Alexander Pechersky: Wikis

  
  

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Alexander Pechersky
February 22, 1909(1909-02-22) – January 19, 1990 (aged 80)
Pechersky.jpg

Sasha Pechersky in the early 1940s
Nickname Sasha
Place of birth Kremenchuk, Russian Empire
Place of death Rostov-on-Don, Soviet Union
Allegiance Soviet Union
Service/branch Red Army
Rank Captain
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Unknown Medal for Bravery
Other work Music theater administration

Alexander Aronovich Pechersky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Аро́нович Пече́рский; 22 February 1909 – 19 January 1990), also known as "Sasha", was the chief organizer and leader of a successful Jewish uprising at the Sobibor extermination camp in 1943.

On 14 October 1943, Pechersky led a prisoner uprising and escape from Sobibor after spending only 21 days in the death camp. By this time he had spent two years as a prisoner of war, participated in one failed escape attempt, lived through Nazi atrocities and by surviving this long proved himself to be a tough and resourceful man.[1] Many of the survivors gave conflicting testimonies as to their roles in the revolt and escape from Sobibor, yet one fact every single survivor agreed on was that Pechersky was the undisputed planner, organizer and leader of the escape.[2][3] Nevertheless, he never received any medals or awards for his actions at Sobibor.

Contents

Biography

Pechersky, a son of a Jewish lawyer, was born on 22 February 1909 in Kremenchug, Ukraine (Russian Empire). In 1915, his family moved to Rostov-on-Don and he started working as an electrician at a locomotive repair factory.[2] After graduating a university with a diploma in music and literature, he became a manager of a school for amateur musicians.[1]

World War II

On 22 June 1941, the day when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Pechersky was conscripted into the Soviet Red Army with a rank of junior lieutenant.[1][2] By September 1941, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant quartermaster (class II).[4] In the early autumn of 1941, he rescued his wounded commander from being captured by the Germans. Since Pechersky was the son of a Jewish attorney who used to work for the Emperor of Russia, he didn't receive any medals for this deed. One of his fellow soldiers reportedly said: "Sasha, if what you've done doesn't make you a hero, I don't know who is!"[2]

In October 1941, Pechersky's unit was surrounded and captured by the Germans in the city of Vyazma, Smolensk Oblast. He shortly contracted typhus but survived the seven month long illness.[1] In May 1942, he escaped along with four other prisoners of war, but they were all recaptured the same day and sent to a penal camp in Borisov.

In the fall of 1942, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp located in the forest next to the city of Minsk. During a mandatory medical examination it was discovered that he was circumcised. Pechersky recalls a German medical officer asking him: "Do you admit to being a Jew?" He admitted since any denial would result in a whipping,[1][4] and was thrown into a cellar called 'the Jewish grave' along with other Jewish POWs. For 10 days he sat in complete darkness, being fed 100 grams (3.5oz) of wheat and a cup of water every second day.[1]

On 20 August 1942, Pechersky was sent to an SS work camp in Minsk. The camp contained 500 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto as well as Jewish prisoners of war. There were also between 200-300 Russian inmates whom the Germans labeled as incorrigible: people who were suspected of contacting the Soviet partisans and those who were truant repeatedly while working for the Germans. The prisoners were starved and worked from dawn till dusk.[1][3] Pechersky wrote about the Minsk work camp: "The German Nazi camp commandant didn't let a single day pass without killing someone. If you looked at his face you could tell he was a sadist. He was thin, his upper lip shaking and his left eye bloodshot. He always had a hangover or was drunk and committed unspeakable horrors. He shot people for no reason and his favorite hobby was commanding his dog to attack random people who were ordered not to defend themselves."[1]

At Sobibor

On 18 September 1943, Pechersky, along with the other Soviet Jewish POWs, was placed in a train cattle car which arrived at the Sobibor extermination camp of 23 September 1943. Pechersky wrote about his arrival at Sobibor: "How many circles of hell were there in Dante's Inferno? It seems there were nine. How many have already passed? Being surrounded, being captured, camps in Vyazma, Smolensk, Borisov, Minsk... And finally I am here. What's next?"[2] The appearance of Red Army prisoners produced an enormous impression on Sobibor prisoners: hungry hope-filled eyes following their every move.[1]

