Sobibor Death Camp
Sobibor General View 1944
The Sobibor death camp was located near the Sobibor village, which was located in the eastern part of the Lublin district of Poland, close to the Chelm – Włodawa railway line. The camp was 5km away from the Bug River which today forms the border between Poland and the Ukraine.
In 1942 the area around Sobibor was part of the border between the General Government and the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, the terrain was swampy, densely wooded and sparsely populated. Sobibor was the second death camp to be constructed as part of the Aktion Reinhardt programme, and was built on similar lines to Belzec, incorporating the lessons learnt from the first death camp to be constructed. In the early months of 1942 after a reconnaissance visit by a small aircraft that circled over the village, a train arrived at Sobibor, two SS officers disembarked, they were Richard Thomalla, who worked in the SS-
In March 1942 a new railroad spur was built, which ended at an earthen ramp, the ramp was opposite the station building. The camp fence with interwoven branches was built in a manner which ensured that the railway spur and the ramp were located inside the camp, thus preventing passengers at the station from observing what happened in the camp. The deportation trains entered the ramp through a gate and disappeared behind the “green wall.” In the station area three larger buildings existed – the station, the forester’s house, and a two-
The camp was in the form of a 400 x 600 metres rectangle, surrounded by a 3 metres high double barbed-
The Jews from the incoming transports were brought to the ‘reception area’ (Camp II), here they had to go through various procedures prior to their death in the gas chambers: division according to sex, the surrender of the suitcases, the confiscation of possessions and valuables, removal of clothing and the cutting of the women’s hair. On their way to the gas the naked victims passed various buildings, some warehouse barracks, a second former forester’s house, which was used as the camp’s offices and living quarters for some of the SS men, separated by a high wooden fence, a small agricultural area with stables for horses, cattle, swine and geese and about 250m south of the gas chambers a small wooden Catholic chapel, in the shadow of tall pine trees, which was now the ‘Lazarett’ and high observation tower used by the forester, overlooked the entire area.
The most isolated area in the camp was the extermination area (Camp III) was located in the north-
While the basic installations were being made ready to exterminate the Jews, the organisation of the SS and Ukrainians was also taking shape. In April 1942 SS-
Sometime in the spring of 1942 I received instructions from Wirth to fetch new camp staff from Lublin by lorry, one of these was Erich Bauer, also Stangl and one or two other people. On Wirth’s instructions I left by lorry for Lemberg and collected a gassing engine there which I then took to Sobibor. 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, Friedl Schwarz, Barbel and others. We unloaded the motor, it was a heavy Russian petrol engine, presumably a tank or tractor engine, of at least 200HP, carburettor engine, eight-
The chemist whom I already knew from Belzec went into the gas-
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 had entered the gas chambers, the Ukrainians closed the doors, the motor was switched on by the Ukrainian 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 slave workers.”
After the first few weeks of undressing in the open air square of Camp II, an undressing barrack was erected. Inside this barrack were signs indicating directions ‘To the Cashier,’ and ‘To the Baths.’ The Jews handed over their money and valuables through the window of the cashier’s room. The cashier was SS-
On the ramp in Sobibor selections were carried out, especially when transports arrived from outside Poland, relatively small numbers of strong men and women were sent to small labour camps located around Sobibor such as Krychow, Osowa, Dorohucza. Julius (Jules) Schelvis who was deported from Westerbork on the 1 June 1943 along with his wife and other members of his family, was selected for labour in Dorohucza, whilst his wife Rachel and other members of family were gassed on arrival. During the first phase of the killing operations in Sobibor, from the 5 May until the end of July 1942, at least 90,000 – 100,000 Jews perished in Sobibor. These transports mainly came from ghettos or transit camps in the Lublin district, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia, as well as Germany and Austria.
