Saturday, May 17, 2014

Escape from a Nazi Death Camp: Sobibor Remembered on PBS

Originally broadcast in 1987, Escape from Sobibor still holds up, even though TV movies were not expected to be much good at that time. Not surprisingly, the conditions in the concentration camp and the circumstances of the historic break-out were considerably more brutal than network standards would then allow. The last survivors of Sobibor return to tell their stories in Escape from a Nazi Death Camp (promo here), which airs on participating PBS stations this Tuesday, as part of a month of special World War II programming.

The only successful mass escape from a concentration camp happened at Sobibor. Success should be considered a relative term. The mortality rate amongst escaping prisoners was tragically low, but at least there were survivors. Unlike other camps, Sobibor was set up solely to function as a death factory. Only a skeletal contingent of prisoners stayed on to perform menial labor. When word reached them of the National Socialists’ plan to completely liquidate the camp, they realized their days, as precarious as they were, would soon come to a decisive end. However, the Germans made a critical mistake when they transferred a handful of battle-hardened Jewish Red Army soldiers to Sobibor. Amongst them was Alexander Pechersky, a natural leader so steely, he had to be played by Rutger Hauer in the telefilm.

While just an hour in length, Escape provides a lucid chronicle of the escape planning, with some telling details added by survivors Thomas “Toivi” Blatt, Philip Bialowitz, Selma Engel-Wijnberg and former Russian POW Semjon Rozenfled. It clearly was not what you would call a foolproof escape plan, but it was better than nothing. There are indeed a number of important lessons that can be gleaned from this historical episode, including the Germans’ indifference to the “execution” of the despised Kapo Berliner, which rather suggestions collaboration is not such a good long term survival strategy. In fact, it dramatically illustrates the efficacy of defiance.

Escape (not to be confused with Nova’s Escape from Nazi Alcatraz, which aired a few days ago) was obviously intended as a television special, which is perfectly fine, especially considering that is exactly how most viewers will watch it. The re-enactment sequences sometimes come across a bit awkwardly, but the actor playing Berliner makes a fierce impression. Well focused overall, it balances the big picture history with the intimate personal stories rather nicely. Recommended for general audiences, most certainly including students, Escape from a Nazi Death Camp airs this coming Tuesday (5/20) on most PBS outlets nationwide.