Pechersky wrote about his first day in Sobibor: "I was sitting outside on a pile of logs in the evening with Solomon Leitman, who subsequently became my top commander in the uprising. I asked him about the huge, strange fire burning 500 meters away from us behind some trees and about the unpleasant smell throughout the camp. He warned me that the guards forbade looking there, and told me that they are burning the corpses of my murdered comrades who arrived with me that day. I did not believe him, but he continued: He told me that the camp existed for more than a year and that almost every day a train came with two thousand new victims who are all murdered within a few hours. He said around 500 Jewish prisoners - Polish, French, German, Dutch and Czechoslovak work here and that my transport was the first one to bring Russian Jews. He said that on this tiny plot of land, no more than 10 hectares, (24.7 acres or .1 square kilometer) hundreds of thousands of Jewish women, children and men were murdered. I thought about the future. Should I try to escape alone or with a small group? Should I leave the rest of the prisoners to be tortured and murdered? I rejected this thought."[1][2]

Pechersky's plan merged the idea of a mass escape with vengeance. The goal was: 1) To escape to freedom with as many prisoners as possible. 2) To take vengeance and kill the SS officers and guards. 3) To find and join the partisans.[1]

Five days after arriving at Sobibor, Pechersky was again approached by Solomon Leitman (who spoke Russian) on behalf of Leon Feldhendler, the leader of the camp's Polish Jews (Feldhendler didn't speak Russian).[5] Pechersky was invited to speak with a group of Jewish prisoner leaders from Poland. Leitman translated since few of the prisoners understood Russian and Pechersky didn't speak either Yiddish or Polish. Pechersky spoke about the Red Army victory in the Battle of Stalingrad and partisan victories. When one of the prisoners asked him why the partisans won't rescue them from Sobibor, Pechersky allegedly replied: "What for? To free us all? The partisans have their hands full already. Nobody will do our job for us."[1]

Feldhendler spoke to the recent arrivals from the remainder of Jewish inmates of the Treblinka death camp as they were marched to the gas chambers at Sobibor. The leadership of the Polish Jews was aware that Treblinka was closed, dismantled and all remaining prisoners were sent to the gas-chambers and suspected that Sobibor would be next. There was a great urgency in coming up with a good escape plan, and Pechersky with his army experience was their best hope.[5] The escape had to also coincide with the time when the Sobibor's deputy commandant Gustav Wagner went on vacation, since the prisoners felt that he was sharp enough to uncover the escape plan.[5][6][7]

Pechersky clandestinely met with Feldhendler under the guise of meeting Luka, a woman he was supposedly involved with. Luka is often described as an 18 year old woman from Holland, but records indicate she was 28 and from Germany, her real name was Gertrude Poppert–Schonborn. After the war, Pechersky insisted that the relationship was platonic. Her fate after the escape was never factually established and she was never seen alive again.[8] During an interview with Thomas Blatt, Pechersky said the following regarding Luka: "Although I knew her only about two weeks, I will never forget her. I informed her minutes before the escape of the plan. She has given me a shirt. She said, 'it's a good luck shirt, put it on right now', and I did. It's now in the museum. I lost her in the turmoil of the revolt and never saw her again."[9]

According to Pechersky's escape plan, the prisoners would assassinate the German SS staff, thereby rendering the Ukrainian auxiliary guards leaderless, get weapons and eliminate the remaining guards. Individual Polish Jewish inmates were assigned specific German SS guards that they were supposed to lure inside the workshops under some pretext and silently kill. Ester Raab, a survivor of the escape recalls: "The plan was, at 4 o’clock (pm), should start (the escape), everybody has to kill his SS man, and his guard at his place of work."[7] Only a small circle of trusted Polish Jewish inmates were aware of the escape plan as they didn't trust the Jews from other European countries.[6]

The uprising

On 14 October 1943, Pechersky's escape plan began. During the day, several German SS men were lured to workshops on a variety of pretenses (such as being fitted for new boots or expensive clothes). The SS men were then stabbed to death with crude knives and axes made in the camp's machine shop; the blood was covered up with sawdust on the floor.[1] The escapees were armed with a number of hand grenades, a rifle, a submachine gun and several pistols that the prisoners stole from the German living quarters,[10] as well as the sidearms captured from the dead SS.

