ZOiS Spotlight 19/2018

Sobibor today

by Elza-Bair Guchinova 23/05/2018
Film still from “Sobibor” (2018), directed by Konstantin Khabenskiy Kinostar Filmverleih

On 9 May, Russia celebrates the Victory Day of the allied forces over Nazism as a victory in which the Red Army played the main role. Russia marked the seventy-third anniversary of that victory in Berlin at Zoo Palast with the first showing of the film Sobibor, directed by the popular actor Konstantin Khabensky.

Poland, 1943. Pechersky, a Soviet lieutenant of Jewish origin, arrives at Sobibor death camp, where he joins a group that is organising a mass escape. Having military experience, Pechersky becomes the group’s leader. The escape plan was to kill all twelve officers one by one, take possession of their weapons, go to the armament depot, and get out of the camp. The plan was implemented only partly, but the escape is still considered a success—despite the fact that 130 of the prisoners remaining in the camp were killed, eighty were killed while attempting to escape, and ninety were caught. By the end of the war, fifty-three runaways were alive.

Regardless of the intentions of the creators, the main character of the film proved to be the camp. This is an interesting twist, given that most Russian military films focus on the stories of the main characters.


Sobibor was different from other death camps, as can be seen in the memoirs of Pechersky. It housed only the Sonderkommando, so it was a small camp with just 550 prisoners (when Bergen-Belsen was liberated, there were 60,000 prisoners), who formed the life-support system of the camp and organised the extermination of Jews. There were barbers, jewellers, tailors, shoemakers, people who burned corpses in ditches, loggers who harvested firewood for cremation, people who sorted out property and organised shipments to Germany, and people who worked on the rabbit and poultry farms.

The camp prisoners were to kill the entire population of each transport on the day of its arrival, using the bathhouse, where up to 800 people could fit. Death came after fifteen minutes. After the killing, the floors collapsed and the corpses fell into the basement, where trolleys were waiting. The Sonderkommando piled up the bodies and took them out to the forest to burn in a large ditch. By the evening, only bones and suitcases with property remained. Death transports arrived every other day and brought in 2,000 people each. The barracks could only fit the servants, whose way to the Road to Heaven, as the road leading to the gas chambers was called, was at least postponed for several months.

While the characters in films about twentieth-century concentration camps were mostly actual prisoners (Sophie’s Choice, 1982; Life is Beautiful, 1997), members of the Sonderkommando came to the fore in the last decades, for instance Saul Auslander (Saul’s Son, 2015) or the assistant of Dr Mengele (Gray Zone, 2001). The emaciated camp inmates (Muselmänner) did not have the strength to resist; they were ‘camp dust’. Strength and opportunities to arrange an escape were available only to those who had camp privileges. The discovery of scrolls from the ashes in Auschwitz and the diaries of Zalman Gradovsky and other labourers of death provided an opportunity to view the characters of the Sonderkommando as more complex personalities than those ‘who went to serve enemy, because they wanted to survive’. In the Sonderkommando, there were no illusions about life prospects; it was like in the Gulag: ‘You die today, and I die tomorrow.’

‘I want to live to take revenge,’ says one of the characters in the film. Other survivors in the camps lived to become witnesses, although Giorgio Agamben argues that genuine Holocaust witnesses did not survive, that only those who were in the gas chamber were real witnesses. But just living in the camp was also very difficult, even if you were in the grey zone and cooperated with the authorities

The fate of the hero in life and on screen

For many years, the story of Pechersky did not inspire Russian scriptwriters. Pechersky, who lived until 1990, was not granted the recognition in his homeland that he received elsewhere in the world. After his escape, he joined guerrillas. Then he had to wipe out the ‘disgrace’ of his captivity with his blood in the penalty battalion. During interrogations in the filtration camp, Pechersky drew a detailed plan of Sobibor and later glued together a paper layout of the camp. Stalin did not allow Pechersky to stand witness at the Nuremberg trials; in 1987, Gorbachev did not permit him to attend the first screening of the American film Escape from Sobibor. The story made by American producers was Hollywood-like, just as its protagonist, played by Rutger Hauer, who resembled Kirk Douglas as the leader of the Spartak slave uprising—an athletic, blue-eyed blond—despite the two years of camps for Soviet prisoners of war that were behind him.

Khabensky’s canvas is an intermittent chronicle of naked life: humiliations of the weak, permissiveness of the strong, and, sometimes, excessively cruel scenes. Critics condemn the director for gaps in the narrative, but this defect is justified: a ragged text reflects a tattered memory. The film shows those who are sure that ‘God will save us, we just should not disturb Him and wait’ and those who curse obedience and patience, for whom freedom is more valuable than life.

The message of the film can also be read in different ways. For instance, as a story about how a Russian officer, even in such an infernal place as Sobibor, managed to unite and set free prisoners from different European countries who could not manage their lives without his experience and courage; it is a reminder of the role of the Red Army in defeating Nazism. At the same time, one can see in the film an appeal to civil society to take the initiative, rather than tolerate unacceptable living conditions. Victory in the Second World War has become the main theme in modern Russia; it remains to be seen how the film will be received in Europe.

Elza-Bair Guchinova is currently visiting researcher at ZOiS.