A Buried Treasure

I didn’t find Sobibor.

It found me.

I accidently stumbled on the story in 1979 while rummaging through the stacks of the Library of Congress. I was in the Holocaust book stacks that day hunting for the protagonist in the novel I was planning to write while waiting for good news from a publisher about another book project—The Killing of Karen Silkwood.  My anti-hero was going to be a former Nazi war criminal working for the CIA in Langley, Virginia, a somewhat fresh idea at the time. I planned to model my character on a real Nazi who had commanded an Einsatzgruppe (killing squad) in Eastern Europe during World War II.  Thumbing through the first Holocaust book I pulled off the shelf, I noticed the word Sobibor. The author simply defined it as a death camp in eastern Poland.  Although I knew a few things about the Holocaust, a camp called Sobibor was not one of them.

As I continued to hunt for my Nazi character, I found Sobibor mentioned in several other books. Although each defined it as a death camp, not a single one described it.  My reporter’s nose began to twitch.  If half of inspiration is showing up, then the other half is listening.  I heard the whisper of Sobibor and started pulling book after book from the shelves and checking each index for a mention of the camp.  After an hour or so, I found a paragraph in the most exhaustively researched book on the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews, by Professor Raul Hilberg. The 800-page volume was, and still is, a standard of the genre.  The book was a labor of love and sorrow.  Hilberg had lost twenty-three members of his family during the Holocaust.

Hilberg sketched the August 1943 uprising at Trebinka, a death camp not far from Sobibor and twice as large. The revolt there was the subject of Jean-Francois Steiner’s successful historical novel, Treblinka, which he tried to pass off as a work of non-fiction. The literary fraud angered Treblinka survivors who felt betrayed.  They had trusted Steiner to tell the world the truth.  His fictionalization of their revolt had cheapened the murder of 800,000 Jews who were gassed there, they argued, as well as the victory of those who had revolted and escaped.

After his skimpy description of the Treblinka uprising, Hilberg went on to mention a similar revolt at Sobibor with even less detail.  Unfortunately, he based his all too brief description on a faulty secondary source.  In the 1978 edition of The Destruction of the European Jews, which I found on the library shelf, Hilberg wrote: “The Sobibor revolt by about 150 inmates was almost an exact duplication of the Treblinka break. The date of the battle was October 14, 1943. The Germans lost an Untersturmführer [lieutenant] in the fighting.” I would soon learn that the only thing Hilberg got right about the Sobibor revolt was the date.

I met Hilberg two years later at the 1981 International Liberators Conference sponsored by and held at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.  The previous year, the U.S. Congress had voted to establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. President Jimmy Carter appointed Elie Wiesel, a renowned Holocaust survivor and author, to be chairman of the council. The liberators conference was one of the council’s first programs to commemorate the victims of World War II.

The unique two-day reunion included brief presentations by historians, moderated by Hilberg.  But the floor belonged to eyewitnesses—Holocaust survivors, soldiers from fourteen nations, Russian generals, French chaplains, Canadian doctors and nurses, members of the Jewish Brigade.  They all were survivors…of the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and the sieges of Stalingrad and Kursk.  Each bore witness to the horrors they had suffered and seen when they walked through the gates of Nazi camps all across Europe.

I went to the conference specifically to meet Sobibor survivor Esther Terner Raab, who was scheduled to make a presentation in a workshop on “Uprisings.” I was disappointed to see that Professor Hilberg had skipped the workshop. I was deeply moved by Esther Raab’s brief, but highly emotional testimony, as well as by the stories of battle-tried soldiers—in uniform and weighted with medals—choking back tears.

After the last historian finished his talk, I cornered Hilberg, who at the time taught political science at the University of Vermont. I ever so delicately asked him why he had given the escape from Sobibor such scant attention in his book—only two lines in an 800-page volume.  He told me that, given the scope of the Holocaust tragedy, the Sobibor escape was of little significance. Next, I asked him if he had interviewed any Sobibor survivors like Esther Raab who had just given a talk earlier that day.  He said he didn’t interview survivors because they were too emotional and, therefore, their memories could not be trusted.  I found that frank comment interesting, given that the whole conference was built around the forty-year-old recollections of emotional eyewitnesses.

My final question was touchy, and I could find no diplomatic way to phrase it.  I told Hilberg that his brief description of the escape from Sobibor was based on false information, and I offered to send him a more accurate update.  Hilberg turned his back and walked away. Although he corrected the errors in his sketch of the Sobibor revolt and expanded his account somewhat in the 1985 edition of his book, he still treated the uprising as a historical blip.

Hilberg had a point.  The escape of 300 Jews from Sobibor is a blip in the context of six million who didn’t escape.  So is the Warsaw Ghetto uprising a blip.  And the guerilla war of the Jewish Partisans of Vilna, Bielski and Parczew. And the revolt and escape from Treblinka.  And the last of the Belzec death camp Jews who refused to be herded into a gas chamber and had to be shot.  Each a blip.  But when you line them up side by side, add the other small pockets of resistance as well as the individual Jews who escaped captivity, you have a major historical theme that Holocaust historians and researchers like Hilberg paid scant attention to in 1981.

