The Man Who Led the Revolt at the Sobibor Death Camp, and the Fraught Politics of Remembering Him

Oct. 22 2020

When Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish officer in the Soviet army, was captured by the Germans in 1941, he was initially placed with other POWs. But, before transfer from one camp to another, he was subjected to a medical examination that revealed that he was circumcised, and sent to Sobibor. Unlike Auschwitz and Majdanek, which doubled as forced-labor camps and had significant numbers of non-Jewish prisoners, Sobibor was created by the Nazis solely to serve as a factory for the murder of Jews. In a long investigation into Pechersky’s life, David Bezmozgis lays out the basic facts:

On October 14, 1943, Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Jewish Red Army soldier, led a revolt at the Sobibor death camp, which was located, like all other Nazi German death camps, in Poland. During that revolt, prisoners armed mainly with axes and knives killed twelve SS officers and several guards before overcoming barbed wire fencing and crossing a minefield to reach the surrounding woods. Of some 600 prisoners in Sobibor at the time, approximately half took the opportunity to escape. Fifty-seven survived to the end of the war. Their leader, Pechersky, was one of them.

Practically from the time of the revolt until his death in 1990, Alexander Pechersky devoted himself to trying to inform the world about Sobibor. But for reasons both calculated and circumstantial, the existence of the camp and the facts of the uprising remained largely unknown.

Foremost among these reasons, writes Bezmozgis, is that the Holocaust was “a suppressed subject for most of the Soviet period.”

In fact, any acknowledgment of the unique nature of the tragedy experienced by Soviet Jews in painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, history, public monuments, and other forms of remembrance was practically forbidden. In a nation that suffered so profoundly, with as many as 27 million citizens perishing during the war, the official position was that it was wrong to divide the victims. At sites of mass killings, if there was any commemoration at all, it memorialized “peaceful Soviet citizens” who had died at the hands of “the German occupiers.”

Indeed, when Pechersky returned to the Soviet Union, he found himself subject to a double stigma:

Pechersky and POWs like him were looked down upon and treated poorly because they served as a shameful living reminder of the fecklessness of the Red Army’s—and by extension Stalin’s—response to the German assault in the first stages of the war. Those who died in captivity were easy to disregard, but those who survived were treated as unreliable, or worse.

The bitter irony, [moreover] was that the regime that played the greatest role in rescuing the Jews from Hitler [soon after the war ended] became their chief persecutor. The change in the Soviet attitude toward Jews made things more difficult for Pecherksy. . . . He lost his job. In June of 1952, he was dismissed from the Communist party. In early 1953, he was sentenced to a year of community service and a substantial fine. It could have been worse; he could have been sent to prison.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Resistance, Soviet Jewry, World War II

In Prospective Negotiations with Iran, the U.S. Has the Upper Hand. President-Elect Biden Is Determined Not to Use It

In a recent interview with a writer for the New York Times, Joe Biden expressed his willingness to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran (formally known as the JCPOA) without new preconditions. Noah Rothman comments:

[S]ome observers believe Biden has provided himself with an escape hatch. Biden reiterated his insistence that there could only be a new deal so long as “Iran returns to strict compliance.” [But if] Iranian compliance were a real sticking point, Biden might have dwelled on—or even mentioned in passing—the kind of inspections regime that would verify such a thing. But he did not.

[Under the terms of the deal], Iran provided inspectors access to declared nuclear sites but not military sites where illicit activities were likeliest to occur. A subsequent agreement allowed inspectors to access suspected sites but only with at least 24-days-notice—enough to dispose of the evidence of small-scale work on components related to a bomb. But functionally, that 24-day timeline could be reset by Iran, which could stretch the delays out for weeks—ample time to deceive inspectors.

The JCPOA was never designed to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear-nation status. It was only aimed at dragging that process out while reshuffling the region’s geopolitical deck in Iran’s favor and ultimately providing a patina of legitimacy to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Any talk about exhuming and reanimating this agreement that glosses over its weak verification regime suggests that the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, will settle for any deal—even a bad one.

Such an approach seems particularly shortsighted when the Islamic Republic has been pushed onto the defensive, reeling from economic woes, the devastating effects of the coronavirus, and a series of assassinations. Rather than press America’s advantage, when “Iran is on the ropes,” writes Rothman, Biden “is committed to negotiating from a position of weakness.”

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy