Sobibor extermination camp

Sobibor (/sˈbbɔːr/) was a Nazi German extermination camp built and operated by the SS as part of Operation Reinhard. It was located in the forest next to the railway station of Sobibór within the semi-colonial territory of General Government in occupied Poland.

"Sobibor" redirects here. For other uses, see Sobibor (disambiguation).

Extermination camp
Sketch of Sobibor drawn during its operation

Location of Sobibór (right of centre) on the map of German extermination camps marked with black and white skulls. Poland's borders before the Second World War
Location of Sobibor in Poland today
Coordinates51°26′50″N 23°35′37″E
Other namesSS-Sonderkommando Sobibor
Known forGenocide during the Holocaust
LocationNear Sobibór, General Government (occupied Poland)
Built by
Original useExtermination camp
First builtMarch 1942 – May 1942
Operational16 May 1942 – 14 October 1943[1]
Number of gas chambers 
3 (expanded to 6)[2]
InmatesJews mainly from Poland, but also from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union (including POWs)
Number of inmatesEst. 600–650 slave labour at any given time
KilledEst. min. 170,000–250,000
Notable inmatesPhilip Bialowitz, Thomas Blatt, Max van Dam, Leon Feldhendler, Dov Freiberg, Simjon Rosenfeld, Jules Schelvis, Joseph Serchuk, Shlomo Szmajzner, Alexander Pechersky, Emanuel Querido, Selma Wijnberg-Engel

Unlike many other Nazi camps, Sobibor existed for the sole purpose of exterminating Jews. Although most new arrivals were sent to the gas chambers immediately, occasionally some were chosen to serve as slave laborers to assist in the operation of the camp. Roughly 200,000 people were murdered at Sobibor,[3] making it the fourth most deadly extermination camp after Belzec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz.

Sobibor is notable for the prisoner revolt which took place on 14 October 1943, often described as the most successful to take place in a Nazi extermination camp. The plan for the revolt, developed by Alexander Pechersky and Leon Feldhendler, involved two phases. In the first phase, teams of prisoners were to assassinate all of the on-duty SS officers in discrete locations. In the second phase, all 600 prisoners would assemble for roll call and walk to freedom out the front gate. However, the revolt did not go as planned. The operation was discovered while several SS officers were still alive and prisoners ended up having to escape by climbing over barbed wire fences and running through a mine field under heavy machine gun fire. Even so, about 300 prisoners made it out of the camp, of whom roughly 60 survived to the end of the war.

After the revolt the Nazis demolished the camp and planted it over with pine trees to conceal the evidence of what had happened there. In the decades after World War Two Sobibor was not well known and the site was rarely visited except by locals digging for buried valuables. Since then it has become better known through its depictions in the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Escape from Sobibor. The site now hosts the Sobibor Museum as well as ongoing archaeological excavations.



Sobibor was part of the culmination of several years of escalating measures taken against Jews in Lublin District. The area came under Nazi control with the signing of the German–Soviet Frontier Treaty on 28 September 1939, after which the SS gradually introduced the ghetto system. These ghettos became dumping grounds for Jews deported from the west.

The first Nazi camps in the area were the sixteen labour camps of the Lublin Reservation, where roughly 95,000 Jews were forced to build latifundia in exchange for small monthly pay.[4] The area was favored by Artur Seyss-Inquart who opined that because it was "swampy in its nature", it would serve well as a reservation for Jews, and that "this action would cause [their] considerable decimation."[5] Most prisoners were housed in a network of sub-camps set up in pre-existing structures such as converted school buildings, factories, and farms. The Krychów camp, established at a former Polish prison, was the largest and main branch of the complex.[6] During preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, the plan was discontinued for reasons which remain unclear.[7] Nevertheless, numerous labour camps remained in use.

The escalation from brutal forced labour to outright extermination was settled upon gradually between 1940 and 1942. At a 17 October 1941 meeting in occupied Lublin, SS officials including Hans Frank and Odilo Globočnik discussed plans for the region's Jews to be "evacuated across the Bug". This is thought to be a euphemism for mass murder given the impracticality of a literal such resettlement.[8] Over the course of 1941, experiments with gas vans led to the establishment of the extermination center at Chełmno and further plans for extermination centers at Bełzec and perhaps Sobibor as well. At the Wansee Conference on 20 January 1942, Reinhard Heydrich explicitly outlined a plan for systematic extermination which would become known as Operation Reinhard.[9]

It is not known when the plans for Sobibor were established.[10] The Nazis may have had plans for the site as early as 1940, as evidenced by a railway map which omits several major towns, but includes Sobibor as well as several other sites which would eventually host extermination camps.[11] However, no documents survive which allow the reconstruction of the decision-making process. Thus, the earliest firm evidence for the Nazis plans comes from the testimony of local Poles, who noticed in autumn 1941 that SS officers were beginning some sort of project in the woods next to Sobibor station. When a worker at the station cafeteria asked one of the SS men what was being built, he replied that she would soon see and that it would be "a good laugh."[12]

Camp construction

Sobibor was located near the rural county's major town of Włodawa, called Wolzek by the Germans. The camp's location was selected due to its proximity to the Sobibór railway station on the Chełm  Włodawa railway line connecting General Government with Reichskommissariat Ukraine.[13] Camp construction was supervised by SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla, a civil engineer by profession, who had previously built the Bełżec camp. He applied the lessons learned there to the design of Sobibor.[14]

