Death Camp Sobibor
The camp was located in what is now eastern-Poland. It was built along the railway line Chelm-Wlodawa, about 6 kilometers from the small village Sobibor. The camp was directly opposite the local railway station. In order to keep the regular train schedule undisturbed when large transports arrived, three additional railway tracks were added so that a maximum of 50 cattle wagons could be disembarked. From the most western track a fourth track was lead into the camp, and divided with a double fence. Next to this fourth track was a mount, the ramp, of 120 meters long, so that this track gave place to eleven wagons and a locomotive. The camp was located in a sparsely populated marsh land, in short distance from the border with the Sovjet Union. Sobibor formed together with Belzec, Treblinka and partly Lublin/Madjanek, the four death camps that the SS built as part of the Aktion Reinhard. Aktion Reinhard was the code name under which the ‘Endlösung der Judenfrage’ was to be executed. Next to these four death camps in what we now know as Poland, Chelmno, in the Lodz area, there was the death camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was partly a labor and partly a death camp.
What happened before Sobibor
Soon after the invasion by the German army of the western part of Poland on September 1, 1939, Hitler annexed this part of Poland and the ‘Generalgouvernement’ was put in place. Prior to the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe, the Generalgouvernement was the destined location for the Jews as Hitler used to call it. That’s where the most Jews lived at the time on the continent and it was far away from Western Europe. As the antisemitism was high in Poland the invader didn’t have to be afraid of a lot resistance by the local population. The ruling in the Generalgouvernement was given to Governor-General Hans Frank and his 2nd in command Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who later became State Commissionar of the occupied Netherlands.
Reinhard Heydrich, who was appointed by Heinrich Himmler, the highest German police chief in place, to find a solution for the ‘Jewish Question’ and shortly after the invasion of Poland, sent guidelines to his people, according to his viewpoints, on how this solution had to be executed. He was also responsibile for making Germans enthusiastic about returning to the captured land from the Poles. In the area that had come under German law, as a consequence of the German-Russion Pact of 1939 two million Jews lived. In eastern Poland, that in 1939 came under Stalins control, and in 1941 fell into the hands of nazi-Germany lived another 1.2 million Jews. Even before the Wannsee Conference started on January 20, 1942, the fate of the Jews within reach of the Nazis was already sealed. During the conference the high SS-leaders and deputees of the German ministries discussed – and the minutes were recorded by Adolf Eichmann – how the nihilation of the Jews had to be executed. On October 13, 1941, three months prior to the Wannsee Conference, ‘Aktion Reinhard’ (before it was given it’s code name) was put in place. One of the most notorious Nazi’s, Odilo Globocnik, was in charge of Aktion Reinhard. Its objective was the destruction and execution of more than 1.5 million Jews in the four death camps.
The gas chambers
In November 1941 construction started on the death camps Belzec and Sobibor. In a specially constructed barrack in Belzec four rooms were built; three were gas chambers and one served as a hallway. The barrack had double wooden walls with sand in between, so that the screaming of the victims in the gas chambers could not or hardly be heard outside. After some experimenting, the gassing of victims, was done by the external exhaust fumes from a captured Sovjet tank motor. The fumes were emitted into the gas chambers through pipes. As the gas chambers had to be cleaned quickly after the gassing had taken place, the inside was covered with zinc. The first transports arrived in Belzec from Lublin and Lemberg on March 17, 1942.
The gas chambers in Sobibor were identical to the ones in Belzec, and became operational on May 3, 1942. At first, the capacity was according to the SS-leaders too small and it caused a slowdown of the extermination schedule. While work was done on the railway between Chelm and Sobibor from June to October 1942, the Nazis took the time to deconstruct the existing wooden gas chambers and replaced them with a larger stone building.
In a statement made at the German court in Hagen, the SS Staff Sergeant Erich Bauer declared how he took responsibility for starting up the 200 HP-motor from the captured Sovjet tank. He described how the Ukrain volunteers and Jewish slave laborers pushed the people in the gas chamber and closed the air tight doors. Only then, according to Bauer, did the people get suspicious, but there was no way back. The packed-in people thought water would come out of the showerheads. In the beginning they heard sizzling sounds, but soon after oxygen would run out. He declared that the gassing procedure took 20-30 minutes, after which the labor Jews pulled the bodies out of the gas chambers and searched them for golden teeth before they were discarded into mass graves. After the arrival of an earth mover in late 1942, the bodies were digged up and burnt on rails that were crossed above freshly dug mass graves.
The SS and the guards
Early 1942 the crew was recruited. Most of them were trustworthy national-socialists, that belonged to the T4 organization. ‘Aktion T4’, named after the Berlin address Tiergartenstrasse 4, where the Kanzlerei des Führers was located, and was the code name for a top secret euthanasia program that was executed between 1939 and 1941, in six institutions spread out over Germany.
Almost all the personnel sent to Poland had previous experience with exterminating people; mainly by gassing the handicapped and mentally ill. The first commander of Sobibor, Franz Stangl, was also from one of these euthanasia institutions. In September 1942 he was transferred and became the commander of the death camp in Treblinka.
