Death camp Sobibor
Sobibor death camp was located in German-occupied Eastern Poland, along the Chełm-Włodawa railway line, about 6 kilometers from the village of Sobibór. The camp was situated diagonally opposite the existing local station. To prevent disruption to regular passenger and freight traffic when large transports arrived, the existing rail was expanded to accommodate three tracks, capable of holding up to fifty freight wagons. From the westernmost track, a fourth one branched off, leading within the double fencing of the camp. The adjacent embankment, the Rampe, was 120 meters long, allowing for a maximum of eleven wagons and a locomotive. The camp was located in a sparsely populated marshland, a short distance from the border with the Soviet Union. Along with Belzec, Treblinka, and partially Lublin/Majdanek, Sobibor was one of four extermination camps built by the SS as part of the so-called Aktion Reinhard for the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Besides these four camps, Chelmno near Lodz and notably Auschwitz-Birkenau also functioned as extermination camps in Poland. Auschwitz-Birkenau served both as an extermination and a labor camp.
Soon after the German army’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Hitler annexed the conquered western part of Poland and established the General Government. For the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe, as Hitler called it in his speeches, the General Government was the designated area. It was home to most Jews on the continent and was far from Western Europe. Due to the prevailing antisemitism in Poland, the occupiers did not have to consider resistance from the population. Authority over the General Government was given to Governor-General Hans Frank and his deputy Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the later Reich Commissioner for the Occupied Dutch Territories.
Reinhard Heydrich, tasked by Heinrich Himmler, the top German police chief, with solving ‘the Jewish question’, soon after the invasion of Poland sent his chiefs guidelines on how this solution should be implemented. He also took on the task of promoting the return of ethnic Germans to the Polish territories conquered by Germany. In the area under German control as a result of the German-Russian Pact of 1939, two million Jews lived. In eastern Poland, which came under Stalin’s control in 1939 but was occupied by the Germans in June 1941, another 1.2 million Jews lived. Even before the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, the fate of the Jews within the Nazis’ reach was sealed. At this conference, high SS officials and delegates from German ministries discussed – and Adolf Eichmann recorded – how the extermination should take place. On October 13, 1941, three months before this event, what would later be known as Aktion Reinhard was initiated. One of the most fanatical Nazis, Odilo Globocnik, was charged with the responsibility. His goal was to organize the destruction and execution of more than one and a half million Jews in the four death camps.
The Gas Chambers
Construction of the Belzec and Sobibor camps began in November 1941. In a specially built barrack in Belzec, four rooms were set up, three as gas chambers and one as an anteroom. The barrack had double wooden walls filled with sand, so the screams of the victims in the chambers could hardly reach the outside world. After some experimentation, killing was done using exhaust gases from a captured Soviet tank engine. Through a system of pipes, the combustion gases were introduced into the chambers. To clean the rooms quickly after gassing, the interiors were lined with zinc. The first transports from Lublin and Lemberg (Lviv) arrived in Belzec on March 17, 1942.
The gas chambers in Sobibor were identical to those in Belzec. They were put into use on May 3, 1942. The capacity was soon deemed too small by the SS leadership, causing a bottleneck in the extermination process. During the period from June to October 1942, rail repairs were carried out between Chelm and Sobibor. This opportunity was used to demolish and enlarge the gas chambers into a stone building.
In a statement to the court in Hagen, Germany, SS member Erich Bauer described how he operated a 200-horsepower engine from a captured Soviet tank. He spoke of how Ukrainian volunteers and Jewish workers pushed people into the gas chambers and locked the airtight doors. Only then, Bauer said, did people become suspicious. But there was no turning back. The packed people expected water to flow from the showerheads. At first, they heard hissing sounds. But soon, there was a lack of oxygen. He stated that gassing took 20 to 30 minutes, after which the Jewish workers removed the bodies from the gas chambers, checked for gold teeth and fillings, and then threw them into mass graves. After the arrival of an excavator in the fall of 1942, the bodies were exhumed and burned on rails laid crosswise above newly dug pits.
The SS and Guards
The personnel were designated in early 1942. Most were reliable National Socialists, belonging to the T4 organization. ‘Aktion T4’, named after the address Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, where the Führer’s Chancellery was located, was the code name of a secret ‘euthanasia program’ carried out between 1939 and 1941 in several facilities across Germany. This program involved murdering people with physical or mental disabilities. Many victims, in the view of the National Socialists, were ‘ill’, and their deaths were anything but a ‘gentle death’, contrary to the literal meaning of the ancient Greek word.