SS Officers began preparing the site in October 1941[15] and construction had begun in earnest by March 1942.[16] The first workers summoned to build the railroad spur were local people from neighbouring villages and towns, but the camp was primarily built by a Sonderkommando of about eighty Jews from ghettos within the vicinity of the camp. These Jews were massacred upon completion of construction, although two escaped back to Włodawa where they attempted to warn the local Jewish council. However, their warnings were met with disbelief.[17][18]

In mid-April 1942, experimental gassings were conducted in the nearly finished camp.[19] Christian Wirth, the commander of Bełżec and Inspector of Operation Reinhard, visited Sobibor to witness one of these gassings, which took the lives of thirty to forty Jewish women brought specially from the Krychów camp.[20] He reportedly complained about the fitting of the gas chambers' doors.[19] Some 250 Jews from Krychów were killed during these trials.[13]

On 28 April 1942, SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl arrived at Sobibor to serve as its first commandant. He was appointed by Heinrich Himmler due to his experience in the T-4 Euthanasia Program as deputy office manager at both the Hartheim and Bernburg extermination hospitals. According to Stangl, Odilo Globočnik initially told him that Sobibor was a supply camp for the army. He learned the true nature of the camp when Hermann Michel took him to see the gas chamber hidden in the woods: "The moment I saw it – I realised what Michel had had in mind – it looked exactly the same as the gas chamber in Schloss Hartheim."[19] Feeling overwhelmed by a new job, Stangl first studied the Bełżec camp operations and management, where the extermination operations had already started. He accelerated the completion of Sobibor.[21]

Erich Fuchs, who spent time installing the killing apparatus at the three Reinhard death camps of Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec, explained how the gassing of victims at Sobibor was developed. On Wirth's orders, he acquired a heavy gasoline engine in Lemberg, disassembled from an armoured vehicle or a tractor: a 200 horsepower, V-shaped, 8 cylinder, water-cooled motor, identical to the one at Bełżec. Fuchs installed the engine on a cement base at Sobibor in the presence of Floss, Bauer, Stangl, and Barbl, and connected the engine exhaust manifold to pipes leading to the gas chamber.[22]

We put the engine on a concrete plinth and attached a pipe to the exhaust outlet. Then we tried out the engine. At first it did not work. I repaired the ignition and the valve and finally got the engine to start. The chemist whom I already knew from Bełżec went into the gas chamber with a measuring device in order to gauge the gas concentration. After that, a trial gassing was carried out. I seem to remember that thirty to forty women were gassed. The Jewesses had to undress in a clearing in the woods near the gas chamber. They were herded into the gas chamber by the above-mentioned SS members and Ukrainian volunteers. Once the women were locked inside, I attended to the engine together with Bauer. At first the engine was in neutral. We both stood next to the engine and switched it up to "release exhaust to chamber" so that the gases were channelled into the chamber. On the instigation of the chemist I revved up the engine to high RPM making further accelerating unnecessary. After about ten minutes the thirty to forty women were dead. The chemist and the SS gave the signal to turn off the engine. I packed up my tools and saw the bodies being taken away. A small Lorenbahn wagon on rails was used leading to an area farther away.

Beginning on 17 March 1942, Sobibor was used for mass extermination of Jews deported from the Lublin Ghetto.[14]


Sobibor was divided into four subcamps numbered I-IV as well as a garrison area (vorlager).[19] The garrison area contained housing and recreational buildings for the camp staff-- unlike at Belzec, at Sobibor the SS men lived within the camp's perimeter.[13] The Commander's lodge was located north of the guardhouse and close to the platform; the SS canteen, the living quarters for the SS staff, and an armoury, were next to it.[2]

Camp I ("Lager I") contained prisoner barracks and workshops. It was built behind the garrison area, directly west of the main gate. The zone was made escape-proof by surrounding it with barbed wire fences and a moat constructed along the perimeter, outside of which were minefields.[23] The only opening was a gate leading to the work area. The camp zone included the living quarters for the Jewish prisoners as well as the prisoners' kitchen. Each labourer was given about 12 square feet (1.1 square metres) of sleeping space.[2]

Camp II ("Lager II") was a larger section that included services for the killing process, the administration building, as well as the everyday operation of the camp. Some 400 prisoners worked there. It contained the warehouses used for storing the items taken from the victims, including clothes, food, hair, gold, and other valuables. In Camp II, new arrivals were prepared for their death. Here they undressed, women's hair was shaved, clothing was searched and sorted, and documents were destroyed in the nearby furnace. The victims' final steps were taken on a path surrounded by barbed wire. As in Treblinka and Belzec, it was called the "Road to Heaven" or der Schlauch ("the tube"), and led directly to the gas chambers.[24][25]

At Camp III ("Lager III") the victims were killed. It was in the northwestern part of the camp, where there were only two ways to enter the camp, from Lager II. The camp staff and personnel entered through a small plain gate. The entrance for the victims descended immediately into the gas chambers and was decorated with flowers and a Star of David above the entrance to the gas chambers.[2] In the gas chambers, 500 people were murdered at a time.[26]

Camp IV ("Lager IV") was added in July 1943, and was still under construction at the time of the revolt. Located in a heavily wooded area to the north of the other camps, it was being developed as a munitions depot for processing arms taken from Red Army soldiers.[27]