Shlomo Szmajzner described his arrival at the death camp:
As soon as the wagons were emptied, we were impelled towards a long corridor flanked by two fences made of barbed wire. There were guards all around us, urging us to walk as fast as possible, in spite of the state we were in. At the end of that passage there was an arrogant Nazi officer accompanied by two Ukrainian soldiers holding their truncheons. This corridor was the stage of an unforgettable scene for the sophisticated cruelty, which was practiced there. The three criminals stood at the end of the corridor, positioned as to form a triangle, with the higher-
Meanwhile, the mass of Jews was coming by fits and starts and, when they came within reach of the morons they were violently separated – the men to the right and the women to the left, with the beast-
With all the men already in formation, there suddenly appeared a giant German officer, with a disdainful look in his eyes and whom I thought to be the leader there. Actually roaring, he started to select us according to our aptitudes. Thus, the farmers were selected first, then the physically stronger, as well as those who seemed to be most able to resist. Next, the carpenters, the mechanics, the tailors, and then other professionals until all of us had been subdivided into diverse groups according to the most useful professions. As no goldsmiths were called I was very surprised and daringly left the files of those who had not been called and addressed the officer.When I got close enough to him, without waiting for him to say a word, I tried to be very courteous and clever and told him I was a goldsmith and that my profession had not been included on the list they had called. The huge German was perplexed, as if he had paid no attention to my words or did not believe I was actually a goldsmith. As soon as I finished talking I took off my back the small tool bag I always carried and showed him its contents, as well as a monogram, I had engraved on my own money wallet.This small proof of my professional skill was enough to make this brute a little more accessible and believe what I had told him. He finally decided I was to be taken from the files and I took advantage of the opportunity to add that I had three “brothers” who also manufactured jewels and whom I would like to have with me. He nodded his agreement and my “brothers” joined me. Before he could go on with his work I still found a little courage to tell him that my old father was in that crowd, although I had not been able to find him. The German then said we might be able to find my father next day.
Thus ended that short but profitable dialogue.
Shlomo Szmajzner was selected by Gustav Wagner, Moshe Bahir described this cruel and most feared member of the Sobibor SS personnel:
He was a handsome man, tall and blond – a pure Aryan. In civilian life he was, no doubt a well-
No history of Sobibor would be complete, without some accounts of the activities of SS-
And also one day, OberscharführerKarl Frenzel came out. Frenzel was one of the worst SS in the camp and he came to Camp One. He went with his whip, he went in the barrack and everybody in the barrack was sick, had to go out and had to stay in the middle. I remember so vividly there was a boy from I knew from Assen, from another town, from the Zionist organisation and he was standing there and, they all were standing for a long time in the middle of the camp and they all got shot, right away.
On 19 July 1942, on the eve of the Great Action concerning the Jews of Warsaw, Himmler visited Sobibor, one of the Aktion Reinhardt death camps in the Lublin area. On the same tour he also visited the SS Training Camp at Trawniki, where a number of photographs were taken. At the end of July 1942 the deportations to the Sobibor death camp temporarily ceased because of construction work on the Lublin – Chelm railway line, during the next two months only a few smaller transports from some nearby ghettos arrived at the camp. During August 1942 Commandant Stangl was transferred to the Treblinka death camp, and his place was taken by Franz Karl Reichleitner, a former euthanasia colleague, you had served with Stangl in Hartheim.
In all the three death camps, the initial gas chambers capacity were found to be wanting, and Erwin Herman Lambert, and Lorenz Hackenholt after completing the construction of new gas chambers at Treblinka, went to Sobibor. Erwin Lambert testified after the war;
It was sometime in autumn 1942 but I don’t remember exactly when. At that time I was assigned by Wirth to enlarge the gassing structure according to the model of Treblinka.
I went to Sobibor together with Lorenz Hackenholt who was at that time in Treblinka. First of all, I went with Hackenholt to a saw-
In early spring 1943, Himmler once again visited the “Aktion Reinhardt” Headquarters and the death camps of Sobibor and visited Treblinka. In anticipation of Himmler’s visit the camps were thoroughly cleansed. Karl Frenzel testified at his trial regarding his visit to Sobibor: The visit was announced a few days ahead. The leadership of the camp took steps to make order in the camp… I was ordered, together with some Unterführer’s and Ukrainian guards, to take over the outside security of the camp and guarantee Himmler’s personal security. When Himmler visited the gassing installation in Camp III, I guarded the surrounding area. I remember that afterwards all the Unterführer were assembled in the canteen, and Himmler delivered an address to them… In honour of Himmler’s visit a special gassing of several hundred young Jewish girls took place. This is confirmed by the testimony of SS-
Ilana Safran recalled her deportation from the Netherlands;
Later we were transferred to Westerbork, the gathering place of Dutch Jews, and we remained there for one week, in April 1943 we left for Poland. The journey to Poland was dreadful; the prisoners from western countries believed that they were going to labour camps. In 1943 the Poles already knew that Sobibor was a death camp and when they arrived they refused to leave the train. When we reached Sobibor, a selection took place, young girls were placed on one side, the others including children, went to the gas chambers. We were given postcards, “Write to your families that you have arrived safely.” I wrote a card to some Dutch friends, it reached its destination and I found it after the war. Of course, given the camps destructive nature, almost all of the Dutch Jews were murdered, only 18 out of the 34,313 Jews survived, most having been selected for labour camps on the Sobibor ramp. The SS administration even encouraged the Dutch Jews to send postcards to Holland, saying they had arrived safely in Poland.