Almost all personnel sent to Poland had a history of gassing mentally ill and disabled people. The first commandant of Sobibor was Franz Stangl, also from one of these Euthanasiaanstalten. In September 1942, he became commandant of the Treblinka death camp.
He was succeeded in Sobibor by Franz Reichleitner. Both were Austrians, as was the most feared SS man, Gustav Wagner, who, along with Karl Frenzel, had daily control over the camp. Other murderers included Vallaster, Graetschus, Gomerski, Groth, and Floss. The permanent staff consisted of 27 SS men, with an average of 17 to 18 present in Sobibor. They did not spare their whips, guns, and pistols. Their dogs were at least as feared as their masters. Himmler told the SS that they had to be hardened for the work they were doing. He said, ‘It is an unwritten and never to be written page in our glorious history.’
Considerable more manpower was required for guarding. For this purpose, mostly Soviet prisoners of war were recruited and trained in the SS training camp Trawniki. Although they came from different parts of the Soviet Union, they were called Ukrainians, Trawnikimänner, or, derogatorily, karaloechies, cockroaches, by the Jewish workers. They followed every SS command, including executing people in the camp, without hesitation. For the work prisoners, Arbeitsjuden, as the Germans called them, they were at least as feared as the SS men.
Departure and Arrival
Along the Rampe, ten wagons stopped up to the buffer stop. Disembarking, with the help of the Jewish workers of the so-called Bahnhofskommando, was not gentle. The SS men behind them shouted “schneller, schneller” and mercilessly beat the people. Yet the first sight of the camp did not arouse suspicion because the barracks they saw from a distance looked like Tyrolean houses. After the newcomers had to leave their luggage at the Rampe during the camp’s first phase, they were taken to Lager 2 in the central part of the camp, where they were addressed by an SS man. He said that everyone had to work, except for the elderly and children. “Because you have been on the train for a long time, hygienic measures are necessary. Therefore, you must undress to go to the bathhouse further ahead. Your clothes will be guarded. Hand over your gold and money there at the kiosk. Remember the number that is called out to you so that you can easily find your belongings later. There is soap and one towel for two people.” Then the naked people were led along a 300-meter-long path, the Himmelfahrtstrasse, interwoven with pine branches. The women were first taken to a barrack, where their hair was cut off. They still had no inkling of what awaited them.
To speed up the process, a narrow-gauge railway was laid between the Rampe and Lager 3, the part of the camp where gassing took place. The elderly and those unable to walk were taken there on tiltable lorries.
Of the 34,313 Jews from the Netherlands who came from nineteen transports, all but about a thousand were gassed on the day of arrival. The thousand selected were employed in the peat camp Dorohucza, in Lublin-Majdanek, Lublin-Alter Flugplatz, or as work prisoners in Sobibor itself.
Two of the last, Selma Engel-Wijnberg and Ursula Stern (later Ilona Safran), survived the uprising after having to help keep the killing machine running for half a year.
Of those who ended up in Dorohucza or Lublin, 13 women and three men survived the war.
The Work Jews (Arbeitsjuden)
In the other parts of the camp, the Jewish laborers knew that death was inevitable for the occupants of the nearly daily incoming transports. This was evidenced not only by the smoke and stench rising from Lager 3, but also by the clothes and shoes of the victims that they had to sort. There were discussions about how death might have occurred. This remained a great mystery to the Jewish laborers in Sobibor. There was talk of injections, electrocution, or poison, but no one knew for sure.
The number of Jewish laborers fluctuated, depending on the expected arrival of transports. On October 14, 1943, during the uprising, there were 650 in Sobibor, about half of whom were from the Netherlands. Among them, strictly separated from the others, were 50 in Lager 3.
In a period of less than a year and a half, from May 1942 to October 1943, between 170,000 and 185,000 Jews were murdered in the Sobibor extermination camp. The gas chambers did not only murder Jews from the General Government but also many Jews deported from other countries, including over 33,000 Jews from the Netherlands. Other victims came from Lithuania, Belarus, Western Ukraine, France, Germany, Austria, Czechia, and Slovakia. Compared to the other two Aktion Reinhard camps, the gas chambers of Sobibor had the highest number of non-Polish Jewish victims.
Interviews with Survivors and Relatives
31 interviews with both relatives of people who were murdered in Sobibor and with Dutch, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian survivors of the uprising in Sobibor (October 14, 1943).