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.
Escape from Sobibor
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.
Fortunately, the book garnered attention after a film adaptation was released. The movie came out in eleven languages and had a ripple effect on the book sales. One of the last survivors Rashke interviewed for the book quickly became a sounding board for the film. Esther Raab became a consultant, ensuring the accuracy of the portrayal. “When I interviewed her she was the sanest, the most truthful, the most logical, and had an airtight memory,” Rashke explained. Working together, Rashke and Raab began to develop a bond that lasted her lifetime.
Esther Raab was Feldhendler’s cousin and one of the few women at Sobibor. She had lived in Chelm before the war, and when the Germans invaded Poland, they shot her father and tried to nab her brother, who managed to escape. Raab was shipped to Sobibor and had to rely on her wits to survive. Despite the cruelest of conditions, Raab did not lose her faith in G-d. The night before the escape, Raab had a dream in which her mother appeared to her and showed her the way to a barn. Her mother told her to find it and she would survive. The dream had given her hope and she resolved to go there. She ended up finding it, and eventually reunited with her brother.
During the filming in Yugoslavia, she acted as a mother figure for the actors, offering support and holding their hands so they could grapple with emotional scenes. Raab refused to accept any payment, but for legal purposes accepted a check in the amount of $1. She never cashed it.
Unfortunately, many of the scene’s involving Raab were cut. Her big story took place after the escape and not during the revolt. However, at the end of the film information on her appeared on screen – that she had survived the breakout, and lived in a barn until the Russians liberated her. It also said that she was now married to her husband Irving and living in New Jersey.
New Jersey students viewing the films were amazed. This hero they were admiring lived amongst them. They sent her letters and asked her to come speak with them. Raab visited classrooms and packed auditoriums. But she was nervous. She doubted anyone would want to hear an old grandma talk about her story. But she had made a promise and said, “Leon said if I survived tell the world, well Leon here I go.”
She needn’t have been nervous – the children adored her. As soon as she would finish her speech the girls would rush to the stage wanting to touch her dress, like she was a rock star.
Raab continued receiving letters. She wanted to do something with them and Rashke suggested writing a play about her life and incorporating them. He had felt that there was something missing from his book: hope. Every survivor he interviewed believed that something like this could happen again. The play would be about survival. “Her appeal was very simple. She fought back. She would not give up hope,” Rashke explains. When trying to figure out how to structure the play, Rashke noticed that Raab would never talk about her mother. He decided to have it revolve around Raab’s conflicted feelings toward her. It turned out that Raab’s mother had turned herself into the Gestapo and was shot. Raab struggled all her life to understand why she and her brother had fought so hard to survive while her mother had given up. He decided to write two Raabs, one living in the past and one in the present who would have a conversation to work out her struggles.
When Rashke saw the success of the play and the letters he teamed up with an old friend, Kristen LePine. LePine had started a publishing company in 2015 called Historic Heroines and together they published Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor: Dear Esther. They filled the first section with over 100 letters Raab had received. Some children even drew pictures to go along with them. Many letters were light in nature, with the children asking Raab to be their pen pals. Others were heavier, probing the nature of evil. One child named Mary was of German heritage and feared that Raab would hold it against her. Some wrote about their own experiences losing loved ones. A sixteen-year old boy named Philip didn’t have a specific address so he wrote on the envelope: “To the people at the post office, Esther was a Sobibor survivor. If this information helps the letter reach her good, because I don’t know her full address. Please erase this message as she might find it upsetting.”
The second section of the book includes the play which the children can act out or simply read. The third and final section is filled with educational material and suggestions for classroom activities. LePine has big dreams for the book, aiming to get 50 books into 50 schools as part of their Holocaust education programs. She is currently piloting the books in a few schools in New Jersey. The job is getting the schools interested in the project and attaining the funds to make it available to more schools. Recently, due to a generous donation, LePine has started up a program in Maryland. For Rashke and LePine it really is a labor of love.
The book has garnered some praise from educators. “(Esther) clearly has a gift for inspiring others to identify social injustices and correct them,” says Barry Schwartz, a teacher from Glenfield Middle School. “A copy of Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor: Dear Esther should be in every classroom,” says special education teacher Debbie Bruhn.
LePine created Historic Heroines because of her interest in stories told from a female perspective. “As a young person growing up I was always interested in stories that reflected me as a woman,” she explains. But she always had to hunt them down, causing her to question why they weren’t more readily available. When she read Raab’s story, she fell in love with it and endeavored to get the book into as many hands as possible.
“Esther’s spirit is something that people can really relate to. She faced demons in going back and sharing her story, yet she was able to push through and the children really responded,” LePine says.
LePine very much appreciated Raab’s straightforwardness. She didn’t try to sweep anything under the rug; she made sure the children felt that their questions were important. “She valued them and for that I value her and her story,” LePine says.
Raab never saw the final product – she passed away a year before it was published.
No Real Escape From Sobibor
The Sobibor chapter is finally finished for Rashke. He never expected the story to stay with him for this long. (Two books, a movie, a play, an educational program over the course of thirty plus years.) “It’s had a profound effect on my life. It has been such a humbling experience to meet survivors and that they trust you so much that they’re willing to go through their story.” Yet Rashke says their stories have also released a certain amount of anger in him that still remains.
Even though Rashke is finished writing about Sobibor, he’ll never truly be done with it. “Esther said there is no escape from Sobibor. Not for Poland, not for Germany, not for the rest of the world,” he says. “So I have not escaped from Sobibor. It is still part of my life.”