Earlier in the day, SS-Oberscharführer Erich Bauer, at the top of the death list created by Pechersky, unexpectedly drove out to Chełm for supplies. The uprising was almost postponed since Bauer's death was felt necessary for the success of the escape. Bauer came back early from Chełm, discovered that SS-Scharführer Kurt Beckman was assassinated and began shooting at the Jewish prisoners. The sound of the gunfire prompted Alexander Pechersky to begin the revolt earlier than planned.[6] Pechersky screamed the preplanned code-words: "Hurrah, the revolt has begun!"[10]

Disorganized groups of prisoners ran in every direction. Ada Lichtman, a survivor of the escape recalls: "Suddenly we heard shots… Mines started to explode. Riot and confusion prevailed, everything was thundering around. The doors of the workshop were opened, and everyone rushed through... We ran out of the workshop. All around were the bodies of the dead and wounded."[11] Alexander Pechersky was able to successfully escape into the woods. At the end of the uprising, 11 German SS personnel and an unknown number of Ukrainian guards were killed.[11]

Out of approximately 550 Jewish prisoners at the Sobibor death camp, 130 chose not to participate in the uprising (they remained in the camp); about 80 were killed during the escape either by machine gun fire from watchtowers or while getting through a mine field in the camp's outer perimeter; 170 more were recaptured by the Nazis during large-scale searches. All who remained in the camp or caught after the escape were executed. However, 53 Sobibor escapees survived the war.[1] Within days after the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled and planted with trees.

After the escape

Immediately after the escape, in the forest, a group of 50 prisoners followed Pechersky. After some time, Pechersky informed the Polish Jews that he along with a few Soviet Jewish soldiers will enter the nearby village and then shortly return with food. They collected all the money and weapons except one rifle but never came back. In 1980, Thomas Blatt asked Perchensky why he abandoned the other survivors. Pechersky answered: "My job was done. You were Polish Jews in your own terrain. I belonged in the Soviet Union and still considered myself a soldier. In my opinion, the chances for survival were better in smaller units. To tell the people straight forward: 'we must part' would not have worked. You have seen, they followed every step of mine, we all would perish. What can I say? You were there. We were only people. The basic instincts came into play. It was still a fight for survival."[9]

Pechersky along with two other escapees wandered the forests until they ran into Yakov Biskowitz, and another Sobibor escapee. Biskowitz testified at the Eichmann Trial regarding the meeting: "The two of us wandered through the forests, until we met Sasha Pechersky. There were three of them whom I came across. One had weak legs. They wore white clothes made of hand-woven material. They had sunk into mud after escaping. After that, we met together. There were now five of us - we walked to the Skrodnitze forests. There we met the first Jewish partisans called Yehiel's Group (under Yehiel Grynszpan) - it was a group of Jews who had undertaken action. We engaged in sabotaging railway lines, cutting telephone wires, hit-and-run attacks on German army units."[12] For over a year Pechersky fought with the Yehiel's Group partisans as a demolition expert and later with the Soviet group of Voroshilov Partisans, until the Red Army drove out the Germans from Belarus.[3][9]