The reason why is clear.

Historical researchers like Hilberg rely on documentary evidence such as Nazi reports, letters, films, directives, trial testimony, and selective diaries. Why bother with eyewitnesses, like the liberators who addressed the assembly, who comment on what they saw and experienced thirty-five years earlier. Everyone knows they are so emotional and have such faulty memories that they are unreliable.

Once again, there is a deep flaw in the argument.  As a historical journalist, I believe in a “collective memory,” which I define as the sum total of individual recollections about an event like an escape from a death camp. Collective memory is self-corrective. The errors and exaggerations of one eyewitness are corrected by the recollections of the others, and the disputed elements of the story surface.

Hilberg’s two lines about the Sobibor uprising in The Destruction of the European Jews hooked and puzzled me at the same time.  If 150 Jews staged a revolt at a death camp in eastern Poland, why weren’t there more details?  The story seemed important because it contradicted the popular theory that Jews went to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.”  I blame historians for creating that myth and keeping it alive.


A group portrait of some of the participants in the uprising at the Sobibor killing center. Poland, August 1944. Picture from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

A group portrait of some of the participants in the uprising at the Sobibor killing center. Poland, August 1944. Picture from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Sobibor became a seed that took root in my heart that hot, humid July day in 1979 in the stuffy stacks of the Library of Congress.  It grew into an emotional journey—from Washington to Goiania, Brazil, to Warsaw and Sobibor, to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Moscow—to find and listen to Sobibor survivors tell their stories to a gentile they trusted. The result was Escape From Sobibor, one of the best and most important books I have written. In turn, Escape From Sobibor led to Dear Esther, the most creative and powerful play I have written.

I believe it was Arthur Miller who said that it took at least five years after finishing a play before he understood what it was about.  That has been my experience as well.  If I listen to my characters as I write, I will be telling a story built on unarticulated feelings and emotions, giving the work a strong subtext my readers or audiences can feel.  That ever-moving underground river shapes my choices of words and images.  In the case of Escape From Sobibor, it left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction without telling me why.  It slowly dawned on me that something important was missing in the book.  It took several years to figure out what it was.

Escape From Sobibor is filled with pain and sorrow, inhumanity, honesty, heroism, rage, thirst for life and revenge. What’s missing is hope and healing.

A series of surprises led me to close the gap.  First, there was the 1987 three-hour CBS Sunday night movie, “Escape From Sobibor.”  Sponsored solely by Chrysler, it was the network’s highest rated movie that year.  Approximately 31.6 million people viewed it.  CBS found the response to the film so overwhelming that it offered the movie and script free to schools across the country as part of its education program, “Read More About It.”  Esther’s home state, New Jersey, introduced the movie in public schools as part of its model Holocaust education program.  The crawl at the end of the movie said that Esther survived the war by living in a haystack in a barn and now lives in New Jersey.  Students who were moved by the movie went hunting for her and found her living in Vineland.  They invited her to their classrooms and auditoriums to answer questions.  She agreed.  Several thousand letters from children, grades six through twelve, poured into Esther’s home.  Each began with the words “Dear Esther.”  I read them all, then called Esther one summer morning in 1997.

“These letters are too good to sit in a box,” I said.

“What do you suggest?” Esther said.

“How about an article?  We’ll work on it together.”

“No,” she said.

“How about a play?” I had never thought about a play before. The idea came from deep inside me.

“Yes, a play,” Esther said. “As long as you write a play for adults that children can understand.”

I drove from Washington to Vineland soon after that phone call and sat with Esther at her kitchen table where I had spent hours listening to her story—from Lublin to Sobibor, to Berlin, to Vineland.  This time I came with a list of probing questions that the children had asked in their letters.  Esther answered each one with her usual honesty and openness.

BookCoverImageAnd so began my second journey—Dear Esther—a play about hope and healing that drew me deep into the heart and soul of a death camp survivor who had the courage and vision to share her journey with the world, and the healing love she got in return.

From school children who had not yet lost their innocence.

Children who offered hope to a deeply troubled adult world.

Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor: Dear Esther is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and ibooks.. You can also add Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor:Dear Esther to your GoodReads bookshelf.  Bulk discounts and Educational/Institutional pricing available by contacting kristen@historicheroines.org.

About Richard Rashke

RICHARD RASHKE is a lecturer and author of non-fiction books including RICHARD RASHKE is a lecturer and author of non-fiction books including THE WHISTLEBLOWER’S DILEMMA: SNOWDEN, SILKWOOD AND THEIR QUEST FOR THE TRUTH, ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR, THE KILLING OF KAREN SILKWOOD, and USEFUL ENEMIES: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND AMERICA’S OPEN-DOOR POLICY FOR NAZI WAR CRIMINALS. His works have been translated into eleven languages and have been the subject of movies for screen and television. He is also an alto sax player and composer. He lives in Washington, D.C. His latest book, CHILDREN’S LETTERS TO A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR: DEAR ESTHER will be released on April 19. 2016.

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