Sobibor Death Camp Memorial Site
Sobibor was a death camp, built by the Nazis in March 1942 for the sole purpose of killing European Jews in gas chambers. An estimated 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor during a period of only 18 months, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The old train station at the village of Sobibor is shown on the right side of the photograph above; train service to Sobibor was discontinued in 1999. Also on the right side of the photo is the house where the Commandant of the camp formerly lived.
Franz Stangl was the first Commandant of the camp. Stangl had previously headed the euthanasia center at Hartheim Castle in Austria where physically and mentally disabled Germans were killed with carbon monoxide in a gas chamber. After six months at Sobibor, Stangl was transferred to the Treblinka death camp where he served as the Commandant.
A list of all the SS men who worked at Sobibor can be found on this web site.
The train tracks are barely visible on the left side of the photo above. A railroad spur line was built at Sobibor in order to take the train cars inside the camp. The location of the former camp is to the left, across from the station, in the photo above.
The plaques on the wall at the entrance have the same message in different languages. The English version reads:
At this site, between the years 1942 and 1943, there existed a Nazi death camp where 250,000 Jews and approximately 1,000 Poles were murdered. On October 14, 1943, during the revolt by the Jewish prisoners the Nazis were overpowered and several hundred prisoners escaped to freedom. Following the revolt the death camp ceased to function. "Earth conceal not my blood" (Job)
Alan Collins, the photographer who took all of these photos, wrote the following about Sobibor:
This is one of the lesser known camps though there was a Hollywood film regarding the mass escape from it. It was a bit of a disappointment with 2 monuments next to each other and a third close by. The museum was small with not much of an exhibition. Whilst I was there a coach party arrived. It took them 5 minutes to walk to the monuments, 10 minutes to walk around them and take photographs, and 5 minutes to walk back to their coach. It took me just 10 minutes to walk slowly around the museum. Though the area is well tended I feel more of an effort could have been made considering tens of thousands of people were murdered there. The camp is open daily from 1st May to 14th October between 0900-1400.
The Sobibor camp was on the eastern edge of German-occupied Poland, five kilometers west of the Bug river. The Bug river was as far as trains from western Europe could go without changing the wheels to fit the train tracks in the Soviet Union, which were a different gauge. On the other side of the Bug river from Sobibor was Ukraine, which had belonged to the Soviet Union until it was taken by the Germans shortly after their invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The unsuspecting victims who arrived at Sobibor were told that they would be sent to work camps in Ukraine after they had taken a shower, but instead, the Jews were immediately killed in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms.
Sobibor was one of the three Aktion Reinhard camps which were set up following the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 when "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe" was planned. The head of Aktion Reinhard (Operation Reinhard) was SS-Brigadeführer Odilio Globocnik, who had previously been the Gauleiter of Vienna, Austria. Globocnik and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler both committed suicide after being captured by the British.
The other two Aktion Reinhard camps were Belzec and Treblinka. The first Commandant at Belzec was Christian Wirth, who was also the Inspector of the Aktion Reinhard camps. Belzec and Treblinka were also very near the Bug river which formed the eastern border between German-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. Across the Bug river from Treblinka was Belorussia (White Russia) which is now called Belarus.
According to the figures given by the Nazis at the Wannsee Conference, there were approximately 5 million Jews in the Soviet Union in January 1942, including 2,994,684 in Ukraine and 446,484 in Belorussia. There were another 2,284,000 Jews in the area of German-occupied Poland known as the General Government. At the Conference, the Nazis claimed that they were planning to resettle some of the Jews who were living in the General Government into Ukraine, an area of the Soviet Union which Germany controlled at that time.
The Nazis claimed that the Aktion Reinhard camps were transit camps for the "evacuation of the Jews to the East," a euphemism for the genocide of the Jews. Unlike the death camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, the three Aktion Reinhard camps did not have ovens to cremate the bodies. The Jews were not registered upon arrival at the Aktion Reinhard camps and no death records were kept.
At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in 1946, documents were introduced which showed an exchange of letters in 1943 between Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the head of all the concentration camps, and Richard Glücks, the Inspector of the Concentration Camps, in which Glücks suggested that Sobibor be converted into a concentration camp. In a letter dated 5 July 1943, Himmler rejected this idea. This indicates that Sobibor was not a concentration camp, but rather a place that was not part of the Nazi concentration camp system.