Life among the prisoners

Because Sobibor was an extermination camp, the only prisoners who lived there were the roughly 600 slave labourers forced to assist in the operation of the camp.[28] While survivors of Auschwitz use the term “selected” to mean being selected for death, at Sobibor being “selected” meant being selected to live, at least for a while.[29] The harsh conditions in the camp took the lives of most new arrivals within a few months.[30]


Prisoners worked from 6am to 6pm six days a week, with a short lunch break in the middle. Sundays were officially half days, with the remainder of the day spent cleaning and resting. However, this tradition was not always respected.[31][32] Prisoners with specialized skills worked as goldsmiths, sign painters, gardeners, shoemakers, and tailors. While their labor camp was intended to support the functioning of the camp, much of it was diverted to enrich the SS officers. For instance, Max van Dam and Moredechai Goldfarb were nominally sign painters, but SS officers also forced them to paint landscapes, portraits, and hagiographic imagery of Hitler.[33][34] Similarly, 14 year old Shlomo Szmajzner was placed in charge of the machine shop largely to cover for his true role making gold medallions and jewelry for SS officers.[35] Because these prisoners were considered valuable, they were afforded special privileges and were less likely to be beaten or killed by the guards.[36]

Those without specialized skills worked a variety of other jobs. In Lager II, many prisoners worked in the sorting barracks, combing through the belongings of those murdered in the gas chambers and packaging anything in good condition to be sent to German civilians disguised as “charity gifts”.[37] These workers could also be called on to serve in the railway brigade, where they helped unload arriving prisoner transports. The railway brigade was considered a relatively appealing job, since it gave famished workers access to luggage which was often full of food.[38] A particularly horrifying job was that of the “barbers” who cut the hair of women who were about to be gassed. This job was often forced upon young male prisoners in an attempt to humiliate both them and the naked women whose hair they were cutting. Armed guards supervised the process to ensure that barbers did not respond to victims' questions or pleas.[39]

In Lager III, a special unit of Jewish prisoners were forced to directly assist in the extermination process. Their tasks included removing bodies, searching cavities for valuables, scrubbing blood and excrement from the gas chambers, and cremating the corpses. Because these prisoners were direct witnesses to genocide, they were kept strictly isolated from other prisoners and the Nazis would periodically liquidate those who hadn’t already succumbed to the physical and psychological toll of the work. Since no workers from Lager III survived, nothing is known about their lives or experiences.[40]

Prisoners struggled with the fact that their labor made them complicit in mass murder, albeit indirectly and unwillingly.[41] Many committed suicide.[42][43] Others endured, while finding ways to resist, if only symbolically. Common symbolic forms of resistance included praying for the dead, observing Jewish religious rites, [43] and singing songs of resistance.[44] However, some prisoners found ways of materially fighting back. For instance, while working in the sorting barracks, Selma Wijnberg-Engel would surreptitiously damage fine items of clothing to prevent them from being sent to Germany.[45]

Social relations

Because of the constant turnover in the camp population, many prisoners found it difficult to forge personal relationships.[30] Moreover, prisoners were disinclined to trust one another, especially when divided by culture or language.[46] The camp's minority of Dutch Jews were subject to derision and suspicion because of their assimilated manners and limited understanding of Yiddish.[47] German Jews faced these barriers as well, with the added implication that they might identify more with their captors than with their fellow prisoners.[48] Thus, when groups did form, they were generally based on family ties or shared nationality, and were completely closed off to outsiders.[46] Chaim Engel even found himself shunned by fellow Polish Jews after he began a romantic relationship with Dutch-born Selma Wijnberg-Engel.[49] These divisions had dire consequences for many Western Jews, who were not trusted with crucial information about goings-on in the camp. In particular, the Polish and Russian organizers of the revolt deemed it necessary to restrict to knowledge of their plan until the last moment. As a result, despite their best efforts, almost none of the western prisoners survived.[50]

Because of the expectation of imminent death, prisoners adopted a day-at-a-time outlook. Crying was rare[46] and evenings were often spent enjoying whatever of life was left. As revolt organizer Leon Feldhendler recounted after the war, “The Jews only had one goal: carpe diem, and in this they simply went wild.”[51] Prisoners sang and danced in the evenings[52] and sexual or romantic relations were frequent.[53] Some of these affairs were likely transactional, especially those between female prisoners and kapos, but others were driven by genuine bonds.[54] (For instance, Selma Wijnberg-Engel and Chaim Engel were married after the war.[54]) The Nazis allowed and even encouraged an atmosphere of merriment, going so far as to recruit prisoners for a choir at gunpoint.[55] Many prisoners interpreted these efforts as attempts by the Nazis to keep the prisoners docile and to prevent them from thinking about escape.[56]

