SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor - the German extermination camp in Sobibór [also called the SS-Arbeitslager Sobiborlabour camp or the Durchgangslager Sobibor temporary camp by the Germans] operated from March 1942 till October 1943. It was built in the General Government, the occupied Polish territories near the railway station of Sobibór, 17 km from Włodawa. Jews from Poland, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, the Netherlands and the occupied territories of the USSR were brought there. The vast majority of them were immediately murdered in gas chambers. Bearing in mind all the attempts to determine the number of Sobibór's victims, it can be assumed that at least 250,000 people were murdered in the German extermination camp in Sobibór – more than 111,000 from outside the General Government and 150,000–165,000 from the areas of the General Government. The mass and 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 subordinated to the team [later called the Staff of Operation Reinhardt] under the command of Odil Globocnik - SS and Police Commander in the Lublin district of the General Government. The aim of the Operation Reinhardt was the extermination of Jews of the General Government, then also of European Jews. The Operation started with the first transport of Jews from the Lublin ghetto to the extermination camp in Bełżec on March 17, 1942. Odilo Globocnik appointed SS-Hauptsturmführer Hermann Höfle as the Specialist for Jewish Matters in Operation Reinhardt. Due to the constantly expanding scope of the tasks related to Operation Reinhardt, Globocnik decided to coordinate the activities of the death camps in Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka by means of new separate administrative structures within his staff. In cooperation with the headquarters of T-4 Action [Aktion T4, also called euthanasia of disabled people, was the first mass murder of the population carried out by the German state, by means of the group killing “technology”, later used in German extermination camps] and the Reich Main Security Office, which was also in charge of SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor, on August 1, 1942, Globocnik established the Office of the Inspector for Special Orders of Operation Reinhardt, i.e. “the inspectorate of death camps” (Inspekteur f.d. Sonderkommandos Einsatz Reinhard). Its head became the former commandant of the Bełżec extermination camp, Christian Wirth, who from then on decided on the overall internal structure of the camps. His most important task was to supervise the organization of the extermination process and to manage the collected in the camps property of the murdered.
The construction of the German extermination camp in Sobibór was managed by the head of the SS Construction Board and Police in Zamość, the SS - Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomall, and at the same time the first “informal” commander of the camp. Approximately 32 hectares of forest area on the western side of the Chełm - Włodawa railway line were allocated for the camp.
The organization and changes of the infrastructure of the German death camp in Sobibór went through three phases. The first one was the period of basic construction, which lasted from autumn 1941 till the end of July 1942. At the end of July 1942, mass deportations to Sobibór were briefly suspended due to the repair of the railway line between Lublin and Chełm. The temporary suspension of the work of the Sobibór extermination centre also resulted from problems (since June 1942) posed by decaying corpses which were deposited in huge pits after being removed from the gas chamber. It became necessary to decide on their excavation and burning. Further expansion and modernization of the camp was planned. The experiences of the first months of the extermination centre operation pointed to existing shortcomings. It is possible that all these problems were also connected with the plans to close 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 stage of camp modernization (extension of the gas chamber, extraction and burning of the bodies, preparation of field crematoria, modernization of the camp infrastructure) lasted from the end of July till October 1942. In the autumn of 1942, the camp completely changed its appearance, it became a very efficient “death factory”. It was also carefully camouflaged. It was making an impression of a well-managed estate on Jews driven out of cattle wagons.
The third stage related to the functioning of the camp, lasted from July to October 1943, i.e., until its liquidation. Heinrich Himmler’s decisions, issued on July 5, 1943, assumed the transformation of the Sobibór death camp into a concentration camp. In the end, it was decided to maintain its current activity, but the expansion was started so as to prepare, in a new separate part, warehouses for storage of the captured Soviet weapons and workshops for their repair and disassembly. It was the so called Nord Lager (Northern camp or camp IV). In connection with the construction of camp IV, the protection of the entire camp was additionally strengthened. To the west of camp I, in its immediate vicinity, the Germans organized the so-called camp V, which was intended for three platoons of Ukrainian guardsmen sent to Sobibór to protect camp IV. These soldiers were not in contact with the main extermination camp and did not participate in its functioning.