The three Aktion Reinhard camps were all in remote locations, but "each site was on a railroad line linking it with hundreds of towns and villages whose Jewish communities were now trapped and starving" in the spring of 1942, according to Martin Gilbert's book entitled "The Holocaust." Sobibor was linked by rail with many large Jewish communities, including Lublin, Wlodawa and Chelm. Jews were also brought from the Theresienstadt ghetto, located in what is now the Czech Republic, and from the Netherlands, to be gassed at Sobibor.
The city of Lublin in eastern Poland was the headquarters of Aktion Reinhard. The clothing taken from the victims at the three Aktion Reinhard camps was sent to the Majdanek camp in Lublin to be disinfected with Zyklon-B before being shipped to Germany. There were no disinfection chambers for delousing the clothing at Sobibor.
Deportations to Sobibor began in mid April 1942 with transports from the town of Zamosc in Poland, according to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert. The Jews from the Lublin ghetto were also sent to Sobibor to be gassed, although there were several gas chambers at Majdanek just outside the city of Lublin. During the first phase of the extermination of the Jews at Sobibor, which lasted until July 1942, around 100,000 Jews were gassed to death. Their bodies were buried in mass graves, then dug up later and burned on pyres. During the next phase, the bodies were burned immediately, according to Toivi Blatt, one of the few survivors of Sobibor. At the age of 15, Blatt had been selected to work in sorting the clothing in the camp.
Sobibor was initially divided into three camps (Lager 1, Lager II and Lager III) but a fourth camp was added later to store munitions captured from the Soviet Army. Lager I was where the Jewish workers in the camp lived. A moat on one side of this camp prevented their escape. Lager II was where the victims undressed; Jewish workers sorted the clothing in this camp. The barracks for the German SS administrators of the camp were located in the Vorlager.
From Lager II, an SS man escorted the victims through a path lined with tree branches to the gas chambers in Lager III. Only the Ukrainian SS guards and the German SS officers were allowed in Lager III.
The Sobibor camp was 400 meters wide and 600 meters long; the entire area was enclosed by a barbed wire fence that was three meters high. On three sides of the camp was a mine field, intended to keep anyone from approaching the camp. The watch towers were manned by Ukrainian SS guards who had been conscripted from captured soldiers in the Soviet Army to assist the 30 German SS men who were the administrators of the camp. In 1965, a German court put 11 of the German SS guards on trial; 6 of them were sentenced to prison, and one committed suicide during the trial; the others were acquitted.
The victims arrived on trains which stopped at the ramp across from the Sobibor station, or in trucks from nearby Polish villages. Most of the Jews were transported in cattle cars, but the 34,000 Dutch Jews who were sent to Sobibor arrived in passenger trains, according to Toivi Blatt. The luggage of the Dutch Jews was transported in separate cars and the victims were given tags which they were told would be used to reclaim their bags. All of the belongings of the Jews were confiscated upon arrival.
At the entrance to the camp, the victims were instructed to deposit their hand baggage and purses before proceeding along the path, called the "Himmelfahrtstrasse" (Street to heaven), which led to the spot where the hair was cut from the heads of the women, and then on to the gas chambers disguised as showers. According to Toivi Blatt, all documents, photos and personal items were removed from the confiscated baggage and anything that could not be recycled to send to Germany was burned in open fires that lit up the night sky.
The photo below shows the spot in Camp III where a brick building with gas chambers once stood. A large block of stone represents the gas chambers in two buildings at Sobibor, which were torn down long ago. Survivors of Sobibor do not agree on the number or size of the gas chambers. The victims were killed with carbon monoxide from the exhaust of engines taken from captured Soviet tanks, which were stored in Camp IV. There is also disagreement on whether these were diesel engines or gasoline engines.
The red stone sculpture shown in the photos above represents a woman, looking up at the sky, holding a small child in her arms. In the background can be seen the huge mound of ashes that is located in the former Camp III. These are the ashes of the Jews who were gassed and burned at Sobibor.
