Introduction

The teleseries Escape from Sobibór was broadcast first in the United States in April 1987 and in Britain the following month. Based on the 1982 book with the same title written by Richard Rashke, the screenplay was adapted by Reginald Rose, the soundtrack composed by Georges Delerue and the film was directed by Jack Gold. The film depicts the prisoner uprising at Sobibór death camp, and is notable for the involvement of camp survivors in its production. The broadcasts received high viewer ratings and were generally well received by audiences in both the US and UK.

Original Escape from Sobibór Release Poster 1987

Original Escape from Sobibór Release Poster 1987 (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

Richard Rashke first uncovered the story of the Sobibór uprising whilst conducting research in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Contrary to the out-dated perception that Jewish victims in the Holocaust were ‘led like lambs to the slaughter’, the revolt at Sobibór provided evidence that Jews did, indeed, resist their oppressors. Sobibór was also one of the most successful escapes of the Second World War. Rashke carried out in-depth research about the camp and interviewed survivors, including Blatt, Raab and Stanisław Szmajzner, who all provided their testimonies in detail. The writing style adopted by Rashke for this book is highly dramatised and in fact reads more like a novel than an account of historical events. The text is experiential, yet factually accurate, recreating true events through the memories of those who witnessed life in the camp and survived the uprising and its aftermath.

In conversation with co-curator of this exhibition, Hannah Wilson, Rashke pointed out that he had always envisioned his book as being a film. In this initial thought process, the production would, in some ways, follow in the footsteps of John Sturges’ 1963 action classic The Great Escape, which sees actor Steve McQueen break out of a German Prison camp. But after spending time with the survivors, he understood that concerning Sobibór, there was much more complexity to the story than the revolt alone. There were initial setbacks when some of the big Hollywood companies were reluctant to fund ‘another film on the Holocaust’. Even the film’s director Jack Gold commented: “When I was first approached to direct this film I resisted the idea [...] the escape, was subsumed by the feeling that the Holocaust was being exploited by commercial television.” However, after Rashke appeared on American television and radio with Sobibór survivors Selma and Chaim Engel, the project was taken up by the US broadcasting company CBS. Rashke did, however, insist that Esther Raab must serve as a consultant on set. Through a separate agreement, Thomas Blatt and Stanislaw Szmajzner also provided the writer with their manuscripts, and Blatt agreed to be on set as well, to oversee the accuracy of the film and serve as a point of expertise, and even comfort, for the actors. As Gold reflects: “I was eventually swayed to commit to the film by two factors. The first was the perennial cry exclaimed by the survivors of Sobibor: ‘Bear witness!’ [...] The second factor that swayed me was the existential nature of the escape itself...the demonstration of the Jew taking control over his own destiny.”

Gold was concerned about how an historic event such as the escape from Sobibór could be effectively communicated on screen, especially as there was no possibility of using direct evidence or film from the camp. But there were living survivors, and the option of reconstruction. Though aware of potential criticisms which ‘reconstructing the Holocaust’ might bring, Gold concluded: “More attractive is desire, the recounting of a story, identifying with various characters [...] communicating the feeling and experience of events, the heightening of emotion and stimulating the imagination is most accessible through drama”.

The cast of Escape from Sobibór

The cast of Escape from Sobibór (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

Narrative

The film opens with a brief introduction to the Operation Reinhard camps, and the function of Sobibór. Within the first minute, the viewer is then ‘transported’ to 1943, when we see the beautiful home of the SS – named ‘The Merry Flea’, as revealed in the testimony of Ada Lichtman in Shoah: The Four Sisters. Almost immediately, we are introduced to the figure of Leon Felhendler, the son of a Polish Jewish Rabbi, who led the Polish resistance organisation in the camp. Felhendler, played by Alan Arkin, discusses potential escape plans with his co-workers, assuring the viewer that the idea of resistance is already present in Sobibór, prior to the arrival of Jewish-Soviet POW, Alexander Pechersky.

