Alexander Pechersky—Sasha to his friends—arrived in Sobibor on September 18, 1943. The Nazis had captured him along with many of his Soviet Army comrades during the Battle of Moscow.
Initially, the Nazis interred Sasha in POW camps. However, during a routine exam a physician discovered that he was circumcised. The Nazis changed his classification and eventually sent him to Sobibor in cattle cars jammed with 2000 Russian Jews.
On the first day of his arrival, he noticed a fire glowing about 500 yards away. An acrid odor hung over the camp. He asked a fellow prisoner named Shlomo about the fire. Shlomo explained that the Nazis were burning the bodies of thousands of men, women, and children. Sobibor was an extermination camp.
As a soldier, Sasha’s first thought upon entering the camp was escape. His intention was to join partisans or to find the Red Army and continue the fight against the invaders. But when he learned of the misery and hopelessness of his fellow inmates, he rejected the idea of escaping alone or with a select few. He could not leave the others behind.
Against impossible odds, Alexander Pechersky led the most successful uprising and mass escape from a Nazi concentration camp.
Pechersky was not a gentle, saintly man. Hardened by battle and determined to exact revenge on the Nazis, he led a violent, bloody revolt at the camp. Once in the nearby forest, he and other soldiers left civilian prisoners to their own devices and sought out partisans to continue the fight. Many of those fellow prisoners were recaptured and executed.
I share the story of Sasha Pechersky because of the decision he faced on his first day in Sobibor. He recognized the suffering around him and chose to seek relief for his fellow prisoners instead of pursuing his own personal liberation alone. He felt solidarity with everyone behind the barbed wire.
From one perspective, the course he took was nothing short of lunacy. Weakened, starving inmates would rise up against brutal, heavily armed guards. Most of these prisoners had no military training. This should never have worked. But compassion can make us do crazy things.
And compassion is the Way of Jesus.
Jesus’s healings had drawn a large crowd. People were following him all over the countryside. Jesus turned to Philip and asked, “How are we going buy bread for all these people?” John tells us that Jesus already knew what he was going to do. He was testing Philip. (John 6:5b-6)
Those familiar with this Gospel passage know that Jesus had no intention of buying bread for everybody. Andrew brings him five barley loaves and a couple of fish that a boy has offered. Jesus then miraculously multiplies the loaves, feeds the crowds, and sends them home with doggie bags.
So, why did Jesus ask Philip about buying bread when he knew all along that he was going to pull off one of his blockbuster miracles? It seems like a setup. At least, it feels like a setup until you consider how Jesus operates in John’s Gospel.
Again and again Jesus helps people reframe their view of God and the world and of their place in that world. For instance, Nicodemus comes asking about eternal life, hears about being born from above, and eventually begins to realize that encountering the Spirit in our daily lives radically transforms our heart, mind, and soul right here on planet Earth.
Perhaps Philip had already realized that, as John noted, Passover was near. The people were hungry. Practical and efficient, Philip would have seen an impending crisis: a hungry mob to be managed. He was stuck. His go-to solution would be to buy food for for them. He lacked the resources.
Jesus wasn’t after a solution to a problem. He was helping Philip shift his perspective. Instead of looking at the crowd and thinking “them,” Jesus invited him to see the people and think “us.” Instead of buying food for those people, Jesus invited him to think along a different Way. We are all in this together. What we have belongs to us all.
When we separate the world into us and them, we inevitably struggle with scarcity. We won’t have enough. Compassion erodes the us-them barrier. Together, we have more than enough.
We have enough to feed and house all of God’s children. Enough to educate and properly clothe all of us. Enough to provide health care for all of us.
This will seem crazy to some. There is not enough money to buy food and housing and education and clothing and health care for all those people. And so long as we’re talking about all those people, we’ll see things this way. The us-them perspective will imprison us in the illusion of scarcity.
But compassion is the way of Jesus. Compassion reveals the deep truth that we are all in this together. What we have belongs to us all. When we share, there is enough. With doggie bags to spare.
Compassion can make us do crazy things. Miraculous things.