Prisoners had a pecking order largely determined by one's usefulness to the Germans. As survivor Toivi Blatt observed, there were three categories of prisoners: the expendable “drones” whose lives were entirely at the mercy of the SS, the privileged workers whose special jobs provided some relative comforts, and finally the artisans whose specialized knowledge made them indispensable and earned them preferential treatment.[36] Moreover, as at other camps, the Nazis appointed kapos to keep their fellow prisoners in line.[57] Kapos carried out a variety of supervisory duties and enforced their commands with whips.[58] Kapos were involuntary appointees, and they varied widely in how they responded to the psychological pressures of the job. Oberkapo Moses Sturm was nicknamed "Mad Moisz" for his mercurial temperament. He would beat prisoners horrifically without provocation and then later apologize hysterically. He talked constantly of escape, sometimes merely berating the other prisoners for their inaction, other times proposing serious plans. Sturm was executed by the Nazis after one of his escape plans was betrayed by a lower ranking kapo named Herbert Naftaniel who was subsequently promoted to Oberkapo.[59] Naftaniel, nicknamed "Berliner", became a notorious figure in the camp. He viewed himself as German rather than Jewish, and took initiative in finding reasons to harass, spy on, and beat prisoners. His reign of terror came to an end after he attempted to override an order from SS-Oberscharfuhrer Karl Frenzel to increase rations for the railway brigade. With Frenzel's permission, a group of prisoners beat Berliner to death.[60]

Despite these divisions in the camp, prisoners found ways to support each other. Much of this support went to sick or injured prisoners, who were given clandestine food[61][62] as well as medicine and sanitary supplies stolen from the camp pharmacy.[63] Healthy prisoners would often take over the jobs of sick prisoners who would have been killed by the guards for not performing their duties[61] and the camp nurse Kurt Thomas regularly falsified his records to allow prisoners more than the allotted three day recovery period.[64] Prisoners sometimes attempted to rescue others from the gas chambers, but were not in general successful. For instance, members of the railway brigade attempted to warn newly arrived prisoners of their impending murder but were met with incredulity.[65] The most successful act of solidarity in the camp was the revolt on 14 October 1943, which was expressly planned so that all of the prisoners in the camp would have at least some chance of escape.[66]

Health and living conditions

Prisoners suffered from poor health due to sleep deprivation, malnourishment, stress, as well as the physical and emotional toll of grueling labour and constant beatings.[51][67] Lice, skin infections, and respiratory infections were common,[68] and typhoid swept the camp on at least one occasion.[69] In the first months after Sobibor opened, prisoners were regarded as easily replaceable and were thus shot at the first sign of illness or injury.[67] This policy resulted in such a high death rate that the constant training of new workers began to reduce the camp's efficiency. In order to increase the continuity of its labour force, the SS officers instituted a policy allowing incapacitated prisoners three days to recover. Prisoners who were still unable to work after three days were shot.[70][64]

Food in the camp was extremely limited. As at other Lublin district camps, prisoners were given about 200 grams of bread for breakfast along with ersatz coffee. Lunch was typically a thin soup sometimes with some potatoes or horse meat. Dinner could be once again simply coffee.[71] Prisoners found their personalities changing due to their constant hunger.[38] To make up for these insufficient rations, prisoners would find food other ways. Those working in the forest could smuggle mushrooms back into the camp.[72] Those working in the sorting barracks or the railway brigade would help themselves either to food or else to valuables which could be traded for food[54]. A barter system developed in the camp, which included not only prisoners but also the watchmen, who could serve as intermediaries between the Jews and local peasants, exchanging jewels and cash for food and liquor in exchange for a large cut.[73][74]

Most prisoners at Sobibor had little or no access to hygene and sanitation. There were no showers in the prisoners’ living quarters and clean water was scarce.[75] Although clothing could be washed or replaced from the sorting barracks, the camp was so thoroughly infested that there was little point.[76] However, some prisoners worked in areas of the camp such as the laundry which gave them occasional access to better hygiene.[77]

Relations with the SS

Prisoners lived in constant fear of the SS officers, who used extreme violence to enforce not only the official camp rules but also their own personal whims.[78] Prisoners were punished for transgressions as inconsequential as smoking a cigarette,[78] resting while working,[57] and showing insufficient enthusiasm when forced to sing.[32] The most common punishment was flogging. SS officers carried 80 centimeter whips which had been specially made by slave labor prisoners using leather taken from the luggage of gas chamber victims.[79] Even when flogging wasn't in itself lethal, it would prove a death sentence if it left the recipient too injured to work.[80] The SS officers also used dogs to punish prisoners. In particular, many survivors remember an unusually large and aggressive St. Bernard named Barry who Kurt Bolender and Paul Groth would sic on prisoners.[81][82] In the summer of 1943, Gustav Wagner and Hubert Gomerski formed a penal brigade, consisting of prisoners who were forced to work while running. Prisoners were assigned to the penal brigade for a period of three days, but most died before their time was up.[83][84]

In post-war trials, many SS officers insisted that the harsh punishment regimen was merely necessarily for maintaining order, though survivors testified that the perpetrators appeared to take pleasure from it.[79] SS officers treated prisoners as a source of entertainment.[85] Prisoners were constantly forced to sing: while working, while marching, during public floggings and executions, and sometimes in private as well.[86] SS Officers were known to play sadistic “games” with the prisoners, often musical or theatrical in nature. At his trial, Franz Stangl recounted an incident where Kurt Bolender forced sonderkommando members to repeatedly climb trees and sing and whistle and then jump down.[87] Some survivor testimonies recount being forced to have cock fights with their arms tied behind their backs, being forced to sing demeaning songs like "I am a Jew with a big nose", and having rats dropped into their pants while being forced to remain perfectly still.[88] Female prisoners were sexually abused on several occasions. For instance, at a postwar trial, Erich Bauer testified that two Austrian Jewish actresses named Ruth and Gisela were confined in the SS barracks where they were gang raped by SS-men including Kurt Bolender and Gustav Wagner.[89]

