Saturday, September 12, 2015

Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Open Library
Read: July 21, 2015

It was the scene of the biggest prison escape of World War II, yet hardly anyone has heard of Sobibor, one of three Nazi death camps in eastern Poland, where six hundred Jews revolted against their guards and broke through the walls. Three hundred of them made it to the woods of Sobibor, the forest of the owls. Because the Nazis destroyed all the physical evidence and all but three documents about the camp, even historians of the Holocaust scarcely mention Sobibor. But the Nazis did not destroy all the evidence. More than thirty survivors are still alive -- including the Red Army officer-prisoner who led the revolt -- and Richard Rashke has sought them out. From their diaries, notes, testimony at war crimes trials, and, above all, from their vivid memories, he has re-created an important piece of neglected history. In addition to recounting the compelling story of the uprising and the escape, Rashke gives us an unforgettable picture of the day-to-day existence in a Nazi death camp where a quarter of a million Jews were killed.

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Alexander “Sasja” Petsjerski
I owe my discovery of Richard Rashke's Escape from Sobibor to my father. He introduced me to the death camp in one of our notorious late night discussions and his account of operations within the compound and the subsequent uprising that took place there were so captivating that I took it upon myself to learn more about the remarkably obscure chapter of Operation Reinhard.

Rashke's was the first title Google turned up and thanks to Open Library, it was also freely available for download. I felt providence was on my side and I checked it out thinking myself well-prepared for the material it promised to address. A WWII junkie, I'd studied Auschwitz–Birkenau, Treblinka, Theresienstadt and Ravensbrück in some detail and couldn't imagine the accounts of this camp being much different. It took only a few pages for me to realize how wrong that assumption had been.

Broken into three sections, the book is extraordinarily comprehensive. It covers the prisoners, their lives before transportation, life and death behind Sobibor's barbed wire, the soldiers, their duties, the planning phase of the uprising, the execution of the mass escape and the events that followed in the surrounding forests. 

I spent almost a month wading through the accounts Rashke painstaking recorded within these pages, but I don't regret a minute of it. I put the book aside several times to process and consider events as I discovered them, but the publication was never far from my mind. Fact is it dominated my imagination and challenged my perception in ways I hadn't expected when I first cracked it open. It put my brain into overdrive and I liked the depth and dimension it brought to the subject matter.

Exceedingly intense, the book itself is a brilliant blend of historic detail and raw human emotion. Poignant, powerful, unapologetic and ofttimes overwhelming, Escape From Sobibor is easily the best Holocaust book I've had fortune to pick up. A highly recommended and unique volume that deserves a place in every WWII library collection.

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God hung over Sobibor like a gigantic unspoken question. He was all-powerful, yet seemed helpless in the face of a human hatred that knew no bounds. All-knowing, yet strangely indifferent. All-present, yet distant and aloof. All-loving, but deaf to the cries of His people. All-innocent, but guilty of neglect. All-pure, but covered with ashes.
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