SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor – the German extermination camp in Sobibór [also called the SS-Arbeitslager Sobibor labour camp or the Durchgangslager Sobibor temporary camp by the Germans] operated from March 1942 till October 1943. It was built in the General Government, in the occupied Polish territories, near the railway station of Sobibór, 17 km away from Włodawa. Among the deportees to the camp were Jews from Poland, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Slovakia, France, the Netherlands, and the occupied territories of the USSR. The vast majority of people arriving at the site were immediately murdered in gas chambers. Considering all hitherto attempts to determine the exact number of victims, it can be assumed that at least 250,000 people were murdered in the German extermination camp in Sobibór – over 111,000 people from outside the General Government and 150,000–165,000 from the territory of the GG. The mass systematic extermination of Jews in Sobibór lasted from the end of March 1942 till October 1943.
From the beginning of its construction in November 1941, the German extermination camp in Sobibór was supervised by a team [later called the Staff of Operation Reinhardt] under the command of Odilo Globocnik – SS and Police Leader in the Lublin district of the General Government. The aim of Operation Reinhardt was the biological extermination of Jews, first in the territory of the General Government, and later of entire Europe. The Operation was launched on 17 March 1942 with the first transport of Jews from the Lublin Ghetto to the extermination camp in Bełżec. Odilo Globocnik appointed SS-Hauptsturmführer Hermann Höfle as the “Expert on Jewish Matters.” Due to the constantly expanding scope of tasks within Operation Reinhardt, Globocnik decided to entrust the supervision of the death camps in Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka to newly formed separate administrative structures within his staff. In cooperation with the headquarters of T-4 Action [Aktion T4, also known as the euthanasia campaign of disabled people, was the first mass murder of population perpetrated by the German state, carried out by means of a mass killing “technology,” later used in German extermination camps] and the Reich Main Security Office, which was also in charge of SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor, Globocnik established the Office of the Inspector for Special Commandos of Operation Reinhardt, i.e. “the inspectorate of death camps” (Inspekteur f.d. Sonderkommandos Einsatz Reinhard) on 1 August 1942. It was headed by the former commandant of the Bełżec extermination camp, Christian Wirth, who was responsible for overall internal structure of the camps. His most important task was to supervise the logistics of the extermination process and to manage the property collected from genocide victims.
The construction of the German extermination camp in Sobibór was managed by the head of the SS Construction Board and Police in Zamość, SS - Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomall, who was also the first “informal” commandant of the camp. Ca. 32 hectares of forest area west of the Chełm–Włodawa railway line were allocated for the camp.
The process of organising and developing the infrastructure of the German death camp in Sobibór can be divided into three phases. The first phase was the period of basic construction works, which lasted from the autumn of 1941 till the end of July 1942, when mass deportations to Sobibór were briefly suspended due to the repairs of the railway line between Lublin and Chełm. The temporary suspension of the camp’s operation was also partially prompted by issues which started to emerge in June 1942 and were related to the decomposition of the corpses of gas chamber victims, deposited in huge pits at the camp site. Eventually, it was decided that the bodies would be dug up and incinerated. Plans were set out for further expansion and modernisation of the camp. The experiences of the first months of the camp’s operation revealed the existing shortcomings. It is possible that all the issues were also deliberated in the context of the planned liquidation of the extermination camp in Bełżec (as it actually happened in mid-December 1942) and deportations of Dutch and French Jews to Sobibór which were to commence at the beginning of 1943. The modernisation (expansion of the gas chamber, extraction and incineration of corpses, preparation of field crematoria, modernisation of the camp infrastructure) marked the second phase in the camp’s operation, lasting from the end of July till October 1942. In the autumn of 1942, the camp completely changed its appearance, becoming a highly efficient “death factory.” It was also carefully camouflaged – the Jews arriving to the site in cattle wagons perceived it as a well-managed land estate.
The third phase of the operation of Sobibór lasted from July until October 1943, i.e. until the camp’s liquidation. According to Heinrich Himmler’s decree issued on 5 July 1943, the Sobibór death camp was to be transformed into a concentration camp. However, it was eventually decided that it would remain an extermination site; instead, works commenced on a new, separate section of the camp which was to comprise warehouses for captured Soviet weapons and workshops for their repair and disassembly. It came to be known as the so-called Nord Lager (Northern Camp or Camp IV). In connection with the construction of Camp IV, the protection of the entire campsite was additionally strengthened. To the west of Camp I, in its immediate vicinity, the Germans organised the so-called Camp V, which was intended as living quarters for three platoons of Ukrainian guardsmen sent to Sobibór to protect Camp IV. These soldiers had no contacts with the main extermination camp and were not involved in any of its activities.
