70 Years On

An Unlaundered Relic of a Sobibor Hero

On 70th anniversary of Sobibor uprising, Holocaust survivor's granddaughter arrives in Israel bearing the shirt he wore.

Natalia Ladichenko has many memories of her grandfather, who raised her until she was 14. She was his only and much beloved granddaughter. He was a Holocaust survivor. He was a hero: Alexander Pechersky, leader of the uprising at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland.

Ladichenko spoke with Haaretz about her assimilated Jewish family and the legacy of her grandfather, who died at age 80 in 1990. Her childhood memories invariably include a Christmas tree, decorations and the toys that her grandfather would make with his own two hands especially for her.

She arrived from Russia to participate in a ceremony last Wednesday at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot in the Western Galilee, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Sobibor uprising. Her grandfather Alexander Pechersky led the October 14, 1943 revolt and was one of approximately 50 prisoners who survived the escape and lived through the Holocaust.

Ladichenko, 59, was very emotional prior to the ceremony that honored her grandfather. She brought with her photos from the family album and an old, faded, stained shirt. For 70 years, the shirt has never been laundered, she told Haaretz.

It was the shirt that Pechersky wore when he escaped from the camp, said Ladichenko. It was a gift from a young, Dutch-Jewish woman named Luka, who was also a prisoner at Sobibor. She dressed Pechersky in the shirt, telling him that he must wear it during the escape and that it would bring him luck. Luka did not survive the Holocaust; she simply vanished without a trace. Pechersky’s granddaughter says that Luka was in love with her grandfather, and some sources have indicated that Luka and Pechersky were lovers.

According to Ladichenko, her grandfather traveled the globe looking for Luka, but he never saw her again. To this day, the family knows nothing of Luka’s whereabouts or her family. Except for its faded color, the shirt that Luka gave Perchersky looks the same as it did on the day of the escape.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Pechersky grew up in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. In World War II, he served in the Red Army. In 1941, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to a prisoners of war camp. He was discovered to be a Jew when he was stripped of his clothes and the camp personnel found that he was circumcised. In September 1943, he and other Soviet Jews were deported to the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. He and a few dozen others were sent to do construction work, while the rest of the Jews in the transport were sent to the gas chambers.

As he was an officer in the Red Army, he took command of the camp’s underground. On October 14, 1943, he led the Sobibor uprising. After several S.S. personnel were killed, there was a mass escape from the camp. Of the 600 inmates who were in Sobibor on the day of the uprising, 300 managed to escape. However, only 50 or so survived the Holocaust. Pechersky was one of them. After the war, he returned to his native Rostov-on-Don, where he is buried. His gravestone was desecrated in the past but it has been reconstructed.

Pechersky never visited Israel. Although some of the members of his family moved to Israel, he himself chose to remain in Russia. Ladichenko notes that he was very tied to his native town of Rostov-on-Don.

In Israel, Pechersky’s memory is perpetuated. There is a street named after him in Safed and, last year, a monument was erected in his honor by public housing company Amigour in a sheltered housing facility for the elderly in Tel Aviv. Semion Rosenfeld, who also participated in the Sobibor uprising, is a resident there. He is one of the last surviving insurgents. Last year, Rosenfeld’s request was acceded to and a monument was erected on his 90th birthday to commemorate the memory of Alexander Pechersky, the commander he so admired.

Ladichenko recalls the evenings she would sit with her grandfather as he replied to letters he received from his Sobibor comrades. She would help, licking the stamps, sticking them onto the envelopes and adjusting the desk lamp for him. She says the insurgents remained in close contact and would meet to celebrate the anniversary of the escape. She has childhood memories of the 20th and 25th anniversary celebrations.

In the 1960s, Pechersky testified at the trial of Ukrainians who had served as camp guards. Ladichenko recalls how he showed her a model of Sobibor that he had built. The revolt at Sobibor was the subject of a 1987 made-for-TV-movie, “Escape from Sobibor;” however, the Communist authorities did not allow Pechersky to attend the premiere. He took the authorities’ decision very badly and suffered a heart attack.

Ladichenko fondly remembers her grandfather as an amateur pianist and an actor, a man who loved soccer. Last week, he was remembered as the hero of the Sobibor uprising.

Reproduction by Ofer Aderet