Every time I’ve faced what has passed for adversity in my life – and you’ll see why I say “passed for adversity” in a moment, here – I’ve kept the experiences of five people front and center in my mind. And then I don’t feel so bad.
- Ernest Shackelton - I’ve told his story in this space. His lesson is perseverence in the face of insurmountable odds. You owe it to your kids to make sure they read it, wherewhere or another.
- Eddie Rickenbacker - I’ve written about him. You think you’ve had to deal with some hurdles in life?
- Douglas Bader - No legs? No problem.
- Marcus Luttrell - Soon to be a major motion picture. Screw Marvel comics; this guy’s the real hero.
- Stanislaw Schmajzner - To which even those who’ve heard of Shackelton and Rickenbacker say “um, who?”
World War 2 is full of incomprehensible numbers. 25 million Russian soldiers and at least 10 million civilians, along with millions more Germans, on the Eastern Front, is an incomprehensible number of human lives; you can not imagine what that many people, eight times the population of Minnesota, are.
And the numbers in the Holocaust are similarly mind-numbing. Six million Jews. Perhaps five million others; political prisoners, ethnic victims (the Roma, or “Gypsy”, population in particular), gays, and a wide variety of “Untermensch” (Subhumans) that just got in the way.
Of course, humans have slaughtered each other ever since the species learned how to try to dominate each other – usually by means that are, at the end of the day, fairly mundane, if horrible on a human scale. From massacre to induced famine to forced relocation to inhospitable places, humans have gotten rid of inconvenient minorities and troublesome subjects by the box lot, clan, fiefdom and nationality since long before Rome salted Carthage’s earth.
The Holocaust started no different; Nazis started out killing Jews, gays, gypsies, political prisoners and whomever else got in the way with boots and knives and clubs, in ones and twos in alleys and back rooms, throughout the thirties. With the onset of war, they graduated to killing them by the village with firearms, and relocating them to ghettoes and labor camps - “Concentration Camps” (Konzentrazionslagern, or KZ in German) to slowly murder them with famine, disease, overwork, cold, barbaric pseudojudicial punishment, and the odd but common sadistic bit of violence. Places like Buchenwald, Dachau, Theresienstadt, Ohrdruf, Nordhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and hundreds of smaller camps were places that were not designed to be especially survivable.
But the Nazis were unique in history in that they turned murder into an industry – with management, a supply chain, quotas, rewards…like Best Buy, only producing death. Because all the normal means of murdering people by the group just weren’t fast or efficient enough.
And so early in the war, the Nazis kicked off their Endlösung, or “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”, like any other big industrial project; planning, prototyping possible solutions, turning around what they’d learned from the prototyping process, and settling on the production system – the Vernichtunslager, or “Extermination Camp” , abbreviated to VZ in German. These weren’t just places where it was hard to live, or easy to end up dead. Killing was the whole and sole goal. .
The VZs were built in godforsaken parts of occupied Poland, usually far from major populations centers, further still from any hint of western media, much less any borders to which an escapee might flee.
The VZs were were literally factories whose product was dead Jews and other “Untermenschen”, and whose function was utterly similar to any factory you’d see building MP3 players or humidifiers today.
Americans have heard of Auschwitz, arguably the biggest of the VZs (and really a complex of labor and concentration camps as well as the extermination camp). Majdanek, near Lublin, captured nearly intact by the Soviets in the confusion surrounding their advance into central Poland, is the best-preserved VZ. Treblinka saw a mass escape, of which a few inmates survived the war. Chelmno and Belzec are barely known to exist at all; few if any inmates ever survived either camp.
And of course Sobibor, plopped in a pestilential forest by a railroad siding in eastern Poland.
The tale of the Vernichtungslagern is among the most depressing in human history. The notion that humans could do…this to other humans, turn human life into a commodity to be scrubbed out with no more thought than pressing vinyl into an Otter Case, has driven more than a few of our less stable species-mates over the edge with grief.
It’s given me my moments, too. I read the stories of these camps at a far-too-impressionable age, from a far-too-frank source – the Black Book, published by the B’nai B’rith after the war as a complete, almost evidenciary catalog of Nazi war crimes against the Jews and others.
And it’d be mawkishly pollyannaish to say that anything about the story could give one hope.
And yet seventy years ago today came a tiny bit of proof that humanity can still win out.
In May of 1942, VZ Sobibor became operational. Trainloads of Jews and other Untermensch were delivered, gassed, and cremated. The camp was run by German and Austrian SS soldiers, with most of the guard work done by Ukrainian SS. They were commanded by SS Oberstürmführer Fritz Stangl.
Neither the Germans nor the Ukrainians wanted to do the dirtiest work, however – untangling the corpses in the gas chamber, sorting through the belongings they’d left behind, cremating the masses of the dead. These jobs were left to the Sonderkommando, “special commands” – Jews that were kept alive as long as they were useful to do the dirty work. This work expanded over time to include maintenance work around the camp, serving both the German and Ukrainian guards, and other incidental jobs. The Germans (or rather a Sonderkommando of Jews) built a pair of sub-camps to house roughly 600 Jews selected to do all of these jobs.
It was generally only a short reprieve; the food was minimal and awful, the conditions rife with disease, and the punishment for even the most piddling infraction was death – sometimes instant, sometimes protracted and brutal, depending on the sadism at the moment of the guard involved.
Among the Jews selected to work for the Germans in the work camp was Leon Feldhendler, a 33-year old son of a rabbi from Zolkiewka, Poland, who worked in the kitchen, carpentry shop and, occasionally, the Bahnhofkomando, the Jews who herded the other Jews from the railroad platform into line to be selected for either work or, the vast majority of the time, the gas chambers.
