The Polish government is building a museum on the grounds of the former Sobibor death camp, home to one of the most daring escapes of the Holocaust. But despite the fact that the uprising was organized by a Soviet prisoner of war, the Russian government has been excluded from participating in the design of the new museum.
The rebellion began on October 14, 1943, when a group of Jewish inmates lured about a dozen Nazi guards into sheds and murdered them one by one with axes and knives. The group then cut the telephone lines and the electricity, collected the dead Nazis’ weapons, and took aim at the guard towers as 300 prisoners escaped over the barbed wire fence and ran through the surrounding minefield towards safety.
The plan was masterminded by a Jewish Red Army officer who had been taken prisoner, Alexander Pechersky.
But in Poland, where the museum is under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 2019, the nationality of the hero who led the prisoners’ escape isn’t at the center of the exhibition, nor has Russia been invited to serve on the international committee designing the new museum. Instead, the committee has representatives from Slovakia, Holland, Poland and Israel.
Pechersky, who later wrote a book detailing his role in the rebellion, was relatively overlooked until recent years, when Russia began to take great pride in the fact that a Soviet soldier was behind the heroic escape.
The story of Sobibor is now included in Russian school history curriculums, the postal service has issued a Sobibor stamp, and Pechersky’s granddaughter was invited to the Kremlin to receive a medal of courage on behalf of her grandfather.
This year, to mark the 75th anniversary of the escape, the Russian Ministry of Culture has financed a film detailing the story, entitled “Sobibor.” It has the highest production value of any Russian-made Holocaust movie.
The film, which will be released in a few weeks, is set to premiere simultaneously in Israel’s Knesset and the Russian parliament on April 11, the eve of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. The screening will be followed by a live broadcast of both governing bodies and a panel on the film.
In recent months, the Russian government has repeatedly expressed its protest at being excluded from plans for the Sobibor museum.
“For the Russian side, it’s a priority to fully participate in the process of preserving the memory of this terrible place, especially because citizens of the USSR were among the victims and because the Sobibor rebellion, which was the only successful rebellion at a Nazi death camp during World War II, was led by Soviet Lieutenant Alexander Pechersky,” said the spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, in a February 15 briefing in Moscow.
Another statement on the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accuses Poland of “historical amnesia” and says that “the attempt to exclude Russia from the project is part of Warsaw’s effort to impose its own version of history, and to lessen the role that the USSR and the Red Army played in liberating Europe during WWII.”
In an emailed response, Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage explains that it was decided not to include Russia for logistical reasons.
“The International Steering Committee… made a unanimous decision about continuing the cooperation between its current members, who have already worked together for 10 years, in order to smoothly complete advanced works on the new memorial site,” said the ministry’s information center in its response.
“Therefore, it was decided not to include new partners in the Steering Committee, [since] museum is already being built and the concept of the exhibition is approved,” the ministry said.
The email also says that a Russian representative has been invited to attend the ceremony of the 75th anniversary of the Sobibor uprising.
What will be in the new museum
Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Nowak is the spokeswoman for the State Museum at Majdanek, Poland, and is overseeing the construction of the museum at Sobibor.
Kowalczyk-Nowak explained that Poland, Holland, and Slovakia are represented on the committee because most of the Jews who were murdered at Sobibor were citizens of those countries.
The Sobibor museum will present information about the history of the camp and display some items that were recently unearthed by archaeologists at the site, including metal jewelry and keys that belonged to the victims, Kowalczyk-Nowak said.
The museum will also include information about the escape from Sobibor and about Pechersky because he was “one of the leaders of the prisoners’ revolt. There is no way not to mention him,” Kowalczyk-Nowak said.
But Russian authorities are concerned that the information will not be presented accurately. One issue concerns the language of the exhibition. As in other Polish museums, the explanatory text in Sobibor will be written in Polish and English – but not in Russian.
“The reason is because there are not many tourists from Russia. There are some, but we get more tourists from Germany and we don’t have our exhibitions in German,” Kowalczyk-Nowak said.
But Yulia Makarova, who is the director of the Alexander Pechersky Foundation in Russia, questioned why at the entrance to the Sobibor memorial complex, until recently there were inscriptions on stone plates inscribed in eight languages — but not in Russian.
“They obviously didn’t want to make a Russian sign, there is no other explanation for it,” Makarova told the Moscow-based Jewish magazine “Lechaim.”
Sobibor museum spokeswoman Kowalczyk-Nowak said the stone plates were taken down in 2014 and will not be included at the new museum in Sobibor.
In the “Lechaim” article, however, Makarova continued, “Also, until recently there wasn’t even any mention of Alexander Pechersky or about the fact that Soviet soldiers were imprisoned in Sobibor.”
After the Foundation brought this issue up five years ago, the Sobibor memorial complex put up a temporary stand with Pechersky’s portrait, Makarova said.
According to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Poland is not the only country that recently excluded the country from having a say in designing a Holocaust memorial.
On its website, the ministry gives the example of the Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia, where a new exhibition opened in February.
This exhibition makes no mention of the fact that the Soviet Union liberated the camp or that the Nazis conducted medical experiments on children there, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova said in a statement.
The Latvian exhibition also claims that the number of people who died at Salaspils was only around 3,000, which is at least 10 times less than the actual number of victims, said Zakharova.
“This new exhibition places the emphasis on ‘the crimes of the Soviet and German occupation,’ and seems to say that Latvia itself had nothing to do with it,” Zakharova said. “This speaks to how everything is being done now — the truth is being turned inside out and history is being revised.”
A ‘war on memory’
Boruch Gorin, the spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, called the fact that Russia isn’t allowed to participate in designing the Sobibor museum “an example of the war on memory.”
“Currently in Poland, they have the narrative that they weren’t liberated in 1945, but they went from one occupation over to another occupation,” Gorin said — from the Nazis to the Soviets.
“The comparison of communism to fascism can only be done by excluding the subject of the Holocaust. Yes, for the Jews, the Red Army was a liberator, but for the Poles, it was an occupying force. So why would they invite the representatives of the occupying country?” he said.
Gorin questioned how accurate the exhibits at the Sobibor museum will be, given Russia’s exclusion. For example, he said that it is likely that the exhibition will not mention that some of the Jews who escaped from Sobibor, including the co-leader of the rebellion Leon Feldhendler, were later murdered by Polish anti-Semites.
Only about 61 of the 300 people who escaped survived until the end of the war. Most were recaptured by the Germans and their collaborators.
Gorin added that three years ago, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was not invited to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — despite the fact that the Red Army liberated the death camp.
“[Russia’s exclusion from] Sobibor and Auschwitz are part of the same trend,” Gorin said.
“In 1945, the Red Army was also not democratic, and without an invitation they liberated Auschwitz. They could have at least invited the soldiers or their children and grandchildren. But the Poles didn’t even do that,” he said.