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Alexander Pechersky was a Russian soldier captured by Nazi Germany during World War II. He devised the plan for the most successful breakout of Jewish prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust.

Early Life

Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky was born on February 22, 1909, in Kremenchuk, at the time part of the Russian Empire, but now a part of Ukraine.[1] Perchersky was born into a Jewish family and spent his youth in the small town of Rostov-on-Don. He attended a local secondary school where he discovered a love of music and theater. They dominated his young life.

After finishing secondary school, Pechersky enrolled in university to study music. He fully immersed himself in the artistic culture and directed several amateur dramatic performances.[2] Pechersky possessed a great talent for the organization of big events. Around this same time, he married his wife and they produced one daughter.[3]

The Red Army and Capture

Alexander Pechersky showed great bravery by hiding his illness even while captured by the Germans.

Alexander Pechersky joined the Soviet Red Army on June 22, 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. He joined as a second lieutenant and they soon promoted him to first lieutenant. In October 1941, Pechersky’s unit was captured by the German Army. [4] The unit attempted to liberate their regimental commander during a siege by the Germans, but they were taken as prisoners of war.[5]

Pechersky contracted typhus fever after being captured and hid his suffering in fear of being killed by his captors. He eluded discovery for several months. In May 1942, he organized an escape with four of his fellow prisoners, but it failed. The Germans captured the men and punished them by sending them to disciplinary camps in Borysov and then Minsk.

The Germans discovered Pechersky was Jewish during a medical examination. They imprisoned him for 10 days in the complete darkness of “the Jewish cellar” with other Jewish prisoners of war. The captives were provided a jug of water and 100 grams of bread a day. German officials transferred them to Minsk’s Sheroka Street labor camp on September 20, 1942. [6]

Transfer to Sonderkommando Sobibor

On September 22, 1943, the Germans sent Alexander Pechersky, his fellow Jewish prisoners of war, and about 2,000 other Jews from Minsk to the Sobibor death camp.[7] The incoming prisoners did not know it was a death camp at the time. When they arrived, one of the German SS officers asked if anyone knew a trade and Pechersky lied about being a furniture maker.[8] He was one of 80 men chosen by Hubert Gomerski to work as a carpenter in the camp, while the remaining Jewish prisoners went to the gas chambers with Karl Frenzel.[9]

Life in Sobibor

Sasha Pechersky learned the truth about the death camp that first evening from older prisoners. The prisoners awoke every day at “5.00 am, [to] get a litre of warm water, but no bread, at 5.30 [they were] counted, at 6.00 [they] leave for work, in columns of threes, Russian Jews are in front, then Poles, Czech and Dutch.” Half of the men built things and the other half chopped wood.

The prisoners spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and a variety of other languages. This made communication difficult, but several bilingual captives acted as translators between the prisoners. It only took a week of witnessing the severe beatings of anyone unable to keep up with the SS officers’ unreasonable, physical demands and the open slaughter of sick or “weak” inmates for Pechersky to realize his inevitable fate.[10]

Planning to Escape

The underground resistance at Sobihor death camp understood the importance of having trained fighters like Alexander Pechersky to organize a revolt.

The underground resistance at Sobihor immediately contacted the new prisoners of war. The death camp did not often see men who fought in the war and the resistance hoped to use the army soldiers’ fighting skills to escape. Pechersky soon led the resistance group, wanting to escape, but to also enact revenge upon their abusive German captors. He devised a complex escape plan over the course of three weeks with his friend Schlomo Lajtman from Poland.

Pechersky and Lajtman decided the former Soviet soldier should lure the SS officers into their own offices or the work barracks and then quietly attack the officers with knives and axes. They planned for it to last no more than one hour and for the men to dress in the uniforms of the SS officers after they killed as many as possible. The men would then join their fellow prisoners at roll call and lead the prisoners outside past the Ukrainian watch guards.[11]

The Sobibor Revolt

On October 14, 1943, the Sobibor Revolt began around 4:00 in the afternoon. The underground leaders chose this day after learning the most dangerous of the SS officers, Gustav Wagner, the commander of the camp, Reichleitner, and several other German officials took the day off. This left Karl Frenzel in charge.

The revolt went smoothly at first. The men managed to kill seven SS officers and a Ukrainian guard within the allotted hour. Then things started to go wrong. The men could not reach Karl Frenzel because he was in the shower. Then a prisoner killed a soldier in an undesignated area forcing Pechersky to move up the normal roll call time. He asked the Kapo, an inmate given control over other inmates, to call roll 15 minutes earlier than normal.

The inmates who did not know about the plan cautiously lined up in the roll call zone. They did not see the normal SS officers and began to get suspicious. A Ukrainian guard yelled at the prisoners to line up as usual and told lied that the war ended. The prisoners scattered in various directions as SS commander Erich Bauer returned to the camp.

Bauer recognized something fishy going on and started firing at the confused prisoners. The armed Soviet soldiers disguised as SS agents fired back and a large shootout ensued. Frenzel returned from his shower and began firing a machine gun at the soldiers and the prisoners. The prisoners all fled towards the open gates, but many were killed by the gunshots from behind or accidentally ran through the nearby minefield.[12]

The Aftermath, Later Life, and Death

Alexander Pechersky attempted to kill Frenzel during the fight, but did not succeed. He ran into the forest with the other escapees. They hid in the bushes or in the verges along the roadsides since they believed the SS would track them through the forest. They only moved during the nighttime and hid during the day. One week after escaping, Pechersky and seven Russian escapees made it to Soviet territory. Not long after, they rejoined the Red Army and fought during the rest of the war. [13]

Alexander Sasha Pechersky died on January 19, 1990, in his hometown of Rostov-on-Don, Rostov Oblast, Russia.[14]

References

Bibliography

Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. (2016). Alexander “Sasja” Petsjerski. Sobiborinterviews.nl.[2]

Pechersky, A. (2011). The Testimony of Alexander Pechersky - Leader of the Sobibor Revolt. Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. [3]

Webb, C. (2011). Alexander Pechersky on the Revolt and Escape From the Sobibor Death Camp. Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. [4]

Footnotes

  1. Webb, 2011
  2. Pechersky, 2011
  3. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 2016
  4. Pechersky, 2011
  5. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 2016
  6. Pechersky, 2011
  7. Webb, 2011
  8. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 2016
  9. Webb, 2011
  10. Webb, 2011
  11. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 2016
  12. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 2016
  13. Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, 2016
  14. Lander, E. (2008, July 18). CPT Alexander Aronovich “Sasha” Pechersky (1909 - 1990). Find A Grave Memorial.[1]