A Prisoner of Sobibor
On an early autumn day
a train coming from Minsk rolled
into the railway station of Sobibor,
a village in the Lublin district of Poland.
The passengers of the train
were unaware that the outskirts
of this dusty small town
concealed a dreadful Nazi death camp
where gas chambers poisoned victims
with carbon monoxide.
It was September 23,1943,
and a Soviet prisoner of war,
First Lieutenant Alexander Pechersky
was also in one of the boxcars
of the deported Jews.
His mind in captivity
He thought about his family.
And he thought about the war
and about Mother Russia
and of daring plans of escape.
In the Great Patriotic War
Sasha fought bravely
against the German invaders
in the Smolensk Oblast,
defending the road to Moscow.
as the Red Army was retreating.
A Wehrmacht unit captured him
in the fall of 1941 in Vyazma.
Sasha found it ironic that here
in 1812 the Russians defeated
a French army of Napoleon
retreating from Moscow.
Before his arrival in Sobibor,
Sasha had already spent long months
in various prisoner camps.
Then, during a strip search,
the Nazis discovered
that he was circumcised
and as a Jew they deported him
The transport that took him to the camp
was an unusual one, because the Nazis
selected 80 men for work,
instead of gassing them.
Sasha was chosen along with 79 others
to build new storage facilities in the lager.
Now, exhausted and hungry,
he was chopping wood
with other prisoners.
They hoisted their heavy axes
and then let them fall
on the tree stumps.
SS Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel,
a squad leader, guarded the group.
He routinely punished prisoners
for slowing down
with twenty-five lashes each.
Once, when Sergeant Frenzel
was busy in beating a prisoner,
he noticed that Sasha
took a moment of rest.
'Russian soldier, you don't like the way
I punish this fool? ' Frenzel asked.
'Well, I give you exactly five minutes
to split this stump. If you make it,
you get a pack of cigarettes.
But if you miss even by one second,
you get twenty-five lashes, too.'
It looked an impossible assignment
but Sasha was still young and strong.
He started to assault the stump
with all his strength,
fuelled with the hatred of the enemy.
He finished the task in less
than the allotted time of five minutes.
Impressed by the performance,
Frenzel handed Sasha
a pack of cigarettes.
valued the luxury of smoking
even more than their scarce food rations.
But Sasha refused to take
the highly prized commodity.
'Thanks, but I don't smoke', he said.
Then he lifted his axe
and went back to work.
The SS guard was puzzled and furious.
He turned around and left.
However, he returned soon
with a piece of bread
and some margarine.
It was a very alluring delicacy
for a starving man
and Frenzel handed the food to Sasha.
Sasha declined the SS man's offer.
'Thank you', he said, "the food
we are getting here satisfies me fully.'
This was obviously a lie
and Oberscharführer Frenzel
became even more furious.
Yet at the same time
he admired the strength,
the pride and moral backbone
of the prisoner.
The SS man was at a loss how to react.
But he did not whip Sasha.
He just turned on his heels and left.
A few weeks later a revolt broke out
in the Sobibor death camp.
Sasha played a central role
in organizing the uprising.
In the afternoon of October 14,1943,
the prisoners killed
most of the German SS men
and some of the Ukrainian guards
in the camp.
Three hundred prisoners,
from a crowd of nearly six hundred,
managed to break through
the barbed wire fences and mine fields
under a hail of fire of the guards.
This daring uprising
was the most successful mass escape
of prisoners from a Nazi lager
in World War II.
But only about 50 of the escapees
survived the war.
Sasha was one of them.
He found his way to the partisan forces
fighting in the forests against the Fascists
and later joined again the Soviet Red Army.
Seventeen years after the war,
In 1962, Karl Frenzel was arrested
in Germany for his participation
in the mass extermination
of 250,000 Jews at Sobibor.
Witnesses testified that Frenzel
was a sadist murderer.
He brutally had beaten to death
scores of prisoners, whereas others
he shot through the head.
A survivor of the death camp,
saw the SS sergeant grabbing a baby
and slamming the infant's head
against the side of a boxcar.
The Hagen Trials in Germany
continued for four years.
In the end,
the court found Karl Frenzel guilty.
It sentenced him to life imprisonment
for war crimes
and crimes against humanity.
Paul Hartal's Other Poems
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