October 14 marks the 70th anniversary of the escape from Sobibor, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland where an estimated 250,000 Jews were murdered. Today, Sobibor stands as a painful symbol of what happens when the world fails to exert moral leadership and to hold accountable those dictators who use poisonous gas to kill innocent people, whether it be Zyklon B in a gas chamber in eastern Poland or sarin on the streets of Syria.
By the summer of l942, the Allies and most of the world knew that the Nazis were gassing Jews in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Holocaust historians like Martin Gilbert have described in careful detail who knew what and when. The London Daily Telegraph, for example, published in mid-1942 a two-part article based on eyewitness accounts about the Nazi slaughter of Jews. And Dr. Gerhard Riegner, director of the Jewish World Congress in Switzerland, sent an urgent cable to London, Washington, and New York.
Riegner warned the Allies that Berlin had a plan to exterminate all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany. But Washington didn’t believe Riegner. Labeling his cable as “utterly fantastic,” it suppressed the message.
Soon after the Riegner cable, Richard Lichtheim, a Zionist leader in Geneva, wrote a report that reached both London and Washington. He told world leaders that nearly three million Polish Jews had already been murdered, as well as a majority of Latvian, Serbian, Slovak, Dutch, and French Jews. Washington found the Lichtheim report both convincing and disturbing—for a pragmatic reason. It feared that news of a Final Solution would distract the Allies into wasting “a disproportionate amount of time dealing with wailing Jews.”
Then there was Jan Karski, a lieutenant in the Polish underground army whom Jews had smuggled into both the Warsaw ghetto and a temporary camp for Jews destined for the gas chambers. Karski would one day detail his experiences in his book, Story of a Secret State.
A volunteer emissary from Polish Jews to the Allies, Karski delivered a powerful message to world leaders in London, New York, and Washington, including British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He not only described the heart-wrenching atrocities he had witnessed, he also warned that trains continued to transport Jews to the death camps almost daily.
Karski also delivered to the Allies a list of requests from Polish Jews. The first was to bomb German cities in reprisal for the continued murder of Jews, then to drop leaflets telling the Germans why the bombs were falling. The Allies rejected the request because it involved killing civilians.
Next, Polish Jews demanded that the Allies and neutral nations welcome the Jews who had managed to escape the Nazi net. For the most part, the world turned a deaf ear. As Anthony Eden put it: the best way for the Allies to help Jews was “to win the war.”
Polish Jews directed their next two requests to their government-in-exile. They demanded that the underground Home Army punish—as a deterrent—Poles who blackmailed, denounced, and murdered Jews. Eleven Poles were eventually tried and executed. But by that time, 90 percent of Polish Jews were already dead.
As requested, Karski also reported to the Polish government-in-exile that the Warsaw ghetto was poised to rise up against the SS, the Gestapo, and their foreign collaborators. The ghetto fighters desperately needed weapons. The Home Army eventually gave them twenty guns.
Finally, Polish Jews asked the Allies to ransom Jews from Berlin. The Allies rejected that request, arguing that if they did so, the ransom money would fund the killing of even more Allied soldiers.
Having rejected every recommendation, the Allies had only one option left—issue a strong condemnation of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Final Solution. On December 17, l942, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, among other nations, signed a strongly worded United Nations declaration “against the bestial policy of cold blooded extermination.”
The international media jumped on the story. The death camp transports kept on rolling.
Early in l944, the international Jewish community also requested specific action. It was too late to save millions, it argued, but there was still time to save thousands. It asked the Allies to bomb Auschwitz. The Allies rejected the request, arguing that to do so would be a death sentence for prisoners still alive there.
If the Allies were unwilling to bomb the camp, the Jewish community asked, would they at least bomb the railroads leading to Auschwitz? Washington in particular opposed that suggestion, arguing that it was irrelevant to the national interest, impractical, and would ultimately be ineffective. Instead of using bombs, Washington promised to punish Nazi war criminals after the war.
It wasn’t just the Allies who failed to exercise moral leadership while six million Jews died. The pope and the Vatican remained publicly silent. Although the Allies exerted pressure on Pope Pius XII to cosign the U.N. declaration, he chose not to. Jewish and world leaders privately asked him to excommunicate Hitler, but he declined to do so. And when they pleaded with him to condemn Hitler and the Nazis by name, he spoke eloquently about the dignity of man, freedom of religion, and the sanctity of life. (The defenders of Pope Pius XII argue that he worked diplomatically to save the lives of thousands of Jews.)
By the summer of l943, the 600 Sobibor prisoners knew they were both doomed and forgotten by a world that chose to ignore their plight. Belzec and Treblinka were already closed and their few remaining prisoners murdered. Sobibor was next. Trapped behind barbed wire and surrounded by guns and minefields, only luck or a miracle could save them.
The miracle’s name was Sasha Pechersky.
A Russian Jewish lieutenant in the Red Army, Pechersky arrived at Sobibor on September 23, l943, with eighty fellow Russian Jewish soldiers. They were all supposed to go to the gas chambers at Treblinka, but that camp had already closed. Pechersky was a soldier who had never found a camp he couldn’t escape from. He devised a daring escape plan with the camp’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Leon Feldhendler, and a handful of savvy prisoners.
On the afternoon of October 14, 1943, the Sobibor Jews let out a mighty shout and charged the fences. Their victory was bittersweet. Three hundred died during and after the escape. Three hundred made it to the nearest woods. Only fifty survived the war.