With the arrival of new convoys, key figures in the uprising are gradually brought on screen, including Luka (Gertrude Poppert – Schonborn) who is played by Polish American actress Joanna Pacuła. Luka, who disappeared after the uprising, was a German Jew who passed herself off as Dutch. Her presence at the meetings between Pechersky and Felhendler was to inhibit either fellow prisoners or guards from thinking that anything unusual was happening, concealed as a social or romantic occasion. Thomas Toivi Blatt (Jason Norman) and Stanisław “Shlomo” Szmajzner (Simon Gregor) appear as young boys, who are also assigned various work roles. Shlomo, who trained as a goldsmith before the war, begins making customised rings for the SS men out of the jewellery and gold teeth removed from the murdered prisoners. Eventually, Shlomo and his younger brother Moses, realise that they are in a death camp, and that their father was killed. Shlomo swears his revenge. 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 and recycling the clothing. Despite their usefulness, these surviving prisoners' existence is precarious, and beatings and murders can occur at any time. Gradually, we are also introduced to the ‘characters’ of Selma and Chaim Engel, Ada and Itzhak Lichtman and Samuel Lehrer.

Sobibór survivor Thomas Toivi Blatt on set with his actor counterpart Jason Norman

Sobibór survivor Thomas Toivi Blatt on set with his actor counterpart Jason Norman (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

Romances between female and male prisoners feature heavily in the film’s narrative. Selma and Chaim Engel, who were forced to dance together for the pleasure of the German guards, are one such couple, as well as Ada and Izthak Lichtman, who form a relationship together following the murder of his wife and child after the family’s arrival in the camp. Ada seeks to comfort him with her own losses, asserting: “You must eat, the best revenge is for you to survive. Itzhak, my family was murdered too”. Though this is perhaps overly dramatised for the sake of the viewers, love and sexuality was, indeed, an important part of everyday camp life at Sobibór. Despite the surrounding conditions, romantic pursuits provided the prisoners with a sense of normality and humanity, as we also see with the development of Shlomo’s relationship with an older woman named Bajle Sobol, who did not survive the uprising. As Szmajzner wrote in his published testimony: “As we knew all was lost—and so did the girls—we gave ourselves to the only pleasure still left to us… love.”

The violence and brutality of the German and Ukrainian guards is another important aspect of camp life that is given considerable emphasis in the screenplay, as was the prisoners’ deep resentment towards the Jewish 'kapos', who held a higher position overseeing the other prisoners in exchange for better treatment, and who were often abusive. Generally speaking, the depiction of violence is not so explicit. We see that the prisoners are abused, but the film is directed in such a way that the violence does not overwhelm, as might be the case in other ‘Hollywood’ Holocaust films. After all, Escape from Sobibór was created for Sunday night viewing, in the comfort of one’s living room. On this issue, Gold asserted: “My observation was that we should try to draw out the horrors of the camp and to further articulate questions and responses relating to the behaviour of the inmates.’ Despite this, Gold does not shy away from depicting the terror of the gas chambers. In one scene, the viewer sees naked prisoners lining up to enter the building labelled ‘showers’, and the dogs of the German guards attacking one desperate woman. In this cinematic moment, the structure and procedure of mass killing is laid bare for all to witness. SS officer Gustav Wagner, played by Hartmut Becker, embodies a calm sadism, whose cruelty features prominently in the testimonies of nearly all Sobibór survivors. When two prisoners manage to 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 from the camp to die with them. As he executes them, he warns: “There’s no escape in Sobibór, there is only death for those of you insane enough to try”.

Gustav Wagner (Harmut Becker), Ada Lichtman (Patti Love) and Leon Feldhendler (Alan Arkin)

Gustav Wagner (Harmut Becker), Ada Lichtman (Patti Love) and Leon Feldhendler (Alan Arkin) (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

Most prevalent in the film narrative, however, is the underlying tension of the potential escape, and the role of the underground leader Leon Felhendler. Felhendler realizes that when the trains eventually stop coming, the camp will have outlived its usefulness, and all the remaining Jews will be murdered. He begins to devise a plan to kill the SS and Ukrainian guards so that the prisoners can escape but admits: “The problem is we’re not soldiers, we don’t know how to kill, we never have!” This problem is solved with the arrival at the camp of the towering, handsome figure of Aleksander Pechersky, portrayed by renowned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Pechersky and the group of Soviet Jews who had fought with him in the Soviet army joined the prisoners’ revolt and their military skills were invaluable. 

To avert suspicion during the secret meetings to plan the escape, Pechersky is always accompanied by Luka, who falls desperately in love with Pechersky. But there can be no future for this romance: Pechersky confides that he has a wife and daughter waiting for him at home and Luka is heartbroken. It is important to note that, although historians have speculated on the nature of Pechersky’s true relationship with Luka, the details and the dialogue in the film are imagined and based on Pechersky’s own account as told to Rashke and the film crew. As scholar Michael Flemming asserts, her role should not be mistaken for the sum of the women’s participation in the revolt, as Escape from Sobibór often suggests.

