Alexander Pechersky Foundation

Mikhail Edelstein (1972), philologist, historian; Senior Researcher, Faculty of Journalism, Moscow State University; Scientific Director of the Alexander Pechersky Foundation.

The fate of Alexander Pechersky seems paradoxical. A man who dreamed of becoming an actor, never held a weapon in his hands, served as a clerk in the army, but at the decisive moment took responsibility and behaved like a professional strategist and commander. A Jew who, in general, had little interest in his own Jewry, but became a symbol of Jewish resistance to Nazism and saved dozens of Jewish lives (in 2017, Benjamin Netanyahu called Pechersky a "national hero" of both Russia and Israel). An ordinary worker from a provincial Soviet city, who throughout the post-war years worked with the intensity of an entire research institute, collecting archives, promoting articles to the press, talking about Sobibor in schools in Rostov-on-Don, Moscow and other cities, creating a kind of "network" of volunteer assistants who helped him with the collection of materials, correspondence, translations.

It is often said that the name of the leader of the uprising at Sobibor extermination camp, Alexander Pechersky, was completely unknown in the Soviet Union, but there is a certain amount of exaggeration to this claim. Indeed, in 1945, even before the end of the war, Pechersky managed to publish a book about the Sobibor uprising; at the same time, a number of articles about Sobibor and what happened at the camp on October 14, 1943 appeared in Soviet newspapers and magazines.

Following this, there was a period of silence that lasted more than ten years. In 1952-1953, during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign, Pechersky was charged with an economic crime, put on trial and sentenced to one year of correctional labor (relatively mild punishment at the time). And it was only the end of the 1950s that the topic of Sobibor reappeared in public debate. In 1964, a large Moscow publishing house even published a book by Vladimir Tomin and Alexander Sinelnikov entitled "Return is Undesirable", based on the stories of Pechersky and his fellow revolt participants.

Yet, this was again followed by another period of silence. Even during the rise of Perestroika[1] and in the post-Soviet years, Pechersky was hardly remembered. It was only in 2008 that this changed, following the release of "Sobibor" by Semyon Vilensky, Grigory Gorbovitsky and Leonid Terushkin, a book which was published in two editions.

Again, the situation radically changed in 2011, when a group of activists from different countries led by the Israeli-Russian political scientist Ilya Vasilyev created an initiative group to perpetuate the memory of Alexander Pechersky and other heroes of the uprising in Sobibor. A year later, this topic first became the subject of interstate negotiations: the Minister of Information and Diaspora of the State of Israel (in 2013-2020 – Speaker of the Knesset) Yuli Edelstein discussed the memorialization of the Sobibor heroes with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Edelstein was assured that Russia and Israel would work on this issue together.

On the basis of the initiative group, the Alexander Pechersky Foundation was finally created. It officially represents the interests of Pechersky’s daughter, as well as some other participants in the uprising and their descendants. The purpose of the Foundation is to keep the memory of the leader and participants of the uprising in Sobibor alive, as well as to commemorate those who died in this camp during the year and a half of its existence.

The Foundation's projects include documentaries, books, numerous articles, and exhibitions dedicated to the feat of Alexander Pechersky and his fellows. Largely thanks to the activity of the Foundation, the participants of the uprising were awarded orders of several states – Russia, Poland, Ukraine –, and streets in cities of different countries are now renamed after Pechersky. Memorial plaques have also been erected at the houses where Pechersky's associates lived.

In 2018 – the year of the 75th anniversary of the uprising – a feature film "Sobibor" was released in Russia and other countries. The script of the film was based on the book "Alexander Pechersky: Breakthrough into Immortality" compiled by the head of the Alexander Pechersky Foundation Ilya Vasilyev and translated into several languages.

Throughout the time following its establishment, the Foundation's employees were searching Russian and foreign archives, uncovering documents related to Alexander Pechersky and other participants in the uprising at Sobibor.

The large personal archive of Pechersky was examined and systematized. For several decades, Pechersky collected documents and articles concerning Sobibor, as well as correspondence with historians, journalists, enthusiasts from different countries, and with former Sobibor prisoners scattered around the world. Unfortunately, a significant part of his archive apparently perished in the 2000s-2010s, but the surviving materials have been cataloged, and work has begun on their digitization.

Of the already published works, I will note the book by Ilya Vasilyev and Nikolai Svanidze "The Return of the Feat", where for the first time the history of Soviet (and in part also foreign) publications about Sobibor from 1943 to the death of Pechersky in 1990 is traced in sufficient detail. The authors have tried to answer the question that inevitably arises for those who writes and research the subject of Sobibor: why was the history of this camp and the uprising on the periphery of public and research attention for several decades, not only in the USSR, but also in Poland, and in Israel? Why only in recent years has interest in this topic been evidently growing?

So what does the future hold? In the near future, two large Internet projects will be completed: the publication of all documents related to Sobibor found in the Russian and Belarusian archives, and the creation of a special website dedicated to October 14, 1943 with the biographies of all participants in the uprising and escape (in Russian, English, German, Polish and Hebrew).

Finally, Ilya Vasilyev and I are working on a biography of Pechersky. Of course, this will be a book not only about Pechersky, but also about Sobibor, about the uprising in the extermination camp, and how they remembered (and forgot) about this story in the Soviet Union and other countries. And yet its main character is Pechersky.

Sobibor divided Pechersky's life into before and after. But our book is not only about a war hero, nor only about a historian of Sobibor, but also about a man who loved theater, composed music, was a football fan, played chess, and who adored his family. Perhaps this is the most interesting task for biographers of Pechersky – to show how an ordinary person can do something incredible, and then live for several decades, having to find an everyday balance between what he considers his mission, and his “normal” life.

[1] The period of Soviet history in the second half of the 1980s - early 1990s, from the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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