Watchtowers were erected along the whole outer fence of the camp. Part of the area outside the fence was mined. Camp structures in Sobibór were composed of several separate complexes of buildings [camps no. I, II, III, IV and V]. Each of these parts was surrounded by additional internal fences, creating a separate and isolated whole.
The foreground of the camp (Vorlager) was located near the railway station and constituted the place of unloading transports with the victims. It also served as a residential area for the crew.
The Camp I was located to the west of Vorlager and served as a base for Jewish prisoners (Arbeitsjuden). The prisoners selected from transports were housed in barracks there, their job was to maintain the efficiency of the camp's operation.In camp II there was an office of the camp administration, which also functioned as a warehouse for the money, valuables, medicines and cosmetics stolen from the victims. Next to the office was a warehouse of stolen footwear, a pigsty, a stable and a henhouse. Near the camp II was a vegetable garden whose crops were intended for crew members. There was also a barrack in which a diesel engine was installed, producing electricity for the entire camp. The central zone of camp II was a square surrounded by a high fence made of planks. It was a place where Jews were undressing before being driven to the gas chambers. The entryway to this square led through a barrack which served as a warehouse of luggage brought by Jews. In three barracks-sorting premises adjacent to it, the workers-prisoners sorted out all luggage and personal belongings left by the victims, preparing these goods for dispatch from the camp. The square II of the camp 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 approx. 3-4 m wide and about 250 m long. At the end of this passage, there were three interconnected barracks, serving [in the second phase of the camp] the function of an undressing room and a “hairdressing” room for women and children. Camp III was the zone of the gas chamber, above ground crematoria and pits, where the bodies of gassed Jews were hidden, and then, after the reorganization of the camp, it were only the ashes of the victims. There was also a barrack and a kitchen for approximately 100-150 Jewish prisoners working in this sector, a guardhouse for the crew, small depots-warehouses and a watchtower.
Jews were transported to Sobibór by train. Sometimes Germans used trucks and carts as well. Jews from nearby towns and labour camps were driven to Sobibór on foot. When the transport with the victims reached the ramp, the camp crew separated women and children from men. People unable to move on their own - old, disabled, wounded or sick people, small children without carers - were gathered separately. Sometimes the selection was carried out so as to pick professionals for work in the forced labour units. These included: a team of craftsmen (goldsmiths, tailors, cobblers, carpenters, cooks); Bahnhofkommando - the group dealing with “the reception” of incoming transports with Jews and with all the works on the railway ramp; Pakietenkommando - these prisoners were preparing the sorted out goods of the victims to be loaded onto the wagons; Sortierkommando - the most numerous unit sorting and checking (primarily removing Stars of David from clothing) the clothing and belongings left behind by the victims of the camp; Friseurkommando – this group included prisoners who cut hair of women being led to a gas chamber; Waldkommando – a group of several dozen prisoners formed to saw timber for construction purposes and to cut wood for heating and cooking in the camp. When the bodies of victims started to be cremated, this group was enlarged because it also supplied wood used for stakes where the bodies were burned; Baumkommando - masons, carpenters, painters, mechanics - about 20 men; “Polishers” – people who cleaned German and Ukrainian quarters and other rooms used by the camp crew; Soderkommando of camp III [approx. 100-150 Jews], dealing with the gas chamber, crematoria and mass graves. The task of all these groups [in total, approximately 500-550 people] was, only and exclusively, to maintain a high level of functionality of the camp. By the decision of Christian Wirth, the Germans only engaged the Jews in the process of extermination. The work of each Kommando was essential and they were present at every stage of extermination.