On the 5 July 1943 Himmler ordered the addition of a munitions supply area (Camp IV). Bunkers were built and to improve the camp’s security mines were laid. On the 20 July 1943 the so-
Kalman Wewerik recalled the event;
One spring day in 1943 about 30 men of the Waldkommando (forest commando) were taken out, under Ukrainian guards, to work. Later that day we saw the Ukrainians herding a much smaller body of Jews back to the camp. The Jews were bloodied, in bad shape. They were dragging many corpses with them. We were told that two of the Jews, Kof and Podchlebnik, had asked for permission to go to a nearby well and bring back water for their fellow prisoners. This was around mid-
We were ordered to stand in a semi-
In July / August 1943 an underground group was formed amongst the Jewish prisoners, under the leadership of Leon Feldhendler, who had been the chairman of the Judenrat in the Zolkiew ghetto. Transports started to arrive from the Reichskommissariat Ostland during September 1943, principally from Lida, Minsk and Vilna. In one of the last transports from Minsk, Jewish soldiers serving in the Red Army were brought to Sobibor from the labour camp in Sheroka Street.Among the prisoners was Alexsander Pechersky, better known as Sascha, due to his military experience he became the camp’s underground commander, with Feldhendler as his deputy. Pechersky came up with a simple plan for a mass escape, which involved killing the SS camp staff in a short but sustained burst, and escaping with the onset of darkness. The revolt was planned to occur on the 13 October 1943, but the unexpected arrival of SS troops from the labour camp at Osowa, resulted in a 24 hour delay.
On the 14 October 1943 with Reichleitner, Wagner and Gomerski on leave, the SS garrison were considerably weakened, and now the die was cast. At about 4pm, deputy commandant Johann Niemann visited the tailor’s shop to try on a new uniform. There he was killed by Alexsander Shubayev with a blow from an axe. Not surprisingly, with such an occurrence, who killed which SS man, when and where is filled with confusion and conflict, whether Johann Niemann or Joself Wolf was the first of the camp staff to be killed.
Yehuda Lerner testified about his part in the uprising:
My assignment was to liquidate Scharfuhrer Graetschus who was in charge of the Ukrainian guard. I was happy for the opportunity given to me to kill a German. We had prepared axes which we had sharpened in the smithy. We took up our position an hour earlier. At four o’clock we were sitting in the rooms and waited. According to the plan the first one to arrive was Niemann. He came in time and entered the room where the tailors working for the Germans were sitting. Five minutes later the German entered that I and my friend awaited, he said that he hoped his winter overcoat was ready. The tailor brought the the coat and started to fit it on him. It turned out that the German was closer to me than to my friend. I was sitting and sewing a button on a coat for a Ukrainian and the axe was between my legs. I got up, keeping the coat over the axe, approached the SS man from behind and split his head. We put the body beneath the table the tailors were working at.
The list of Germans killed in the revolt
On the 15 October 1943 the SSPF Lublin advised SS-
On the 20 October 1943 five cargo wagons left Treblinka death camp to Sobibor with a few dozen Jews and their Kapo Karl Blau, to dismantle the camp. They had been involved in the dismantling of Treblinka death camp following the revolt, in August 1943. The work took about a month to complete and when this was accomplished the Jewish workers were murdered in the most brutal fashion. Early in the morning of the 23 November 1943, Gustav Wagner announced the final liquidation. The Kapo Karl Blau and his wife committed suicide the night before, the thirty remaining Jewish workers were forced to lie down on the cremation site consisting of narrow gauge rails, where they were shot in the back of the neck, in groups of five. Gustav Wagner, and the Ukrainians Bodessa and Kaiser played an active role in the executions which took about one hour. The bodies were cremated and along with the cremation rails were buried on the grounds of the former Camp III.