Finally, comes the moment the viewer has been waiting for: the escape. The Camp Kommandant leaves for several days, together with several of the higher SS officers and the plan can be put into action. On 14th October 1943, the remaining SS officers and Trawniki guards are lured into traps set by groups of prisoners armed with knives and clubs. The film includes some scope for dramatic licence, for example when Chaim Engel is given a Jewish ceremonial knife by Selma to use to kill SS Officer Rudolf Beckmann. According to Rashke, this episode was not based on the testimony of survivors, but film director Gold decided to feature the sacred Jewish object as ‘divine irony’. Throughout the dramatic scenes which follow, eleven Germans are killed. SS officer Karl Frenzel discovers the corpse of one of his colleagues and raises the alarm. The prisoners have assembled on the parade ground and, realizing the plan has been discovered, Pechersky and Felhendler jump on a table and urge the prisoners to revolt and flee the camp:

Pechersky: Listen to me. Our day has come. Most of the SS are dead. It's everyone for himself now.

Felhendler: Those of you who survive, bear witness. Let the world know what has happened here. God is with you. Now let nothing stop you. Move! Move! Come on! Go on! Go on, save yourselves. You are free.

 

In the film dialogue, this dramatic prose is recited to all the prisoners, who hang on their every word; Blatt even recalls the speech in his post-war testimony. Though it is unlikely that, in the chaos of the uprising itself, every prisoner would have heard these words, it seems crucial to present it that way for the film’s final scenes. The mass of prisoners of the camp, some 600 in total, fled under open fire from guards in observation towers armed with heavy machine guns. Many of the prisoners were shot in the hail of bullets while others were killed on the minefield surrounding the camp. Marked by the suspense of not knowing who will survive and the tragedy of those who fall, the viewer is relieved when approximately 300 Jews reach the forest, including most of the main characters. As the survivors flee deeper into the forest, famed newscaster Howard K. Smith narrates the experiences and fates that befell some of the survivors on whose accounts the film was based. Of the 300 prisoners who survived the escape, only approximately 48 lived to see the end of the war in 1945. While Alexander Pechersky makes it back to Soviet lines and re-joins the Red Army, surviving the war, Feldhendler lives to see the end of the war but is killed shortly after in the nearby city of Lublin. The film ends with footage of the site of Sobibór as it was in 1987, with a final view of the commemorative monument of a mother and child that stands on the former site.

Romances

The final escape scene from Sobibór

The final escape scene from Sobibór (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

Impact

Both Rashke’s book and the televised adaptation of Escape from Sobibór are an important part of the camp’s history and memory. Thanks to the input and guidance of the survivors themselves, the smaller details of humanity, dehumanisation and every day camp life that feature in the script are considerably accurate. Thus, the film was commended by the small community of Sobibór survivors who watched the film before it premiered.

Before filming, Gold required all of the actors to drill under an army sergeant to “get used to strictly obeying humiliating orders, to be screaming and shouted at”. He showed films of the camps to the cast and gave them copies of survivor testimonies. The German actors were shown documentaries of the SS training and antisemitic propaganda, with the intention of an informed realisation on their parts. Although some of the dialogue is creatively imagined and perhaps overdramatised, it is constructed from true testimony and the perspective of Sobibór’s few surviving witnesses. Also commendable is the emphasis of Leon Felhendler’s role in the resistance narrative, which is sometimes perceived as the sole initiative of the ‘hero’, Alexander Pechersky, as we see in Konstantin Khabensky’s more recent adaptation.

Though Pechersky was not permitted to leave the Soviet Union to attend the film premiere in New York, other survivors attended a preliminary screening with Rashke, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. The film went on to win a number of prestigious awards, including the 1988 Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Television Film. Hauer received a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a supporting role, and screenwriter Reginald Rose received the Writers Guild of America Award for Adapted Long form. Escape from Sobibór raised public awareness of the camp as part of the history of the Holocaust. It provided the first, total visualisation of the camp beyond the clandestine maps of the survivors and oral testimonies. In contrast to director Claude Lanzmann’s emphasis on the absence of memory at Sobibór, Gold’s cinematic reconstruction of the camp provided a kind of spatial awareness for the camp that one might perceive from liberation footage of camps which were not destroyed, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. In this sense, the film brings a kind of tangible reality of Sobibór, and the varying stories of those who suffered there, to the mainstream.