Franz Stangl was succeeded by Franz Reichleitner. Both were Austrians, just as the most feared SS man Gustav Wagner, who co-managed the daily operations of the camp with Karl Frenzel. Other murderers were Vallaster, Graetschuk, Gomerski, Groth and Floss. The Sobibor crew consisted of 27 SS-men of which an average of 17 to 18 men were on the site. Their wips, guns and pistols were not shunned. Their dogs were just as feared as their bosses. Himmler told the SS-men that they had to be tough for the work they were doing. He said: “This is a never written and never to be written page in our glorious history”.
There were extensive more guards needed on site, who were mainly Sovjet-POW (Prisoner’s of War) and recruited and trained in the SS training camp in Trawniki. Despite the fact that they came from different parts of the Sovjet-Union they were called Ukrains, Trawnikimänner or ‘karaloechies’ (cockroaches) by the Jewish slave laborers. They followed each, and every, order of the SS without hesitation, including the execution of people in the camp. According to the ‘Arbeitsjuden’ (Jewish slave laborers), as they were called by the Nazis, the guards were just as feared as the SS.
Departure and Arrival
Jules Schelvis, one of the founders of the Sobibor Foundation, was on the fourteenth transport that left from Westerbork, on June 1, 1943. That transport had 3006 people on the train, including his wife and his wife’s family. They had been rounded up during a wide-scale raid on May 26 in the Jewish quarters of Amsterdam. The train to the east was a fully packed cattle wagon (65 people, including babies, elderly and sick people, and people in the most pitiful circumstances). Underway they didn’t get any food nor drink. When people had to relieve themselves, they used a wooden barrel. Shortly before their arrival, the accompanying guard in the wagon ordered the tired and intimidated people to give him any items of value. Then, after 72 hours of travel, the train arrived at their final destination, Sobibor.
Alongside the train ramp, 10 wagons were driven till the buffer at the end. Getting out of the wagons, with the help of the Jewish slave laborers, the so-called ‘Bahnhofskommando’ (railway station commando), wasn’t a gentle affair. The SS-men behind them yelled ‘schneller, schneller’ (quicker, quicker) and hit the people. Still, at first glance the camp didn’t call for suspicion as the barracks in the rear looked like Austrian Tirol chalets with flowerboxes in the windows.
Newcomers had to leave their luggage at the train ramp in the first phase of the camp before they were brought to Lager 2 in the central part of the camp, where an SS-man gave them a speech. He said that everyone had to work, except for the children and elderly. “As you have been in the train for a long period of time, some hygienical measures are necessary. Therefore we ask you to undress and take shower in the bathing house further down. Your clothes will be watched over. Gold and money, can be handed in at the kiosk over there. of. The number that is given to you verbally you need to remember carefully as this will help you find your belongings back upon your return. There is soap and one towel to be shared by two people.” Then the naked people had to walk a 300 meter long path, the Himmelfahrtstrasse, that was fenced off with branches of fir, towards Lager 3. The women were guided first to a barrack where their hair was shaved off. Still there was no suspicion of what awaited them.
In order to have a more efficient process for the elderly and people that were not able to walk anymore a separate narrow-gauge was constructed between the train ramp and Lager 3, the part of the camp where the actual extermination took place. The elderly and people that were not able to walk were brought to Lager 3 in tumble cars.
The 34,313 Jews from the Netherlands that were deported in nineteen transports were all gassed at the day of arrival except for an approximate 1,000 people who were selected to work in slave labor camps in the area, including Dorohucza, Lublin-Majdanek, Lublin Alter Flugplatz or as slave laborers in Sobibor itself.
Selma Wijnberg and Ursula Stern, both selected as laborers in Sobibor, survived the uprising, after they helped to support the killing machine for 6 months.
From those Dutch transportees that were selected to work in Dorohucza or Lublin only 13 women and 3 men survived the war.
The slave labor Jews
The slave labor Jews in the death camp Sobibor knew that the death of the daily incoming people on the transports was inevitable. Not only the smoke and stench coming out of Lager 3 proved this, but also the clothes and shoes of the victims that had to be sorted out. They were unsure about how the killing took place, that stayed a secret to the slave labor Jews. People spoke of injections, electrocution or poison, but nobody knew for sure. The number of slave labor Jews variated, depending on the number of arriving transports. On October 14, 1943, during the uprising, there were 650 slave labor Jews in Sobibor, of whom about 50% originated from the Netherlands. Among them, strictly separated from the others, there were 50 in Lager 3.
The transports coming from the Netherlands
Comparatively most of the Jews killed in Sobibor came from the Netherlands (next to Poland). State Commissionair Seyss-Inquart and SS-Obergruppenführer Hanns Albin Rauter were directly responsible for the high rate (both were executed after the war). On March 22, 1943 Rauter announced in The Hague, “… the Jewish problem is only resolved when we’ve been freed of this evil.”
“Gladly,” so he said, “does my soul want to pay in heaven for that what I’ve done against the Jews.”
The 19 transports to Sobibor originating in the Netherlands all departed in 1943 from Westerbork, always on a Tuesday morning.
