Although every precaution was taken in Sobibor to prevent prisoners escaping, there were several successful attempts at the end of 1942 and in the first half of 1943. One prisoner, for example, managed to hide in a train loaded with clothing, that was leaving for the West. As the train halted in the shunting-yard outside the camp, the man managed to escape through the small window. The SS often retaliated successful escapes with executions. In July 1943 two prisoners from the Waldkommando, which consisted of Polish and Dutch Jews, managed to kill the Ukrainian guard that accompanied them, and get away with his gun. The Polish Jews took advantage of the ensuing confusion among the guards and also tried to escape. Two of them were shot, thirteen were recaptured, three of whom again managed to escape. The Dutch Jews decided not to join those who fled, because they were afraid they would not be able to survive without any knowledge of the Polish language. The Poles were taken back to the camp and executed in the presence of all the prisoners.
When fewer and fewer transports arrived in the spring of 1943, rumour had it the camp was going to be shut down. Many prisoners thought this could mean that all prisoners working in the camp would be killed. That is what happened after the other extermination camp, Belzec, was closed. After this camp was dismantled the remaining prisoners were taken to Sobibor, where they were shot on the railway platform. Their bodies were loaded onto lorries by the Bahnhofkommando and driven to Lager III where they were burned. Prisoners who worked in the sorting barracks found notes in some of the clothes calling on the finders to avenge them. One of the notes read: ‘We have worked in Belzec for a year and did not know where we were going to be sent. They told us we would be going to Germany. That is why we were given enough bread, canned foods and vodka for three days. It was all lies. We are now in Sobibor and we know what will happen next. Understand that after us, death also awaits you! Avenge us!’
The unrest among the prisoners was understandable. What they did not know, however, was that in the summer of 1943 the high-level decision was made to expand the function of the camp and make it suitable to be a workshop for salvaging captured ammunition. During the summer construction started of bunkers buried partly underground and the placement of barracks in Lager IV, the northern section of the camp. Even during construction the first shipment of ammunition arrived and a new work detail was formed that had to start sorting. This disposed of the rumour of the camp being closed to a degree.
Even before work in Lager IV started, partly as a result of the persisting rumours that the camp would be dismantled, an underground committee of Polish Jews was formed to devise escape plans. After finding the notes from Belzec, these plans only became more urgent. Actions that were considered included poisoning the SS, burning down the camp, or digging escape tunnels. The problem was how to effectively organize a mass escape. Meanwhile, escape was also being considered elsewhere in the camp. Independent of the other prisoners, the prisoners in closed off Lager III, where the gas chambers were, started digging a tunnel in the summer of 1943. Due to betrayal the tunnel was never finished. The camp commanders showed no mercy and had every prisoner from this part of the camp executed.
arrival of Red Army POW's
The plans of the underground committee received an unexpected boost in September 1943 after a transport of 2,000 Jews from Minsk arrived in Sobibor. Among the prisoners were also Red Army POWs, some of whom were selected to help in the construction of Lager IV. The committee got into contact with several Soviet servicemen, including lieutenant Alexander Petsjerski. Thanks to the military input the initially vague plans were fleshed out. Within three weeks the energetic Petsjerski managed to work out a daring plan for a revolt and also a large-scale escape. The unreachable prisoners in Lager III were not included in the escape plan. The outline of the plan was as follows: First, the Soviet soldiers were to eliminate a large number of SS and take their weapons. Then the prisoners would come to evening roll-call as usual, and calmly march to the camp gate led by the armed Soviet soldiers dressed like SS, supposedly to work outside the camp. After taking out the guards, the prisoners would be urged by the leaders of the revolt to flee into the woods, which would not be difficult in view of the early winter nightfall. The revolt was to be prepared by a small group of men; to prevent betrayal and panic the other prisoners would not be informed until the very last moment. It was decided to carry out the plan on 13 October 1943, the day that not only commander Reichleitner, but also his right-hand man Wagner and the feared SS-men Gomerksi, Bolender, and Klier were out of the camp. However, on the day of the planned revolt and escape a group of SS from nearby labour camp at Osowa unexpectedly visited Sobibor, so the revolt was put off for one day.