Watchtowers were erected along the whole perimeter of the camp. The area outside the fence was mined. Camp structures in Sobibór comprised several separate complexes of buildings [camps no. I, II, III, IV, and V]. Each section was surrounded by additional internal fences, forming a separate and isolated whole.
The foreground of the camp (Vorlager) was located near the railway station and was the unloading site for transports with incoming victims. It also served as the residential area for the camp staff.
Camp I was located to the west of Vorlager and served as the accommodation facilities for Jewish prisoners (Arbeitsjuden). The prisoners selected from transports were housed in the barracks of Camp I and were responsible for assuring camp’s smooth operation. Camp II comprised the office of the camp administration, which was also used to store the money, valuables, medicines, and cosmetics stolen from the victims. Next to the office there was a warehouse of stolen footwear, a pigsty, a stable, and a henhouse. A vegetable garden for staff members was located in the vicinity of Camp II. The section also included a barrack with a diesel engine, producing electricity for the entire camp. In the central part of Camp II there was a square surrounded by a high fence made of planks. It was the site where Jews were ordered to undress before being driven to gas chambers. The entryway to the square led through a barrack which served as a warehouse of luggage brought by Jews. Adjacent to it were three sorting barracks in which workers-prisoners searched through the luggage and personal belongings of the victims, preparing the items for dispatch from the camp. The square in Camp II was connected with the gas chamber by a corridor fenced with barbed wire, interspersed with coniferous branches. Germans called it the “Road to Heaven” (Himmelfahrtstraße). It was ca. 3–4 m wide and about 250 m long. At the end of the passage there were three interconnected barracks used as the undressing site [in the second phase of the camp’s operation] and a “hairdressing” room for women and children. Camp III included the gas chamber, aboveground crematoria, and pits first used to conceal the bodies of victims and later, after the reorganisation of the camp, filled with the ashes from incinerated corpses. It also comprised a barrack and a kitchen for ca. 100–150 Jewish prisoners working in the section, a guardhouse for the staff, small warehouses, and a watchtower.
Jews were transported to Sobibór by train. Sometimes Germans would also use lorries and horse-drawn carts. Jews from nearby towns and labour camps were rushed to Sobibór on foot. Once a transport reached the ramp, the camp crew separated women and children from men. People unable to move on their own – the elderly, disabled, wounded or sick, small children without guardians – were gathered separately. Sometimes the selection was carried out so as to pick professionals for work in the forced labour commandos. These included: a group of craftsmen (goldsmiths, tailors, cobblers, carpenters, cooks); Bahnhofkommando – group dealing with the “reception” of incoming transports with Jews and with all necessary works on the railway ramp; Pakietenkommando – prisoners preparing goods selected from among the property of the victims to be loaded onto train cars; Sortierkommando – the most numerous unit, responsible for sorting and checking (primarily removing labels with the Star of David) the clothing and belongings left behind by the victims; Friseurkommando – prisoners who shaved the hair of women led to gas chambers; Waldkommando – a group of several dozen prisoners formed to fell timber for construction purposes and for heating and cooking in the camp. When the bodies of victims started to be cremated, the Waldkommando was enlarged because it was also tasked with supplying wood for the grates on which the corpses were burned; Baumkommando – masons, carpenters, painters, mechanics – ca. 20 men; “Polishers” – people responsible for cleaning German and Ukrainian quarters and other rooms used by the camp crew; Soderkommando of Camp III [ca. 100–150 Jews], handling the gas chamber, crematoria, and mass graves. All the listed commandos [in total ca. 500–550 people] had as its only aim the maintenance of a high level of efficacy of the camp. By virtue of a decision of Christian Wirth, the Jews themselves were forced by Germans to carry out the process of extermination. The work of each Kommando was essential and visible at every stage of genocide.
