In 2018, resistance fighters around the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that took place beginning on the first night of Passover, April 19, 1943. Although few of the Jews contained in the ghetto survived in the face of overwhelming firepower against them, the armed rebellion put a significant dent in the myth of Aryan superiority. And very important, news of this almost unbelievable event began spreading throughout occupied Europe, even reaching the bowels of the Nazi death camps.
Sobibor was one of those extermination camps, located near Lublin in eastern Poland close to the Bug River and the present-day border with Ukraine. Two other death camps were nearby: Majdanek, a few miles to the west, and Belzec a little farther south and closer to the front, near Lvov.
Six months after Warsaw, on October 14, 1943, prisoners slated to be gassed to death and cremated rose up against their masters at Sobibor, killed them, took their weapons, and escaped.
Six months after Warsaw, on October 14, 1943, prisoners slated to be gassed to death and cremated rose up against their masters at Sobibor, killed them, took their weapons, and escaped. This incident is less widely known, in part because Sobibor itself was among the smallest of the Nazi death camps.
New arrivals on the train to Sobibor revealed that Belzec had closed, which the prisoners correctly interpreted as having been overrun by the Soviet Army moving west. The possibility of liberation inspired the Sobibor uprising. While the camp was in operation, between March 1942 and October 1943, at least 167,000 people were killed; some historians estimate as many as 250,000, virtually all of them Jews. Any further delay in organizing the revolt would only mean thousands more sent to their deaths in a speeded-up liquidation before the Soviets arrived.
The new film Sobibor tells the story of the brutal Nazi camp and the heroic rebellion. It is this year’s official selection as Russia’s Foreign-Language Oscar contender.
By the end of the day that October 14, a dozen or so Nazi guards were killed in a clever series of entrapments that appealed to their personal vanity. The very craftsmen the Nazis had isolated out with experience in leatherwork, sewing, jewelry making and construction to keep the concentration camp machine going, were the key conspirators who led the officers to their demise.
Around 300 prisoners escaped alive through the gates across German mine fields, but many more than that were machine-gunned down by remaining Nazi guards and their Ukrainian collaborators. Some of the escapees joined local partisan units. Others found refuge among sympathetic Poles, while another 150 were captured by Poles and delivered to German authorities. Only about 50 of the escapees are believed to have survived the war.
The revolt was an unqualified success—compared to the inevitability of death if the inmates had simply continued following orders. Although it is far from being the only example, Sobibor gives the lie to the insulting myth that the Jews “went like sheep to the slaughter.” (This one-sided idea was in part supported by Jews themselves who wished to leave “Jewish impotence” behind as they created the invincible “new Jewish man” fighting for the Zionist homeland in Israel after the war.)
The Germans covered up all traces of Sobibor, the buildings and crematoria plowed under. They planted crops and trees in the mirage of normalcy.
Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Sobibor uprising, the film focuses on the Soviet prisoner Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky, who arrives at Sobibor disconsolate at his failure at organizing a revolt against the Nazis in Minsk. At first, in fact, some think he is a provocateur who will only make things worse in the camp. Gradually, owing to the ministrations of Luka, a young woman he meets there, and others who knew of his reputation, he starts making the difficult choice to commandeer the rebellion and organize the escape. An assimilated Jew, he is guided by his Soviet ideology. He has Stalin in his heart “as we all do.”
Pechersky is shrewd in identifying the strengths, the frailties, and the potential in other prisoners in the secret plan to set hundreds of Jewish prisoners free. These very different people show equal heroism and courage out of their desire to live. Many, of course, are too traumatized to act effectively, as the awful ash from the oven chimneys fills the air. The plotters also have to escape discovery by the Jewish kapos who serve as henchmen to the Germans in exchange for an additional breadcrumb.
As the “Untermenschen” in this story, the subhuman underdogs, the Jewish prisoners learn to exploit the frictions and vulnerabilities they discern among the Germans themselves.
“They’re expecting miracles from me,” Pechersky confesses to Luka, who soberly answers, “Some of us will survive.”
Famed Russian actor Konstantin Khabenskiy stars as Pechersky, and he directs the film as well. Christopher Lambert plays Nazi SS officer Karl Frenzel. Other cast members include Mariya Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt, and Maximilian Dirr. The script by Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein and Ilya Vasiliev is based on Vasiliev’s book, Alexander Pechersky: Breakthrough to Immortality. Pechersky lived to the age of 80, passing away in the year 1990.
Sobibor remains an everlasting symbol of the resilience of the human spirit and to the ability to fight evil amid horror.
This film is not to be confused with Escape from Sobibor, a 1987 TV movie directed by Jack Gold with a book by Richard Rashke and teleplay by Reginald Rose, based on a memoir by Thomas “Toivi” Blatt called From the Ashes of Sobibor. (Toivi, one of the original Sobibor resisters, is also a character in the new version of the story.) Its lead actors included Alan Arkin, Joanna Pacula, Rutger Hauer, Hartmut Becker and Jack Shepherd.
Of special note in the film is the excellence of not only the acting, but the cinematography and the musical score, which includes excerpts from light German operettas that the Nazis enjoy on their phonographs. Scenes of unspeakable barbarity and moral depravity are frequent, yet counterbalanced inspiringly by the slowly evolving consciousness toward revolt. The escape contains slow-motion footage that recalls the biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery across the parted Red Sea.
One can imagine that in Soviet times a film on this subject would have placed much more emphasis on socialist ideology as a driving force, and the suffering of the Jews would not have been the prominent theme. Here Stalin’s name is mentioned at least once, and the Jewish presence is felt throughout. Most of the Jews are speaking Yiddish (not Pechersky, however).
In addition—again, as distinguished from Soviet times—the film has a preface quoting the biblical Book of Acts on the subject of denying anyone a drink of water, suggesting that we are always summoned to rise to the best of our humanity even under extreme conditions. I wonder if the prosecutors hauling into court those “good Samaritans” who leave fresh water in containers in the Arizona desert to save immigrant and refugee lives have ever meditated on that verse.
Many Russians miss the Soviet Union and view the Great Patriotic War—what we call World War II—as a high point of Soviet achievement that benefitted all humankind. A film like this may be intended to remind the world of its debt, and to show that Russians still believe their country has a sacred, necessary role, not by any means ruled out as great power.
Some viewers may find Sobibor melodramatic and hard to stomach. I could understand that, but I disagree: If you still appreciate the necessity to understand this period, especially in a climate where Nazism and white supremacy are reclaiming legitimacy in some quarters, you will find this film tragic yet heartening. This is antifa writ bold and large.
Samuel Goldwyn Films is distributing the 110-minute Sobibor, which opens on March 29 in Los Angeles. It will also be available on that date in digital and VOD formats nationwide. The only flaw I noticed, though perhaps it has been corrected by now, is that certain titles on the screen stating the passage of time, like “the next day” or “the following week,” were left untranslated.
Eric A. Gordon