The Sobibor extermination camp was located near Sobibor village, in the eastern part of the
district of Poland,
close to the
Chelm - Wlodawa railway line
. The Bug River (5 km away) today forms
the border with
the Ukraine. In
it was the border between the Generalgouvernement
. The area was swampy and is today as densely wooded as it was then.
The camp was the second death camp to be constructed as part of the Aktion Reinhard programme,
and was built on similar lines to
(the first Aktion Reinhard
camp), following the lessons learned there.
Several days after a visit by a small aircraft that circled over the village, a train arrived at Sobibor.
Two SS officers disembarked, construction engineers from the SS-Zentralbauleitung
. They were
, the construction expert for Aktion Reinhard
, and construction
. They walked around the station, took measurements and
finally made their way into the forest opposite the station.
In March 1942
a new spur was built, which ended at a concrete ramp (still visible in
2004). The ramp is opposite the station building. The camp fence (with interwoven branches) was
built in a manner which ensured that the special spur and the ramp were located inside the camp, thus preventing
passengers at the station from seeing what happened behind the fence. 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-storey post office.
As construction work progressed (by 80 Jews from nearby ghettos), the site was inspected by a
commission led by SS-Hauptsturmführer Naumann
, head of the
Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS
and Police in
. Once the Jews had completed the initial
construction phase, they were shot.
In April 1942 SS-Obersturmführer
was appointed commander of Sobibor. His first task was
the speeding up of the construction works. Stangl
, the commander of
, to obtain guidance and experience.
After his return the building of the camp was accelerated. In Mid April 1942
the camp was ready to receive the first transports.
The camp was in the form of a 400 x 600 m rectangle, surrounded by a 3 m high double barbed wire fence,
partially intertwined with pine branches to prevent observation from the outside (e.g. at the station area).
Along the fence and in the corners of the camp were wooden watchtowers.
Each of the four camp areas was individually fenced in: The SS administration area (Vorlager
and workshops of the Jewish command (Camp I), the "reception" area (Camp II) and the real extermination
site (Camp III).
included the ramp, with space for 20 railway cars,
as well as the living quarters for the SS staff, both German and Ukrainian (Trawniki men / "Trawnikis").
also included the main gate. On top of the main gate was a wooden sign about 0.60 x 2.40 m,
with the words SS-Sonderkommando
, painted in Gothic letters. Unlike
the SS men lived inside the camp.
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 their suitcases, removal of clothing, cutting of women's hair and the confiscation of
possessions and valuables. On their way to the gas chambers the naked victims passed various buildings; some
warehouse barracks, a second former forester's house separated by a high wooden fence (used as the camp offices
and living quarters for some of the SS men), a small agricultural area with stables for horses, cattle, swine and
geese, and about 450 m south of the gas chambers, a small wooden Catholic chapel in the shadow of tall pine trees.
A high observation tower overlooked the entire area.
The most isolated extermination area (Camp III) was located in the northwestern part of the camp.
It contained the gas chambers, burial trenches and housing for the Jewish prisoners employed there.
A path, 3 - 4 m wide and 150 m long (the "Tube"), led from the reception area to the extermination
area. On either side the path was fenced in with barbed wire, intertwined with pine branches. Through it,
the naked victims were herded towards the gas chambers. The barber's shop, a barrack where the hair
of the Jewish women was cut for further use in Germany, was halfway through the Tube.
were inside a brick building. Individual chambers
were square shaped (4 x 4 m) and had a capacity of 160 - 180 persons. Each gas chamber was entered through a small
door, leading from a veranda which ran along the length of the building. After gassing the bodies were removed
through a 2 x 2 m folding door, opposite to the entrance, and placed on a second veranda. Outside the building
was an annex in which a motor produced the deadly carbon monoxide gas. Water pipes conducted the gas to the
The burial pits were 50 - 60 m long, 10 - 15 m wide, and 5 - 7 m deep. The sandy walls were constructed obliquely
in order to facilitate the burying of the corpses. A narrow gauge railway with tippers led from the station to the
burial pits, bypassing the gas chambers.
While the basic installations were being made ready to exterminate the Jews, the organisation of the
SS and Ukrainians was also taking shape. Stangl
, an Austrian with
experience in the euthanasia program, had as his deputy another SS man with euthanasia experience:
, who was replaced a few months later by
SS-Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner
. Camp I, where the Jewish
prisoners worked, and Camp III had their own commanders, subordinated to Stangl
The commander of Camp I was SS-Oberscharführer Weiss
was replaced by SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel
. He had
previously supervised the Jewish prisoners in Camp II. SS-Oberscharführer
served as commander of Camp III from
April 1942 until Autumn 1942
. He was later replaced by
SS-Oberscharführer Erich Bauer
was in charge of the camp administration, later
transferred to Camp III.
