When the Sobibór prisoners escaped they were in a dire situation. They could stay in the camp to face certain execution, or revolt. Risking revolt meant they might die, but there would be a slim chance of survival.

Looking for a word that means, "possibly die if you do, or definitely die if you don't." There are many synonyms for dire (as in a dire escape), but none imply a choice with death as a consequence one way and uncertain death the other.

This situation also comes up a lot in (spoiler alert!) movies (especially man vs. nature): if you don't try, you die.

An example usage:

"The Sobibór prisoners faced a ??? escape."

What word can replace ???, as per the implied outcome of death vs. possible death?

For example, the phrase "dilemma of a hopelessly moribund escape" gets close, but is quite wordy and doesn't capture the die/might die context.


Life-and-death is a broadly used adjective:

Deciding whether someone lives or dies; vitally important: ‘heart surgeons deal with life-and-death situations on a daily basis’

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

A matter of life and death

Something whose outcome could result in either someone's survival or their death


Critical could be used:

(Of a situation or problem) having the potential to become disastrous; at a point of crisis:

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

  • @DaveJarvis I understand your point. When a doctor says, "He is in a critical condition," he means he might be dead soon. There is a connotation of death in "critical".
    – user140086
    Oct 22 '15 at 9:08

The Sobibór prisoners faced a deadly dilemma


: causing or able to cause death OED

The prisoners faced a deadly dilemma Rules and Rights in the Middle East


I find it difficult to believe there will be a single word for what you want. The best I can come up with is do-or-die.

The Sobibór prisoners faced a do-or-die escape.

do or die

said when you are in a ​situation in which you must take a ​big ​risk in ​order to ​avoid ​failure

Cambridge Dictionaries

Here are some others:



I suppose the word desperate is pretty close.

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