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Alexander “Sasja” Petsjerski

Alexander PetsjerskiAlexander ‘Sasja’ Petsjerski (Kremenchuk, 22 February 1909), a lieutenant in the Red Army, was taken prisoner in the autumn of 1941. When a medical examination revealed he was Jewish, he was transported to Sobibor on 22 September 1943. Over a period of three weeks he drew up a detailed plan to escape from the camp with all the prisoners. About his captivity and his part in the uprising he said: ‘It is not just a memory, I live it.’.

Before the war Alexander Petsjerski was an organization expert with a great love of the theatre and music. He was married and had a daughter when he enlisted in the army. In January 1990 he died in his hometown of Rostov-on-Don.

"we knew nothing about Sobibor"
On 22 September 1943 a transport of Jews from Minsk arrived in Sobibor. Among the two thousand prisoners were about one hundred Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoner, including the lieutenant and also political commissar of the Red Army, Alexander Petsjerski. Born in 1909 in Kremenchug (Ukraine) he was mobilized after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and sent to the front. In an attempt to free his regimental commander from a German siege, Petsjerski’s unit was taken prisoner. In retaliation for a failed attempt to escape he was transported to a prison camp in Borisow in May 1942. When the medical examination revealed he was a Jew, he and other Jewish prisoners of war were interned in Minsk, in the infamous camp on Sherokaya street. Under the pretext of prisoners being put to work in Germany, Petsjerski and his group were put on a transport to Sobibor. ‘We knew nothing about Sobibor,’ Petjerski declared in 1984, ‘but we did know how they [the Germans] were with people, how they deported them and killed them, we knew about that in considerable detail. We thought we could escape on the way, but that didn’t work out.’

On arrival in the camp the Germans asked whether there were craftsmen among the prisoners. Petsjerski came forward and pretended to be a furniture maker. A total of eighty soldiers were recruited as Arbeitshäftlinge, the remaining soldiers were gassed not long after that. That systematic murder by gassing or shooting in Lager III was the only reason the camp existed, was soon made clear to him by his fellow prisoners. Petsjerski also understood that being sick in Sobibor would get you the death penalty. A prisoner was allowed to be sick for three days; if you did not return to work after that, you were taken to Lager III and shot. One day Petsjerski was near the furniture workshop, where he saw SS-Oberscharführer Frenzel. ‘He was coming from Lager I, from the men’s barracks,’ Petsjerski remembers, ‘and he was leading about eleven Dutchmen in the direction of Lager III. On the way there he passed a women’s barracks, so the women who were there could see him. And then I see how a Dutch woman runs outside, towards Frenzel, and begs him to let her husband go, because he is not that sick and he will start work again tomorrow. Frenzel pushes her away - I don’t know what he said, I couldn’t hear. She then walked towards her husband with her head held high, she took his arm and went with him.’ A few minutes later we could hear the rattling of machine guns. After about five minutes Frenzel returned alone and walked towards the officer’s mess.

planning an escape
PetsjerskiAlmost immediately after the arrival of the Soviet soldiers Petsjerski was approached by the underground committee, the recently formed group led by the Polish Leon Feldhendler, that devised plans to escape from the camp. The arrival of the trained soldiers gave the group new hope towards realizing their plans. Petsjerski made a reliable impression and was let in on the escape plans. Thanks to his military status and confidence-inspiring personality he soon became the leader of the underground committee. Petsjerski embraced the idea of an escape, but also became convinced that the prisoners should take revenge on the SS. Over a period of three weeks he developed a daring and complicated plan for both an uprising and an escape, together with his confidant, the taciturn Pole Schlomo Lajtman. What it came down to was that as many SS as possible would be lured into the work barracks or their own offices, where they would be killed silently with axes and knives. The operation could last no more than one hour, in order for the sudden disappearance of the SS-staff not to attract attention. Only a small group could be involved in the preparations and the execution of the operation, not only because of the ever vigilant Germans and Ukrainians, but also to prevent panic among the prisoners. In addition, the conspirators assumed that not all prisoners could be trusted and that some were in league with the Germans.