Sobibór Survivors Thomas Toivi Blatt and Esther Raab

Sobibór Survivors Thomas Toivi Blatt and Esther Raab, who served as consultants on the set of Escape from Sobibór (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

There are of course, several aspects of Escape from Sobibór that have been criticised. On a simple level, the use of British accents takes away from the ‘authenticity’ the film seeks to portray. The language of the film remained English for commercial reasons, with most actors being English, Dutch and Yugoslav. Rashke confirmed that there had been talk of a sequel, which would emphasise the experiences of the immediate aftermath of the revolt. While the experiences of survivors in the days and weeks following the escape are an important part of the Sobibór survivors’ memory, it tends to be overlooked in favour of the more favourable and positive uprising narrative. The Sobibór revolt was not such a ‘happy ending’, rather, it is much more complicated. The production of a second film was deemed too expensive, and never came to fruition. After the first 1987 airing, the New York Times was also not overly impressed. In his TV review on 12th April, John Corry wrote:

What's missing, though, is death and horror. They have to be missing; if they were there, we wouldn't watch. The view would be too harrowing. There is a moral question here: Can a movie about the Holocaust turn into mere entertainment? The subject should be more sacred than that. Mr. Gold and his colleagues, correctly, I think, have tried for an artistic middle ground. [….] The problem is that ''Escape From Sobibór,'' like most Holocaust movies, isn't really about the Holocaust; it's about what's happening on screen. [….] The escape itself, however, is a good deal less gripping. Perhaps it is the moral question again: Should the Holocaust be turned into action and adventure? [….] When the prisoners break out, tearing down barbed wire and running through a minefield, the soundtrack gives us triumphal music. The escape may indeed be a triumph, but the music is inappropriate. It belongs in a war movie, not a movie that touches on the deaths of 6 million people.”

Concerns about the dramatisation and ‘Americanisation’ of the Holocaust in cinema have been expressed by scholars, for example following the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Escape from Sobibór is not exempt from this debate. In response to such critique, Jack Gold stated: “Documentary has a tendency to keep people at arm's length. Remember the audiences for NBC’s fictional Holocaust series [...] one hundred million Americans watched nine-and-a-half hours over four nights. As was often observed at the time, more information about the Holocaust was imparted to more Americans over those four nights than over all the previous thirty years”. In addition to the less positive reviews, the Ukrainian Congress Committee also sued CBS and the Chrysler Cooperation, alleging they “misused the presentation as a vehicle to launch an unprecedented, prejudicial and misleading attack” against Ukrainians, who were portrayed only as Nazi collaborators, and not as victims or resistance fighters themselves. The suit was eventually dropped by the court, but this clash of national remembrance also contributed to the failure of a sequel.

Yet, in terms of impact, Escape from Sobibór did its job in bringing to the forefront this extraordinary example of Jewish resistance and survival, and the impact of the Operation Reinhard camps in Holocaust history. The film was screened in Poland where it was also well received, although it is worth pointing out that the film ends without revealing that some local Poles participated in the Germans’ manhunt for escapees. In late 1987, the memorial plaque which was first erected at the site of Sobibór which wrongly depicted Jews as a lesser victim to that of Soviet POWs, for example, was replaced following the extensive efforts of survivor Thomas Toivi Blatt. Following this, a small museum was also opened on site in 1993. Rashke is certain that this change was, in part, due to the success of Escape from Sobibór. In the US specifically, Escape from Sobibór became part of CBS’ ‘Television Reading Program’, which introduced the film, book and teleplay to school children across America, some of whom wrote letters to the Sobibór survivors. Rashke concludes: “It was as if a whole new generation was discovering the Holocaust”. For the film’s director Jack Gold, Escape from Sobibór’s success and authenticity was brought home by an emotional moment involving survivor Thomas Toivi Blatt that happened during the filming of the uprising:

“Thomas was with us when we filmed the climax of the film, the escape [...] Filming finished and a few hours later, on the last day, Thomas - clothes torn, glasses broken- was brought to us by some locals who had found him wandering, lost, bewildered in the forest...to which he had escaped! It transpired that the re-creation was so authentic to him that he changed from spectator to participant. Over forty years vanished, he was again a teenager rushing to freedom. The reconstruction had become reality.”

Thomas Toivi Blatt explaining the details of the escape on set

Thomas Toivi Blatt explaining the details of the escape on set (Courtesy of the Blatt Family Archive)

Arrival of Pechersky and the plan

Oral history interview with Thomas Blatt (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection ©).