Holocaust writer Richard Rashke chides historians for focusing on Nazi documents instead of the survivorsHistorians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Sobibor
Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why didn’t they escape when Hitler came to power? Was there any resistance? These are the all-too familiar questions that surround the topic of the Holocaust, often posed by young, angry students. It was survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel who put it best when he answered these questions with one of his own: “The question is not why all the Jews did not fight, but how so many of them did. Tormented, beaten, starved, where did they find the strength – spiritual and physical – to resist?” Somehow, they managed. To say that the Jews did not resist is to ignore the ghetto uprisings, the partisan fighting, the spiritual resistance, underground aid, and historical context. Yet, somehow Jewish resistance doesn’t seem to be an especially strong theme in the Holocaust narrative.
In 1982, author Richard Rashke wanted to do his part to remedy that lack and decided to tackle the largest prisoner escape of World War II. Escape from Sobibor tells the story of six hundred Jews who plotted a revolt against their Nazi oppressors. In Sobibor, unlike in Auschwitz and Treblinka, Jews were gassed within twenty-four hours of their arrival. The Nazis left about six hundred Jews alive to maintain the camp and work as goldsmiths, shoemakers, and tailors. Those Jews knew their time was running out and began to form an underground resistance. Ordinary men and women who had never before committed an act of violence, executed a plan to kill as many Nazi officers as possible, storm the barbed-wire fences, and escape into the forest. More than three hundred Jews managed to escape and fifty of them survived the war.
Before any of this happened, one of the leaders of the revolt, Leon Feldhendler, got up on a table and had the prisoners make a promise. “Our day has come. Most of the Germans are dead. Let’s die with honor. Remember that if anyone survives, he must tell the world what has happened here.”
In writing the book, Rashke felt that the 200,000 Jews who didn’t survive Sobibor had elected him to tell their story. He knew he was telling the story of the survivors as well. “The fact that the Jews did not resist is fake news,” Rashke explains, borrowing a term from today’s lexicon. “The fraud is that Jews did not universally go to the gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter. Everywhere I dug, I found stories of resistance. The stories were just never put together.”
When speaking to a prominent Holocaust historian Rashke remembers asking why Sobibor was only given one paragraph in a 1,000-page book. The historian replied that in terms of the whole scope of the Holocaust, this story was only a blip. This infuriated Rashke. “Well, I said ‘If you take that blip and add it to the other blips, and keep adding all the things you call blips you have a strong theme!’”
Rashke explains that part of the problem stems from Holocaust historians, who focus more on Nazi documents, instead of emphasizing survivors. When young people began approaching him, asking why no one had told them these stories, he told them, “Historians lied to you.”
After completing his book, Rashke ran into some resistance of his own. “It was a total and complete flop,” he says. The sales were abysmal, the book didn’t earn out its advance, and it never went into paperback. “I was literally and financially at the brink,” he said. “I said to myself this book may kill my writing career.” Rashke’s biggest disappointment was when a prominent Jewish book club turned it down because they were suffering from “Holocaust fatigue.” But Rashke knew that this was not just another book about the Holocaust, it had extra significance....
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