Lejba (Leon) Felhendler
Lejba (Leon) Felhendler, one of the two leaders of the uprising at the German death camp in Sobibór, was born on June 1, 1910 in Turobin to an orthodox Jewish family. His parents were Symcha Felhendler and Gitla née Fersztendik. Lejba had five siblings.
In 1911 Felhendlers moved to Żółkiewka. The family’s relocation to Żółkiewka was related to the head of the family’s run for the position of the town’s Chief Rabbi, which he became in January 1924.
On May 9, 1935, Lejba got married to Toba Wajnberg. On October 20, 1935, their first-born son – Chaim Szymon – was born. The Felhendlers also had one more child but due to the very fragmentary condition of the preserved Jewish vital records from Żółkiewka it is now impossible to determine the sex or name of the child.
It is unclear what education Lejba Felhendler had acquired and what exactly he did for a living before the war. He declared having graduated from the primary school in Żółkiewka and that before the war he had been a trader and leased a mill and a sawmill. Given the position held by his father, he must have also received religious training.
In early 1940, Lejba Felhendler became the head of the Jewish Council (Judenrat) established by the Germans in Żółkiewka. The scope of his responsibilities was significantly expanded with the establishment in Żółkiewka, in April 1942, of a branch of the Jewish Self-Help Society (Żydowska Samopomoc Społeczna – ŻSS) whose management also fell to him. With the control over the two most important institutions operating in the town during the occupation, he became the unquestioned leader of the Jewish community in Żółkiewka. In that, he faced an extremely difficult task, because the overall situation in the town was grim.
With the commencement of “Aktion Reinhardt” and first deportations of Jews to the death camps in Bełżec and Sobibór, Felhendler tried to protect his loved ones against displacement. The final chapter in the history of the Jewish community in Żółkiewka came to a close on October 16, 1942. On this day, all the remaining Jewish residents of the town (approx. one thousand people), including the members of the Jewish Council and their families, were driven on foot to the transit ghetto in Izbica, some twenty kilometers from their home town. After only three days from their arrival in Izbica, several members of the family fell victim to yet another deportation action. While being loaded onto the train, the old rabbi, his wife and daughter were shot on the railway ramp. Felhendler himself and his still surviving loved ones remained in the Izbica ghetto for another two weeks in a previously prepared hiding place. It was discovered on November 2. Felhendler, his wife, children, brother and surviving sisters with their families were transported to Trawniki and from there, by train, to Sobibór.
As the transport arrived in the Nazi death camp, the Germans proceeded with prisoner selection. Felhendler was saved by an unidentified cousin of his who had already been at the camp for some time and who pointed him out as an exceptional carpenter. The remaining members of his family were driven straight into the gas chambers. Felhendler became one of the approximately 700 Jewish prisoners forced to work as the staff of the Sobibór conglomerate of death. Details of the time spent by him at the camp are notoriously difficult to reconstruct. What is certain, however, is that it did not take long for an informal social group to form around him, which soon became the foundation for the camp underground movement. Their discussions focused mainly on the possibility of potential escape. The group decided that the only acceptable plan must entail a mass uprising and escape of the entire camp.
A breakthrough came on September 23, 1943, with the arrival of a prisoner transport from Minsk in Belarus which carried Soviet POWs of Jewish descent. Six days later, the leaders of the two groups – a young Red Army lieutenant named Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky and Lejba Felhendler – had a chance to meet. In the course of several subsequent meetings they agreed to coordinate their efforts. The meticulously planned uprising began on October 14, 1943. Groups of assassins led by Pechersky and Felhendler succeeded in killing twelve SS-men from the camp’s crew and two Ukrainian guards. After forcing their way through the fence, approximately 300 prisoners fled the camp. Only sixty of them would survive until the end of the war.
Felhendler found shelter in the village of Maciejów Stary. In late July 1944, he found himself in Soviet-controlled Lublin, where he stayed at 4 Kowalska street located within the borders of the former ghetto. He shared the apartment with several other survivors from Sobibór. Later he moved into the flat at 6/4 Złota street. In February 1945, he married Estera Muterperel, a twenty-year-old woman from Krasnystaw. They had no children.
In April 1945 Felhendler was shot in the apartment that he rented. Despite a successful operation, he died after a few days. The mystery of his death remains unsolved.
The text is based on the publication of A. Kopciowski Lejba (Leon) Felhendler. A Biographical Sketch, Państwowe Muzeum na Majdanku, Lublin 2018.