In 1996, representatives of the Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz visited the Sobibór memorial site for the first time. What they found there was a secluded place, a memorial site that left a great deal of space to nature, a damp forest that cast a shroud of silence over a mass grave site with a symbolic mound of ashes and an enormous obelisk with a statue. At this damped site, the murder of about 180,000 people was difficult to grasp.
In 1998, the Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz finally returned to Sobibór with a group of people on an educational trip – and from then on every year, sometimes several times per year. From visit to visit, more and more ideas and discussions unfolded as to how one could remember the Jews who were murdered in the gas chambers that once stood on this imposing site. Many ideas were discarded, others discussed over and over. Ultimately, there remained the idea of remembering individual people in an “Avenue of Remembrance”. No longer was an anonymous, unimaginable number of victims to stand in the foreground, rather the individual human being. A tree with a memorial stone in front of it would recall a victim who was murdered in Sobibór. A plaque providing date and place of birth would be mounted on the stone, thereby returning a small part of that person’s history. The trees themselves would gradually form an avenue. An avenue of remembrance would come into being.
The visits to Sobibór led to constructive cooperation between the memorial site and the Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz. The memorial site was affiliated with the regional museum in Włodawa (Łęczna-Włodawa Lakeland Museum), an institution that belonged to Włodawa County. The former shtetl of Włodawa lay about 20 km from the former killing center. The then director of the memorial site, Marek Bem, wanted not only to administer this place of remembrance. He wanted to draw more attention to it and raise public awareness. He was sympathetic to our idea for the Avenue of Remembrance and saw to its practical implementation. The Polish institution in charge of memorial policy, the Council for the Protection of Monuments to Struggle and Martyrdom [Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa], disliked the proposal for an Avenue of Remembrance and came out against it. However, this institution was not authorized to issue instructions. In Włodawa County, those responsible for such matters gave their approval for the construction of an Avenue of Remembrance. Since the avenue’s path was to extend beyond the terrain of the memorial site and onto lands belonging to the forest service, permission from the latter was likewise required – and soon received.
In the summer of 2003, work began on the first section of the Avenue of Remembrance. Its course was to orient itself approximately along the path that the Jews had taken on their way to the gas chambers. The original course of the path to the gas chambers was not definitively known at this time.
On October 14, 2003, more than 150 people gathered on the Avenue of Remembrance for the dedication ceremony. Sobibor survivor Thomas Blatt cut the ribbon, thus opening the Avenue of Remembrance 60 years to the day of the uprising that was led by the Jewish forced laborersin Sobibor.
In April 1943, the National Socialists had taken Thomas Blatt from the small town of Izbica and sent him to Sobibor, from which he was later able to flee during the uprising. Thomas Blatt had been able to give valuable hints concerning the avenue’s path. For him, it was a means of remembrance that he recognized and supported. However, the shape of the monument did not meet his expectations. He wished to see a large stone wall bearing the number 250,000 (then the estimated number of victims, whereas it is now thought to be 180,000). It was important to him to memorialize all of the victims, even those whose names were unknown. The conversations with him were not the only reason for also placing stones with the inscription “To persons unknown.” In this way, the nameless victims also received a place on the Avenue of Remembrance in a symbolic form.
The Dutch foundation Stichting Sobibor also took part in the Avenue of Remembrance, starting in 2004. Approximately 34,000 Jews from the Netherlands were deported to Sobibor and murdered. Stichting Sobibor had been founded in 1999 by Jules Schelvis, himself a Sobibor survivor. On June 4, 1943, Jules Schelvis stood with his wife Rachel and her family on the ramp in Sobibor. The German perpetrators chose him for forced labor at a nearby labor camp. Of the 3,006 people who arrived in Sobibor with him, Jules Schelvis was the only one to survive the war.
In 2005, the second and final section of the Avenue of Remembrance was completed. A group from the association Naturfreundejugend of North Rhine-Westphalia planted the trees for the second sector. A massive stone marked the end of the Avenue of Remembrance. It read: “The Avenue of Remembrance ends here. Tens of thousands of people from many different countries were forced to take this path. Men, women, and children. Not far from this spot, their lives came to an abrupt end. Who were they? The names mentioned along this path bear witness to all of the people who were murdered here in Sobibor during the Second World War. The names ensure that the memory of their life and their fate live on.” At the same time, a room was set up in the museum at the memorial site where visitors could read biographies of the people named on the Avenue of Remembrance.