The arrival of each transport meant subordinating the whole camp to one goal - immediate extermination of the prisoners. Both the SS men and the Ukrainian guards were charged with unloading and securing the passage of prisoners. The activities were always the same. The Jews who were able to move on their own were led to a large barrack in camp II, where they were forced to leave their luggage. Then the victims were driven to the undressing square. Germans and wachmen led the naked victims along the “road to heaven” to camp III. There, all of them were pushed into the gas chambers. The gas chambers were arranged in such a way that they resembled baths. In the initial period, they contained more than 500 people simultaneously [4 cells]. After the expansion [a total of 8 cells, 5m x 7m each], the capacity of the chambers doubled. Victims were killed by exhaust gases brought to the cells from a special annex next to the chamber where the gasoline engine was located. The killing process lasted about 15-20 minutes. When the perpetrators made sure that all the victims were dead, the Jewish prisoners [Sonderkommando of camp III] removed the corpses, pulled out victims’ gold teeth and dental bridges, checked the natural openings of the bodies in search of hidden valuables, and cleaned the chamber of traces of blood, vomit and faeces. The corpses were loaded onto narrow-gauge railway wagons and transported over mass graves and buried there. Sobibór was the first extermination camp of the Operation Reinhardt, where the burial of corpses was replaced with cremation. In the summer of 1942, mass graves became overfilled. As a result, the stench of decomposing corpses was beginning to spread in the area, and nearby wells were at risk of being poisoned. In the autumn, the excavator was brought in, with the help of which mass graves were opened, tens of thousands of decaying corpses were dug out, and then they were burned on above-ground crematoria made of railway rails. As from autumn 1942, all the bodies of the victims were burned.
Disabled people, waiting 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 in carts, and after the reorganization of the camp in wagons of narrow-gauge railway to camp III, and shot there.
During the 18 months of the operation of the extermination centre in Sobibór, about 120 German soldiers served there. At the same time, approximately 25-30 German crew members “worked” in Sobibór. The first commander of the extermination centre in Sobibór was Franz Stangl, who held this office until August 1942. Franz Reichleitner was the second and at the same time the last commander of the camp. Almost all of German extermination camp personnel were beforehand involved in the “euthanasia action” aimed at the disabled people [Action T4]. All ex-commanders of extermination camps were without exception veterans of this “program”.
Part of the crew at the German extermination centre in Sobibór were auxiliary sub-units of the camp guards who came 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, Trawnikimanner, Hiwis (short form for the German word Hilfswilliger, meaning “willing to help”), “blacks”, because of the colour of the uniform they wore, or “wachmen”. Initially, their recruitment was conducted only among Soviet prisoners of war [they were mainly ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Tatars], and then among civilian volunteers. It can be assumed that over the time of their operation ca. 400 people served in the guard units in Sobibór. The wachmen performed all current “camp tasks”, including those connected directly with the extermination of Jews. They administered punishment, tortured and executed prisoners. Hiwis’ cynicism was as evil as SS men’s premeditation. Each of them committed many criminal acts, although they all emphasized that they were always being commanded and, aware of the consequences of refusing orders, they had no other option. Most of them quickly fitted into the rhythm of the extermination process and with great eagerness performed the tasks entrusted to them. They were generally known for their cruelty and brutality towards Jews.
On October 14, 1943, a prisoners’ uprising, led by Aleksander “Sasha” Peczerski, broke out in the camp. It ended with a mass escape of prisoners. Approximately 300 people escaped from the camp [about 130 prisoners from this group were captured or killed during the chase, 56 were killed “by non-German hands” while hiding after escape, the fate of about 30 other prisoners is unknown]. The organizers of the rebellion realized that although imprisoned in an extermination camp they still had a possibility to succeed and escape. Those, who managed to run away and survive the war recalled that they had no dreams of liberation and freedom. They only counted on the destruction of the camp and death from bullets rather than from gas. An important factor, which reassured the prisoners that there was a chance of the ultimate success of the rebellion in a decisive way, was the presence of a strong leader who directed the “energy” and zeal of the prisoners. Aleksander Peczerski was able to keep the existence of a resistance group in the conditions of camp repressions. The prisoners were convinced that the Germans were planning to liquidate the camp. The members of the resistance movement in the Sobibór extermination centre believed that organizing a successful escape was possible and they gladly looked towards the eventuality of death in the uprising. The plan of the uprising was very carefully prepared.
In consequence of the success of the uprising, the Germans decided 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 dismantled materials were taken away. Pine trees were planted over the whole area of the camp.