And it’s generally believed that Feldhendler was the first person to not merely conjure up the idea of a mass escape, but to actively start planning it. He and a few other inmates formed a committee to study ideas to effect a mass escape – including one idea, to poison the guards, which fell apart early and led to the execution of five Jews and very nearly destroyed the entire escape committee.
Among others, Feldhendler was joined by 15 year old Stanislaus Schmajzner, a boy from Pulawy whose experience working with a jeweler’s apprentice got him assigned as a gold and silver worker, making bits of jewelry for the Nazis out of gold stolen from dead Jews; the SS were fond of having gold rings and other gimmick jewelry made for themselves and the various women in their lives. Schmajzner was a natural scrounger with immense mechanical aptitude, who quickly got himself promoted to the group that did the mechanical maintenance around the camp.
Together, the Jews tried to come up with a plan that was more than marginally better than suicide.
The problem: the camp was surrounded by not one but two barbed-wire fences (and a single barbed strand ten feet inside the inner fence, a warning line beyond which anyone stepping would get shot). Beyond that, there was a broad, 300-yard clearing that had been sown with land mines.
In late September of 1943, there were two major changes at Sobibor. A rumor began to circulated that the SS was going to shut the camp down (a rumor which was false, as it happens; Heinrich Himmler actually intended to expand the camp, although in point of fact it would have led to much the same result for the Jews at the camp).
Around the same time, a group of Russian Army prisoners of war – who happened to be Jewish – were sent to Sobibor along with a trainful of Belarussian Jews. The Russians, useful as a group for hard labor, were kept alive and sent to the Sonderkommando…
…where their senior officer, 34-year-old Lieutenant Alexander “Sasha” Petjerski, quickly met Feldhendler.
The two men struck up a business relationship; Petjerski saw in Feldhelder the knowledge of the camp and guards that his men would need to effect a successful escape. Feldhendler saw military discipline and training in the Russians. Together, they engineered an escape plan.
The Germans – and especially the Ukrainian guards – had become complacent, Feldhendler noted. Bored, they kept to a pretty static routine. They become casual about searching the various workships where the Sonderkommando worked, and the Ukrainians even became blase about storing their firearms, apparently believing the Jews too cowed to do anything with them.
Over the course of – this is incredible – three weeks, the Russians and the committee put together a plan. It was based around the planned absence from the camp of several of its key Germans, including Stangl, the commander.
In addition to fashioning clubs, axes and (for lack of a better term) shivs in the carpentry shop, they’d steal rifles from the Ukrainian barracks and smuggle them back to the camp, along with enough ammunition to start the rebellion going.
Taking advantage of the guards’ routine, they’d ambush and murder the important German guards as they ran routine errands around the camp – picking up jewelry, or clothing and boots being mended by the various Jewish tradespeople, furniture from the woodshop and so on.
At the appointed time – afternoon roll call – they’d inform the rest of the Jews (who’d be kept uninformed to avoid security breaches), and rush the gate as the Russians would use the stolen rifles to try to pick off guards in the towers. The inmates would breach the gate and run for the woods, 300 yards away, through the minefield, and thence disperse and either go into hiding, strike out for Russia, or join partisan groups in the forests and carry on the fight.
Even with the Russians, and with stolen guns, it was nearly suicide. The inmates knew this – and figured at worst it’d be better to die on their feet.
4PM on October 14th came. The plan went ahead; six or seven of the key Germans were murdered in workshops. As the inmates gathered for roll call, the Russians opened fire on the guard towers; the inmates rushed the gate under machine gun fire (the Russians had been unable to kill all the guards), and ran across the clearing to the woods. Of 600 Jews in the camp, maybe 300 made it to the woods; dozens were killed in the minefield, while others, paralyzed by events, stayed put in the camp and were murdered later.
Of the 300 who made it to the woods, the SS hunted them mercilessly (along with some Polish civilians, many of whom were deeply anti-semitic). Dozens were caught and killed. Others died fighting in partisan groups. All together, around 50 of the Sobibor inmates, including Petjerski, Feldhendler and Schmajzner, survived the war.
And they provided the largest coherent group of Extermination Camp survivors of the war. Many of them lived long, productive lives after the war.
Not all, unfortunately – Feldhendler was murdered by an anti-semitic gang in Warsaw in 1946. Most of the survivors went to the US, Canada, Australia and Israel.
Schmajzner went to Brazil where, in the seventies, he helped in the capture the camp’s old second-in-command, Wagner, who’d also ended up in Sao Paolo. Wagner’s extradition got tangled up in Brazilian red tape, and he lived two more years. He committed suicide in 1980, under circumstances that are still controversial in Brazil, and about which Schmajzner never spoke until his death in 1984.
Most Americans have never heard of Sobibor – but many know of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian soldier who became an Ohio auto workers, and in the eighties was accused of being the sadistic “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka camp. Those allegations collapsed under a wave of contracictory witness testimony and prosecutorial misconduct in the nineties.
But in 2001, new allegations surfaced that Demjanjuk had been one of the guards at Sobibor. It took until 2009 to have him deported to Germany to stand trial on over 27,000 counts of accessory to murder – but when he arrived, four of the survivors were joint plaintiffs.
He was convicted, but died last year in German custody, before the appeals process ran out.
The story – like the stories of people who survive for week under rubble after earthquakes, when “the experts” say no life is possible after three days – is one I remember whenever I need perspective on “dire circumstances” and the need, occasionally, to do the impossible.
It was told, improbably, in a TV movie about thirty years ago. In an era of lousy TV movies, Escape from Sobibor, with Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer as Feldhendler and Petjerski, is actually a good, accurate recounting of the story. It’s on Youtube in its entirety, and worth the time to watch if you’re not familiar with the tale.