An exclusive screening of Russia’s 2019 Academy Award Best Foreign Film candidate, "Sobibor," was held at the National Arts Club on Sunday. The film’s director and star, Konstantin Khabensky, attended the event and addressed the audience with opening remarks, panel discussion, and a Q & A.
Released in Poland on April 23, the film commemorates the 75th anniversary of the uprising at the Nazi death camp Sobibor. Led by Soviet Jewish officer Alexander Pechersky, it was the only successful prisoner uprising during World War II and became a symbol of the strength of the human spirit and to the ability to fight evil amid horror. However, the uprising never gained wide public attention, in part because Sobibor itself was among the smallest of the Nazi death camp.
The panel following the film featured the film’s director and actor, Konstantin Khabensky, Dr. Robert Shapiro of Brooklyn College, political scientist Dr. Nikolai Zlobin, and Professor Olga Gershenson of the University of Mass., Amherst, who moderated the panel.
“In Russian history, the moment a film raised the Jewish Holocaust, it was banned or destroyed. This film is revolutionary because the Jewish story of the Holocaust is an uncomfortable issue in Russia today,” said Gershenson.
“The fact that this film has received support from the Russian Ministry of Culture and other serious government agencies shows it has become gradually acceptable to raise this issue in public,” Khabensky said. The film will “extend human memory” about the Holocaust, he added. “This film shows that the topic of the Holocaust is alive, and no one is indifferent. It is made to wake us up, unsettle us, and make us not ashamed to cry.”
The screening was attended by Holocaust survivors, as well as director relatives of the deceased in Sobibor.
Among the audience was the extended family of Karoline Cohn of Frankfurt, Germany, who was killed in Sobibor at age 14. The family was contacted about a year ago ,when archaeologists found Karoline's pendant buried at the camp. Her closest living relative, Barry Eisemann, recounted that the phone call from his daughter, Mandy, left him speechless. The family cousins say the discovery has brought them together as a family, since they did not know about Karoline or about each other. One member of the family said she did not even know that she had Jewish roots.
Located in Poland, Sobibor operated from Spring 1942 until Oct. 15, 1943. During this time, 250,000 Jews were exterminated at the hands of German and Ukrainian officers. In October 1943, 300 Sobibor prisoners managed to kill 12 SS officers and break through the gates to hide in the nearby forest. The original plan was to covertly kill all the officers and walk out the main gate. However, after killing 12 officers, the rebellious prisoners were discovered and had to leave the camp under fire. By the end of WWII, only 50 prisoners had survived, including Perchersky.
In 2016, he was posthumously honored with the Order of Bravery by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The heroes of Sobibor also received official recognition, with trains and streets named after them and their story added to history books. Today, the story of Sobibor is becoming a symbol of strength and human resilience for future generations.