In mid-December 1943, all work related to the liquidation of the German extermination centre 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 wachmen. These buildings and the continuing Germans supervision over the area of the former camp indicate that during its destruction, the command of the camp had already known about the further function of that place. As from January 1944, the control over it was taken by the Office of Building Service (Baudienst) from Chełm. Dozens of so-called “brave youth” were moved from Chełm to Sobibór and housed in the area of the former German extermination centre. Every day, under the supervision of German and Ukrainian guards, they went to work on the Bug River, where they built various types of defensive fortifications.
In July 1944, the area of the former extermination camp was captured by the Red Army and the Polish People’s Army. As from September 1944, the barracks left by the Germans and the camp railway ramp were used by the new Polish authorities as a railway station for resettlement of the Ukrainian population. In 1944-1947, Ukrainians from the eastern part of the Lublin district were transported to Ukraine or to the western part of Poland. Ukrainians waiting for their trains (sometimes even longer than a week) needed wood for bonfires. They dismantled the remaining camp barracks, thus completing the works of final obliteration of the last traces of the German extermination centre in Sobibór. The work of total destruction of everything that remained from the camp, including digging up the soil to find the expected “expensive things of the Jews” was done by the local inhabitants.
We know the names of 128 people who survived World War II and were prisoners of Sobibór, according to their own testimonies or according to the statements and accounts of witnesses. 112 people attested their stay in the Sobibór extermination centre in the form of reports, testimonies, declarations and interviews. These were the prisoners who escaped from the camp during the uprising on October 14, 1943, fled the camp before the uprising as well as the people who were deported to Sobibór and from there, on the day of their arrival or the next day, were sent to other camps. 16 people, as the former prisoners of the German camp in Sobibór, were described by witnesses - other former prisoners of Sobibór, and by people and institutions studying the history of the camp. It can be assumed [while 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 October 14, 1943, survived World War II. Three of these people are still alive [Selma Engel, Lea Białowicz and Semyon Rozenfeld].
In the 1960s, there were several court cases in the USSR dealing with the unmasked and exposed former Ukrainian guards of Sobibór. In the years 1962-1963, a trial of 11 former wachmen took place in Kiev. Aleksander Peczerski participated in this trial as the key prosecution witness. In April 1963, the court sentenced to death 10 defendants and the eleventh one, Ivan Tieriechow, to 15 years of imprisonment. In June 1965, a court in Kiev sentenced to death three more ex-guards of extermination camps in Bełżec and Sobibór. In 1965, a new trial of former wachmen began in Krasnodar. One of the witnesses of this procedure was Aleksy Wajcen, who took part in the Sobibór Uprising, and who recognized wachman Zajcew. Among the six defendants was also Podienok, who managed to hide from justice and worked as a teacher after the war.In May 2011, the court of first instance in Munich sentenced former Sobibor wachman, Ivan Demianiuk, to 5 years in prison for complicity in the murder of 29,060 Jews who were killed in Sobibór during his service there. Demianiuk died in March 2012, before the appeal procedure was completed.
The first trials of the Germans from the Sobibór crew took place at the beginning of the 1950s. In May 1950, the court in Berlin sentenced Erich Bauer to the death penalty, changed into a life sentence after the introduction of a new German constitution. On August 25, 1950, the court in Frankfurt am Main sentenced Hubert Gomerski to life imprisonment and acquitted Johann Klier. The most important trial against the members of the crew of Sobibór death centre began in Hagen in September 1965. The State Court in Hagen announced the verdicts on December 20, 1966. One of the accused was sentenced to life imprisonment and five to imprisonment for the duration of three to eight years. Five defendants were acquitted. Kurt Bolender, responsible for the operation of camp III in the Sobibór extermination centre, committed suicide. Franz Stangl, former commandant of the Sobibór camp was arrested in Brazil in 1967, and extradited to Germany. In 1970, the court in Dusseldorf sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The idea of commemorating the victims murdered in the German camp for immediate extermination in Sobibór was born in the mid-1960s on the initiative of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites. The place of genocide was commemorated with a mound - mausoleum containing the ashes of the murdered and a monument. Since 1993, the Museum - Memorial Site has been operating in the area of the former camp.
Dr Marek Bem