Prisoners developed complex relationships with their tormenters. In order to spare themselves from the most extreme cruelties, many prisoners tried to ingratiate themselves with the SS officers,[90] for instance by choosing maudlin German folk songs when ordered to sing.[91] In other cases, prisoners found themselves unwillingly favored. SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel took a liking to Selma Wijnberg-Engel, constantly smiling at her and teasingly referring to her and Chaim Engel as "bride and groom".[47] He was protective towards her, excusing her from torturous work inflicted on other Dutch prisoners[92] and sparing her when he executed all of the other sick prisoners on 11 October 1943.[93] She struggled with this attention and felt angry at herself when she noticed that she was grateful to him.[47] At his trial, Frenzel declared "I actually do believe the Jews even liked me!" [94] though both prisoners and other SS officers regarded him as exceptionally cruel and brutal.[95] Similarly, camp kommandant Franz Stangl "made a pet" of the 14 year old goldsmith Shlomo Szmajzner and regarded his post-war trial testimony as a personal betrayal. In particular, Stangl objected to the implication that his habit of bringing Smajzner sausages on the sabbath had been a deliberate attempt to torment the starving teenager. Szmajzner himself wasn't sure of Stangl's intentions: "it's perfectly true that he seemed to like me… still, it was funny, wasn't it, that he always brought it on a Friday evening?" [96]

Killing process

On either 16 or 18 May 1942, Sobibor became fully operational and began mass gassing operations. Trains entered the railway siding with the unloading platform, and the Jews on board were told they were in a transit camp. They were forced to hand over their valuables, separated by sex, and told to undress. The nude women and girls, recoiling in shame, were met by the Sonderkommando who chopped off their hair in a mere half a minute. Among the Friseur (barbers) were Thomas Blatt (age 15)[97] and Philip Bialowitz (age 13).[98] The condemned prisoners, formed into groups, were led along the 100-metre (330 ft) long "Road to Heaven" (Himmelstrasse) to the gas chambers, where they were killed using carbon monoxide released from the exhaust pipes of a tank engine.[99] During his trial, SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender described the killing operations as follows.

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 physician. Michel 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 motor was switched on by the former Soviet soldier Emil Kostenko and by the German driver Erich Bauer from Berlin. After the gassing, the doors were opened, and the corpses were removed by a group of Jewish workers.

Kurt Bolender[100]

Local Jews were delivered in absolute terror, amongst screaming and pounding. Foreign Jews, on the other hand were treated with deceitful politeness. Passengers from Westerbork, Netherlands had a comfortable journey. There were Jewish doctors and nurses attending them and no shortage of food or medical supplies on the train. Sobibór did not seem like a genuine threat.[101]

The non-Polish victims included 18-year-old Helga Deen from the Netherlands, whose diary was discovered in 2004; the writer Else Feldmann from Austria; Dutch Olympic gold medalist gymnasts Helena Nordheim, Ans Polak, and Jud Simons; gym coach Gerrit Kleerekoper; and magician Michel Velleman.[102]

After the killing in the gas chambers, the corpses were collected by Sonderkommando and taken to mass graves or cremated in the open air.[23] The burial pits were approx. 50-60m (160–200 ft) long, 10-15m (30–50 ft) wide, and 5-7m (15–20 ft) deep, with sloping sandy walls in order to facilitate the burying of corpses.[13]


Rumours that the camp would be shut down started circulating among its inmates in spring of 1943, after a drop in the number of incoming prisoner transports. A secret note carried by the Sonderkommando prisoner from Bełżec, who had been transported to Sobibór only to be killed on the railway platform there, hinted at what would happen to the prisoners if the camp were dismantled. This then led Polish-Jewish prisoners to organise an underground committee aimed at escaping from the camp.[103] In September 1943, the Sobibór underground was unexpectedly reinforced by the addition of Soviet-Jewish POWs transported from the Minsk Ghetto (along with 2,000 victims of gassing).[104] Some who survived the selection joined the group and shared their military experience.[103]

Sobibor was the site of one of two successful uprisings by Jewish Sonderkommando prisoners during Operation Reinhard. The revolt at Treblinka extermination camp on 2 August 1943 resulted in up to 100 escapees. A similar revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 7 October 1944 led to one of the crematoria being blown up, but nearly all the insurgents were killed.[105]

On 14 October 1943, members of the Sobibor underground, led by Soviet-Jewish POW Alexander Pechersky from Minsk,[104] covertly killed 11 German SS officers, overpowered the camp guards, and seized the armory.[106] Although the plan was to kill all the SS and walk out of the main gate of the camp, the killings were discovered, and the inmates ran for their lives under fire. About 300 out of the 600 Sonderkommando prisoners in the camp escaped into the forests.[2] Most of them were recaptured by the search squads.[104]

Dutch historian and Sobibor survivor Jules Schelvis estimates that 158 inmates perished in the Sobibór revolt, killed by the guards or in the minefield surrounding the camp. A further 107 were killed either by the SS, Wehrmacht, or Orpo police units pursuing the escapees. Some 53 insurgents died of other causes between the day of the revolt and 8 May 1945. There were 58 known survivors, 48 male and 10 female, from among the Arbeitshäftlinge prisoners performing slave-labour for the daily operation of Sobibór. Their time in the camp ranged from several weeks to almost two years. A handful of inmates managed to escape while assigned to the Waldkommando felling and preparing of trees for the body disposal pyres.[107]

