Sobibor (Poland)

Railways leading to the camp of Sobibor.

Sobibor was established March 1942. First commandant: Franz Stangl. About 700 Jewish workers engaged temporarily to service the camp. Actually consisted of two camps divided into three parts: administration section, barracks and storage for plundered goods, extermination, burial and cremation section. Initially, three gas chambers housed in a brick building using carbon monoxide, three gas chambers added later. Operations Began April 1942. Operations ended following inmate revolt October 14, 1943. Estimated number of deaths, 250,000, the majority being Jews.

Sobibor was the second extermination camp to come into operation in the Aktion Reinhard program. It was located in a low populated area, but was strategically placed in relation to the concentrations of Jewish population in the Chelm and Lublin districts. Local Polish workers and Jewish slave laborers began construction work on the site in March 1942. The planners were able to incorporate the experience already gained at Belzec.

The site measured roughly 1,300 by 2,000 feet, surrounded by a triple line of barbed wire fencing and guarded by watchtowers. It was sub- divided into a reception area and three camps. The reception area included the spur line and platform which could accommodate up to 20 railroad wagons. Here were also located the administration buildings, armory, and living quarters for the SS and the Ukrainians.

Map of Sobibor Death Camp

The first camp held the Jewish prisoners required to service the SS men and Ukrainians. Enroute to the second camp from the platform where buildings were the deportees left their luggage and clothing. Within the second camp was an enclosed area, entirely shielded by tree branches intertwined with the barbed wire, where deportees undressed in the open before proceeding up a fenced in passageway called the tube1 towards the shaving hut for women and the gas chambers. Also in camp two were storage huts for clothing and valuables.

The third camp was the most remote area and was screened by trees. Inside was the brick building housing three gas chambers, about 12 feet by 12 feet, each of which could hold about 160-180 people. Carbon monoxide generated by a diesel engine mounted outside was piped into the gas chambers. The corpses were removed from a second door and buried in huge, specially excavated pits. Carts, and later trolleys on a small rail track, were used to carry deportees who were too infirm to walk to the burial pits where they were shot so as not to delay the killing process.

In April 1942, Franz Stangl, an SS officer with a background in Operation T4, arrived to take command. Stangl commanded a mere 20-30 SS men, mainly from the T4 program. There was also a guard company of Ukrainians. About 200 to 300 Jews worked in teams at the gas chambers and burial pits. They cleaned out the killing rooms, removed gold teeth from the corpses and pushed trolleys heaped with bodies towards the pits. About 1,000 Jews worked at the platform cleaning up the rail trucks and removing debris, and in teams at the shaving hut, the undressing barracks and in the sorting sheds.

From May 1942 to July 1942, approximately 100,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor. They came from Lublin, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria (mostly via ghettos in Poland or Theresienstadt). They were told on arrival that they had arrived at a transit camp1. The platform and adjacent building was designed to reassure them. They were then separated according to gender and age: children went with the women. They were divested of their luggage and valuables, forced to undress and driven up the tube1, men first, to the gas chambers. Women were shaved at a hut situated along the tube1. The actual killing process took about 20-30 minutes. The processing1 of a convoy of 20 wagons took about 2-3 hours.

Between August and September 1942, the murdering stopped while repairs were made to the main rail track feeding Sobibor, and the number of gas chambers was increased to six, three on either side of a central corridor. This enabled the SS to kill about 1,200 people at the same time. The bodies were burned in the former burial pits. The camp, now under the command of Franz Reichsleiter, continued operations in October 1942 and worked through to spring 1943.

Over this period, about 70-80,000 Galician Jews, 145-150,000 Jews from the General-Government and 25,000 Slovak Jews were murdered. In March 1943 the first transport of French Jews arrived. Between March and July 1943, 19 Dutch transports brought 35,000 Jews from Holland. In the last months of its operation, Sobibor was used to murder the Jews of the Vilna, Minsk, and Lida ghettos. It is estimated that 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor.

In July 1943, Himmler, who had visited the camp in February, ordered that it be converted into a concentration camp. This edict effectively served a death notice on the Jewish workers who then organized a resistance movement and worked out an escape plan. It was led by Leon Feldhendler.

He was subsequently assisted by Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish officer in a transport of Red Army POWs which arrived in the camp in September 1943. The uprising was launched on October 14, 1943. In the fighting, 11 SS men and a number of Ukrainian guards were killed. Three hundred Jews escaped, but dozens were killed in the mine field around the camp and dozens more were hunted down over subsequent days. Of the Jews who broke out, 50 survived to the end of the war. The camp was liquidated in October 1943 and the site disguised as a farm.

Members of the resistance movement in Sobibor (photo taken after the war).