It was a blisteringly hot day, and the shade of the trees offered little respite for the 40 prisoners of the Waldkommando (forest brigade) whose job it was to cut down trees for lumber for the nearby Sobibor extermination camp. Today, environmentalists might rail at the sight of these mighty trees being in felled, but in 1943, killing trees was not even a sidebar as the lumber was meant to keep the fires going in the pits where the bodies of tens of thousands of Jews were being burned. In the summer of 1943, no one was protesting that incredible loss of life either.
Having spent the morning in insufferable heat under the watchful eyes of their Ukrainian guards, the prisoners were given a break for bread and water. It was July 20, 1943 and two prisoners, Josef Kopf and Shlomo Podchlebnik, were sent to the nearby river with buckets to draw water for the Jewish inmates.
Nobody wanted this job, as it mean quickly hauling water back to the work site during the few minutes the prisoners were given a break, Kopf and Podchlebnik had maneuvered themselves onto this detail and planned to use it as an opportune moment to escape.
Normally, two guards would go with the prisoners but on that day only one guard accompanied them. Recognizing an opportunity that might never repeat itself, Kopf and Podchlebnik seized the moment. They overpowered the guard and with small knives hidden in their boots they slit his throat. Taking his rifle and whatever valuables they found on him, they ran into the forest and disappeared.
Kopf and Podchlebnik survived for over a year by hiding with Polish farmers in or near the forest, paying them with valuables they had taken from Sobibor.
Tragically their escape had terrible consequences for the Jews remaining in Sobibor. The 40 forest brigade prisoners had formed two groups: 20 Polish prisoners and 20 Dutch. The Polish prisoners used the resulting confusion to attack their Ukrainian captors with their axes and knives; five managed to escape and survive the war. The Dutch prisoners, knowing they would not survive as foreigners in Poland if they attempted to escape, remained rooted to the spot and were all immediately executed by firing squad.
The Polish Jewish prisoners who were not immediately killed were captured and forced to crawl back to camp on their elbows and knees. After severe torture and beatings, they were forced to choose an additional 11 prisoners who were executed alongside them. In a moment immortalized in the film “Escape from Sobibor,” the foreman of the Forest brigade, Podchlebnik’s cousin, in a last defiant moment, raised his fist in the air crying out “Avenge us!”
The realization of what an escape would mean for the remaining inmates left behind at Sobibor was what actually motivated the prisoners to plan and execute, two-and-a-half months later, the largest single escape from a Nazi concentration camp. Knowing what would happen to any prisoners left behind, the inmates who planned the escape decided their revolt would have to allow every inmate at Sobibor a chance to escape.
On Oct. 14, 1943, after overpowering some of the guards and killing some of the officers, over 300 prisoners escaped into the forest; 53 are known to have survived the war.
Meanwhile, Josef Kopf and Shlomo Podchlebnik, the original two escapees, managed to hide for over a year, moving from place to place. Tragically, two weeks after the Russians liberated the area they were in, thinking it was safe to return to his hometown, Kopf found a Polish “friend” he had known from before the war. Intending to reclaim property he had hidden with the man for safekeeping, Kopf let his guard down. The Germans were gone, and he was home. After everything he had been through, two weeks after his liberation, Kopf was shot in the back of the head and buried in a field.
Podchlebnik survived the war, but understood there was nothing left for him in Poland. So he immigrated to the United States with nothing in his pocket save one valuable item he inexplicably managed to hang onto.
He became a successful businessman and community leader in New Jersey, marrying and raising one son, Charlie, who was completely ignorant of this story until his Bar Mitzvah when his father pulled an 18-carat pink gold chronograph watch out of his pocket and, placing it on his son’s wrist, told the guests the story of his escape: “That watch is the watch I took off the Ukrainian guard after we killed him; I have kept it all these years, and now I give it to you.”
Only years later, at the 75th of the great escape from Sobibor, did Charlie really think about that watch and how that Ukrainian guard must have come across it.
• • •
This week we read the parsha of Vayishlach, in which Yaakov, after escaping the house of the sinister Lavan and surviving his encounter with Esau and his army of 400 men, finally returns home to the land of Israel. There is an intriguing detail the Torah shares with us, after Yaakov parts ways (reconciles?) with Esau: “Then Yaakov journeyed to Sukkot and built himself a house, and for his livestock he made shelters (Sukkot), therefore he named the place Sukkot” (Bereishit 33:16-17).
It is interesting to note that the verse has Yaakov journeying to Sukkot, despite the fact that it is only named Sukkot after he builds shelters for his animals. One might suggest the Torah is using the name knowing it will soon be called Sukkot, but it begs the question nonetheless. Furthermore, why do we need to know that Yaakov built shelters for animals, never mind that he actually named the place after the animal barns?
It is worth noting that this detail occurs after a curious dialogue between Yaakov and Esau before they part ways. Esau initially does not want to accept Yaakov’s gifts, saying, “I have much.” Whereupon Yaakov responds, “Take back my blessing; G-d has been good to me: I have everything.’
How can Yaakov, even with all his flocks, say he has everything? He does not even have a home and, having left the house of father-in-law Lavan will now have to provide for all his wives and children! Yet we’ve seen this gterm before. At the end of Avraham’s life, Hashem blesses him with everything — this after the loss of his beloved wife Sarah, so it is hard to imagine he has everything.
Unless, of course, everything is not what you have, but rather who you are. It is less about what we physically have in the world and more about how we spiritually and existentially view our world.
Yaakov has just spent 22 years in the world of Lavan, which was all about measuring a person’s worth by how big his flocks are, and then he confronts the world of Esau, which measured a person’s power by the size of his army. (Esau is described as having an army of 400 men, in a world that saw Avraham with his 300 men defeat the known powers of civilization in what amounted to a world war.)
It would have been easy to imagine Yaakov being deeply affected by all this and beginning to see the world, and even measure his own worth, in terms of the size of his flocks and the strength of his military prowess. Perhaps that is why the Torah tells us he journeyed to Sukkot.
The Sukkah in the Torah is symbolic of the temporary nature of life. It is specifically at the end of the harvest, when the granaries are full and one might become a little too full of oneself, that the Torah commands us to leave our homes and spend a week in the Sukkah, the temporary booth, the better to remind ourselves of how temporary the “things” we have in this world really are.
Naming his first “home” in Israel Sukkot might well be Yaakov’s desire to never forget the promise he made when he went down to the house of Lavan so many years earlier: “If G-d will be with me” less as a condition and more as a promise to himself to remember the things that really matter in life
Why, for so many years, did Shlomo Podchlebnik keep that watch he took from the Ukrainian guard? And why was that his Bar Mitzvah gift to his son so many years later?
Perhaps it symbolized the real value of learning to seize the moments in life, alongside a determination to remember every day what a gift life is and how special and full of potential every day can be.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.