After the revolt

Within days of the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled, and planted with trees.[2] The gas chambers were demolished. Remnants of their foundations were covered with asphalt and made to look like a road.[108] The last prisoners still in the camp, who had been used to dismantle the buildings, were killed in late November, and the last guards left the site in December.[1] Four of the chambers were uncovered by archaeologists in 2014, using modern technology.[109]

Some Sobibór survivors were spared the gas chambers because they were transferred to slave-labour camps in the Lublin reservation, upon arriving at Sobibór. These people spent several hours at Sobibór and were transferred almost immediately to slave-labour projects including Majdanek and the Alter Flugplatz airfield in the city of Lublin, where materials looted from the gassed victims were prepared for shipment to Germany. Other forced labour camps included Krychów, Dorohucza, and Trawniki before the killing spree of Aktion Erntefest. Estimates for the number of people sent away from Sobibór range up to several thousand, of whom most perished before the end of the Nazi regime. The total number of people in this group include 16 known survivors (13 women and 3 men) from among the 34,313 Jews deported to Sobibór from the Netherlands.[107]

In June 2019 the last known survivor of the revolt, Semion Rosenfeld, who was born in Ukraine, died at a retirement home near Tel Aviv, Israel, aged 96. Isaac Herzog, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who had been providing support to Rosenfeld, described him as a "true hero".[110]

Operational structure

The chief commandant of Sobibór (April / August 1942), and later of Treblinka, was Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl, who was responsible for overseeing the murders of at least 100,000 Jews from May 1942 to July 1942 at Sobibór, before his transfer.[111] He fled to Syria after Germany was defeated. Following problems with his employer taking too much interest in his adolescent daughter, Stangl moved with his family to Brazil in the 1950s. He worked in a Volkswagen car factory and was registered with the Austrian consulate under his own name. He was eventually caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1971, he died in prison in Düsseldorf, a few hours after concluding a series of interviews with the British historian Gitta Sereny.[112][113]

The third-in-command at Sobibór, and the camp's Lager I zone commandant, was Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel. Over 20 years after the war ended, he was put on trial, convicted of war crimes in 1966, and sentenced to life. He was released after 16 years on appeal and because of his health.[112][114] Blatt interviewed him in 1983 and taped it. Present at the camp from its inception to its closure Frenzel (a hostile commentator) said the following about the prisoners killed at Sobibór: "Poles were not killed there. Gypsies were not killed there. Russians were not killed there... only Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Dutch Jews, French Jews."[115] Possibly due in part to Frenzel's testimony, followed by Blatt's inquiry, the Polish government from the Soviet era changed the memorial plaque at the site, which used to read: "Here the Nazis Killed 250,000 Russian Prisoners of War, Jews, Poles and Gypsies."[115] The new memorial plaque 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." The plaque also commemorates the revolt of 14 October 1943 and the escape of Jews from the camp.[116]

Gustav Wagner, the deputy Sobibór commander, was on leave on the day of uprising (survivors such as Thomas Blatt say that the revolt would not have succeeded had he been present). Wagner was arrested in 1978 in Brazil. He was identified by Stanislaw Szmajzner, a Sobibór escapee, who greeted him with the words, "Hallo Gustl." Wagner replied that he remembered Szmajzner and that he had saved him and his three brothers. The court of first instance agreed to his extradition to Germany, but on appeal this extradition was overturned. In 1980, Wagner committed suicide, though the circumstances are controversial.[117][118]

Erich Bauer,[119] commander of Camp III and gas chamber executioner, explained the perpetrators' sense of teamwork in order to reach an atrocious result:

We were a band of "fellow conspirators" ("verschworener Haufen") in a foreign land, surrounded by Ukrainian volunteers whom we could not trust... The bond between us was so strong that Frenzel, Stangl and Wagner had had a ring with SS runes made from five-mark pieces for every member of the permanent staff. These rings were distributed to the camp staff as a sign so that the "conspirators" could be identified. In addition the tasks in the camp were shared. Each of us had at some point carried out every camp duty in Sobibór (station squad, undressing, and gassing).

Erich Bauer, Gasmeister

I estimate that the number of Jews gassed at Sobibor was about 350,000. In the canteen at Sobibor I once overheard a conversation between Karl Frenzel, Franz Stangl and Gustav Wagner. They were discussing the number of victims in the extermination camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor and expressed their regret that Sobibor "came last" in the competition.[119]

Camp guards

While the camp officers were both German and Austrian SS members, the camp guards under their command were Volksdeutsche from Reichskommissariat Ukraine as well as non-Jewish Soviet POWs, primarily from Ukraine.[120]

Before they were sent as guards to the concentration camps, most of the Soviet POWs underwent special training at Trawniki. This was originally a holding centre for Soviet POWs following Operation Barbarossa, whom the Sipo security police and the SD had designated either as potential collaborators or as dangerous persons.[121] The Stroop Report listed the Trawnikis Sonderdienst Guard Battalion as one assisting in the suppression of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.[122]

