Russia and Poland on Monday marked the 70th anniversary of a revolt at the Sobibor death camp
led by a Red Army officer, the biggest and most successful prisoner escape under the Nazi regime.
Ahead of the anniversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the defense ministry to come up with a plan to "immortalize the memory of heroes who raised a revolt" at the extermination camp in occupied Poland on October 14, 1943.
The order came after the Kremlin rights council urged Putin to decorate the leader of the revolt, Alexander Pechersky, with a posthumous Hero of Russia award, the country's highest honor, after decades in oblivion.
In a country where the liberating role of the Soviet army in World War II has long been a key plank of state doctrine, few knew about Pechersky, a Russian officer of Jewish origin who roused his fellow prisoners to rebellion.
Not only was the former prisoner of war never decorated for his role in the revolt, which saw half of about 600 people break free, he was persecuted during the anti-Semitic campaign of the Stalin era.
"There was always pressure on him," Pechersky's relative, Andrei Prokofyev, told AFP. "There's no doubt about that."
After the war he struggled for several years until landing a job at a factory.
"Apparently, the totalitarian regime was not interested in this heroic act," the head of the Kremlin's rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, told AFP.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Pechersky's name remained tainted and "no one wanted to take upon himself the risk of calling attention to him," added historian Yury Dombrovsky.
On Monday, hundreds of people, including survivors of the revolt and visiting Israeli students, attended a ceremony at the former Nazi German camp.
Attendees included Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron and Dutch Health State Secretary Martin van Rijn, along with three survivors who placed candles before a burial mound containing victims' remains.
The three survivors – of the four still alive today – received Poland's Order of Merit at the ceremony.
Among them was 86-year-old Thomas Blatt, whose revolt memoirs were the basis for the British drama "Escape from Sobibor". The US resident returns to Sobibor for every anniversary.
A ceremony also took place at a memorial synagogue in western Moscow commemorating the anniversary of the uprising in the presence of foreign diplomats.
"This is a unique feat which has no precedents in the history of World War II," Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin consultative body, said at the ceremony.
The tribute comes as Putin seeks to imbue a sense of pride in Russians about their past in a bid to rally support.
To help raise awareness about the revolt, state television will this week broadcast two documentaries on the subject.
Lieutenant Pechersky was sent to the extermination camp along with other Soviet prisoners of war after Germans learnt of his Jewish roots.
Less than a month after arriving, he helped a core group of plotters devise a plan to kill a dozen key SS officers and overpower Ukrainian guards.
About 300 inmates managed to break free. Scores of them were killed by mines surrounding the camp and many more were re-captured and killed by the Nazis and the local Polish population.
Those who did not flee were killed, and the camp was torn down.
Fifty-three of the escapees are believed to have survived the war. After the escape, Pechersky went back to the front.
"Is it not strange that the heroic act known to the entire world has not been acknowledged even with the most modest of state awards at home?" Leonid Mlechin, who worked on one of the two documentaries, wrote in the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.
To this day, World War II -- known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War -- is an extremely sensitive subject, and Russians darkly joke that the country's past remains more unpredictable than its future.
Pechersky remained in touch with other camp survivors but was never allowed to travel abroad for commemorative ceremonies or to take part in the trials of Nazi criminals.
He was invited to attend the premiere of "Escape from Sobibor" in 1987 but was too ill to travel. He died in 1990.
Asked how Pechersky would react to the government plan to decorate him, his relative Prokofyev said: "I think he would cry. From joy."
More than 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibor. Those who escaped testified against many notorious suspected war criminals, including the Ukrainian guard John Demjanjuk.