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The Sobibor revolt: “You must tell the world what happened in this place”
26 September 2016. A World to Win News Service. Philip Bialowitz, who died on 6 August 2016, was the last known survivor among the prisoners at Sobibor, a concentration camp in Poland where the Nazis murdered more than 200,000 people, almost all Jews. He was saved from extermination in 1943, at the age of barely 18, by the only successful revolt and mass escape at a Nazi death camp. In his book about that rebellion, it is clear that he and the other survivors, and millions of other Jews as well, would not have lived if it had not been for the then-socialist Soviet Union and its Red Army. That fact was glaringly absent from his obituaries in The New York Times and Der Spiegel, among the only major news media that reported his death, because it doesn’t fit the narrative about World War 2 and communism promoted by the US and its present-day allies.
The anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews) of the Nazis resonates in the rabidly anti-immigrant rants considered legitimate in today’s political debates. During most of their first decade in power in Germany, starting in 1933, the Nazis’ anti-Jewish rhetoric turned into concrete actions step by step, not all at once. Most people did not realize – or did not want to believe – where the random cutting off of Orthodox Jewish men’s beards in the street and the destruction of Jewish-owned stores would lead. It was not until a Nazi party conference held amidst a world war that was beginning to go badly for Germany, at the end of 1942, that they decided to carry out the “final solution” of the “Jewish problem” – to murder all of Europe’s Jews.
The Nazis had needed a quick victory over the Soviet Union. They conceived of that as the first step in their push to overcome the inferior position in the feasting on the world’s peoples that rival powers had imposed on Germany after its defeat in World War 1. Germany defined its war aims as the defeat of “Jewish-Bolshevik” enemies. The US and Great Britain were eager to see Germany exhaust itself in bringing down socialism (“Bolshevism”) in the USSR. They cared little about the extermination of the Jews and refused to do anything to stop it, even though, as Bialowitz points out, they knew what was happening in the camps where people were being gassed to death.
Bialowitz writes in his memoirs, “Had the Allied forces [the US and Britain] simply bombed the railroad tracks that brought millions of people to the gas chambers, they could have saved many of those people. I and other prisoners of these camps prayed that the passing warplanes would drop bombs directly on top of us. We felt that even if we were killed, our deaths would not have been in vain because at least the gas chambers would have been destroyed.”
To kill millions of Jews, the Nazis could not rely on force alone. They had to fool people and make use of their victims’ established social relations, habits and thinking. They appointed Jews considered community leaders to run the ghettos where Jews were imprisoned, and used Jewish kapo who worked with them to whip other prisoners to enforce their rules. They constantly held out the hope that they would spare the lives of Jews who cooperated with them (they virtually never did). Bialowitz describes the train-loads of Jews from Holland brought to Sobibor. They were fed well on the way and on their arrival asked to fill out reassuring postcards to their families back home. Then they were stripped naked and marched into gas chambers they were told were showers. They strongly suspected they would be killed, but held on to just a little hope – and so did not want to risk almost certain death by trying to fight well-armed guards with their bare hands.
The threat of death was not enough to control everyone. Torture was necessary as well as a pleasure for the SS officers (Nazi special police) who ran the camps, along with local help (or, in the case of Sobibor, prisoners of war from the Soviet Union who agreed to become Nazi stooges and received special training as guards). But even that was not enough. Bialowitz emphasizes the importance of the system of collective punishment. Sometimes a few prisoners on a work detail were able to run away. But if there was an organized escape, the prisoners left behind would be tortured and murdered for failing to stop them.
Trains carrying one to three thousand Jews, mainly from Poland, would arrive at Sobibor several times a week. Because he was a healthy teenager and worked with his brother in the camp pharmacy, Bialowitz was one of the few prisoners not murdered immediately. He writes of a growing conviction among this group that they had to revolt. The dim prospect of survival offered by revolt was the only hope they had, but they also felt the need to die for a purpose, striking whatever blows they could at the SS and the Nazi killing machine. Yet at the same time, the bonds these prisoners forged with each other made Bialowitz and others unwilling to be responsible for the retaliation inflicted on everyone if anyone attempted to escape.
