Sobibór was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the village of Sobibór, Lublin Voivodeship of the Nazi German General Government (occupied Poland). The camp was part of Operation Reinhard and the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibór. Situated near the rural county’s only major town of Włodawa (called Wolzek by the Germans). Jews from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, possibly as well as some non-Jewish Soviet POWs, were transported to Sobibór by rail and suffocated in gas chambers fed by the exhaust of large petrol engines. One source states that up to 200,000 people were murdered at Sobibór. Sobibór survivor Thomas Blatt later wrote that “In the Hagen court proceedings against former Sobibór Nazis, Professor Wolfgang Scheffler, who served as an expert, estimated the total figure of murdered Jews at a minimum of 250,000.”
After a successful revolt on October 14, 1943, about 600 prisoners made an escape attempt. Approximately half of them succeeded; of these, about 50 evaded recapture. Shortly after the revolt, the Germans closed the camp, bulldozed the earth, and planted it over with pine trees to conceal its location. The site is now occupied by the Sobibór Museum, which displays a pyramid of ashes and crushed bones of the victims, collected from the cremation pits thereafter.
Beginning in 1940, the Nazis established 16 forced labor camps in the Lublin district of Poland. The Lublin district was intended to become an agricultural center. Except for Krychów forced labor camp, these camps used existing structures – such as abandoned schools, factories, or farms – to imprison the laborers. Krychów was the largest of the 16 camps and had been built before World War II as a detention camp for Polish prisoners.
In 1942, Sobibór extermination camp was built near the forced labor camps. A 40 km (25 mi) northeasterly railroad branch line connected the area to the main railroad line through the town of Chełm (Kulm in German). Camp construction began in March 1942, at the same time that the Bełżec camp became operational for extermination. Workers employed for building the camp were local people from neighboring villages and towns, but the camp was primarily built by a Sonderkommando under the command of Richard Thomalla. The Sonderkommando was a group of about eighty Jews from ghettos within the vicinity of the camp. A squad of Ukrainians trained at Trawniki concentration camp guarded the Sonderkommando. Upon completion of construction, these Jews were shot. In mid-April 1942, when the camp was nearly completed, experimental gassings took place. About twenty-five Jews from Krychów were brought there for this purpose. Christian Wirth, the commander of Bełżec and Inspector of Operation Reinhard, arrived in Sobibór to witness these gassings.
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler appointed SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl as the first commandant of Sobibór. Stangl was Sobibor’s commandant from April 28 to the end of August 1942. According to Stangl, Odilo Globocnik initially stated that Sobibór was merely a supply camp for the army, and that the true nature of the camp became known to Stangl only when he discovered a gas chamber hidden in the woods. Globocnik told him that if the Jews “were not working hard enough” he was fully permitted to kill them and that Globocnik would send “new ones”.
Stangl first studied the camp operations and management of Bełżec, which had already commenced extermination activity. He then accelerated the completion of Sobibór.
Erich Fuchs, who spent time at the three Reinhard death camps of Sobibór, Treblinka and Bełżec, explained how the gassing operation at Sobibór began:
Upon arriving in Sobibór I discovered a piece of open ground close to the station on which there was a concrete building and several other permanent buildings. The Sonderkommando at Sobibór was led by Thomalla. Amongst the SS personnel there were Floss, Bauer, Stangl, Schwarz, Barbl and others. We unloaded the motor. It was a heavy, Russian petrol engine (presumably a tank or tractor engine) of at least 200 HP (carburettor engine, eight-cylinder, water-cooled). We put the engine on a concrete plinth and attached a pipe to the exhaust outlet. Then we tried out the engine. At first it did not work. I repaired the ignition and the valve and suddenly the engine started. The chemist whom I already knew from Bełżec went into the gas chamber with a measuring device in order to measure the gas concentration.
After this a test gassing was carried out. I seem to remember that thirty to forty women were gassed in a gas chamber. The Jewesses had to undress in a clearing in the wood which had been roofed over, near the gas chamber. They were herded into the gas chamber by the above-mentioned SS members and Ukrainian volunteers. When the women had been shut up in the gas chamber I attended to the engine together with Bauer. The engine immediately started ticking over. We both stood next to the engine and switched it up to “release exhaust to chamber” so that the gases were channelled into the chamber. On the instigation of the chemist I revved up the engine, which meant that no extra gas had to be added later. After about ten minutes the thirty to forty women were dead. The chemist and the SS gave the signal to turn off the engine.
I packed up my tools and saw the bodies being taken away. A small wagon on rails was used to take them away from near the gas chamber to a stretch of ground some distance away. Sobibór was the only place where a wagon was used.