March 2: 1105 people, no survivors
March 10: 1105 people, 13 female survivors
March 17: 964 people, 1 male survivor
March 23: 1250 people, no survivors
March 30: 1255 people, no survivors
April 6: 2020 people, 2 female survivors
April 13: 1204 people, no survivors
April 20: 1166 people, no survivors
April 27: 1204 people, no survivors
May 4: 1187 people, no survivors
May 11: 1446 people, 1 male survivor
May 18: 2511 people, no survivors
May 25: 2862 people, no survivors
June 1: 3006 people, 1 male survivor
June 8: 3017 people, no survivors
June 29: 2397 people, no survivors
July 6: 2417 people, no survivors
July 13: 1988 people, no survivors
July 20: 2209 people, no survivors
How many Jews have been deported to Sobibor?
For years the estimations were between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews that were deported to Sobibor. Until 2002 the exact number was partly guess work. However, in 2002 there was a break through for the period between May 3, 1942 (start of the gasification in Sobibor) till December 31, 1942 (so a period of 8 months).
On January 11, 1943 Herman Höfle sent a radiographic message from the Aktion Reinhard Head Quarter in Lublin to Franz Heim in Krakow. The message related to the number of Jews that arrived in the four Aktion Reinhard camps till December 31, 1942. What Höfle didn’t know was that his message was intercepted and decoded the same day by the English secret service. The specialists didn’t see the relevance of the message at the time, so it remained archived until 2000 when the archive was opened and this message together with other information became publicly accessible. Historians Stephan Tyas and Peter Witte did see the importance of the message.
There were two ranges of digits and numbers.
The first range represented the bi-weekly datas of the number of new arrivals in the four death camps during the last 14 days of 1942. Höfle stated:
L 12,761, B 0 (zero), S 515, T 10,335. These four numbers added up to 23,611 Jews that would have arrived in the last two weeks of 1942 in the four death camps. The digits L, B, S and T were abbreviations for Lublin, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
The second range represented the total number of arrivals per death camp from their starting date:
L 24,733, B 434,508, S 101,370, T 713,555, in total 1,274,166.
These numbers seem to be reliable due to the fact that Belzec was closed per December 8, 1942 and had thus zero arrivals in the last two weeks of December 1942.
The decoded message thus stated that per the end of 1942 101,370 Jews were exterminated in Sobibor. The question remains how many Jews had arrived between January 1, 1943 and the uprising of October 14, 1943:
Originating from the Sovjet Union (Lida, Minsk and Vilnius) – 13,700
Originating from various Polish locations – 14,900
Originating from the Netherlands – 34,313
Originating from France – 3,500
Originating from former Yugoslavia (Skopje) – 2,382
So, from January 1, 1943 till October 14, 1943 in total – 68,795
This makes the grand total 170,165 (101,370 + 68,795) that can be proven. There are currently other estimations that range from 200,000 – 300,000 victims, however these numbers haven’t been proven.
In the fall of 1943 there were rumors that the camp would be closed or be used for another purpose. These rumors were sustained because of the decreasing number of arriving transports. The idea of a supposed closing meant that the slave labor Jews would undergo the same fate as the last Belzec Jews: relentless execution. Therefore a small group had formed in secret lead by the charismatic Polish Leon Feldhendler. They looked into a possible escape, however there was a lot of talking but no action, they were not equipped to organize such a complex escape. The situation changed when on September 22, 1943 a transport arrived with Jews from Minsk with among them a group of Sovjet prisoner’s of war. Lieutenant Alexander Petsjerski was selected on the train ramp for labor in the camp. Shortly after his arrival, Petsjerski was approached by Feldhendler. Petsjerski developed an escape plan. An essential part of the plan was to take out as many SS-men as possible in order to walk out the camp after the regular afternoon round-up, so that the Ukrainian watchmen in the towers wouldn’t get suspicious.
Petsjerski and Feldhendler lead the uprising on October 14, 1943, however the uprising was only partly successful. Still 365 Jews managed to escape the camp, of which 47 survived the war. The ones that remained in the camp feared that they wouldn’t survive outside the barbed wire in a foreign and hostile country as they didn’t speak Polish, or just because they didn’t have the guts to escape.
It was the first time in history of the Second World War that in a death camp by means of the joint Jewish resistance 12 SS-men and two guards were assassinated. After the uprising, the camp was closed. The remaining 300 working Jews from Treblinka were transported to Sobibor in order to help to dissemble the remains and clean up any evidence of what had happened. They were killed after the work was done.
The above information about Sobibor came from the 6th edition of the book “Vernietigingskamp Sobibor” that was published in January 2008 in Dutch.
Between 1983 and 1993 Jules Schelvis, made a thorough and well-documented study about the death camp. The 6th edition includes the most recent information about Sobibor. For his scientific work, Jules Schelvis was awarded an honorary doctorate on January 8, 2008 by the University of Amsterdam.
In 1998, Schelvis’ work was translated in German, first by Metropol Verlag in Berlin and then in 2003 by the Reihe Antifaschistischer Texte in Hamburg/Münster.
In 2007, his work was translated into English (“Sobibor, a History of a Nazi Death Camp”) and published by Berg Publishers of Oxford. This edition was published in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.