Leader of Sobibor Death Camp Rebellion Dies in Israel at 96

Of the 300 who attempted the perilous escape from Sobibor camp, only 50 eventually survived the Holocaust. Semyon Rozenfeld was one

Semyon Rozenfeld in Tel Aviv, 2006.
Nir Kafri

Semyon Rozenfeld, among the leaders of the rebellion at the Sobibor death camp, died in Israel at age 96 on Monday. Rozenfeld is believed to be the last Israeli survivor of the uprising at the camp.

Sobibor was founded in 1942 in occupied Poland, alongside Treblinka and Belzec. The insurgency at the camp erupted on October 14, 1943. The rebels, led by Ukrainian Jew Alexander Pechersky, killed a number of SS officers with knives and axes and led a mass escape. They broke through the fencing and fled into the forest around the camp.

>> Read more: Unrequited love and close calls with Nazis: The story behind the 'Anne Frank of Budapest'

Many were caught and executed by the Germans; some were captured and turned over by local villagers. Ultimately about 300 of the 600 prisoners in the camp escaped but only 50 would survive the Holocaust. Rozenfeld was one. 

"Not everyone can be a hero. I became a hero against my will," Rozenfeld told Kan news in 2018.

Rozenfeld was born in Ukraine in 1922. In 1940, at age 18, he was drafted into the Red Army and fought against the German invasion. His family was murdered and interred in a mass grave by the village of his birth. In 1941, he was injured in the leg and taken captive by the Germans. Taken with other Red Army prisoners of war to a camp in Minsk, he starved for two years – and in September 1943 he was taken to his next stop, Sobibor in occupied Poland. 

During the selection process, Rozenfeld lied and said that he was a professional carpenter. Thus was spared the gas chambers, unlike most newcomers to Sobibor. "Some weeks after we got to Sobibor I asked an officer at the carpentry shop where were my army comrades who came to the camp with me from Minsk. He pointed at the crematorium chimney and said, 'You see that smoke? That's your friends,'" Rozenfeld recounted later.

He made friends at the camp with Pechersky, a Jewish officer in the Red Army. They concocted the escape plan together. At a cursory glance, it seemed impossible. 

An old picture of Semyon Rozenfeld.
Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters' House

"From the start, when we got to the camp, Sasha [Alexander] said he couldn't take what they were doing to us and wanted to kill all the Nazis and go free. But we constantly heard stories about people trying to escape and dying en route because the Nazis were too strong," Rozenfeld said. "That's how Pechersky began thinking about the plan for insurgency and escape."

The plan took form when Semyon and his campmates used their working tools at the carpentry shop, including hammers, to attack the Nazi officers.

>> Israel claims victory after Germany's BDS ban at the expense of minimizing the Holocaust | Opinion

"Because I was just 21, Pechersky asked me if I could kill a human being," he recalls. "I said I could only if it was a Nazi."

Escaping from the camp was "not simple at all. There were three rows of barbed wire," Rozenfeld said. "When he attacked the fence with an ax about 300 prisoners fled, but almost all of them died," he told Channel 2 in an interview. Ukrainian soldiers in the guard towers fired at the fleeing prisoners and others died from land mines seeding the fields around the camp. "We didn't know about the mines, but when we began to run, they started to blow up. We ran into the forest without looking to see what was happening right around us, and there a few of us survived, with a great deal of luck, until the war ended."

Within months of their flight into the forest, the Red Army recaptured the cities. 

After the war, Rozenfeld returned to Ukraine and started a family. Then in 1990 he moved with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to Israel.

The Sobibor train station in Poland December 1, 2009.
REUTERS

He recently warned that another great war would be even more dangerous because of the advent of nuclear weapons: "Nothing will remain of the world we know, hence the importance of maintaining peace," he said. 

At Sobibor alone, from April 1942 to October 1943, about 250,000 Jews, mostly from Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia, were murdered. The camp was closed down after the rebellion: in fact the Nazis tried to destroy any evidence of its existence. But archaeological excavations in recent years, by the Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi, have uncovered tens of thousands of items that had belonged to the Jews who were murdered there. 

Semyon Rozenfeld is the latest person to be designated the "last surviving rebel of Sobibor" but in fact there is no orderly registry of the people who managed to escape. It is impossible to know whether Semyon Rozenfeld really was the last to remain alive. But he was almost certainly the last Israeli who participated in that fateful uprising.