The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Sometimes the only way to stop mass killers is to fight. That was the strategy attempted by the Jewish prisoners on October 14, 1943, at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland.
Despite pleas from Jewish organizations, the Allies never bombed the train tracks leading to the extermination camps. In retrospect, some historians argue that the missions were too dangerous, that the bombers were needed elsewhere, or that the tracks could have been quickly repaired. Whatever the merits of the Allied refusal, every extermination camp in Nazi Europe continued operating until Allied ground forces advanced to the general area. There was never any offensive aimed specifically at an extermination camp. The one extermination camp that was put out of business early was Sobibor.
As detailed in the book and movie "Escape from Sobibor," and in memoirs of the survivors, the Sobibor camp was horribly efficient, gassing thousands of people per day. The camp was run by Germans, with the assistance of several dozen Ukrainian guards. Much of the day-to-day operations, such as carpentry, sewing uniforms, and processing the dead bodies, were performed by a crew of specially-selected Jews, who worked in exchange for temporarily being allowed to live.
When some Soviet army Jewish prisoners of war were brought into the camp, the P.O.W.s began organizing an escape. Despite constant danger that Jewish spies might reveal the plans to the Nazis (in exchange for favored treatment), the plan went forward. With crude improvised weapons, the inmates quickly killed a few Nazi officers, and obtained the keys to the camp armory. This is how weapons acquisition often works in revolts; when unarmed people acquire their first arms, they attempt to use them to acquire better arms.
The Sobibor prisoners succeeded, and a wild gun battle ensued. Six hundred prisoners tried to flee; about 400 of them escaped the camp boundaries, and about half of them survived the land mine field around the camp. More escapees were caught later, but a band of 60 men and women, led by Soviet officer Alexander Perchersky, made contact with Soviet partisans. Ten SS troops were killed, and one was wounded. Thirty-eight Ukrainian guards were killed or wounded, while forty Ukrainian guards took the opportunity to desert.
Four days after the revolt, a special German unit destroyed the Sobibor camp completely, to attempt to keep the revolt a secret. A death camp which had already killed hundreds of thousands was put out of operation forever.
Sobibor was the greatest revolt, but not the only one. Jews rose up at four other extermination camps and eighteen forced labor camps or death camps. [Nechama Tec, "Jewish Resistance: Facts, Omissions, Distortions" (DC: US Holocaust Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, 1997), p. 1; Yehuda Bauer, "The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness" (Toronto: Univ. of Tor. Pr., 1979), p. 31.] Of these, the August 2, 1943, revolt of 700 inmates at Treblinka was the most successful. The prisoners used improvised explosives to set fires, improvised knives to kill guards, and had already stolen some firearms before revolt began. The huge fire disabled much of Treblinka. Between 150 and 200 prisoners escaped, and of them, a dozen survived until the end of the war. [Samuel Rajzman, "Uprising in Treblinka," in Yuri Suhl ed., "They Fought Back" (NY: Paperback Library, 1968), pp. 146-47. The Germans forced the remaining prisoners to demolish Treblinka, then gassed many of them , and shut the camp down forever on August 21, 1943. After the remaining Jewish prisoners had finished the job of completely burying the camp, they were shipped to Sobibor in October 1943, to bury the remnants of that extermination camp. Once that was done, they were all murdered.
Of all the German concentration and extermination camps, it was almost exclusively the Jewish camps where there were revolts. The one exception was a rebellion by Soviet prisoners of war at the Ebensee camp. Jewish revolts brought an end to the operations of two extermination camps.
"Violence never solves anything" is a platitude which American schoolchildren are taught. Sobibor and Treblinka show the platitude is a deadly falsehood. Violence solved Sobibor and Treblinka. The solution to Hitler's Final Solution was violence—the violent destruction of the Nazi regime. The Jews at Sobibor and Treblinka did their part. By shutting down two extermination camps, those fighting Jews may have saved more lives per capita than did other anti-Nazi combat unit, ever. Even the revolts that did not have such spectacular success helped defeat the Nazis. Every revolt delayed and impeded for at least some time the machinery of extermination. Every extra guard that was assigned to a camp because Nazi fear of revolts was one less soldier on the front lines against the Allies.
Some people claim that firearms did not make, and could not have made, any difference in the Holocaust. Sobibor and Treblinka show the opposite. Once the formerly-unarmed Jews got their hands on firearms, the extermination camps were on their way out of business. There is a reason that people in death camps are not allowed to have arms. There is a reason why governments which intend to send people to death camps always disarm them first. Once the genocide targets are armed, genocide becomes much more difficult. Killing armed victims is much more difficult than killing unarmed ones.
(The above post is based on my forthcoming book "The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Tradition," (Praeger 2016).)