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The revolt


The revolt and breakout of the prisoners in Sobibor took place on 14 October 1943. Exactly as agreed, towards the end of the afternoon the SS men who were there were lured into a workshop or office by the leaders of the revolt under the pretext of trying on new clothes or inspecting newly installed shelves. The insurgents were to kill them there. Stanislaw Szmajzner, one of the Poles involved in the revolt, managed to smuggle out guns and ammunition from the armoury where he was supposedly carrying out repairs. A second Pole, Leon Feldhendler, kept watch in Lager II, while the Russian lieutenant Alexander Petsjerski was on the look-out near Lager I and coordinated the entire operation. All outside connections were cut by a Czech electrician. Hidden money and valuables, needed to survive outside the camp, were divided among a small group of insurgents. The elimination of the SS men also went mostly as planned. Some of them were killed with an axe, as agreed, others were stabbed to death. But the generally feared Karl Frenzel, who was also on the death list, had not shown up at the carpenters’ workshop, when he was supposed to. In addition, an SS man who had suddenly turned up in the garage had been stabbed by a panic-stricken insurgent. Fearing his body would be discovered, Petsjerski decided to have evening roll call earlier than usual.

From that moment on the daring escape plan went off the rails. Restless because of the unusually early roll call and also because they did not see the familiar SS, the prisoners started to spread out across the roll call area. One guard who tried to stop them was killed by the crowd. Urged on by the leaders of the revolt many prisoners were running towards the gate when SS man Erich Bauer, who adorned himself with the title ‘gas master of Sobibor’, unexpectedly drove his truck into the camp. After he realized what was happening, he immediately opened fire on the fleeing prisoners. This was followed by a gunfight between the armed prisoners and the camp guards. The Ukrainian guards also started shooting at the prisoners from their watchtowers, as did Frenzel, alerted by now, who emptied his machine gun into the crowd fleeing towards he gate. The approximately sixty prisoners from Lager IV were too late to join the fleeing prisoners. They were stopped by their guards and shot that same night.

An estimated 600 prisoners tried to get away. Due to the jostling at the gate many tried to climb across the barbed wire fencing. Some got caught in it; others who managed to get across were killed by the exploding mines. Only a few prisoners had to followed the plan and detonated the mines using bricks and pieces of wood. But there was not enough time and many prisoners wanted only one thing: to not spend another second in Sobibor, even if they had to pay for their flight with their lives. Probably 365 people managed to get away from the camp, and some 200 of those reached the woods. Most of them, however, fell victim to their German pursuers or were reported or killed by Polish people in the area. A total of 47 prisoners from Sobibor survived the war. Among them were two women from the Netherlands, twenty-one year old Saartje Wijnberg from Groningen, and Ursula Stern, aged seventeen, who had fled from Germany to Holland before the war. When the Germans retreated from Poland in the summer of 1944, the refugees emerged from their hiding places after a long period of fear and hardship. Some had taken a false identity, others had joined groups of Polish partisans.

Read more about the aftermath

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