With the arrival of each transport, the entire camp was geared towards a single goal – immediate extermination of the prisoners. SS-men and Ukrainian guards were responsible for unloading and securing the passage of prisoners. The procedure always followed the same steps. The Jews who were able to move on their own were led to the large barrack in Camp II, where they were forced to leave their luggage. The victims were then driven to the undressing square. Germans and Wachmänner led the naked victims along the “Road to Heaven” to Camp III, where they pushed them into the gas chambers disguised as baths. In the initial period of the camp’s operation, the capacity of the chambers amounted to 500 people simultaneously [inside four cells]. After the expansion [a total of eight cells, 5m x 7m each], the capacity doubled. The victims were killed with exhaust fumes directed inside the cells from a special annex holding a gasoline engine. The killing process lasted about 15–20 minutes. Once the perpetrators made sure that all the victims were dead, Jewish prisoners [Sonderkommando of Camp III] removed the corpses, extracted gold teeth and dental bridges, checked all orifices in search of hidden valuables, and cleaned the chamber of traces of blood, vomit, and faeces. The corpses were loaded onto narrow-gauge railway cars, transported to mass graves, and buried. Sobibór was the first extermination camp forming part of Operation Reinhardt to change the method of disposal of corpses from burial to cremation. In the summer of 1942, mass graves became overfilled. As a result, the stench of decomposing flesh was beginning to spread in the area, and nearby wells were at risk of being poisoned. In the autumn, an excavator was brought in to open the mass graves. Tens of thousands of decaying corpses were dug out and burned on open-air grates made of railway rails. From that moment on, the bodies of subsequent victims were incinerated.
Disabled people left behind on the ramp were informed that they would be taken to the so-called Lazaret, where they would receive medical help. In fact, they were transported to Camp III in horse-drawn carts (and narrow-gauge railway after the modernisation of the camp) and shot there.
Over the 18 months of the operation of Sobibór, ca. 120 German soldiers “worked” there. The camp was also manned with ca. 25–30 German staff members. The first commandant of the camp was Franz Stangl, who held the post until August 1942. Franz Reichleitner was the second and at the same time the last commandant of the camp. Almost all German personnel of extermination camps had earlier been involved in the “euthanasia campaign” aimed against the disabled people [Aktion T4], as were all commandants of the camps, without exception.
The staff of the German extermination site in Sobibór included auxiliary sub-units of camp guards who arrived there directly from the SS training camp in Trawniki near Lublin [Ausbildungslager Trawniki der SS]. Officially, these were Guard Units of the Representative of the Reichsfuhrer SS and the Chief of the German Police for the Establishment of SS and Police Bases in the New Eastern Territories, and from March 1942 – SSPF Guard Units [SS- und Polizeiführer] for the Lublin district. The guards from Trawniki were called askaris, Trawnikimänner, Hiwis (short form for the German word Hilfswilliger, meaning “willing to help”), “blacks” (because of the colour of the uniform they wore), or Wachmänner. Initially, they were recruited exclusively from among Soviet prisoners of war [they were mainly ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Tatars], and then from among civilian volunteers. It can be assumed that over the entire period of Sobibór’s operation, ca. 400 people served in the guard units. The Wachmänner performed all ongoing “camp tasks,” including those connected directly with the extermination of Jews. They administered punishments, tortured and executed prisoners. The cynicism of the Hiwis rivalled the premeditation of the SS-men. They committed numerous criminal acts, although they all emphasised that they were only following orders and, aware of the consequences of refusing to comply, they had no other option. Most of them quickly adjusted to the rhythm of the extermination process and performed the tasks entrusted to them with great eagerness. They became notorious for their cruelty and brutality towards Jews.
On 14 October 1943, a prisoners’ uprising led by Aleksander “Sasha” Peczerski broke out in the camp. It ended with a mass escape of prisoners. Ca. 300 people fled from the camp [about 130 prisoners from this group were captured or killed during the manhunt, 56 were killed “by non-German hands” while hiding after the escape, the fate of about 30 other prisoners is unknown]. The plotters of the rebellion believed that despite being imprisoned in an extermination camp, they ran a chance to succeed and escape. Those who managed to run away and survive the war recalled that they had not even dreamed of liberation and freedom. Their only goal was to destroy the camp and die from bullets rather than gas. An important factor which gave the prisoners a chance to ultimately succeed in their rebellion was the presence of a strong leader able to funnel the “energy” and zeal of the prisoners. Aleksander Peczerski was able to maintain the existence of a resistance group under the harsh camp conditions. The prisoners were convinced that the Germans were planning to liquidate the camp. The members of the resistance movement in Sobibór believed that it was possible to organise a successful escape and were not afraid to die in the uprising. The plan of the rebellion was very carefully prepared.
The success of the uprising prompted the Germans to immediately close the camp. Its liquidation began very quickly. All traces of criminal activity were to be carefully erased. The gas chambers, barracks, and fences were torn down. Rubble and construction materials were taken away. Pine trees were planted over the whole area of the camp.
