Sobibor Gas Chambers
Sobibor Second Gas Chamber Building - Drawn by William Billy Rutherford
The gas chambers of the three Aktion Reinhardt death camps, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, as recalled by eyewitness accounts will be described in a series of articles. The individual developments in each camp will be traced. It is worth noting that in each of the three camps, the original gas chambers were found to be inadequate to the task of killing hundreds of thousands innocent Jewish men, women and children. These facilities were by and large primitive affairs, not like the massive, large-
When we arrived, Lager 3 had not been completely fenced off yet, certainly not on the right-
Two things happened: when we’d been there about three days, I think Michel came running one day and said he’d found a funny building back in the woods. ‘I think there is something fishy going on here,’ he said. ‘Come and see what it reminds you of.’
It was about ten or even fifteen minutes walk away from the railway station where we were building the main camp. It was a new brick building with three rooms, three meters by four. The moment I saw it I knew what Michel meant: it looked exactly like the gas chamber at Schloss Hartheim.
SS–Unterscharführer Erich Fuchs who had served in the Belzec extermination camp recalled the first trial gassing at Sobibor:
Sometime in the spring of 1942 I drove a truck to Lemberg (today Lwow) on Wirth’s orders and picked up a gassing engine, which I took to Sobibor. Upon my arrival at Sobibor I found near the station an area with a concrete structure and several permanent houses. The special commando there was led by Thomalla. Other SS men present included Floss, Bauer, Stangl, Friedl, Schwarz, and Barbl. We unloaded the engine. It was a heavy Russian petrol engine (presumably an armoured vehicle or traction engine), at least 200 HP (V-
We installed the engine on a concrete base and connected the exhaust to the pipeline. Then I tried the engine. It hardly worked. I repaired the ignition and the valves, and finally got the engine to start. The chemist, whom I already knew from Belzec, went inside the gas chamber with a measuring device to gauge the gas concentration. After that, a trial gassing was carried out. If my memory serves me right, I think 30 to 40 women were gassed. The Jewish women had to undress in a clearing in the woods near the gas chamber and were then herded into the gas chamber by the aforementioned SS men and Ukrainian Hiflswilligen.
Once the women were inside, I operated the engine with Bauer. At first the engine was in neutral. We both stood by the engine and switched the dial to Freiauspuff auf Zelle (open exhaust to chamber), so releasing the gas into the chamber. As directed by the chemist, I adjusted the engine to a set RPM, making any further accelerating unnecessary. After about ten minutes the 30 to 40 women were dead. The chemist and the SS-
When the first transport that I was involved with arrived, I was already stationed in Lager III, along with Fuchs and Askaris (Ukrainian volunteers). The Jews were separated by gender; the women had to undress first and were led through the Schlauch (Tube) into Lager III and the gas chambers. I took the transport from Lager II through the Tube to the back of the chambers and opened the doors.
The Askaris and the Jewish labour commando of Lager III then pushed the Jews into the chambers and closed the doors once they were full. Then either Vallaster or Getzinger or Hodl and the Hiwis (sometimes Bodessa, also someone by the name of Iwan called “The Terrible” would start the engine in the engine room. The pipe connecting the engine to the gas chamber was already in place. Fuchs left the fitting of the peg (open exhaust) until later.
In my opinion it was a petrol engine, a big engine, I think a Renault. At a later stage the engine was started earlier on, but to begin with not until the people were already in the chamber, because the Freiauspuff (open exhaust) option was not available at first. It always took two men to start the engine, the battery alone was not sufficient. Fuchs had built a special contraption. There was an old magnet. One man turned the crank which started up the engine. The flywheel had some sort of crowbar, which was used to start it, while at the same time someone else had to operate the magnetic ignition; that is why two men were required to start it. I cannot exactly remember where the petrol supply tank was situated; I think it was on the wall. I am not sure how the gas was regulated. I think it was somehow fixed in position with a screw. I think it was similar to the way the gas handle was positioned in motor vehicles. It was not necessary for one person constantly to press down on the lever to keep the engine running.
The chambers were permanently connected to the engine; the way it worked was that if a wooden plug was pulled out, the fumes went outside; if the plug was pushed into the pipe, the fumes went into the chamber. The gassing took about half an hour. I assume that about 50 to 60 people went into each chamber, but I am not sure of the exact number. Jewish labourers supervised by the Germans took the bodies out. The supervision was carried out mainly by Vallaster, who was later killed in the uprising, right at the start; he was a very good friend of mine. It is quite amazing how oblivious the Jews were that they were going to die. There was hardly ever any resistance. The Jews became suspicious only after they had already entered the gas chamber. But at that point there was no way back. The chambers were packed. There was a lack of oxygen. The doors were sealed airtight and the gassing procedure was started immediately. After about twenty to thirty minutes there was complete silence in the chamber; the people had been gassed and were dead.
I remember quite clearly that a camouflage net had been draped over the gas chamber. I collected this net myself from the ammunition warehouse in Warsaw. It was thrown over the top of the roof and fixed on to it. When this was, I can no longer say. To start with, we had fir and pine trees covering the roof. In front of the Lager we had also planted some fir trees. That was at the time when German flying units were flying to Russia. The German pilots were not to be able to see inside. The camouflage net was torn off the roof when the gas chamber was rebuilt. The camouflage net was acquired when the old wooden barracks were still in use, because such a lot of steam was generated. During a lull in transports to the death camp the camp authorities recognised the capacity of the existing gas chambers was not enough to cope with the expected number of transports and the decision was taken to increase the capacity during the autumn of 1942:
SS–Unterscharführer Erwin Lambert on trial,testified after the war:
As I mentioned at the beginning, I was in the extermination camp of the Jews for about two to three weeks. 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-
SS–Unterscharführer Franz Hödl testified after the war, about the new gas chamber building:
The airtight doors did not arrive until later. I collected them myself from Warsaw, but that was not until the rebuilding took place. Before then, there were wooden doors at the back, where the dead bodies came out. The fittings were not put in until later. I fetched them from Warsaw; they were real showerheads. Whether the pipes ran into the gas chambers from above or below I do not know.
In Lager III a concrete building, 18 to 20 metres long with about 6 to 8 gas chambers,had been erected. The gas chamber had either 4 or 6 chambers on either side of the central corridor, three on the left and three on the right. Inside these rooms it was dark. There was a flat roof, in which to my knowledge there were no hatches. The external walls consisted of trap-
In the engine room there were indeed two engines. There was a petrol engine, probably from a Russian tank and a diesel engine. The latter was never used, however. The people were pushed along through the corridor into the chambers. After the gassing, the outside doors could be raised and the dead bodies removed. I have drawn a rough sketch of my impression of the Lager and have used this as a reference when giving my description, which I hand over as an appendix to this protocol.
Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987
Jules Schelvis, Sobibor – A History of a Nazi Death Camp, Berg, Oxford, New York, 2007
G. Sereny, Into That Darkness, Pimlico, London 1974
Drawing of the Second Gas Chamber Building in Sobibor – by William ‘Billy’ Rutherford – Chris Webb Archive
© Holocaust Historical Society 2014