A few dozen men and women prisoners, mainly youth, decided that they had to come up with a plan to free everyone at once. They had reason to believe the Nazis planned to close down the camp, and they knew they would all be killed. They began meeting secretly, led by an older prisoner named Leon Feldhendler. They hoped that partisans, especially guerrilla fighters under the leadership of the Red Army (not all partisans cared for Jews), would attack the camp, but it was surrounded by minefields. Bialowitz’s brother began accumulating morphine so that women prisoners working in the kitchens could poison the several dozen SS officers running the camp, hopefully all at once.
Then what he describes as “a miracle” happened: dozens of Jewish Red Army soldiers who had been captured by the Germans were brought to the camp to be exterminated. Their leader, a lieutenant named Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, was a dedicated revolutionary. He had been captured and escaped before. He told the prisoners about the Soviet victory in the battle of Stalingrad – a turning point in the war – and successful sabotage and hit-and-run actions by partisans. This Red Army officer, the prisoners’ leader and the others formulated a plan they thought might succeed. The Red Army soldiers did what they could to train others how to fight, and were ready to play the central role in the fighting themselves.
The SS had assigned these prisoners jobs like searching the luggage or clothes of the murdered to collect valuables for the German war effort. The conspirators assigned people in their own ranks to lure SS officers into a workshop, by appointment one by one, with the promise of giving them a luxury item like a coat or boots. Then other prisoners would stab the man to death with work tools and take his weapons. Prison workers would bang their tools to muffle the noise. They managed to steal a few guns and grenades in advance. Women working in the German quarters stole ammunition.
The plan was to accumulate weapons and when they were ready, cut the communications wires. Then they would march to the main gate pretending to be a work detail. The prisoners from the Red Army would use their Russian skills to tell the Russians guarding the gate that the Soviet Union was winning the war, so they had better stop working for the Nazis. Maybe some would join the rebels. But no matter what, they would shoot their way out. The road beyond the gate was the only way to avoid the minefields. Everyone in that part of the camp – about 650 people at any one time – would get out.
They had killed quite a few SS officers and seized side arms and a few automatic weapons when an SS officer raised the alarm. The conspirators and other prisoners assembled. The two leaders “jump on a table at the front of the yard and call out to everyone: ‘Brothers! The moment of destiny has come. Most of the Germans have been killed. Let us rise and destroy this place. We have little chance of surviving, but at least we will die fighting with honour. If anyone survives, bear witness to what happened here. Tell the world about this place!'”
All of the prisoners are in the yard. One group rushes to the main gate, another to the armoury. The main SS officer emerges from his quarters and begins firing at close range, killing people by the dozens. Many prisoners are stunned. Hundreds head for the fence, a triple row of barbed wire, and bring it down with ladders they had prepared as a backup in case the gate were no longer an option.
Under machine-gun fire, they run through the minefields. Many are blown up, especially those in the front who make it possible for those behind them to get through. About half of them make it to the surrounding dense forest where the camp was hidden. But eventually, most of the escapees are captured by SS search parties.
For the survivors, there is another kind of minefield – anti-Semitic Polish farmers, partisans and hoodlums. A group of escapees including Bialowitz and his brother are taken in by a Catholic farm family willing to help them despite the peril to themselves – the Nazis executed at least 704 people in Poland for helping Jews, Bialowitz writes. After months in hiding, they emerge to find the Nazis are retreating, but the anti-German authorities who begin setting up a state will not protect Jews. They are rescued by advancing Red Army soldiers. Meanwhile, Pechersky and other comrades join pro-Soviet partisans and later rejoin the Red Army.
Ten women and 48 men in the breakout are known to have survived the war. All the prisoners who didn’t join the breakout were killed. The author ended up in the US, where he became a dentist. Although he later devoted himself to “telling the world what happened in this place” and considered it his duty to warn “Never again” to genocide, his vision was clouded by his support for Israel, whose ethnic cleansing and other crimes against the Palestinians he passes over in silence in this book. His vision centred on being a fighter for what he considered his people, unlike some Holocaust survivors whose “Never again” has been directed at all injustice. As a life-long right-wing Zionist, he was not disposed to look kindly at the Soviet Union. This actually lends credence to his positive account of the role of the USSR and its Red Army.