On either 16 or 18 of May 1942, Sobibór became fully operational and began mass gassing operations. Trains entered the railway station, and the Jews onboard were told they were in a transit camp, and were forced to undress and hand over their valuables. They were led along the 100-meter (330 ft) long “Road to Heaven” (Himmelstrasse) to the gas chambers, where they were killed using carbon monoxide released from the exhaust pipes of tank engines. During his trial, SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender described the gassing operations:
Before the Jews undressed, Oberscharführer Hermann Michel made a speech to them. On these occasions, he used to wear a white coat to give the impression he was a physician. Michel announced to the Jews that they would be sent to work. But before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection, so as to prevent the spread of diseases. After undressing, the Jews were taken through the “Tube”, by an SS man leading the way, with five or six Ukrainians at the back hastening the Jews along. After the Jews entered the gas chambers, the Ukrainians closed the doors. The motor was switched on by the former Soviet soldier Emil Kostenko and by the German driver Erich Bauer from Berlin. After the gassing, the doors were opened and the corpses were removed by a group of Jewish workers.
SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender
Local Jews were delivered in absolute terror, amongst screaming and pounding. Foreign Jews, on the other hand were treated with hypocritical politeness. Passengers from Westerbork, Netherlands had a comfortable journey. There were Jewish doctors and nurses attending them and no shortage of food and medical supplies on the train. Sobibor didn’t seem like a genuine threat. Victims included 18-year-old Helga Deen, whose diary was discovered in 2004; the writer Else Feldmann; gymnasts Helena Nordheim, Ans Polak and Jud Simons; Gym Coach Gerrit Kleerekoper; and magician Michel Velleman. Female prisoners were sometimes sexually abused before being murdered. For instance, two women from Austria, who were film or theater actresses, were gang raped by the SS men before being shot. Erich Bauer testified about this:
I was blamed for being responsible for the death of the Jewish girls Ruth and Gisela, who lived in the so-called forester house. As it is known, these two girls lived in the forester house, and they were visited frequently by the SS men. Orgies were conducted there. They were attended by Bolender, Gomerski, Karl Ludwig, Franz Stangl, Gustav Wagner, and Steubel. I lived in the room above them and due to these celebrations could not fall asleep after coming back from a journey.
The camp was split into four sections.
- Garrison Area: This included the main entrance gates and the railway platform where the victims were taken off the trains. The Commander’s lodge was opposite the platform and was on the right side to the Guardhouse and on the left by the armoury.
- Lager (Camp) I: This was built directly west and behind the Garrison Area. It was made escape proof by extra barbed wire fences and a deep trench filled with water. The only opening was a gate leading into the area. This camp was the living barracks for Jewish prisoners and included a prisoners’ kitchen. Each prisoner was given about 12 square feet (1.1 square meters) of sleeping space.
- Lager (Camp) II: This was a larger section and included an assortment of vital services for both the killing process and the everyday operation of the camp. 400 prisoners, including women, worked here. Lager II contained the warehouses used for storing the objects taken from the dead victims, including hair, clothes, food, gold and all other valuables. This Lager also housed the main administration office. It was at Lager II that the Jews were prepared for their death. Here they undressed, women’s hair was shaved, clothing searched and sorted, and documents destroyed in the nearby furnace. The victims’ final steps were taken on a path framed by barbed wire. It was called the “Road to Heaven” and led directly to the gas chambers.
- Lager (Camp) III: This was where the victims were killed. Located in the north-western part of the camp, there were only two ways to enter the camp from Lager II. The camp staff and personnel entered through a small plain gate. The entrance for the victims descended immediately into the gas chambers and was decorated with flowers and a Star of David.
In May, 2013 archaeologists, conducting excavations near Camp III, unearthed an escape tunnel, a crematorium, human skeletal remains, a substance that appears to be blood and the identification tag of a Jewish boy who was murdered in the camp.
While the camp officers were German and Austrian SS members, the camp guards under their command were Volksdeutsche from Reichskommissariat Ukraine as well as Soviet POWs, primarily from Ukraine.
Before they were sent as guards to the concentration camps, most of the Soviet POWs underwent special training at Trawniki. This was originally a holding center for Soviet POWs following Operation Barbarossa, whom the Sipo security police and the SD had designated either as potential collaborators or as dangerous persons. The Stroop Report listed a Trawniki Sonderdienst Guard Battalion as one assisting in the suppression of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
John Demjanjuk, a former Soviet POW, allegedly worked as a watchguard at Sobibór. On May 12, 2011, Demjanjuk, then 91 years old, was convicted by a German court of complicity in the murder of over 28,000 Jews whilst serving at Sobibór, and was sentenced to 5 years in jail. He died on March 17, 2012, while in a German nursing home awaiting appeal. As a result of his death prior to the appeal trial, he was declared “presumed innocent,” with his previous conviction invalidated.
Sobibór was the site of one of two successful uprisings by Jewish prisoners in a Nazi extermination camp; there was a similar revolt at Treblinka on August 2, 1943. A revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7, 1944 led to one of the crematoria being blown up, but nearly all the escapees were killed. Among the few who survived the Auschwitz revolt was Henryk Mandelbaum, who served as a tourist guide at the camp after the war.
