Holocaust hero, Sobibor resistance leader, and hostage of history
An extraordinary biography of a forgotten hero
On 14th October 1943, Aleksandr ‘Sasha’ Pechersky led a mass escape from Sobibor, a Nazi death camp in Poland. Despite his role in one of the few prisoner revolts at a World War II death camp, Pechersky never received the public recognition he deserved in his home country of Russia. In her book, Selma Leydesdorff describes the official silence in the Eastern Bloc about Pechersky’s role in the Sobibor revolt.
Pechersky (1909 – 1990) was a Russian Jew and Red Army lieutenant who arrived in Sobibor as the commander of a group of eighty Russian prisoners. The Germans kept them alive because they needed their workforce in order to build a new part of the camp. But they seriously underestimated the physical and mental strength of the group. Pechersky organized the revolt in just twenty-two days with the help of an already existing Polish underground network and his Russian comrades.
Pechersky, along with other Russian and Jewish inmates who had been interned by the Nazis, was later considered suspect by the Russian government simply because he had been imprisoned. Based on eyewitness accounts from people in Pechersky’s life, the story is a discussion of the mechanism of memory, mixing written sources with varied recollections and assessing the collisions between the collective memories held by the East and the West. Specifically, the book critiques the ideological refusal by many societies to acknowledge the horrors suffered by the Jews at Sobibor.
This story of a forgotten hero also reveals the tremendous difference in memorial cultures between the West and the former Communist world. Leydesdorff, a professor of oral history, offers an important insight into a crucial period, emphasizing that Jews were not passive in the face of German violence, and explores the story of those Jews who fell victim to Stalinism after surviving Nazism.
Leydesdorff writes on Sasha Pechersky: ‘After the war, he was initially considered a traitor. He then fell victim to the rise of Stalinist anti-Semitism. Now people in Moscow and Israel are lobbying for his recognition. I am glad that my research is helping to break through the consciously political silence about him, as Pechersky is a Jewish hero to me.’