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.