John Demjanjuk, a former Soviet POW, allegedly worked as a watchguard at Sobibór. He was temporarily convicted by a German lower court as an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Jews and sentenced to five years in prison on 12 May 2011.[123][124][125] He was released pending appeal and died in a German nursing home on 17 March 2012, aged 91, while awaiting the hearing. Because he died before the German Appellate Court could try his case, the German Munich District Court declared that Demjanjuk was "presumed innocent," that the previous interim conviction was invalidated and that he had no criminal record.[126][126][127]

Chain of command

Name Rank Function and notes Citation
Organisers of the camp (Germans and one former Austrian)      
  Odilo GlobočnikSS-BrigadeführerMajor-general and SS police chief (SS-Polizeiführer) at the time, Head of Operation Reinhard [112]
  Hermann HöfleSS-Hauptsturmführer Captain, coordinator of Operation Reinhard[112]
  Richard ThomallaSS-ObersturmführerFirst lieutenant, head of death camp construction during Operation Reinhard[112]
  Erwin LambertSS-UnterscharführerCorporal, head of gas chamber construction during Operation Reinhard[112]
  Karl SteublSS-SturmbannführerMajor, commander of transportation units during Operation Reinhard[112] [117]
  Christian WirthSS-HauptsturmführerCaptain at the time, inspector of Operation Reinhard[112]
Commandants (Germans and Austrians)      
 Franz StanglSS-ObersturmführerFirst lieutenant, 28 April 194230 August 1942 transferred to Commandant of Treblinka extermination camp [112] [117]
 Franz Reichleitner SS-ObersturmführerFirst lieutenant, 1 September 194217 October 1943;[2] promoted to captain (Hauptsturmführer) after Himmler's visit on 12 February 1943[117]
Deputy commandants (Germans and Austrians)      
 Gustav WagnerSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, deputy commandant (Quartermaster, sergeant major of the camp)[112] [117]
 Johann NiemannSS-UntersturmführerSecond lieutenant, deputy commandant, killed in the revolt[112] [117] [13]
 Karl FrenzelSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, commandant of Camp I (forced labor camp) [112] [117]
 Hermann MichelSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, deputy commandant, gave speeches to trick condemned prisoners into entering gas chambers[112] [117] [128]
Gas chamber executioners (Germans)   
 Erich BauerSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, operated gas chambers [112] [117]
 Kurt BolenderSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, gas chambers' operator [112] [117]
Other staff officers (Germans and Austrians)      
 Heinrich BarblSS-RottenführerPrivate first class, pipes for the gas chambers (from Action T4)[117][129]
 Ernst Bauchcommitted suicide in December 1942 on vacation in Berlin from his Sobibor duty[117]
 Rudolf BeckmannSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, killed in revolt[117] [13]
 Gerhardt BörnerSS-UntersturmführerSecond lieutenant[119]
 Paul BredowSS-UnterscharführerCorporal, managed the "Lazarett" killing station [117]
 Max Breekilled in the revolt[117]
 Arthur Dachselpolice sergeant, transferred from Belzec in 1942, burning of corpses (Sonnenstein)[112] [117]
 Werner Karl DuboisSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant [112] [117]
 Herbert FlossSS-ScharführerSergeant [117]
 Erich FuchsSS-ScharführerSergeant [117] [119]
 Friedrich GaulstichSS-ScharführerSergeant, killed in the revolt[117] [13]
 Anton Getzinger[117]
 Hubert GomerskiSS-UnterscharführerCorporal[112] [117]
 Siegfried GraetschusSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, Head of Ukrainian Guard (2/2), killed in the revolt [112] [117]
 Ferdinand "Ferdl" GrömerAustrian cook, helped also with gassings[117]
 Paul Johannes Grothsupervised sorting of clothes in Lager II[112][130]
 Lorenz HackenholtSS-HauptscharführerFirst sergeant
 Josef HirtreiterSS-ScharführerSergeant, transferred from Treblinka in October 1943 for a short while[2]
 Franz Hödl[112] [117]
 Jakob Alfred IttnerSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant[112] [117]
 Robert JührsSS-UnterscharführerCorporal[112]
 Aleks Kaizer[112]
 Rudolf "Rudi" Kamm[117]
 Johann KlierSS-UntersturmführerSecond lieutenant[112] [117] [13]
 Fritz KonradSS-ScharführerSergeant, killed in the revolt[117] [13]
 Erich LachmannSS-ScharführerSergeant, Head of Ukrainian Guard (1/2)[112] [117]
 Karl Emil Ludwig[112] [117]
 Willi MentzSS-UnterscharführerCorporal, transferred from Treblinka for a short time in December 1943[112]
 Adolf Müller[117]
 Walter Anton NowakSS-ScharführerSergeant, killed in the revolt [112] [117]
 Wenzel Fritz Rehwald[112] [117]
 Karl Richter[117]
 Paul RostSS-UntersturmführerSecond lieutenant[2]
 Walter "Ryba" (real name: Hochberg)SS-UnterscharführerCorporal, killed in the revolt[117] [13]
 Klaus Schreiber[13]
 Hans-Heinz Friedrich Karl SchüttSS-ScharführerSergeant [112] [117]
 Thomas StefflSS-ScharführerSergeant, killed in the revolt[117] [13]
 Ernst Stengelinkilled in revolt[117]
 Heinrich UnverhauSS-UnterscharführerCorporal[112] [117]
 Josef VallasterSS-ScharführerSergeant, killed in the revolt[117] [13]
 Otto Weisscommandant of the Bahnhof-kommando at Lager I before Frenzel[117]
 Wilhelm "Willie" Wendland[112] [117]
 Franz WolfSS-OberscharführerStaff sergeant, brother of Josef Wolf (below) [112] [117]
 Josef WolfSS-ScharführerSergeant, killed in the revolt[117] [13]
 Ernst ZierkeSS-UnterscharführerCorporal[112]
Wachmänner guards (Ukrainians and Russians)      