According to the plan the Soviet soldiers, after killing as many SS as possible, were to dress in SS-uniforms and attend roll call together with the other prisoners. It was assumed that Ukrainian guards in the camp and the watchtowers would not grow suspicious if the Soviet soldiers disguised as SS would then order the prisoners to leave the camp in an orderly fashion through the main gate, supposedly to go to work outside the camp. In the nearby woods the escapees could then hide at least temporarily. The members of the underground committee hoped that if the Ukrainians did become suspicious, they would not react too aggressively. It was impossible to predict which side they would choose. Even the Germans had never been totally sure of their loyalty, which is why the Ukrainians were always given only a few bullets and only when they were on duty. A second problem was Lager III, where the gas chambers and the execution grounds were located. The SS there could not be eliminated, as this section was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the camp. However, the members of the underground committee were also aware that the isolated position of this section of the camp made it impossible for the Jews who had to work there to take part in the uprising. And so they were not involved in the escape plan.

"I didn’t have much confidence in my plan"
The underground committee furthermore took into account that if the uprising failed, dozens and possibly hundreds of prisoners could die. Looking back on the revolt, Petsjerski in the 1980s stated: ‘My main goal was to kill the fascists, those who had killed all those people. Perhaps only ten or fifteen would be able to escape and get to freedom, and to tell the world the truth. Frankly, I didn’t have much confidence in my plan, but I did not talk about this with the members of the committee. I wanted them to believe they were not powerless and make them feel we were able to rise in revolt and escape.’

The uprising eventually took place on 14 October 1943, at four o’clock in the afternoon. The underground committee had found out that on that day not only Gustav Wagner, the most dangerous SS-man, but also camp commander Reichleitner and some other SS were on leave. In Wagner’s absence Karl Frenzel was in charge. Initially everything went completely according to plan. In a short period of time seven SS and one Ukrainian guard were killed at the agreed locations. But the planned murder of Frenzel could not be carried out, because the man was in the shower. The plan sustained further damage, after an SS-officer appeared in the garage unexpectedly and was killed by a prisoner who panicked. As the body in the garage could be discovered at any moment, Petsjerski decided to move roll call up fifteen minutes and he had Kapo Pozycki blow his whistle. The Arbeitshäftlinge then gathered in the roll call area, where they saw neither Frenzel nor any other familiar SS. This, and the fact that roll call was fifteen minutes earlier than usual made the prisoners suspicious and they were hesitant about lining up as they were accustomed to.Petsjerski1979 One Ukrainian guard came running and ordered the prisoners to line up in an orderly fashion, was told the war was over and was killed in the confusion that ensued.

Now events gained momentum. Just when the prisoners scattered, SS Erich Bauer totally unexpectedly drove into the camp in his truck. He immediately saw that something was up, pulled out his gun and started shooting at the prisoners. A gunfight ensued with the armed Soviet soldiers, and Franzel, who had by now also appeared, did not hold back either. He emptied his machine gun into the fleeing crowd, that ran en masse towards the main gate, towards freedom. Many were hit by bullets, many tried to scramble across the barbed wire barrier and ended up in a minefield on the other side. One group of women had not dared to risk it and had run back to the barracks.

"we hid in the bushes"
After Petsjerski had tried in vain to shoot Frenzel, he fled into the forest with others and ran all night long. ‘We hid in the verge of the roads and in the bushes where the Germans were least likely to look for us,’ said Petsjerski. ‘I thought they would look for us in the woods or near inhabited areas, where there are places a person can hide.’ That is exactly where the Germans searched. During the day the group of escapees tried to hide as best they could and not move when Germans approached. At night they moved on. After one week Petsjerski and seven other Russians arrived in Soviet territory where they met Soviet partisans. Later they joined the regular Red Army. In 1944 he spent some time in hospital.

Like many Red Army soldiers who had been in German POW camps, Petsjerski after the war ended up in prison in the Soviet Union for many years. After it became known that he had been one of the leaders of the uprising at Sobibor, he was released. For his role in the uprising he was never honoured in his home country. In 1962 he testified in the Soviet Union in a trial against Ukrainian guards from Sobibor. Petsjerski died on 19 January 1990. Seventeen years later a memorial plaque was placed on the apartment building where he had lived.

Listen to the interview with Alexander Petsjerski

Read the story Alexander Petsjerski told on an other occasion

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