karolina Cohn, 12 years old when she was deported with her parents. Dozens of relatives from three continents reunited last year for a moving ceremony in her memory.
The archaeologists also found intriguing evidence of an escape tunnel, 10 meters long and 1.6 meters deep, reinforced with wooden planking, which begins in the middle of the barrack of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners forced to remove bodies from the gas chamber. It leads toward where the barbed-wire fence used to be. In the tunnel the archaeologists found a rusty tool used for digging and a cup with Hebrew letters.
“We hope to dig this year to see how far they got,” said Haimi. “We are documenting this for future generations. Nobody can come today and say there was no Sobibor.”
It will be another year before descendants of the survivors will gather again to commemorate another anniversary of their parents’ escape, but for many, Sobibor remains a part of their lives. For some it was their bedtime story.
“What took place in Sobibor trickles down to our daily lives, an inseparable part of our existence and cannot be ignored,” said Dvora Fishman in her speech. “All that has been said and written, the books and movies, as powerful as they may be, are just a flutter over the surface, a weak attempt to describe the traumatic upheaval they experienced. For many years we didn’t know how to define it, but today it is clear that our lives, the second generation, unfolded in the shadow of this trauma.”