The Ukrainian guards at Sobibor came from the SS training camp in
where they were trained by
SS-Scharführer Erich Lachmann
He had been in charge of these "Trawnikis" since August 1942
In autumn 1942
he was replaced by Bolender
The Trawnikis were organized in three platoons, led by Ukrainians who had already served in the German police
and held appropriate ranks.
In mid-April 1942
when the camp was nearly completed, experimental gassings
took place. About 250 Jews from
forced labour camp
were brought there for this purpose.
, the commander of
, arrived in Sobibor to
witness these gassings, accompanied by the chemist Dr Karl Blaurock
After the experimental killings had been carried out, the mass exterminations began in the first
days of May 1942
, consisting of up to 60 wagons,
stopped at Sobibor station. Then a locomotive pushed 18 - 20 freight cars through the gate into the camp. When
these had been unloaded, the next part of the train was picked up and pushed into the camp. The escort and railway
workers had to stay outside the fencing. Only a specialised team of trusted Reichsbahn
employees was allowed
to enter the camp. Once inside, the train stopped alongside the ramp and the cars were opened by the Ukrainian guards.
Those who were still alive were ordered to disembark from the dark, malodorous wagons. SS men drove them to the
"Reception Area" in Camp II. A
played during this procedure.
SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender
testified how the
extermination process operated:
"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
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 entered the gas chambers, the Ukrainians closed the doors. The
was switched on by the Ukrainian
and by the German driver
. After the gassing,
the doors were opened and the corpses were removed by a group of Jewish workers."
Elderly people, the sick and invalids were told they would receive medical treatment. They were put in carts
(later the railway tippers were used) which were pushed by men or pulled by a horse directly to the pits in Camp III,
where those who had been so transported were shot.
Some survivors have suggested that a flock of geese was kept in Camp III specifically for the purpose of
drowning out the screams of the victims with their honking. Whilst it is known that geese were kept at
Sobibor (and at Belzec
there is no definitive evidence that the birds were used for
this purpose. Witnesses may have assumed that the honking of the geese, frightened by the screaming guards
and terrified victims, formed part of the plan to mask the activities of the gas chambers. It seems more
probable that the geese were kept as a source of food for the Germans, and any noise made
by them during the extermination process was simply coincidental. However, it is understandable that inmates
may have thought that this was part of an intentional attempt at concealment.
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-Oberscharführer Alfred Ittner
, who was the
camp accountant. Later he was replaced by SS-Scharführer
A limited number of skilled workers were selected from the transports, among them carpenters, tailors,
shoemakers and a few dozen strong young men and women. It was their duty to carry out the physical labour.
See the edited extracts from the memoirs of Stanislaw ("Schlomo") Szmajzner!
Every day some of them were shot or sent to the gas chambers. Their ranks were filled by arrivals from
new transports. Some deportees were taken to Camp III, where they had to remove the gassed bodies and bury them.
Others were engaged in collecting and sorting out the victim's property
which was sent to Germany
The 200 - 300 Jewish prisoners who were kept in Camp III had no contact with those in the other parts of the
camp. Their food was cooked in Camp I and taken by Jewish prisoners to the gate of Camp III.
During the first phase of killing operations in Sobibor, from 5 May
) until the end of July 1942
, at least 90,000
- 100,000 Jews perished in Sobibor.
The transports mainly came from ghettos or transit camps in the
district (at least 57,000), the Czech Republic
and Slovakia (6,000) as well as Germany and Austria (10,000).
At the end of July 1942
the deportations to Sobibor ceased,
because of reconstruction works on the
Lublin - Chelm railway line
. During the next two months
only a few smaller transports from some nearby ghettos arrived.
Because the killing capacity (600 people per gassing) could not cope with the increasing number of transports,
during this phase the old gas chambers were replaced by a larger building. The construction works
were supervised by SS Unterscharführer Erwin Lambert
SS-Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt
. They were the principals
involved in the building of all of the gas chambers of Aktion Reinhard
and of the Nazi euthanasia programme
The new building had six gas chambers, three on each side of a corridor that ran through
the centre of the structure. Now 1,300 people could be gassed at the same time.
After the construction works at the
Lublin - Chelm railway line
were completed, transports from the
(145,000 - 155,000) and Slovakia (25,000) arrived between October
1942 and June 1943
In early February 1943 Reichsführer-SS
visited the camp. It was cleaned and looked virtually idle.
It is therefore probable that Himmler
gave the order that henceforth, transports
from the Netherlands should go to Sobibor, as well as to other death camps. Himmler
also watched a special demonstration of gassing in which several hundred Jewish girls from a nearby work camp lost
In March 1943
transports from France
brought 4,000 people. All of them were killed.
from the Netherlands
between March and
, carrying 34,313 Jews in passenger trains (the exact numbers may never be confirmed, but most sources
state that there were 19 transports, 34,313 Jews deported and less than 20 survivors). They were greeted by the SS with a polite welcome, in
order to allay any concerns on the deportees' behalf. Of course the Dutch Jews also finally met their end in the gas
chambers. If these people had not been convinced that they were being transported to work camps somewhere in the
East, it is conceivable that they would have tried to escape from the trains whilst in transit.