The photo above shows a huge mound of ashes and bone fragments surrounded by a stone wall. In front of the wall is a glass display case which contains a small amount of ashes and bone. There is also a display of ashes and bone fragments in the Museum at Sobibor.
The same procedure of first burying the bodies and then exhuming them for burning was also followed at the Belzec, Treblinka and Chelmno extermination camps. In an attempt to destroy all the evidence, the ashes of the victims at Chelmno were hauled away secretly during the night by the SS men and taken to another town where they were dumped into a river. The ashes at Treblinka and Belzec were buried to destroy the evidence.
Only at Sobibor and Majdanek were the ashes of the victims left as incriminating evidence. There is a similar mound of ashes at the Memorial Site of the Majdanek death camp where, according to the most recent information given at the Museum, 78,000 people died including 59,000 Jews. Majdanek was both a death camp and a work camp.
During World War II, and for years afterward, the Sobibor camp was virtually unknown. William Shirer did not even mention it in his monumental 1147-page book entitled "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." It was not until the release of a 1987 TV movie, "Escape from Sobibor," based on a book with the same name, that the public knew of this remote spot where thousands of Jews lost their lives. The movie tells the story of the revolt during which around 300 prisoners escaped; no more than 50 of them survived to the end of the war.
According to an article in the Liverpool Daily Post, a prisoner named Leon Feldhendler had been formulating plans for an escape for many months but it wasn't until the arrival in Sobibor of a transport of Soviet prisoners of war, among them Red Army Officer Alexander 'Sasha' Pechersky, that the plan of action really began to take shape.
Initially Feldhendler and his conspirators had thought of poisoning the camp guards and making their escape but the guards discovered the poison and shot 5 prisoners in reprisal. Another idea, to set fire to the camp and escape in the confusion, had to be abandoned when the Germans planted mines around the camp perimeter.
Feldhendler met with Pechersky and with the aid of another man, Solomon Leitman, who acted as the interpreter, became Pechersky's main collaborator in the plot. With his military experience, the former Red Army Lieutenant quickly assumed the leadership of the escape plan.
The tollowing quote about the Sobibor uprising on October 14, 1943 is from the Liver Pool Daily Post:
Pechersky successfully escaped into the woods, but about 80 prisoners were killed during the escape. 130 of the 550 prisoners at Sobibor at the time chose not to take part in the uprising remaining in the camp.11 SS Officers, and an unknown number of Camp Guards had been killed.
Of the escapees, 170 were later rounded up and executed, along with those that had remained in the camp and took no part in the uprising.
By this stage of the war the Allies still didn't have the full picture of what Hitler's concentration camps were about. Fearing the escapees would tell the story to the World, and as anxious to save his own neck as ever he was, within days of the escape Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed down, dismantled, and planted with trees to hide the evidence.
Pechersky survived the war, the undoubted ringleader and hero of the uprising was Portrayed by Rutger Hauer in the dramatised TV film version of the story ' Escape From Sobibor ' in 1987. He died in 1990.
Leon Feldhendler was shot and killed through the closed door of his flat in 1945.
53 Sobibor escapees survived the war.
One of the survivors of the escape from Sobibor was Esther Terner Raab, who made her home in New Jersey in the USA after the war. A theatrical production called "Dear Esther" is based on letters written to her by students who heard her speak at schools and colleges.
In a TV documentary, Esther told about a party that the SS had before the escape. The SS men told Esther that they were celebrating the fact that one million Jews had been killed at Sobibor. Unlike the other Nazi death camps, the SS barracks were located inside the Sobibor camp. According to Toivi Blatt, the Jewish workers in the camp socialized with each other and sometimes with the SS guards.
Another Sobibor survivor, Moshe Bahir, testified in 1965, at the trial of several of the Sobibor perpetrators in Hagen, Germany, that he was a witness to a celebration by the Germans in February 1943 after one million Jews had been killed at Sobibor. However, Raul Hilberg wrote in his book entitled "The Destruction of the European Jews" that the number of Jews killed at Sobibor was estimated to be 200,000.
The exact number of Jews who were murdered at Sobibor is unknown since the bodies were burned on pyres and the train records were destroyed. Estimates range from 170,000 to 250,000 deaths in the short time that Sobibor was in operation.