The Germans dismantled the incriminating gas chamber installations and other buildings, but a number of former camp facilities were used by the Baudienst (Construction Service) until July 1944, when the Red Army and Polish forces defeated the Germans. Most of the barracks were not destroyed by the SS, but rather in the immediate post-
As with the other camps, the precise number of victims may never be known, with the discovery of the telegram from Hofle to SS – Obersturmbannführer Heim in Krakow showed the number of Jews murdered in Sobibor up to the year end of 1942 as 101,370. Official estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000 but Erich Bauer, known as the Gasmeister recalled after the war:
I estimate that the number of Jews gassed at Sobibor was about 350,000. In the canteen I once overheard a conversation between Frenzel, Stangl and Wagner. They were discussing the number of victims in the extermination camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor and expressed their regret that Sobibor ‘came last’ in the competition.
In 1961 a first memorial was built, today a fine memorial and small museum and a church stands on the site of the former Lazarett,and five plaques, sate that 250,000 Jews were the victims of Sobibor death camp.
On 6 September 1965 the German court in Hagen initiated criminal proceedings against twelve former SS men, accusing them of crimes against humanity. On 20 December 1966, the following sentences were handed out:
Arrested in 1962, accused of killing 42 Jews and participating in the murder of approximately 250,000 Jews. Found guilty of personally killing 6 Jews and of participation in the mass murder of approximately 150,000 Jews. Sentenced to life imprisonment
Arrested in 1964, accused in 1964, accused of personally killing one Jew and participating in the mass murder of 115,000 Jews. Found guilty of participation in the mass murder of at least 39,000 Jews. Sentenced to eight years in prison
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 57,000 Jews. He was found guilty of participation of the murder of approximately 68,000 Jews. Sentenced to four years in prison
German railroad employee and mechanic
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 43,000 Jews He was found guilty of participation in the murder of at 15,000 Jews. Sentenced to three years in prison
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 3,600 Jews Guilty of participation in the murder of at least 79,000 Jews. Sentenced to four years in prison
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 150,000 Jews. Acquitted
Heinz – Hans Schutt
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 86,000 Jews. Acquitted
Male Nurse and professional musician
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 72,000 Jews. Acquitted
Porter – Janitor
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 30 Jews. Acquitted
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 30 Jews. Acquitted
Ceramic Tile salesman
Accused of participating in the mass murder of an unknown number of Jews. Acquitted
Arrested in 1961, accused of personally killing approximately 360 Jews and of participation in the mass murder of approximately 86,000 Jews. Bolender committed suicide in prison before sentencing.
Earlier several key SS officers who had served at Sobibor were tried, such as SS-
It is clear to me that in the extermination camp, murder was committed. What I have done was only to assist in the murder. If I were to be found guilty it would be justified, murder is murder. We are all guilty. The camp had a chain of command and if one link in the chain were to refuse to co-
Franz Stangl the first commander of Sobibor, was tried for his activity at Treblinka, but Sobibor was excluded for administrative purposes. A few of the Ukrainian guards who served at Sobibor were brought to trial in the Soviet Union, such as:
They were found guilty and executed for their crimes. In April 1963, at a court in Kiev where Sasha Pechersky was the chief prosecution witness, ten former Ukrainian guards were found guilty and executed and one of those tried was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. A third trial was held in Kiev in June 1965, where three former death camp guards from Sobibor and Belzec were executed by firing squad.
Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor Treblinka,Indiana University Press USA 1987
M. Novitch, Sobibor Martyrdom and Revolt, Holocaust Library New York 1980
Shlomo Szmajzner, Inferno in Sobibor – unpublished copy
Thomas Toivi Blatt, Sobibor -
Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Reiss, Those were the Days, Hamish Hamilton London 1991
Kalman Wewerik – Report
Archives of Włodawa and Sobibor Museums
National Archives Kew – HW 16/32
R. Kuwalek, Extermination Camp in Sobibor, Zeszyty Majdanka Vol XX1 – 2001
Jules Schelvis, Vernichtunslager Sobibor, Metropol Verlag Berlin 1998
Jules Schelvis, Sobibor A History of a Nazi Death Camp, Berg, Oxford, New York 2007
Copyright: Holocaust Historical Society 2016