Continuing to review this piece by reporter Vladimir Veretennikov. We learned that the hero of the Sobibor saga, Alexander Pechersky, was an ordinary man who grew up in the Soviet Union, imbibed Soviet culture and values, and reached the age of 30 without distinguishing himself in any way. Well, that’s like most people in the world. The only possible key to his future greatness was his love of amateur community theater. He loved to direct, and it was possibly this hobby that endowed him with excellent organizing skills and attention to detail. At the risk of being flip: Organizing a detailed uprising and escape from a Nazi death camp required some of the same skills as managing a complicated theatrical event. The difference being that the actors don’t shoot back. Well, not most of the time…
Pechersky wrote in his autobiography about the start of the war: “Summer and fall of 1941. Uninterrupted battles against the ever-advancing German-fascist armies. We break out of one encirclement, only to fall into another. At the beginning of October 1941, after heavy battles near Vyazma, I fell into the paws of the Hitlerites. While in captivity I fell ill with spinal typhus. Normally the Germans would just shoot any prisoners who contracted typhus. I was able to hide my illness from them and somehow, miraculously, I remained alive. In May of 1942, along with four other POW’s I attempted to escape, but they caught us and sent us to the punishment brigade in the city of Borisov. And from there to Minsk.”
Out of these laconic sentences, Veretennikov picks out some notable traits of Pechersky’s personality: his modesty, and his “collectivism”, in other words, it is always about the “we” and not the “I”. Similarly, Veretennikov notes other positive features of the man: His genuine love of his fellow man, and his joy at encountering anything positive in another human being. This is what Pechersky writes about one of his fellow inmates in the concentration camp: “Only now did I really get a good look at Boris. He is tall, broad-shouldered, with somewhat coarse facial features. From our secret conversations I learned that he used to be a driver, and also a butcher, and then he became a miner. You would never call his mannerisms aristocratic, and yet behind his somewhat exaggerated coarseness you can see much warmth of spirit. Later I was to learn that, hidden behind his sharpness, there was a constant readiness to help others, an all-consuming feeling of compassion to another’s pain.”
[yalensis: And are these not precisely the traits which allow humans to survive the worst kinds of traumas available?]
Living With Death
In the conditions under which these people lived, with Death all the time knocking at the door to take another victim — there were really just two choices: Either one throws away one’s humanity and just descends to the level of a dumb beast; or one becomes more human. Pechersky’s memoirs abound with gruesome tales, nonchalantly told: How guards would shoot prisoners for sport; how prisoners were beaten almost to death for the slightest infringement; how they were forced to labor to exhaustion; how they were chased by dogs and tossed into cauldrons of boiling water; how people were killed for their possessions and to extract “raw materials” for the Wehrmacht. The everyday life in Dante’s Hell.
When he first arrived at Sobibor, Pechersky asked one of the “old-timers” why the air was so thick with the smell of burning. “Don’t ask,” he was told. “They are burning the bodies of your comrades, the ones you arrived with. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.”
He was a Soviet Lieutenant After All…
Lev Simkin, in his book entitled “One And A Half Hours Of Vengeance” wrote that the very arrival of Soviet POWs “as a monolithic group who possessed military experience”, raised the morale of the Sobibor camp prisoners. As these guys were very different from the beaten-down and pessimistic “old-timers” in the camp. By that time Pechersky had been a POW for almost two years, and it is remarkable that he still had not been broken. On the contrary, he had been able to preserve his human dignity to the fullest degree. Preserving his humanity: This was his own personal daily rebellion against an inhuman system.
Another remarkable fact is the swiftness with which Pechersky seized every opportunity available to him: He only arrived in Sobibor on 23 September, and already by 14 October the escape was underway!
[yalensis: I have read that the ability to react with quick instincts and to seize opportunities without hesitation or procrastination, is another characteristic of those who survive catastrophes. Often it is the slower ones and the indecisive ones who perish. Which is probably why I myself would never be able to survive such an extreme scenario.]
In other words, this whole complicated escape was planned and executed in just a couple of weeks!
Next: In the world of Reality Theater, was the real Pechersky a Hamlet or a Fortinbras?
[to be continued]