According to Dutch historian Johannes Houwink ten Cate, the transportation list of the Jews sent on 19 trains to Sobibor from the transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands contains the names and place of birth of the 34,000 Dutch Jews, but the names of the Jews sent from other countries to Sobibor are unknown. Approximately 33,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the gas chambers at Sobibor and 1,000 were chosen as workers at Sobibor, or to be sent to a nearby labor camp. Only 19 Dutch Jews survived.
In 1999, Jules Schelvis, the sole survivor of a transport of Dutch Jews from Westerbork on June 1, 1943, founded Stichting Sobibor. The foundation's goal is to keep the memory of the Sobibor camp alive.
As of August 2008, Philip Bialowitz was one of the few survivors of the revolt at Sobibor in October 1943 who was still alive. By the time of his escape, an estimated 250,000 Jews, including most of Bialowitz's family, had been murdered at Sobibor. After the revolt, the killing stopped at Sobibor, according to Bialowitz, who emigrated to America after the war.
In his book entitled "The Holocaust," Martin Gilbert wrote about another survivor of Sobibor, Dov Freiberg, who was a 15-year-old boy on a transport of 2,750 Jews from the town of Torobin in Poland on May 12, 1942. The Jews were assembled in the town square and told that they were going to be "resettled in the Ukraine," according to Freiberg. They were then taken to the nearest railroad station at Krasnowka, where they were joined by Jews from other nearby towns and villages. When their train arrived at the camp, the story of resettlement seemed to be coming true: a sign at the entrance to the camp said "SS Sonderkommando Umsiedlungslager." which means "SS special unit resettlement camp" in English.
According to Freiberg, there was a band playing at the entrance. The women and children "went straight to the gas chambers," but since the gas chamber "didn't really operate in the night," the men "stayed there on the spot during the night." Freiberg was one of 150 Jews from this transport who "were sent to work" in the camp itself, sorting the belongings of the victims.
Martin Gilbert wrote that in the month of May 1942, there was a total of 36,000 Jews, from 19 communities between the Vistula river and the Bug river, who were transported to Sobibor and immediately killed in the gas chamber. This was the largest number of Jews gassed that month in any one camp, surpassing Auschwitz, Belzec and Chelmno. The Treblinka camp was not yet open at that time.
At the age of 15, Yaakov Biskowitz was sent on a transport of 3,400 Jews to Sobibor from the town of Hrubieszow in Poland on June 1, 1942. According to his testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, Yaakov and his father were among 12 Jews who were selected to work in the Sobibor camp. As told by Martin Gilbert in his book entitled "The Holocaust," Biskowitz recalled how those who were too sick or too old to walk the length of the path to the gas chamber were taken to the so-called Lazarett (hospital) on a small rail spur used to carry coal. Men who could not run fast enough, and small children, would be thrown into the coal wagons and sent to the hospital where they would be shot by the Ukrainian guards.
According to Yaakov Biskowitz, as reported by Martin Gilbert, there were 8 Jews who were forced to work in Camp 3, burning the bodies of the victims who had been gassed. These 8 Jews also sorted the belongings and burned all damaged clothing, personal documents and photographs. Biskowitz testified at the Eichmann trial that his father was shot at the Lazarett (hospital) because he came down with typhoid. (The German word for typhoid is "spotted fever," the same as the word for typhus; it is more likely that Biskowitz had typhus, which was a problem in the camps in Poland.)
On November 30, 2009, John Demjanjuk, an 89-year-old alleged Ukrainian SS guard at Sobibor, was put on trial in a German court. Demjanjuk was convicted of the crime of being an accessory to the murder of around 27,900 Jews, based on 23 eye-witness accounts that he was one of the men who led the victims to the gas chambers at Sobibor. The eye-witnesses gave their testimony to interrogators of the Soviet Union many years ago and were all dead at the time of the trial.
Demjanjuk had been previously tried and convicted 20 years ago in an Israeli court after he was identified by eye witnesses as a Ukrainian guard nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible" at Treblinka. He spent 7 years in prison in Israel before he was won the case on appeal.
Old Photos of Sobibor - external link
This page was last updated on July 17, 2012