In the period that followed, the Avenue of Remembrance became a dynamic project of remembrance. Year after year, new stones with names and biographical data were added. Gradually a living place of remembrance grew up here. The Avenue of Remembrance for the Jews murdered in Sobibor is not a state project, rather a memorial and remembrance project supported by citizens from across all of Europe. Hundreds of people from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Poland participated in the construction and financing of the Avenue of Remembrance. There was also support from Australia, Israel, and the United States. Above all, it was the family members of those murdered in Sobibor who wanted to remember their beloved parents, grandparents, great grandparents, their siblings, relatives, and friends, as well as the crimes committed against them. However, there was also participation on the part of citizens who wanted to remember the Jews who had disappeared from their hometowns and been killed in Sobibor. School classes and groups of students also became involved in the continuation of the avenue by remembering the murder of Jewish children and teenagers. Again and again, people from different countries brought stones bearing plaques prepared beforehand and placed them on the avenue. Common to all of the donors was the desire that, through the stones, their grief and their wish to remember found an appropriate, tangible place. Now known by name, these victims returned to the world of those who grieve and remember. A place of remembrance developed as we had wished, self-sustaining, constantly growing, and broadly supported. More than 300 stones eventually lay on the Avenue of Remembrance in Sobibór.
For Sobibór’s visitors, the avenue became an area of quietude, contemplation, and remembrance. The protected path between the rows of spruce trees whose end emerged into view only after a bend in the path, the experience of reading the names on the memorial stones allowed the visitor to sense the cruelties that occurred here. The avenue with its stones became the heart of the memorial site, its main attraction, and thus came to occupy a leading role in remembrance.
Unfortunately, the avenue failed to remember Sobibor’s largest group of victims with an adequate number of memorial stones. Most of those murdered at Sobibor were Polish and had been deported to the killing center from towns located elsewhere within the so-called General-Government. The Holocaust in Western Europe was bureaucratically organized and administrated with the compilation of deportation lists, with names, addresses, dates and places of birth. In Poland, the Jews were forced into railcars without anybody noting their names. The only thing that mattered was the number of people in a railcar. For the Germans, their names were meaningless, so they neither cared for compiling “transport lists” with names, addresses, etc.
The lack of documents concerning the Jews of the General Government who were deported to Sobibor is only one reason why so few memorial stones for Polish Jews were installed at the Avenue of Remembrance. There would have been enough names for such stones despite the lack of sources. The much more important reason, however, lies in Polish society’s reassessment of the history of Poland’s Jewish communities and their obliteration at the hands of the Germans during the Second World War. For one, Polish memorialization policy is still dominated by the idea of “large numbers of victims” rather than the depiction of individual fates. For another, Polish Jews, after their murder, disappeared from society’s collective memory as well. For many years after 1945, there was no place in Poland for the public remembrance of Jewish life before the German occupation. Only a few people took an interest in the fate of their former Jewish neighbors. This may have changed over the last few years, but the process was and is still long and hard. In order to give Polish Jews an adequate place on the Avenue of Remembrance, stones were placed to remember the Jewish communities whose members were killed in Sobibor: Włodawa, Chełm, Izbica, and Hrubieszów, among others.
In September 2008, the governments of Poland and Israel, Slovakia and the Netherlands reached an agreement to redevelop the Sobibór memorial site. In May 2012, Sobibór was integrated into the Majadanek memorial site in Lublin. A state museum emerged from what had been a department within a regional museum. In the course of the site’s redevelopment, the memorial site Sobibór, and with it the Avenue of Remembrance, has been closed to the public as of March 2017. Since then, it has not been possible to place any new memorial stones on the avenue. The terrain has been a construction site for years.
To our great regret, the Avenue of Remembrance in its original form with its Serbian spruce trees and the individual stones with their plaques was not preserved during the redevelopment of the Sobibór memorial site. The path between the Serbian spruce trees will no longer exist. However: when the redevelopment project is completed, the memorial stones are supposed to be set out again at a new place of prominence on the grounds of the memorial site. Presumably, this will be the central path to the mass, so that a new and worthy place will come into being for those victims who have been snatched from anonymity.
Even after the transfer of the memorial stones, it is also supposed to be possible to set out new memorial stones. The European citizens’ project Avenue of Remembrance will continue to remember individual victims of the Sobibor camp by means of memorial stones bearing their names.
Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz e.V., February 2021