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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.

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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

[Wiktionary]

Critical could be used:

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

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

  • Thanks for this. Critical doesn't have a connotation of death. The other two don't stress the possibility of living to be quite remote. They imply, "if you don't die, you will live." I'm searching for something more like, "if you don't die, you have a very small chance to survive." Also, looking for a single word, if possible. – Dave Jarvis Oct 22 '15 at 9:05
  • @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
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The Sobibór prisoners faced a deadly dilemma

DEADLY

: causing or able to cause death OED

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

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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:

last-gasp
last-chance
last-resort

EDIT

I suppose the word desperate is pretty close.

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