Aleksandr (Sasha) Pecherskii is known as the initiator and commander of the uprising in the Nazi extermination camp of Sobibór, that took place on October 14, 1943. In 1941 he was captured by the Germans in the area of Viazma. In 1943, during a Nazi "screening" of POWs camps in the East, he was discovered to be a Jew and transferred to Sobibór. Since he was physically strong, Pecherskii was not sent to the gas chamber, but included into a construction team that worked in the area of the camp. During his three weeks in Sobibór, Pecherskii joined the resistance group in the camp. As a military man, he proposed a plan for an uprising and an escape from the camp and he led this effort. The revolt in Sobibór was one of only two successful uprisings by Nazi camp prisoners (the first was in Treblinka in August 1943) and one of the most amazing episodes of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Three hundred men managed to escape from Sobibór (many of them, including Pecherskii himself, subsequently joined Soviet partisans). Fifty of them survived until VE-Day. In 1987, the television film "Escape from Sobibor" was made in Britain.
Before he was taken prisoner by the Germans and after the uprising and the dissolution of the partisan unit with which he fought, Pecherskii was a soldier with the following front-line biography.
Aleksandr Pecherskii was born in 1909 in Kremenchug, in central Ukraine. His father Aron was a lawyer. In 1915, fearing the pogroms that accompanied World War I, his family moved to Rostov-on-Don (in southern Russia). There Sasha (Aleksandr) graduated from a regular school and a music school. He was active in amateur theater. In 1931, he was drafted into the Red Army. After completing military service in 1933, he studied at Rostov University.
With the beginning of the Soviet-German war in June 1941, Pecherskii was again drafted into the Red Army. He was a junior lieutenant and his regiment began the war in Western Ukraine, fighting the German forces advancing toward Kiev. However, after the fall of Minsk, the regiment, along with the whole of the 19th Army, was transferred to the area of Vitebsk-Rudnia, in the Russian-Belorussian border area. Pecherskii took part in the Smolensk-Viazma operation. Although this operation ended with a victory for the Wehrmacht and a disaster for the Red Army, it thwarted the German plan for a blitzkrieg in Russia and greatly slowed the German drive toward Moscow. In September 1941, due to his past studies in economics, Pecherskii was appointed technical quartermaster, 2nd Class of his regiment. His rank was equivalent to that of lieutenant.
For Pecherskii, this relatively safe service lasted less than a month. In October 1941, when his regiment was encircled, Pecherskii and another soldier were ordered to evacuate the wounded political commissar of the regiment from the encirclement. On the second day of their abortive attempt, the commissar died and Pecherskii was wounded and captured by the enemy. Thus began Pecherskii's long experience with Nazi camps, which ended with his heroic escape from Sobibór in October 1943.
Out of 300 escapees from the camp, most were caught by the Nazis or by antisemitic Poles. A minority of those who fled joined various Soviet partisan units. Pecherskii joined the Shchors group, which was active in the area of Brest (Brześć-nad-Bugiem). In March 1944, the area where the group operated was taken over by the Red Army and Pecherskii rejoined it. However, he had a stigma in his biography – the two years he had been in enemy captivity. Therefore, he was arrested and, after numerous interrogations in a special NKVD camp, in August 1944 he was assigned to a punishment battalion, which was then the 15th Storm Battalion on the First Baltic Front.
The battalion commander Major Andreiev was so moved by Pecherskii's account about Sobibór that, contrary to the prohibition for men serving in a punishment battalion to leave the area of operation of their battalions, he permitted Pecherskii to travel to Moscow and to present his testimony to the ChGK (Extraordinary State Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Crimes Perpetrated by the German-Fascist Invaders and their Accomplices). Based on the testimony he provided, the writers Veniamin Kaverin (pseudonym of Veniamin Zilber) and Pavel Antokolskii wrote the essay "The Uprising in Sobibór," that was supposed to be published in The Black Book. However, although it had been prepared by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, The Black Book was banned for publication by the Soviet authorities in 1947.
On August 20, 1944, while fighting in Latvia, Pecherskii was wounded by a mortar shell. A document given to Pecherskii while he was in a military hospital, certified that "with his blood he had washed away his guilt before the Motherland." Thus, he was rehabilitated as a loyal Soviet citizen. Pecherskii was promoted to the rank of captain. No Soviet official had any interest in the fact that only a year previously he had been the leader of an uprising of prisoners in a Nazi camp.
During the last days of the war, Pecherskii succeeded in publishing the Russian-language version of his memoir "The Uprising in the Sobibór Camp," which he began to write in the hospital in Rostov-on-Don. The Yiddish version of the book was published a year later. This was the last publications of Pecherskii's memoir until 1973, when the Yiddish version was republished by the Moscow Yiddish magazine Sovetish Heymland. In 1990 the Russian version appeared again, in Vilnius, in the first, albeit abridged, publication of The Black Book.
In 1945 Pecherskii was awarded the medal For the Victory over Fascist Germany. In 1949, during the second wave of awards to war veterans, he was recommended for the Order of Patriotic War, 2nd Class. The reason for this was clearly not his leadership of the resistance in a Nazi camp, but his injury near Bauska, Latvia, on August 20, 1944. However, the wartime commander of the North-Caucasus Military District (under whose military authority Rostov-on-Don fell) decided that the For the Battle Merit medal was quite sufficient and denied him the Order of the Patriotic War.
After the war, Pecherskii worked as an administrator at the Rostov Institute for Economics and Finance. In 1948, during the first Stalinist anti-Jewish campaign, he was dismissed from his position and had to work at menial labor, mainly as a metal worker. He maintained contact with former comrades in the revolt and even organized reunions of them – to the chagrin of the Soviet authorities. The latter did allow him to speak before young people in his city of Rostov-on-Don, but nowhere else. The topic of the uprising in Sobibór was taboo in the USSR. Neither the name of Aleksandr Pecherskii, nor the names of his comrades in arms in the Sobibór revolt were commemorated. In 1946, despite the request of the Nuremberg Military Tribunal to send Pecherskii to the trial as an eyewitness, the Soviets did not do so. In 1987 Pecherskii was invited to Hollywood for the American premiere of the "Escape from Sobibor." Once more the Soviet authorities refused to let him go.
Aleksandr Pecherskii died in 1990 in Rostov-on-Don. In the 2010s he was reburied at the city's Alley of the Heroes.