On 5 July 1943 Himmler
addition of a munitions supply area (Camp IV). Bunkers were built and mines were laid around the camp.
The last transports came from the
: 14,000 Jews arrived in the
second half of September 1943
Resistance and escape attempts occurred throughout the camp's existence. On 20 July 1943
the "Forest Command" (Waldkommando
/ cutting trees, making firewood and branches for camouflage of the fences)
revolted. Eight prisoners managed to escape, all others were shot.
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
In one of the last transports from
, Jewish members of the Red Army were brought to the camp.
One of these was Lt. Aleksander (Sascha) Pechersky
. He became the camp
underground's commander, with Feldhendler
as his deputy.
The revolt was planned to occur on 13 October 1943
, but the
unexpected arrival of an SS troop from the labour camp at
, caused a delay of 24 hours.
On 14 October 1943 Reichleitner,
Wagner and Gomerski
were on leave. The absence of Wagner
, two of the cruellest SS men in Sobibor, seriously weakened
the guard garrison.
At about 4 p.m. deputy commander Johann Niemann
visited the tailor's shop to
try on a new uniform. There he was killed by Yehuda Lerner
with a blow
from an axe. The revolt had begun - there was no turning back.
Ten Germans, two Volksdeutsche
and eight Ukrainian guards were killed, SS-Oberscharführer
was seriously injured.
On 15 October 1943, the SSPF Lublin
advised his neighbouring SSPF
SS Brigadeführer Wilhelm Günther
, that some 700 Jews had broken out of the Sobibor camp and
would be escaping in Günther
s direction. Counter-measures should be
undertaken. In fact at this time Sobibor held 700 Jews but not all of them fled (source: S. Tyas), so that a
smaller number (approximately 300) of escapees must be estimated. Most of these lost their lives in the
that followed, organized by the SS and police units.
Following the revolt in
in August 1943
, and the dismantling of its
facilities, the last prisoners and SS men were directed from there to Sobibor on
20 October 1943
On 23 November 1943 Wagner
the execution of the last remaining thirty Jews. The SS men
Jührs, Sporleder and Zierke
, assisted by Trawnikis
(among them Bodessa and Kaiser
), made these Jews work at the double,
at meaningless heavy labour. The Jews were then executed in batches of five by a bullet in the neck.
In the wake of the uprising the Germans decided to liquidate Sobibor. Camp III, the extermination area, was
immediately destroyed. The other facilities, especially those close to the ramp, were used until July 1944 as
a camp for the German Baudienst
(Construction Service). According to a witness in
, who worked there as
member of the Baudienst
, the gas chambers were not destroyed in course of Camp III's dismantling but at a
In the summer of 1944
, the Sobibor area was liberated by the Red Army and Polish
forces. At the end of the war, about fifty Jewish former inmates of the camp were still alive. Many had been
in hiding or had joined the partisans.
Because Sobibor was no longer used as extermination camp, most of the barracks were not destroyed by
the SS, but rather in the post-war era. The ramp was used until 1947 for gathering Ukrainian transports;
Between 1945 and 1947
the Ukrainian population from the eastern part of the
district was resettled to the Ukraine or to the western part of Poland. While these Ukrainians waited for their
trains (sometimes for up to one week), since they needed the wood for fuel or for campfires, they demolished
the rest of the barracks.
The large watchtower was not destroyed because it was required by the forester to observe the
forest (fire prevention). The commandant's house ("Swallow's Nest") was also not razed since it originally
belonged to the forester's administration and the Nazis simply returned it. In addition, the building was not strictly
connected with the killing process, so that the Germans reasoned that it was not necessary to demolish it.
The ramp was used until 1960
. The railway traffic ceased in
. Sobibor station was in normal use until this time.
Between 150,000 and 250,000 Jews lost their lives in Sobibor.
In post-war trials, Gasmeister Erich Bauer
was sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
also received a sentence of
life imprisonment. The main Sobibor trial was held in
The principal defendants were
Kurt Bolender, Werner Dubois
(3 years), Erich Fuchs
(4 years) and
committed suicide in his detention cell.
escaped to Brazil and committed suicide in
a first memorial was built. Today an impressive memorial and a
well-managed museum are located at the camp site.
Map "Deportation Trains": Sir Martin Gilbert
Encyclopaedia of The Holocaust
Arad. Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka
Stanislaw Smajzner. Hell in Sobibor
© ARC 2005