by Nicolas Pinzon
Two days ago though, while surfing through Wikipedia articles, I came across the story of Sobibor, a Nazi extermination camp from which 300 Jewish prisoners managed to escape, and I recognized that was the story in that film I had seen so long ago. I Googled “films about Sobibor” and found an old, forgotten TV movie that was so financially inconsequential to whoever owned it that it was streaming for free on Youtube. So naturally, though it was already three in the morning, I watched it.
Escape from Sobibor isn’t as masterful as Schindler’s List, or as inventive as La Vita é Bella, or as bold as this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner, Son of Saul. But this Holocaust film had a simple and unassuming manner of showing what happened in a very accurate and heartfelt way that once again really moved me. Remarkably, this film and story found its way back to me only two days before the escape’s anniversary and so I thought it was fitting to talk about the real life event, its film, and what the film meant to me here.
Sobibor wasn’t a Nazi work camp; it was a Nazi extermination camp. The vast majority of prisoners were expected to go through the gas chambers and be in the ovens in less than one hour after arriving at the camp. But at any given moment, Sobibor had 600 working prisoners who kept the camp running and satisfied the SS officers every desire. Today, exactly 72 years ago, on October 14th 1943, those 600 prisoners stood up against the Nazis and made a run for freedom, for dignity.
I first saw Escape from Sobibor seventeen years ago, but every so often I still dream that I’m running through a large grass field, surrounded by hundreds of screaming people, hoping that I make it to the woods before the bullets hit me or a land mine explodes underneath me. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t. It’s a terrible nightmare, but I’m glad I have it; because that’s the true magic of film: its ability to put us in the shoes of people going through events that should be completely foreign to us and turn those events into personal experiences that shape us. I didn’t experience Sobibor, but I saw a movie about it, so in some miniscule way I did experience it, and I can be a more empathic person as a result.
The truth is that Escape from Sobibor didn’t break any viewership records or win many awards, and it has been largely forgotten since it came out in 1978. But it moved a 9-year-old boy who understood a little bit better how terrible hatred is and how brave and humane people can be even in the worst situations through watching it. And shouldn’t that be enough? We get so caught up in the performance numbers and potential accolades that might or might not come that we completely forget about the most important aspect of being artists: moving people. And films don’t have to be tragic to move people. Who hasn’t been moved by Toy Story, or When Harry Met Sally, or Star Wars, or Rocky? But I think we should re-evaluate what we call “a success,” at least to some extent, because even if our projects aren’t instant classics or hits, if they are somehow touching someone then they are already fulfilling one of the biggest reasons why humans make and seek art in the first place, and so they are important.
I think it was important that Escape from Sobibor was made, and it is a film that I feel even more close to now that I re-watched it. I also found out yesterday that Toivi Blatt, one of the key men who made the escape possible, and one of the only living survivors of Sobibor, now lives only a few miles from me in Santa Barbara, CA. I’ve been wondering what he dreams about, and how he feels about the world’s portrayal of the tragedy he was a part of. Either way, I think it’s good to talk about the dark and scary aspects of our humanity, along with the bright and colorful ones, because that duality is what makes us who we are as a species. There are many things we should talk about, and film and art are the best ways to start those conversations. Today, I want to dedicate this day and this article to the 58 Sobibor escapees who survived till the end of the war, to the more than 250,000 victims of Sobibor, and to anyone who is still persecuted because of who they are or what group they belong to. Hopefully one day such dark and senseless stories will only be a thing of movies.
Watch Escape from Sobibor for free: