Sobibor extermination camp

Sobibor extermination camp
Extermination camp

Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland (marked with black and white skulls)
Sobibor extermination camp is located in Poland
Location of Sobibor in Poland
Coordinates 51°26′50″N 23°35′37″E / 51.44722°N 23.59361°E / 51.44722; 23.59361Coordinates: 51°26′50″N 23°35′37″E / 51.44722°N 23.59361°E / 51.44722; 23.59361
Known for Genocide during The Holocaust
Location Near Sobibór, German-occupied Poland
Built by

Richard Wolfgang Thomalla (death camp)

Erwin Hermann Lambert (gas chambers)
Operated by SS Division Totenkopf.png SS-Totenkopfverbände
Original use Death
First built March 1942 – May 1942
Operational 16 May 1942 – 17 October 1943
Number of gas chambers 3 (expanded to 6)[1]
Inmates mainly Jews
Number of inmates est. 600 – 650 at any given time
Killed est. 200,000
Liberated by closed before end of war
Notable inmates Thomas Blatt, Leon Feldhendler, Alexander Pechersky
Notable books From The Ashes of Sobibor
Sobibor "Road to Heaven" in 2007

Sobibor was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the town of Sobibór, Lublin Voivodeship of occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard; the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor. Jews from Poland, France, Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia, and Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) (many of them Jewish), were transported to Sobibor by rail, and suffocated in gas chambers that were fed with the exhaust of a petrol engine. One source states that up to 200,000 people were killed at Sobibor.[2] Thomas Blatt claims that "In the Hagen court proceedings against former Sobibor Nazis, Professor Wolfgang Scheffler, who served as an expert, estimated the total figure of murdered Jews at a minimum of 250,000."[3]

After a successful revolt on 01943-10-14 October 14, 1943 about half of the 600 prisoners in Sobibor escaped; the camp was closed, bulldozed, and planted-over with pine trees to conceal its location days afterwards. A memorial and museum are at the site today.


The camp

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, the 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, Sobibor extermination camp was built near the forced labor camps.[4] Construction began in March 1942, at the same time that Belzec 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.[5] 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 Sobibor to witness these gassings.[6]

Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler appointed SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl as the first commandant of Sobibor. Stangl was Sobibor's commandant from April 28 to the end of August of 1942.[citation needed] According to Stangl, Odilo Globocnik initially suggested that Sobibor 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 Sobibor.[7]

Erich Fuchs, who spent time at the three Reinhard death camps of Sobibor, Treblinka and Bełżec, explained how the gassing operation at Sobibor began:

Upon arriving in Sobibor 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 Sobibor 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 Belzec 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. Sobibor was the only place where a wagon was used.[8] — Erich Fuchs

On either 16 or 18 of May 1942, Sobibor 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 then led along the 100 meter long "Road to Heaven" (Himmelstrasse) which led to the gas chambers, where they were killed using carbon monoxide released from the exhaust pipes of tank engines. SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender described the way the gassing operations ran during his trial:

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.[9]
The Gold Medal winning Dutch Olympic gymnastics team of 1928: 4th from left Helena Nordheim; 6th from left Ans Polak; 5th from right Estella Agsteribbe (murdered in K-Z Auschwitz 1943); 2nd from right Elka de Levie (died 1979); extreme right Jud Simons. Coach Gerrit Kleerekoper was murdered 2 July 1943 at Sobibor

Victims included 18-year-old Helga Deen, whose diary was discovered in 2004, writer Else Feldmann, gymnasts Helena Nordheim, Ans Polak and Jud Simons, Gym Coach Gerrit Kleerekoper and magician Michel Velleman.[citation needed]

Female prisoners were sometimes sexually abused and later murdered. For instance, two women from Austria who were film or theater actresses were used by the SS men for orgies 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....[10]

The camp was split into four sections:[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 prisoner's kitchen. Each prisoner was given about 12 square feet (1.1 square meters) of sleeping space.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Lager (Camp) III: This was where the victims met their end. 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.[citation needed]

Camp guards

While the camp officers were German and Austrian SS members, the camp guards under their command were Ukrainian (Volksdeutsche) as well as Soviet POWs primarily from Ukraine.[11]

Before they were sent as guards to the concentration camps, most of the Soviet POWs underwent special training in Trawniki, which originally was a holding center for those refugees and Soviet POWs, whom the Sipo security police and the SD had designated either as potential collaborators or as dangerous persons.[12] The Stroop Report listed a Trawniki Guard Battalion assisting in the suppression of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

John Demjanjuk, a former Soviet POW, worked as a watchguard at Sobibor. 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 Sobibor, and was sentenced to 5 years in jail.[13]

The uprising

Sobibor 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 01944-10-07 October 7, 1944 led to one of the crematoria being blown up, however 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.[citation needed]

On October 14, 1943, members of the Sobibor 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.[citation needed]

Only 50 to 70[14] 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 were hidden from the Germans by other Poles, at the risk of their own and their families' lives.[citation needed]

The revolt was dramatized in the 1987 British TV film Escape from Sobibor, directed by Jack Gold. An award-winning documentary about the escape was made by Claude Lanzmann, entitled Sobibor, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures (Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m.).

Timeline of Sobibor


Within days after the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled and planted with trees.[citation needed]

Karl Frenzel, commandant of Sobibor's Lager I, was convicted of war crimes in 1966 and sentenced to life, but ultimately released on health grounds in 1982.[3][16] In a 1983 interview, Frenzel — who was at the camp from its inception to its closure — admitted the following about Sobibor:

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.[17]

Frenzel's testimony contrasts greatly with a memorial plaque at the site today, which reads "HERE THE NAZIS KILLED 250,000 RUSSIAN PRISONERS OF WAR, JEWS, POLES AND GYPSIES."[17]

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 went to Brazil in the 1950s. He worked in a car factory and was registered with the Austrian consulate under his own name. He was eventually caught, arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1971 he died in prison in Düsseldorf, a few hours after concluding a series of interviews with British historian Gitta Sereny.[3][18]

Gustav Wagner, the deputy Sobibor 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 Sobibor escapee Stanisław Szmajzner, 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.[19][20]

John Demjanjuk, one of the guards was sentenced to 5 years in prison on May 12, 2011. He was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews.[21][22]

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).[23]


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.[citation needed]In the forest outside the camp is a statue honoring the fighters of Sobibor.[citation needed]


Chain of command

Organizers of the camp


Deputy commanders


Other officers




See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s The Holocaust: Lest we forget: Extermination camp Sobibor
  2. ^ Raul Hilberg. The Destruction of the European Jews. Yale University Press, 1985, p. 1219. ISBN 978-0300095579
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar Sobibor - The Forgotten Revolt
  4. ^ Aktion Reinhard Camps. Sobibor Labour Camps. 15 June 2006. ARC Website.
  5. ^ Yitzhak Arad (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pg. 30.
  6. ^ Arad, Yitzhak: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: the Operation Reinhard death camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1987, p. 184.
  7. ^ Christian Zentner, Friedemann Bedürftig. The Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, p. 878. Macmillan, New York, 1991. ISBN 0028975022
  8. ^ Klee, Ernst, Dressen, Willi, Riess, Volker. The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, p. 231. ISBN 1-56852-133-2.
  9. ^ Yitzhak Arad. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, p. 76. Indiana University Press, 1987.
  10. ^ Yitzhak Arad (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 116-117.
  11. ^ Sobibor The Forgotten Revolt by Thomas (Toivi) Blatt HEP Issaquah 1998.
  12. ^ Trawniki
  13. ^ "John Demjanjuk guilty of Nazi death camp murders". BBC News. 12 May 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  14. ^ Schelvis, Jules. Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp. Berg, Oxford & New Cork, 2007, p. 168, ISBN 978-1-84520-419-8.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Sobibor: Chronology
  16. ^ Sobibor Trial
  17. ^ a b Frenzel interview
  18. ^ "SOME SIGNIFICANT CASE - Franz Stangl". Simon Wiesenthal Archiv. Simon Wiesenthal Center. Retrieved 2009-11-30. 
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as Sobibor Interviews: Biographies of SS-men
  20. ^ Arad, Yitzhak: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: the Operation Reinhard death camps, p. 192. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1987.
  21. ^ Matussek, Karin (12 May 2011). "Demjanjuk Convicted of Helping Nazis to Murder Jews During the Holocaust". Bloomberg. Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  22. ^ "John Demjanjuk zu fünf Jahren Haft verurteilt". Die Welt. 12 May 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  23. ^ a b c Klee, Ernst, Dressen, Willi, Riess, Volker The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders. ISBN 1-56852-133-2.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r H.E.A.R.T. - Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
  25. ^ Nizkor Web Site Retrieved on 2009-04-09
  26. ^ Belzec: Stepping Stone to Genocide - Chapter 6
  27. ^ BBC News (12 May 2011). "John Demjanjuk guilty of Nazi death camp murders". Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  28. ^ Survivors of the revolt - Sobibor Interviews
  29. ^ Sobibor Watchman
  • From the Ashes of Sobibor by Thomas Blatt
  • Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps by Yitzhak Arad

Further reading

External links

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