Though only a dozen or so SS officers were killed, the top Nazi leadership was so shaken by the success of the Sobibor uprising that within days they had the entire camp dismantled and the ruins hidden under earth or asphalt. About a year later, hundreds of prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest death camp, took up axes and rocks, fought their tormentors and destroyed a gas chamber and crematorium before they were killed. In the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw where the Nazis kept many thousands of people walled in until they could be transported to a death camp, the population revolted, led by communists and other resistance fighters, and tied down the SS and German troops for a month during a crucial period in the war.
All this time, the Western powers continued to do little or nothing to help those being slaughtered. A US-British summit conference in April 1943 to discuss the situation of Jewish refugees did not even discuss the fact that both countries were limiting the number of asylum seekers they would let in. A prominent envoy for pro-British resistance forces in Poland was so bitterly disappointed that he committed suicide in protest. In deciding that they could do little for refugees and nothing for the Jews in the death camps, because, they said, that would hinder their war effort, the American and British leaders revealed the reactionary nature of the war they were fighting against imperialist rivals. The fact that the US went on to play a key role in the establishment of the state of Israel simply reflects the continuity of what drove and still drives all the imperialist powers: their own imperialist interests. Israel was to become key to US domination of the Middle East.
The global system of capitalism-imperialism that produced the genocide of the Jews is the same system we face today. Once the dominant forces in a society declare that some people’s lives are not as important as others, once this becomes widely accepted, even if not by everyone, once such positions become a core component in uniting a nation around its imperialist ruling class, a certain logic has been established and the doors to hell are flung open. When police remove a Moslem woman’s head scarf in France, that symbolic, legally accepted action has the same racist content as Nazis cutting off Jewish men’s beards and the illegal arson attacks on refugee centres all over Europe today. The massive police murder of Black and other people in the streets of the US must be understood as the result of political policy that Black lives do not matter, because the killers are so seldom punished. Where, in conditions of acute social crisis, could that logic lead?
While it would be wrong to think that all the main Western political parties represent the same political programme, still, to one extent or another, and in various forms, potentially genocidal ideas – that the desired way of life of people of one nation or real or imagined ethnicity is endangered by the presence of others – are deeply embedded in Western so-called mainstream political discourse. Consider the fact that immigrants, fleeing wars and other nightmares that these imperialist countries and the workings of their system have brought about, are drowning by the thousands in the Mediterranean. No government considers this anything more than an annoying political problem. It’s not considered absolutely intolerable, an emergency that demands an immediate solution. The September 2016 UN General Assembly Conference issued a declaration of promises to “protect the human rights of refugees” but took no serious steps to save lives, either of people at risk in their home countries or those threatened by drowning. It was held under different circumstances than the 1943 conference that decided not to help endangered Jews, but ultimately how different was it morally?
As Bialowitz says, speaking of his family members, those Jews in Poland who made it to the Red Army’s lines were saved. In the course of World War 2, the Red Army saved the lives of 1.5 million of the 4 million Jews in German-occupied or invaded territory, according to the historian Arno Mayer. Unlike the other main countries fighting in World War 2, the Soviet Union was socialist then, not imperialist, as it became when capitalism was basically restored in the mid-1950s.
The story of Sobibor and its context, the contrasting way the imperialist powers and the socialist Soviet Union looked at Jews in World War 2, is an example of two very different and opposing social systems and moral outlooks. In the face of the already unacceptable horrors of today’s world, and the potential for even greater horrors that today’s dominant social system holds, it shows we don’t have to accept the way the world is.
(A Promise at Sobibor, Philip “Fiszel” Bialowitz with Joseph Bialowitz, University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. Also, the 1987 British film Escape from Sobibor, available on line and in DVD. Arno Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken, Pantheon, 1988. Also see AWTWNS, 31 January 2005.)
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