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Chaskiel Menche

Chaskiel MencheChaskiel Menche (Kolo 7 January 1910) arrived in Sobibor in the summer of 1942 and he was briefly put to work in the sorting barracks. He was then appointed to shine shoes and make caps. Together with others he prepared a plan to murder Himmler during a visit to the camp. His desire for revenge was fulfilled when he stabbed a guard during the uprising: ‘My heart is lighter now for I stood in his blood’.

He grew up in a closed Jewish community and spoke mainly Yiddish. In 1937 he married Hella Podchlebnik. His wife and child were killed in Sobibor. During his escape the Germans shot him in the leg. Chaskiel Menche settled in Melbourne where he died in 1984.

"a sad reception was awaiting us"
In December 1940 part of the Jewish population of the Polish town of Kolo was confined in the ghetto of Izbica. Starting in the spring of 1942 transports regularly left from here to extermination camp Sobibor. One of those transports that arrived at the camp in June carried 32-year-old tailor Chaskiel Menche and his family. ‘When we arrived in Sobibor,’ Menche wrote in 1947, ‘a sad reception was awaiting us. The Bahnhofkommando, made up of Jews, started to unload the “goods”. Children and elderly were thrown onto lorries and taken away.’ He later heard they were killed immediately. Young, healthy men were selected by the SS to work in the camp. They were particularly in need of skilled workers and Menche was put to work as a tailor. Other prisoners had to sort the clothes of the murdered prisoners and go through their possessions to look for gold, money, and valuables in special barracks. Prisoners were also selected to work in the gas chambers. Part of their job was to pull gold teeth from the mouths of the gassed prisoners.

After the selection of workers had taken place the other prisoners - those that had not been taken away on lorries - were gathered in an open space in the camp and addressed by an SS officer. Here, said Menche, they were told they would be given land in the Ukraine where they could live in peace. All prisoners first had to write a letter home to say they had arrived safely in East Poland, would be given work, and were happy. Before the prisoners could continue their journey, they first had to shower in a special part of the camp, the so-called Lager III, which was actually where the gas chambers were. Among the prisoners who were herded there were also Menche’s wife and their 5-year old son.

Menche and many other Arbeitsjuden understood that it was only a matter of time before they would also be sent to the gas chambers. Several Polish prisoners met secretly to make plans for an escape. With the arrival of a group of Russian prisoners of war in September 1943, the plans gained momentum, and soon a detailed plan was developed for an uprising and a mass escape from the camp. In the first phase a large number of the SS present in the camp at that moment would be murdered in order to obtain weapons. The insurgents also needed their uniforms, because the plan called for the Soviet soldiers to dress like SS and march out of the camp following afternoon roll call, supposedly to work in the forest.

"for all the people of Israel"
The prisoners who like Menche worked in the tailor shop had orders to lure an SS man to their work place on 14 October 1943, the day of the uprising, on the pretext that he could fit a coat at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. This type of appointment was not uncommon and the Germans were always very punctual. ‘That was no coincidence,’ said Menche. ‘If the prisoner had not finished the work at exactly the agreed time, he could be sent to the gas chambers.’ At the agreed time SS-Oberscharführer Siegfried Graetschus entered the tailor shop and was killed with an axe by the Russian Wajspapir and the Polish Lerner. Then Menche started stabbing the corpse with a pair of scissors to finally take revenge. ‘This one if for my mother,’ he yelled, ‘and this one for my wife, and this one for my child, and this one for all the people of Israel.’ The other tailors had to drag the extremely emotional and passed out Menche away quickly, because the next guard was about to enter the tailor shop.

During the mass escape from the camp, in which many prisoners died, Menche also managed to get away. With his group he joined a unit of the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Home Army. At first sight this appeared to be positive, but as it soon turned out this group consisted mainly of anti-Semitic Polish nationalists. ‘They pretended they wanted to cooperate with us,’ according to Menche, ‘in reality they were looking for opportunities to catch us off guard and kill us.’ At some point they decided to raid a German guard post, but the nationalists opened fire on the Jewish refugees instead, eight of whom were killed. Menche managed to survive and hid in Lublin until the end of the war. In 1949 he emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1984.

Listen to the interview with Chaskiel Menche

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