Escape from Sobibor is a 1987 British television film which aired on ITV and CBS. It is the story of the mass escape from the German extermination camp at Sobibor, the most successful uprising by Jewish prisoners of German extermination camps (uprisings also took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka).
The film begins with a new trainload of Polish Jews arriving for processing at Sobibor. The German Commandant gives them a welcoming speech, assuring the new arrivals that the place is a work camp. Other SS officers move along the assembled lines of prisoners, selecting a small number who have trade skills (such as goldsmiths, seamstresses, shoemakers, and tailors). The remaining prisoners are sent away to a different part of the camp from which a pillar of smoke rises day and night. It is some time before the new prisoners realise Sobibor is a death camp, all of the other Jews are exterminated in gas chambers, and their corpses are cremated in large ovens. The small number of prisoners who are kept alive in the other part of the camp are charged with sorting the belongings taken from those who are murdered and then repairing the shoes, recycling the clothing, and melting down any silver or gold to make jewellry for the SS officers. Despite their usefulness, these surviving prisoners’ existence is precarious, and beatings and murders can occur at any time.
Gustav Wagner is the most clever and sadistic of the German officers. When two prisoners escape from a work detail in the nearby forest, Wagner forces the remaining 13 prisoners of the work gang to each select one other prisoner to die with them and then executes all 26.
The leader of the prisoners, Leon Feldhendler, realises when the trains eventually stop coming, the camp will have outlived its usefulness, and all the remaining Jews will be murdered. He devises a plan for every prisoner to escape, by luring the SS officers and NCOs into the prisoners’ barracks and work huts one by one and killing them as quietly as possible. Once all of the Germans are dead, the prisoners will assemble into columns and simply march out of the camp as if they have been ordered to, and it is hoped the Ukrainian Guards, not knowing what is going on and with no Germans left alive to give orders or raise the alarm, will not interfere. A new group of prisoners arrives, Russian Jews who were soldiers with the Soviet army. Their leader, Pechersky, and his men willingly join the revolt, their military skills proving invaluable.
The Camp Kommandant leaves for several days, taking Wagner with him, which proves an advantage as the most cunning of the SS officers will be absent from Sobibor. On 14 October 1943, the plan goes into action. One by one, SS officers and NCOs are lured into traps set by groups of prisoners armed with knives and clubs. Eleven Germans are killed, but one officer, Karl Frenzel, unwittingly evades his killers, discovers the corpse of one of his colleagues, and raises the alarm. By now, the prisoners have assembled on the parade ground and, realizing the plan has been discovered, Pechersky and Feldhendler urge the prisoners to revolt and flee the camp. Most of the 600 prisoners stampede for the perimeter fences, some of the Jews using captured rifles to shoot their way through the Ukrainian guards. Other guards open fire with heavy machine guns from observation towers, cutting many of the fleeing prisoners down, and other would-be escapees are killed on the minefield surrounding the camp. But over 300 Jews reach the forest and escape.
As the survivors flee deeper into the forest, famed newscaster Howard K. Smith narrates the experiences and fates that befell some of the survivors whose accounts the film was based on. Of the 300 prisoners who escaped, only approximately 50 survived to see the end of the war in 1945. For example, Alexander Pechersky makes it back to Soviet lines and rejoins the Red Army, surviving the war, and Feldhendler lives to see the end of the war but is killed shortly afterwards in a clash with anti-Semitic Poles. After the uprising, the largest escape from a prison camp of any kind in Europe during World War II, Sobibor was bulldozed to the ground, and trees were planted on the site to remove any sign of its existence.
Trivia & Goofs
- The script, by Reginald Rose, was based on Richard Rashke’s 1983 book of the same name, along with a manuscript by Thomas Blatt, “From the Ashes of Sobibor”, and a book by Stanislaw Szmajzner, Inferno in Sobibor.
- Esther Raab, who died on 15 April 2015, was a camp survivor who had assisted Rashke with his book and served as a technical consultant.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Jack Gold.
- Producers: Dennis E. Doty, Howard, P. Alston, and James Eastep.
- Writers: Thomas Blatt (manuscript), Richard Rashke (book), Reginald Rose (teleplay), and Stanislaw Szmajzner (book).
- Narrator: Howard K. Smith.
- Music: Georges Delerue.
- Cinematography: Ernest Vincze.
- Editor: Keith Palmer.
- Production: Zenith Entertainment and Rule Starger.
- Distributor: CBS.
- Release Date: 12 April 1987 (US) and 10 May 1987 (UK).
- Running Time: 176 minutes (UK), 169 minutes with PAL speed-up), 143 minutes (US), and 120 minutes (edited).
- Country: US and Yugoslavia.
- Language: English and Judezmo.