In the history of the Holocaust, the Sobibor death camp in Eastern Poland has remained something of a footnote, a place where 260,000 Jews were murdered, as opposed to at least 1.1 million in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having operated for just 18 months and closed long before the Allied victory in May 1945, Sobibor, like its victims, disappeared almost without a trace.
But Sobibor was also where Jews organized the only successful uprising in any Nazi death camp, a revolt that enabled some 365 prisoners to escape. It is this heroism that has inspired the French director Claude Lanzmann to make "Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.," a 95-minute documentary built around a firsthand account of the uprising by Yehuda Lerner, one of the prisoners who killed Gestapo guards.
"We knew if we didn't act, we'd be taken, like all the Jews before us, and killed," Lerner, who was born in Warsaw and now lives in Israel, noted quietly. "So it was simple reality that forced us to act like this. For me, it was a great honor to be chosen as one of the men who would kill the Germans."
"Sobibor," opening Sept. 21 at Laemmle Theatres, is, in a sense, a footnote to "Shoah," Lanzmann's masterful 1985 documentary consisting of interviews with Holocaust survivors. The Lerner interview was even shot in 1979 during the filming of "Shoah," but the director decided not to use it in the first film, which was nine and a half hours long.
"Rebellion was not the theme of 'Shoah,'" Lanzmann, 75, who himself joined the French Resistance as a teenager, explained in an interview at his home in Montparnasse. "I also saw that Yehuda Lerner was a story unto himself and could not be reduced to a passing moment. I regretted leaving him out. I had no choice."
In 2000, Lanzmann finally worked out how to use the Lerner material. To film additional scenes, he also traveled to what is now Belarus, where Lerner was first deported, and again to Sobibor, which he had visited while making "Shoah."
With Lerner speaking in Hebrew and an interpreter translating into French (the film will have English subtitles in the United States), "Sobibor" starts with Lerner recounting how in July 1942, when he was just 16, he was rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and deported to a labor camp beside an airport in Belarus.
After escaping eight times from a variety of Nazi work camps over six months, Lerner wound up in the Jewish ghetto of Minsk, the Belarus capital.
In early September 1943, 1,200 prisoners, as well as many more from the ghetto, were placed on a train heading west to Sobibor.
Lerner's good fortune was that many fellow members of his work force were experienced Red Army soldiers who, led by one Alexander Petchersky, soon decided to organize a rebellion.
The operation was to begin on Oct. 14, 1943, at 4 p.m., with Germans scheduled to enter the huts at five-minute intervals. "We knew the Germans were punctual," Lerner said. "We only succeeded because Germans are punctual. If they hadn't been punctual that day, everything would have failed."
Lerner and another prisoner were assigned to the tailors' hut. When the first German entered, they cracked his skull with an ax smuggled in from the carpenter's hut, then hid his body. Five minutes later, a second German officer arrived and he, too, was killed. Twelve Germans were slain. After seizing weapons, the rebellion escalated.
Lerner described escaping through the camp's fence and hearing shots fired by Ukrainian guards and mines exploding in the surrounding fields.
"It starts to rain," he recalled. "Not heavy rain, just drops. It was winter in Poland. In October at 5 p.m., it is already dark. I ran into the forest and at that point, I think, maybe the emotion of everything that had happened, the exhaustion, the night, my legs could no longer carry me, and I collapsed. I fell, and I fell asleep."
At that point, Lanzmann ended the interview. "The rest is an adventure of freedom," he commented.