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Yehuda Lerner - Sobibor

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5030 | Film ID: 3334, 3335, 3336, 3337, 3338

One of the leaders of the revolt in Sobibor, Lerner talks about his knack for escaping from camps - he escaped from eight camps before arriving at Sobibor. He relates the Sobibor revolt in great detail, including his role in killing two Germans. Lanzmann found this interview so compelling that he used none of it in Shoah but instead made a separate film about Lerner, called "Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M." The interview took place over four hours in Mr. Lerner's apartment in Jerusalem.

FILM ID 3334 -- Camera Rolls #1-3 -- 01:00:07 to 01:33:27
01:00:46 Lerner, seated in front of a window looking into the camera, is talking to a translator and Lanzmann off-screen. He begins when he was a 16-year-old being transported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka. He was separated from his family, whom he never saw again, and then put onto a train with many other young Jews who were able to work. He talks of conditions in the freight cars, and then of the conditions of his time working at a military airport. It was then he decided that he must escape. After two months of watching people starve to death or be shot by the Germans as a type of sport, he flees with a friend, sneaking out of the barbed wire and running through the adjacent fields and forests for two days before encountering anybody. Only then was he recaptured and taken to a different work camp.

01:22:23 Lanzmann asks Lerner about his family and early childhood. His father was a baker with his own store, where his mother worked. His father was religious enough to have a beard until 1938 when "anti-Semitism became such that the Poles would catch the Jews who had a beard, they would drag them by the beard, [and] they would tear it out." He then talks about the friend with whom he escaped, saying that they had met before leaving on the train. Lerner first talks of his uncanny ability for escape, saying that he was in eight camps in six months. He simply had nothing to lose and didn't want to die of starvation.

FILM ID 3335 -- Camera Rolls #4-6 -- 02:00:06 to 02:35:33
Lerner says that he escaped from camps many times, because he would rather die by a bullet than die by starvation. He was beaten often, and bedridden for long periods, yet managed to appear at roll calls so that he would escape the execution that the sick were subject to. Lerner says that he was simply very lucky to survive all of these captures, being taken to a new camp each time and never getting shot.

02:11:14 Lerner tells the story of when he was recaptured by the Germans and placed into the Minsk ghetto. He was far too frail to work, and thus was put, by his Jewish comrades, into the Russian POW camp nearby. All of these Russian prisoners happened to be Jewish. He contracted typhus and was bedridden for several weeks. Once healed, he was taken back to Minsk. Lanzmann then gets into an argument with the translator over the specifics of a certain word.

02:24:25 Lerner tells that one night in September 1943, everyone in the camp was taken by train to Lublin, at what would be Majdanek, when they were told there was no room, the train departed. A Polish train worker told them they were bound for Sobibor to be cremated. Nobody believed the Pole. The occupants of Lerner's railcar had opened a hole in the bottom of the car to use as a toilet, and they could have escaped through there, yet nobody did because they could not believe that they would all be killed. When they arrived at the camp labeled Sobibor, it was too late.

FILM ID 3336 -- Camera Rolls #7-9 -- 03:00:06 to 03:31:45
Lerner says that everyone was herded off the train. The Germans demanded sixty strong people, and reasoning that food would be needed to do hard labor, Lerner volunteered. When not enough people had volunteered, the Germans made some threats and then picked people, all the while running around a flock of geese, their calls meant to cover the cries of the Jews. He was given good clothes and blankets, obviously from the previous convoy, and allowed to eat all he wanted. They would do hard work digging underground munitions warehouses. In talking with other prisoners, he learned that there was no escape from Sobibor. That is precisely why a group of soldiers got together to plan an escape.

03:11:51 Lerner tells of the group of resistors, the group that would try to escape. The head of the committee explained that the last two revolts had failed, and the first group of fifty conspirators was burned alive. If they were to succeed, everything must be kept secret. Jewish craftsmen worked for the Germans performing their trades, such as making the boots and uniforms of the German soldiers, and the group realized that they must use these men to kill off the Germans in the camp. This would be done by using the axes that the carpenters were using to build a new barracks; these would be the only weapons available to the prisoners. More than twenty men, over the course of six weeks, were to plan and execute this. They would kill the sixteen Germans in the camp, a Jewish electrician would cut the electricity and phones. Lerner considered it an honor to be chosen to kill a German.

FILM ID 3337 -- Camera Rolls #10-12 -- 04:00:06 to 04:33:51
Lanzmann asked if Lerner had ever killed before, which he hadn't, and if he was scared about doing it. "Of course," Lerner says, explaining that the realities of the situation forced him to do it because they would all die like lambs if they did not act. The Germans were extremely punctual, and that is how they were able to plan this revolt. Lerner and his comrade, a Soviet POW, would wait in the shadows of the Jewish tailor's room, and the Soviet would strike first with Lerner taking a second blow if necessary. The German entered, a large man named Grischitz. He was closer to Lerner, and therefore he would have to make the first strike. He was terrified.

04:11:08 Lanzmann asks if Grischitz could have expected something like this would happen. Lerner responds that none of the Germans would even imagine such a thing, they were so sure that after killing hundreds of thousands of Jews that they were in complete control. Lerner found his opportunity and swung the ax, splitting Grischitz's skull and killing him instantly. They hid the body, cleaned up the blood, and waited for the next German, who would arrive five minutes later. The second German entered, looked around, and stepped on the outstretched arm of Grischitz's body. As he shouted, the Soviet attacked, and Lerner landed a second blow.

04:22:16 Continuing the story of the last two rolls, the Soviet attacked the second German, and Lerner landed the second blow, causing the ax to spark against the German's teeth, something that affects him to this day. Lanzmann asks how they felt at that moment, to which Lerner replied that he was joyous at the success. Lanzmann comments that Lerner is completely pale, he explains that the feelings all come rushing back, the success, the sorrow for those who died, the satisfaction of avenging them, etc., but saying that he killed as a soldier and never wanted to do so again. One hour after it had began, Germans were dead. They went to roll call to kill the one who called roll. He never came. They gathered with the Ukrainians and fled, scaling the fence. Many died in the minefield, but they reached a weapons warehouse, and armed themselves.

FILM ID 3338 -- Camera Rolls #13 + Coupes (8A,13A,9B,9C) -- 05:00:06 to 05:13:15
Lerner continues the story of his escape from Sobibor. He was outside the camp, in the forest in what was now the evening. All of the emotion had finally gotten to him, he fell and passed out. Lerner tells of the organizer of this revolt, Satchka Petchevski, saying he was a genius and that they owe their lives to him. Lanzmann is still floored by the success of this revolt, planned in such a short time. Considering that there were no other successful revolts such as this, Lanzmann attributes the success to them being soldiers and having had experience with weapons. Lerner agrees in part, and says that their hope of initiative was a major contributor. Lanzmann cuts off the interview, saying that "I don't want him to tell me the rest, because it is too good ... this is another chapter."

05:08:19 Footage of Lerner looking into the camera, slow zoom in.

05:09:16 Footage of Lanzmann on a couch listening intently.

Event Date
October 11, 1979
Jerusalem, Israel
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
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Record last modified: 2018-11-27 11:04:17
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