Death toll

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states that at least 170,000 people were murdered at Sobibór. Other estimates by historians range from 200,000 (Raul Hilberg) to 250,000 (Dr. Aharon Weiss, and Czesław Madajczyk).[134] The Dutch Sobibor Foundation lists a total of 170,165 people based on the arrival schedule cited in the Höfle Telegram as the source.

At the Sobibor trial against the former SS personnel of the camp, held in Hagen two decades into the Cold War, Professor Wolfgang Scheffler estimated the number of murdered Jews to have been at least 250,000, while Gasmeister ("Gas Master") Erich Bauer estimated 350,000.[135][136]

For practical reasons it is not possible to list all the people murdered at the camp. The Nazi regime not only robbed Jews of their earthly possessions and their lives but attempted to eradicate all traces of their existence.[14][137]

I estimate that the number of Jews gassed at Sobibor was about 350,000. In the canteen at Sobibor I once overheard a conversation between Karl Frenzel, Franz Stangl and Gustav Wagner. They were discussing the number of victims in the extermination camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor and expressed their regret that Sobibor "came last" in the competition.

Erich Bauer, Gasmeister [119]


The first monument to Sobibór victims was erected on the historic site in 1965.[138] The Włodawa Museum, which was responsible for the monument, established a separate Sobibór branch on 14 October 1993, on the 50th anniversary of the armed uprising of Jewish prisoners there.[139] Following the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the revolt in 2003, the grounds of the former death camp received a grant largely funded by the Dutch government to improve the exhibits. New walkways were introduced with signs indicating points of interest, but close to the burial pits, bone fragments still litter the area.[2] In the forest outside the camp is a statue honoring the fighters of Sobibór.[2]

Recent archaeology

Until the 1990s, little was known about the physical site of the camp beyond what survivors and perpetrators could recall. After the revolt, the camp had been dismantled and planted over with trees, concealing evidence of what happened there. However, since the 1990s the site has been excavated repeatedly by archaeologists. In 2001, a team led by Andrzej Kola from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń investigated the former area of Camp III, finding seven pits with a total volume of roughly 19,000 square meters. While some of these pits appear to have been mass graves, others may have been used for open air cremation.[140] The team also found pieces of barbed wire embedded in trees, which they identified as remnants of the camp's perimeter fence. Thus, they were able to partially map out the perimeter of the former camp site, which had not previously been known.[141]

Since 2013, the camp has being excavated by a joint team of Polish, Israeli, Slovakian, and Dutch archeologists led by Wojciech Mazurek, Yoram Haimi, and Ivar Schute. In the reception area around the arrival ramp, they have turned up numerous personal items including glasses, watches, thimbles, and toothpaste. In one area in Camp III, they found dentures, dental fillings, earrings, and other items which suggest that bodies of victims were processed on this exact spot.[142]

In May 2013, archaeologists conducting excavations near Camp III unearthed an escape tunnel, an open-air crematorium, human skeletal remains, as well as a substance that appeared to be blood, and the identification tag of a Jewish boy who was murdered at the camp.[143] In September 2014, a team of archaeologists unearthed remains of the gas chambers under the asphalt road. Also discovered in 2014 were a pendant inscribed with the words "Land of Israel (Eretz Israel)", in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, dating from 1927; earrings; a wedding band bearing a Hebrew inscription; and perfume bottles that belonged to Jewish victims.[144][145]

Dramatisations and testimonies

The mechanics of Sobibor death camp were the subject of interviews filmed on location for the 1985 documentary film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. In 2001, due to Lanzmann's belief in the importance of the additional footage regarding Sobibor, as stated in the film's introduction, Lanzmann utilized unused interviews shot during the making of Shoah (along with new footage) to tell the story of the revolt and escape in his followup documentary Sobibor, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures (Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 4 p.m.).[146]

In the 1978 American TV miniseries Holocaust broadcast in four parts, one of the principal characters, Rudi Weiss, a German Jew, is captured by the Nazis during a partisan attack upon a German convoy. Knocked unconscious, he wakes up in Sobibór, where he meets the Russian prisoners of war. The Sonderkommando are initially suspicious of him as a possible German spy planted within their midst, but he wins their trust and becomes part of the group that kills German SS officers as part of the uprising. Weiss and his new POW comrades successfully escape Sobibór during the mass break-out. The revolt was dramatised in the 1987 British TV film Escape from Sobibor, directed by Jack Gold and in the 2018 Russian movie "Sobibor", directed by Konstantin Khabensky.

One of the survivors, Regina Zielinski, has recorded her memories of the camp, and the escape in a conversation with Phillip Adams together with Elliot Perlman, in 2013 broadcast of Late Night Live by ABC.[147]

See also


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