In mid-December 1943, the process of liquidating the German extermination site in Sobibór was completed. The only structures that were left standing were the building of the former forest inspectorate, which was used in the camp as the commandant’s quarters, and several barracks in the camp foreground, which had been housing the Ukrainian Wachmänner. The fact that not all buildings were pulled down, as well as the continuing German supervision over the area of the former camp, indicate that the command of the camp was well aware of the planned purpose of the site. In January 1944, control over the premises was taken by the Office of the Building Service (Baudienst) from Chełm. Dozens of young men were moved from Chełm to Sobibór and housed in the area of the former German extermination site. Every day, under the supervision of German and Ukrainian guards, they went to work on the banks of the Bug River, where they built various types of defensive fortifications.
In July 1944, the area of the former extermination camp was seized by units of the Red Army and the Polish People’s Army. As from September 1944, the barracks left behind by the Germans and the camp railway ramp were used by the new Polish authorities as an assembly point for Ukrainian people resettled from the country. In 1944–1947, Ukrainians from the eastern areas of the Lublin district were transported to Ukraine or to the western regions of Poland. The people waiting for their trains at the Sobibór station (sometimes for over a week) needed wood for bonfires. They dismantled the remaining camp barracks, thus inadvertently destroying the last traces of the German extermination site in Sobibór. The final step in the total destruction of any remainders of camp was concluded at the hands of the local inhabitants, who would even dig up the soil in search of “expensive things left behind by Jews.”
We know the names of 128 former prisoners of Sobibór who survived World War II – both people who themselves claimed to have been imprisoned there or had witness statements and accounts to confirm it. A total of 112 people attested to their stay in the Sobibór extermination camp in their accounts, testimonies, declarations, and interviews. The group comprises prisoners who escaped from the camp during the uprising on 14 October 1943, those who fled the camp before the uprising, as well as people who were deported to Sobibór and then sent to other camps immediately after their arrival or on the following day. Sixteen people were identified as former prisoners of the German camp in Sobibór by witnesses – other former camp inmates or by people and institutions studying the history of the camp. It can be assumed [keeping in mind the justified critical assessments and reservations about selected sources regarding this issue] that at least 96 former prisoners of the German death camp in Sobibór, including 69 participants of the rebellion of 14 October 1943, survived World War II. Three of these people are still alive [Selma Engel, Lea Białowicz and Semyon Rozenfeld].
In the 1960s, several cases against exposed former Ukrainian guards of Sobibór were brought before court in the USSR. In the years 1962–1963, a trial of 11 former Wachmänner took place in Kiev. Aleksander Peczerski participated in the proceedings as the key prosecution witness. In April 1963, the court sentenced 10 defendants to death, while the eleventh one, Ivan Terekhov, received a prison sentence of 15 years. In June 1965, a court in Kiev issued death sentences to three more ex-guards of extermination camps in Bełżec and Sobibór. Another trial of former Wachmänner began in Krasnodar in 1965. One of the witnesses of the proceedings was Aleksy Wajcen, a participant in the Sobibór Uprising, who recognised Wachmann Zeitsev. Among the six defendants there was also Podenok, who managed to flee justice and worked as a teacher after the war. In May 2011, the court of first instance in Munich sentenced former Sobibór Wachmann, Ivan Demyanyuk, to five years in prison for complicity in the murder of 29,060 Jews – people killed in Sobibór during his service at the site. Demyanyuk died in March 2012, before the appeal procedure was completed.
The first trials of the Germans staff of the Sobibór camp took place at the beginning of the 1950s. In May 1950, court in Berlin sentenced Erich Bauer to the death penalty, changed to life in prison after the adoption of the new German constitution. On 25 August 1950, court in Frankfurt am Main sentenced Hubert Gomerski to life in prison and acquitted Johann Klier. The most important trial against the members of the crew of the Sobibór death camp began in Hagen in September 1965. The State Court in Hagen announced the verdicts on 20 December 1966. One of the defendants was given a life sentence, and five others – prison sentences of three to eight years. Five defendants were acquitted. Kurt Bolender, responsible for the operation of Camp III in Sobibór, committed suicide. Franz Stangl, former commandant of the Sobibór camp, was arrested in Brazil in 1967 and extradited to Germany. In 1970, court in Dusseldorf sentenced him to life in prison.
The first project of commemorating the victims of the German extermination camp in Sobibór was developed in the mid-1960s on the initiative of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites. A mound – mausoleum containing the ashes of the murdered – and a monument were placed at the former camp site. Since 1993, the Museum – Memorial Site has been operating on the former camp premises.
Dr Marek Bem