The Soviet Army conscripted all partisans into special penal battalions for suspected traitors that were sent to the front to fight the Germans in some of the toughest engagements of the war.[13] Pechersky's battalion commander was so shocked by his description of Sobibor that he permitted Pechersky to go to Moscow and speak to the Commission of Inquiry of the Crimes of Fascist-German Aggressors and their Accomplices. The Commission listened to Pechersky and published the report Uprising in Sobibor based on his testimony.[14] This report was included in the Black Book, one of the first comprehensive compilations about the Holocaust, written by Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg. The Black Book was forbidden by Soviet censorship in 1947 and as of early 2010 was not yet published in Russia.[4]

Pechersky was promoted to the rank of captain for fighting the Germans as part of the penal battalions and received a medal for bravery.[9] He was discharged after a serious foot injury. In a hospital in Moscow, he was introduced to his future wife, Olga Kotova.[1][2]

After the war

After the end of World War II, Pechersky returned to Rostov-on-Don, where he lived before the war, and started working as an administrator in the theater of musical comedy. The mass murder of Jews at the Sobibor death camp became part of the charges against leading Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. The International Tribunal at Nuremberg wanted to call Pechersky as a witness, but the Soviet government wouldn't allow him to travel to Germany and testify.[2]

During the Soviet political purges of 1948, Pechersky was fired from his job and imprisoned along with his brother. Only after Stalin's death in 1953 and mounting international pressure for his release, was Pechersky freed. His brother however succumbed to a diabetic coma while in prison.[9] Pechersky was permitted to work as a theater administrator but this time in a much lower position. In 1963 he appeared as a witness during the Soviet trial of 11 former Ukrainian guards at Sobibor; all of whom were convicted and 10 of them were executed.[15]

Alexander Pechersky died on 19 January 1990, and was buried at the northern cemetery in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. As of 2009, Pechersky's daughter, granddaughter and two great-grandsons live in Rostov-on-Don (his niece, her son and their descendants live in Israel).

Remembrance

An award-winning documentary about the escape was made by Claude Lanzmann, entitled Sobibor, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 heures. The revolt was also dramatized in the 1987 British TV movie Escape from Sobibor, in which Rutger Hauer received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Television) for his portrayal of "Sasha". Pechersky however did not attend the premiere of the movie and his widow later stated that the Soviet government denied him permission to travel to the United States.[2]

Only in 2007, 17 years after his death, was a small memorial plaque placed on the side of the building where he lived; there is also a memorial wall with his name engraved on it in Boston, United States.[4] A street is named in his honor in Safed, Israel.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Erenburg, Grossman. Black Book: Uprising in Sobibor (in Russian) Retrieved on 2009-04-21
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Arguments & Facts Magazine Profile : August 10, 2008 issue (in Russian) Retrieved on 2009-04-21
  3. ^ a b c Jewish Electronic Encyclopedia (in Russian) Retrieved on 2009-04-21
  4. ^ a b c d Top Secret Magazine profile of Pechersky: Forgotten Hero Retrieved on 2009-04-21
  5. ^ a b c Rashke, Richard. Escape From Sobibor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982
  6. ^ a b c Blatt, Thomas Toivi. From the Ashes of Sobibor. Northwestern University Press. 1997.
  7. ^ a b US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Interview with Esther Raab Retrieved on 2009-05-08
  8. ^ Schelvis, Jules. Vernichtungslager Sobibor. Published by Unrast. Hamburg, 2003]
  9. ^ a b c d e Toivi Blatt interviews Sasha Pechersky about Luka in 1980 Retrieved on 2009-05-08
  10. ^ a b Eichman Trial: Testimony of Ya'akov Biskowitz Session 65/3 Retrieved on 2009-05-08
  11. ^ a b Yad Vashem: Escape under Fire: The Sobibor Uprising Retrieved on 2009-05-08
  12. ^ Eichman Trial: Testimony of Ya'akov Biskowitz Session 65/4 Retrieved on 2009-05-08
  13. ^ Escape from Sobibor: Forgotten Heroism. Crime Magazine (in Russian) Retrieved on 2009-05-08
  14. ^ Journal Znamia: 1945 #4
  15. ^ Nikzor Sobibor Archive Retrieved on 2009-04-21

External links








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