Rumours that the camp would be shut down started circulating among its inmates in spring of 1943 after a drop in the number of incoming prisoner transports. Notes carried by survivors of the Bełżec concentration camp, who had been transported to Sobibór only to be shot on the railway platform, hinted at what would happen if the camp were shut down. While the rumours were untrue (in fact, a decision was made to expand the camp in summer 1943), they led Polish-Jewish prisoners to organise an underground committee aimed at escape from the camp.
In September 1943, the Sobibór underground was unexpectedly reinforced by the arrival of Soviet-Jewish POWs from Minsk; some of these were drafted into the underground so as to leverage their military experience. On October 14, 1943, members of the Sobibór underground, led by Polish-Jewish prisoner Leon Feldhendler and Soviet-Jewish POW Alexander Pechersky, succeeded in covertly killing eleven German SS officers and a number of camp guards. Although their plan was to kill all the SS and walk out of the main gate of the camp, the killings were discovered and the inmates ran for their lives under fire. About 300 out of the 600 prisoners in the camp escaped into the forests.
Only 50 to 70 escapees survived the war, however. Some died on the mine fields surrounding the site, and some were recaptured in a dragnet and executed by the Germans in the next few days. Most of those who did survive did so by hiding.Within days after the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled and planted with trees.
Within days after the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled and planted with trees.
Karl Frenzel, third in command at the camp and commandant of Sobibór’s Lager I, was convicted of war crimes in 1966 and sentenced to life. He was released after sixteen years on appeal and because of his health. Blatt interviewed him in 1983 and taped it. Frenzel, who was at the camp from its inception to its closure, said the following about the prisoners killed at Sobibór:
Poles were not killed there. Gypsies were not killed there. Russians were not killed there…only Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Dutch Jews, French Jews.
Due to Frenzel’s testimony, Blatt convinced the Polish government to change the memorial plaque at the site. It had read, “HERE THE NAZIS KILLED 250,000 RUSSIAN PRISONERS OF WAR, JEWS, POLES AND GYPSIES.”
Now it reads, “AT THIS SITE, BETWEEN THE YEARS 1942 AND 1943, THERE EXISTED A NAZI DEATH CAMP WHERE 250,000 JEWS and APPROXIMATELY 1,000 POLES WERE MURDERED.” The new plaque continues with language to note the revolt and escape of Jews from the camp.
Franz Stangl, chief commandant of Sobibor and later of Treblinka, fled to Syria. Following problems with his employer taking too much interest in his adolescent daughter, Stangl moved with his family to Brazil in the 1950s. He worked in a car factory (German manufacturer, Volkswagen) and was registered with the Austrian consulate under his own name. He was eventually caught, tried and convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1971 he died in prison in Düsseldorf, a few hours after concluding a series of interviews with the British historian Gitta Sereny.
Gustav Wagner, the deputy Sobibór commander, was on leave on the day of uprising (survivors such as Thomas Blatt say that the revolt would not have succeeded had he been present). Wagner was arrested in 1978 in Brazil. He was identified by Stanisław Szmajzner, a Sobibór escapee, who greeted him with the words, “Hallo Gustl.” Wagner replied that he remembered Szmajzner and that he had saved him and his three brothers. The court of first instance agreed to his extradition to Germany but, on appeal, this extradition was overturned. In 1980, Wagner committed suicide, but the circumstances are controversial.
John Demjanjuk, alleged to be one of the guards, was temporarily convicted by a German lower court as an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Jews and sentenced to 5 years in prison on May 12, 2011. He was released pending appeal and died in a German nursing home on March 17, 2012, aged 91, while awaiting the hearing. As a result of his death, before the German Appellate Court could try his case, the German Munich District Court declared that Demjanjuk was “presumed innocent,” that the previous interim conviction was invalidated, and that he had no criminal record.
Erich Bauer, commander of Camp III and gas chamber executioner, explained the perpetrators’ sense of teamwork in order to reach an atrocious result:
We were a band of “fellow conspirators” (“verschworener Haufen”) in a foreign land, surrounded by Ukrainian volunteers whom we could not trust….The bond between us was so strong that Frenzel, Stangl and Wagner had had a ring with SS runes made from five-mark pieces for every member of the permanent staff. These rings were distributed to the camp staff as a sign so that the “conspirators” could be identified. In addition the tasks in the camp were shared. Each of us had at some point carried out every camp duty in Sobibor (station squad, undressing, and gassing).
Following the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the revolt in 2003, the grounds of the former death camp received a grant largely funded by the Dutch government to improve the site. New walkways were introduced with signs indicating points of interest, but close to the burial pits, bone fragments still litter the area. In the forest outside the camp is a statue honoring the fighters of Sobibor.