Thank you for reading my tribute to Esther Tenner Raab, who on October 14, 1943, revolted with six hundred Jews imprisoned in Sobibor, a secret Nazi death camp in eastern Poland. It was the biggest escape of World War II. Escape from Sobibor tells the courageous stories from the survivors. Below is an excerpt from Esther’s chapter.
When the Jew cried “Hurrah! Hurrah!” and Camp I exploded, Esther had to make a quick decision. Should she follow the mob toward the main gate or head for the south fence behind the carpenter shop?
She chose the carpenter shop. Someone – Esther wasn’t sure who – flung the ladder against the fence. She scampered up like a squirrel and jumped. Her close friend Samuel followed. She crossed the ditch on a plank and squeezed through the second fence. Samuel followed. The mines in front of her began to explode, and she prayed that God would help her step in the right spot.
The Ukrainians opened fire on the crouched figures in the field. Most of the Jews did not zigzag like soldiers. They headed for the woods like arrows. Esther felt pain sear through her hair just above her right ear. Blood began to trickle down her neck. She didn’t know how badly she’d been hit, only that the pain disappeared quickly and that the warm sticky blood kept flowing.
Esther began to feel sick and weak. She reached to hold onto the girl running next to her. “Leave me alone!” the girl screamed as she pushed Esther away. Esther stumbled forward. “Leave me –“As bullets tore into her, the girl fell on the field.
Esther kept running until she broke into the woods. Samuel looked at her wound. The bullet had just grazed her, leaving a little ridge above her ear like a furrow in a newly ploughed field.
Nine other Jews, all trying to decide what to do, where to go, how to foil the Nazi chase, joined Esther and Samuel. The others who had made it over the fence behind the carpenter shop had scattered. Esther told them she didn’t care what they were going to do, but she intended to go to Janow, where a friend owned a large farm. That’s what her mother had told her to do in a dream, she said. That’s where her mother promised she’d be safe.
It was irrational to stake her life on a dream, Esther knew. But this was no time for logic. She had followed her instincts ever since the Germans invaded Poland four years ago, and she was still alive. She would follow her instincts now.
The other ten Jews – all men, including Samuel, couldn’t come up with a better plan, so they tagged along. Esther had told them that if they made it to Janow, which was close to the Staw work camp, the farmer would hide them. At least they had a definite place to go and the name of a farmer who would not betray them to the Germans. What more could they ask?
They began running, walking, resting. When they felt lost or discouraged, the men would complain. “You’re going to get us all killed, looking for that farmer,” they’d say. But they followed her anyway. Once they met what appeared to be friendly partisans. Some of the men wanted to join them, but Esther refused. Her mother had told her to go to the farm, she said, and to the farm she would go. They tagged along.
After three nights of wandering and two days of sleeping, they found an isolated farm at the edge of Novosiolki. It was Sunday morning, October 17. The eleven Jews caucused in the forest. Should they ask for food? Should they ask the farmer to hide them? They decided that only three should approach the house. If the farmer saw eleven, he surely would send them away. And if he betrayed or killed the three, the other eight would be free.
Esther, Samuel, and Avram knocked on the door. The farmer made the sign of the cross and invited them inside – quickly, so that no one would see them. He knew about the escape from Sobibor, he said. He was just on his way to Sunday Mass. Would Esther like hot water to wash her bullet wound? He’d be back soon.
Esther cleaned the scab matted with hair. Samuel cut her pigtails and clipped the hair around her ear. Then they waited. Was the farmer looking for the Germans or the Polish Blue Police? Was he selling them for a kilo of sugar? Or would he really help them? They waited.
When the farmer returned, he dabbed Esther’s wound with salve and invited the Jews to join his family for a huge Sunday morning breakfast. “Will you hide us?” Esther asked after they had eaten. “We have money.” “Yes.” The man did not hesitate. It was as if he had expected the question. “First,” Esther said, stubbornly, “I have to go to Janow to a farmer.
“He’s a friend. Can you show us the way?”
“My son will take you to the main road,” the farmer said. “If that farmer doesn’t want you, you come back here. I’ll hide you.”
Esther offered him money, but he shook his head. He made the sign of the cross over them again before they left so that God’s power would protect them against the Germans they both hated. On the way to the main road, they stopped in the woods to pick up the other eight men, but they were gone. Esther figured that they had thought that she, Samuel, and Avram were dead or deserted them, and that they had struck out on their own. She hoped they’d find friendly partisans. As for her, it was Janow. Esther thanked the farmer’s son, and the three Jews waited in the woods for nightfall.
Would you like to learn more? Read the full book, Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke.