Sobibór is a small village in what is now eastern Poland, situated not far from the Bug, the river marking the border between Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. Sobibór’s train station lies about eight kilometers from the village of Sobibór on the (now defunct) railway line between Chełm and Włodawa. Situated in a remote, wooded and swampy area, only a few houses stood next to the station until the beginning of 1942, serving as homes of railway workers and employees of the forest administration.
Construction of the extermination camp
In late autumn of 1941, Polish railway workers began to notice that the German occupiers were interested in the area, as Germans repeatedly came to Sobibór to look around and surveyors began taking measurements. In February 1942, construction works for what would become the second extermination camp of “Aktion Reinhardt” started on a site just opposite the Sobibór train station. From mid-March 1942 onward, the mass murder of Jewish men and women had already been taking place in the gas chambers of Bełżec extermination camp, 160 kilometers away. A few months later, in July 1942, extermination also began in Treblinka, the third camp of the so-called “Aktion Reinhardt”. The total number of victims killed in the three killing centres of “Aktion Reinhardt” is at least 1.5 million Jewish men and women.
Initial construction works in Sobibór were supervised by Richard Thomalla, the head of the SS Central Construction Office in Zamość. The German civil administration of the Cholm district (German name for Chełm) provided the materials: poles, elements for the construction of barracks, as well as bricks and barbed wire. Further building materials were obtained from the rubble of demolished Jewish houses. The construction works were carried out by slave-labourers: Jews who were brought in from the surrounding ghettos and forced labor camps. Local farmers were contracted to transport the building materials in their carts to the construction site. A few buildings located near the train station were integrated into the camp: The building which had previously served as post office was used for accommodation of the German personnel overseeing the camp, a forester’s house became an administration building. A small wooden Catholic chapel which had been previously been a place of worship for the locals was integrated into the area of the camp as well.
The area of the Sobibór extermination site initially measured approximately 600 by 400 metres, but in the summer of 1943 the camp was enlarged to an area of 1000 by 400 metres. The camp area was surrounded by a three-metre-high fence made of double barbed wire interlaced with branches. The fence was designed in this way not merely to prevent the escape of Jewish prisoners, but to shield the goings-on inside from any passengers passing the camp on regular trains. During the entire period of its existence, the Sobibór death camp was continuously being expanded or renovated, as the Germans ordered the construction of ever more buildings for accomodation, as warehouses or workshops. The area of Sobibór surrounded by the fence was initially divided into four separate areas, with a fifth subdivision added in the summer of 1943 (in the map below, the latter is marked in German as “Lager IV – Erweiterung”). The so-called “Vorlager“, German for “front compound”, contained accomodation and amenities for the German perpetrators and the camp’s auxiliary guards, the so-called “Trawniki” men. The “Trawniki” were mostly recruited from the ranks of Soviet war prisoners (the Germans preferred ethnic Germans and Ukrainians to Russians), who underwent brief military training in a camp located in the eastern Polish village of Trawniki. From mid-1943, civilians from the Lublin district also could volunteer for these units. The “Trawniki” guards participated in the liquidation of the ghettos and served as guards in all three extermination camps of “Aktion Reinhardt”. In the front compound, Jewish labourers were forced to plant and maintain flower beds, among other tasks. The German perpetrators wished to reside in well-kept and orderly quarters and to spend their leisure time in an atmosphere as seemingly harmless and as far removed from their grisly “work” as possible. Decades later, Sobibór survivor Eda Lichtman recalled: “When you arrived in the camp, it gave an impression of a place for recreation. Beautifully built little mansions, a dining hall, gardens, gravel-covered paths, lawns, flowerbeds and lanes lined with roses and sunflowers which carefully covered up the fact that it was a death-factory, creating an illusion for all who came there from the outside.”
Camp I (German: “Lager I”) bordered the front compound, but was separated from it by a barbed wire fence. Barracks for accommodation as well as those contaning the workshops of Jewish slave-labourers were located in this area: for shoemaking, carpentry, woodworking, etc. In the time of the first commandant, Franz Stangl, a goldsmith worked there, making jewelry for the Germans for which he used, among other sources, golden teeth pulled from the mouth of murdered victims.
Camp II was the “reception area” of the camp where, in a dedicated area, the Jews were forced to undress upon arrival and hand in their luggage. Their stolen belongings were then searched for valuables, which were sorted and stored on the premises of Camp II. Here was also the so-called “Erbhof” (“ancestral farm”), a closed-off area with stables for farm animals: horses, pigs, geese and rabbits. The former forester’s house, which was now located within Camp II, had dual use as an administrative building and accommodation. A path several hundred meters long connected Camp II with the extermination area, designated as Camp III (“Lager III”). This path was lined with a barbed wire fence which had branches and twigs woven into it. Containing the gas chambers and burial pits, Camp III was placed at the end of this route, which the German perpetrators referred to as “Schlauch” (“hose” or “tube”). The building in Camp III which housed the gas chambers was enlarged in the summer of 1942. A 20-horsepower engine, which had been brought from Lemberg/Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine) in April 1942, produced the deadly carbon monoxide for the gas chambers. The lethal gas was directed into their interior through fake shower heads. Each chamber had a second exit through which the dead bodies of the murdered victims were brought to the huge burial pits, where the corpses were piled up. From late autumn of 1942, the Germans odered the corpses to be burnt on large pyres. For the slave labourers who had to work in this area there was a separate accommodation area, fenced-off and isolated from the rest of the camp.
In the summer of 1943, the construction of Camp IV began in an area north of the extermination area. The Germans planned to store captured ammunition in Sobibór and to process it so it could be used by the Wehrmacht. For this purpose, the camp area was considerably enlarged and several bunker-like buildings were constructed. Construction work in Camp IV continued until the uprising of the Jewish prisoners in October 1943, after which the project was abandoned.
The German perpetrators and the „Trawniki men”
In mid-April 1942, a detachment of about twenty Germans under the direction of Franz Stangl was sent from Berlin to Sobibór. Previously, these men had been involved in the killing of more than 70,000 patients in the so-called “euthanasia” killing centers of “Aktion T4”, where they had been employed as carers, cooks, clerical workers or drivers. Some had been tasked with the cremation of the victims. Consequently, all of them had the necessary experience in mass murder. The German personnel overseeing Sobibór never exceeded 25 men at any time. In total, around 50 German perpetrators were deployed in Sobibór during the camp’s existence. Only six of them had been members of the Waffen-SS prior to 1939. However, like in Belzec and Treblinka, all the German perpetrators who served in Sobibór wore SS uniforms. These men were primarily responsible for the organization and administration of the mass killing in the camp. Subordinated to them were between 90 and 120 „Trawniki” men who served as camp guards. Franz Stangl was the first commandant of Sobibór. Originally from Linz in Austria and a police officer by training, Stangl had previously been in charge of the administration in the “euthanasia” killing centers Hartheim and Bernburg. In September 1942, Franz Stangl was transferred from Sobibór to Treblinka. His successor, Franz Reichleitner, also a police officer from Linz, was assigned to Sobibór after serving in the Hartheim “T4” killing centre.
Each of the group of roughly 50 German perpetrators in the Sobibór extermination camp was directly or indirectly involved in the killing of at least 180,000 Jews. Not all of them behaved alike: some stood out for their brutality and excessive violence, others seemed merely to perform what they saw as their “duty”. After the war, Samuel Lerer, a Sobibór survivor, commented on the German perpetrators’ difference in behaviour: “Sobibór was an extermination camp. It was a killing machine, nothing else. A machine contains many cogwheels. Big wheel or small wheel, no matter which wheel turns, it will always be a wheel.”
The extermination of the Jewish men and women
Mass murder in Sobibór began in early May 1942. For thousands of deported Jews who had been crowded into freight wagons, their painful journey ended at Sobibór’s public train station. As the ramp in the extermination area was too short to accomodate a complete deportation train, trains were divided and a number of wagons pushed onto a siding. Fifteen wagons at a time were decoupled and then pushed into the camp.
Once the wagons came to a stop inside, their doors were opened and yelling guards chased the people inside violently onto the ramp. They were not given a chance to understand where they were, become aware of the situation and process what was happening to them. The perpetrators artificially created an atmosphere of extreme hurry and agitation. Men and women were separated, families torn apart. In order to calm down and deceive the new arrivals, one of the Germans would often give a little speech at this point. Sobibór survivor Dov Freiberg recalled this speech after the war: “’Because we are in times of war, everyone is required to work and we will take you to work. You will be fine. Old people and children will not work, but they will still have enough to eat. You all have to take care of cleanliness and therefore you have to bathe first.’ All the foreigners usually clapped their hands at that point. Later on, when Polish Jews, who knew they were going to be killed, arrived in the camp they wailed and cried loudly. Then he would say; ‘Quiet! I know that you want to die quickly, but we won’t make it so easy for you, you’ll have to work first…’ And in this way he managed to confuse them.”
From there, the women and children were first escorted from the ramp to the undressing area in camp II, where they had to take off their clothes and shoes. After that they were pushed through the fenced-in path towards the gas chambers, where they were suffocated with the exhaust fumes from the diesel engine. Jewish forced labourers had to pull the bodies of the murdered victims from the chambers afterwards, remove their gold teeth and carry them to huge burial pits. People who were unable to walk on their own from the railway ramp to the gas chambers were initially taken in carts to the area near the wooden chapel and shot there on the edge of a ditch. In June 1942, a narrow-gauge railway was built to take victims who could not walk by themselves to Camp III. It was also used to transport heavy luggage to Camp II.
Usually, within two or three hours after their arrival on the ramp, the deportees were dead and buried in the mass graves. In the meantime, the Jewish labourers of the “Bahnhofskommando” (the “station detachment” working near the train station) were busy cleaning and emptying out the train wagons.
The Jewish prisoners
The SS in Sobibór would routinely pick a few people from among the Jewish deportees as forced labourers. Up to 650 prisoners were working as part of various work detachments. They were deployed in all camp areas and also had to help with the expansion of the camp. As mentioned before, workshops for carpenters, tailors, plumbers and shoemakers existed in the camp.
A large number of prisoners was also busy sorting and processing the luggage and personal belongings stolen from the victims. The “Bahnhofskommando” had to assist when deportees were forced off the trains at the ramp and then clean the wagons. The “Waldkommando” (forest detachment) had to cut wood and bring it to the camp for cremation of the corpses. Approximately 150 women were among the forced labourers. Most of them were employed in the sorting and washing of stolen clothes, and it was also their duty to clean the guards’ accomodation area. They found themselves in undescribably difficult circumstances: in addition to witnessing murders every day, they also had to endure sexual assaults by the Germans and the Trawniki guards. The prisoners in Camp III were forced to perform unimaginably gruesome work. They were not allowed to have any contact with the prisoners in the other parts of the camp. They had to pull the bodies of the murdered from the gas chambers, drag them to and bury them in the mass graves. In autumn 1942, the Germans also forced them to reopen the mass graves and to burn the exhumed bodies.
Daily life for all Jewish prisoners in Sobibór was governed by strict routines and rules. At the same time, it was marked by random acts of cruelty from the guards. Each mistake was punished harshly: usual punishments were floggings and the death penalty. Prisoners who were injured, sick or no longer able to work were murdered and replaced by Jewish men and women from new transports. The prisoners lived day by day, hour by hour. Any moment could bring death. Sobibór survivor Regina Zielinski described the situation of the Jewish prisoners in the camp as follows: “We were very afraid of being sick and unable to work because we knew that the sick would be taken to the so-called ‘third camp’, which meant extermination. […] Physical abuse in the camp was extremely common. Above all, prisoners were beaten by the SS when, in their eyes, they worked too slowly.”
Of the approximately 180,000 Jews murdered in Sobibór, around 100,000 came from the so-called General Government (“Generalgouvernement”), the part of German-occupied Poland that had not been incorporated into the German Reich. While in Western Europe the Holocaust was a process organized and implemented in a way that involved a lot of bureaucracy (like deportation lists containing the victims’ names, addresses, place and date of birth, etc.), Jews in occupied Poland were forced onto the deportation trains without even recording their names. What mattered to the perpetrators was the correct number of people in a wagon, their names were meaningless to them. Accordingly, the Germans did not bother drawing up any transport lists containing the Jewish victims’ personal information.
During the first two months of Sobibór’s existence alone, that is from the beginning of May to the end of June 1942, an estimated 84,000 Jews were murdered there. Most came from the ghettos of the Lublin district. But among them were also German, Czech, Austrian and Slovak Jews who had been deported from their home areas to ghettos in eastern Poland in early 1942. From the beginning of June 1942, deportation trains also took victims from outside the General Government directly to Sobibór. Between July and October 1942, killing operations in Sobibór had to be temporarily stopped because the railway line to Włodawa could not be used. After the break, Jews were taken to Sobibór again from the ghettos in the Lublin district. When the Wehrmacht’s winter offensive started in December 1942, the Germans initially deported only the relatively few surviving inmates from the surrounding ghettos and forced labor camps to Sobibór. In March 1943, four trains containing 1,000 Jews each reached the extermination camp from the German transit camp in Drancy near Paris. Between March and July 1943, another 19 trains arrived from the transit camp in Westerbork in the Netherlands. In total, over 34,000 Jews from the Netherlands were deported to Sobibór. In spring 1943, the inmates of the remaining ghettos in the Lublin district were taken to Sobibór.
In the summer months and in early autumn 1943, all the existing ghettos in the district of Galicia, as well as in Minsk and Lida (Belarus) and Vilnius (Lithuania) were liquidated. Once more, many thousand Jewish men and women were brutally murdered in Sobibór.
Public awareness of the mass murder and ways to profit
That mass murder was going on in Sobibór camp was not a secret in the region. Information and rumors quickly spread in eastern Poland – in the Jewish ghettos, the Polish population as well as among members of the German occupation force. Regular passenger trains stopped four times a day at the Sobibór train station, only a few metres from the extermination camp perimeter fence. German perpetrators and Trawniki guards could also be observed frequenting the little restaurant located in the train station. In the autumn of 1942, when the bodies of victims were burned on large pyres, a terrible stench hung over the entire area. If the wind came from a certain direction, it was possible to smell it in the town of Włodawa, ten kilometres away.
Paul Winkler, an ethnic German living there at the time, later recalled: “I knew, like everyone else in Włodawa, that there was an extermination camp in Sobibór. If you took the train from Chelm to Włodawa, you could see the transports of Jews going to Sobibór, thousands and tens of thousands of them. From Włodawa you could see the fire burning at night in Sobibór and you also noticed a peculiar smell. It was known to everyone that Jews were exterminated there.”
The trade of valuables stolen from the victims brought sudden prosperity to the region around Sobibór. It was mostly the Trawniki guards who traded in stolen goods for alcohol, food and other items in the villages of the area. The locals happily did business with them. There were even love-affairs between local girls and Trawniki men. Traders appeared in the region, buying gold, foreign currency and jewellery from the Trawniki men; prostitutes were offering their services.
The German perpetrators also made sure to enrich themselves with items stolen from the murdered Jews. If they were going on home leave, they took with them suitcases full of valuables, jewellery, money, clothes and toys. They forced prisoners to make paintings and drawings for them. Jewish women had to sew clothes and make dolls for the children of the SS men. Eda Lichtman describes this: “We prepared packages, packages with clothes, for almost all the officers. Some of these packages contained very nice things, like dolls for their children which had belonged to Jewish children who had taken them to Sobibór where they were killed with their parents. They would take all the dolls and they told us to bring all the dolls from the warehouses, repair them, sew nice clothes for them and put them on the dolls. As if that was the one thing that they were still missing… Of course we did everything they said, but in doing so we suffered a lot and great pain filled our hearts. But we saw that they all very much wanted to take such packages home. Every German who went on home leave wanted to take nice things with him and such things could be found in the warehouses where we worked. We even sewed Hitlerjugend uniforms for them and they were so very happy and every German officer would make sure to take home packages containing things of high quality.”
It was possible for researchers to show after the war that several German perpetrators (e.g. Hubert Gomerski, Johann Niemann) had accumulated unusually large amounts of money in their savings accounts.
Escapes and resistance
The fact that prisoners constantly experienced violence or were threatened with violence was supposed to prevent both those newly arriving in the camp and the Jewish forced labourers from putting up any resistance. Nevertheless, individual Jews, who became aware of their desperate situation on their arrival, frequently physically assaulted or verbally abused camp guards.
Abraham Margulies was one of the first Jewish prisoners in Sobibór. He was abducted from Zamość to the camp in May 1942. In 1965 he recalled: “I was just over ten years old and badly wanted to live. So it is not surprising that from the first day in the camp, different ideas and plots about possible escapes forced themselves into my head.” Even though attempts to escape were violently punished, they repeatedly occurred, but mostly without success. For example, the Jewish prisoners in Camp III managed to dig a tunnel through which they hoped to escape. Just before it was completed, it was discovered and almost all the prisoners in Camp III were killed. A plan by several Dutch prisoners to escape from Camp I failed because someone reported them. But there were also successful escapes. Shortly after Christmas 1942, five Jewish women and two Trawniki guards fled from Camp III. Only the fate of one woman and two Trawniki men is known. They were caught and shot in a village 40 kilometres away. In July 1943, a part of the forest work detachment escaped after they had overpowered and killed one of their guards.
In late spring of 1943, a number of Jewish prisoners formed a resistance group. Leon Feldhendler (or Felhendler) is considered one of their leaders. Their aim was to start a revolt in the camp and to put an end to the killing. In September 1943 a transport of Jews from Minsk arrived in Sobibór. Among these deportees was a number of Jewish Soviet prisoners of war who were assigned to forced labour in the camp. Leon Feldhendler got in touch with them and they started planning the revolt together. The plan was put into action on October 14th, 1943. At an agreed time, they lured several SS men into workshops under a pretext and killed them, one at a time. In total, they managed to kill eleven Germans in this way. Just before daily roll call started in Camp I, the actual uprising began. In bursts of gunfire from the guards, prisoners scrambled out of the camp, desperate to reach the cover of the nearby forest. Many of them died trying to get over the fence and through the minefield. But not all prisoners tried to flee. Some were unwilling to leave the place where their families were buried, others could not believe it would be possible to escape and survive. The Jewish prisoners from Camps III and IV were unable to join in the mass escape. But about 300 Jews did manage to escape into the woods on October 14, 1943. The Germans hunted them relentlessly. For the escapees there was no safe place. To obtain food and accommodation they had to put themselves at the mercy of strangers who could turn them in at any moment. Only very few survived in hiding places, with help from old friends or new acquaintances until they were liberated by the Soviet army. But in the autumn of 1943, the end of the war was still not in sight and a long winter was approaching. Fortunately, we do know of more than 60 escaped Jews from Sobibór who survived the war. After the uprising, the Germans immediately murdered all the Jewish prisoners who had remained in Sobibór. At the end of October 1943, 100 Jewish prisoners from the Treblinka extermination camp were deported to Sobibór. They had to help with the demolition of the camp and the removal of the rubble. The Germans blew up the gas chambers, had the mass graves levelled and planted trees on the site. These last Jewish prisoners were also murdered after they had finished their work. In July 1944, the Red Army at last liberated the area around Sobibór.
Criminal proceedings after the war
In August 1949, Sobibór survivors Ester Raab and Samuel Lerer recognized the German perpetrator Erich Bauer at a funfair in Berlin. The Berlin regional court sentenced him to death on May 8, 1950, for crimes against humanity. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Erich Bauer died in Berlin in 1980.
In 1950, German perpetrators Hubert Gomerski and Johann Klier stood trial in the regional court in Frankfurt am Main. In Sobibór, Gomerski had served in Camp III, the extermination area. In the course of the trial, Sobibór survivors described him as one of the most brutal perpetrators in the camp. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. After the Federal Court of Justice (West Germany’s highest court of ordinary jurisdiction) overturned the judgment in 1972, Gomerski was released. In an appeal procedure in 1977, the judgment was commuted to a 15-year prison sentence. In 1981, further appeal proceedings were stopped because of the defendant’s incapacity to stand trial. Hubert Gomerski died in 1999. Johann Klier was acquitted in 1950 by a Frankfurt regional court after Sobibór survivors testified in his favor.
In 1965/66 a trial against twelve Sobibór perpetrators took place before the regional court in Hagen. Ten of them were charged with complicity in mass murder. Five of the defendants were acquitted because the court assumed “Befehlsnotstand” (i.e. took into account the necessity to obey orders), another five received prison sentences between three and eight years for being accessories to murder. Karl Frenzel and Kurt Bolender were found guilty of individual murders as well as being accessories to murder. Kurt Bolender committed suicide a few weeks before the verdict.
Karl Frenzel was sentenced to life imprisonment. Based on the statements of Sobibór survivors, it was possible to prove that he had personally murdered nine Jewish prisoners. After several appeal proceedings, he was sentenced to life imprisonment again in 1985, but due to his bad health he did not have to serve time in prison. Karl Frenzel died in Hanover in 1996.
After World War II, Franz Stangl, the first commandant of Sobibór, managed to escape to Brazil via Syria. Thanks to the efforts of Simon Wiesenthal, he was arrested in Brazil in 1967 and extradited to the Federal Republic of Germany in the same year. In 1970 he was indicted before the Düsseldorf regional court, but only for his involvement in the murders in Treblinka, where he had been camp commander between September 1942 and August 1943. In December 1970 he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but filed an appeal. He eventually died of a heart attack in a Düsseldorf prison in June 1971, before the final verdict was pronounced.
Gustav Wagner, who survivors described as the most brutal and unpredictable German in Sobibór, managed to flee to Brazil via Italy and Syria, like Franz Stangl. And just like Stangl, Wagner was tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal in 1981. A Sobibór survivor living in Brazil, Stanislaw Szmajzner, recognized Gustav Wagner and he was promptly arrested. The Brazilian authorities rejected several extradition requests from Poland, Austria, the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel and Gustav Wagner was released again after a few months. On October 3, 1980, he was found dead in his home. The official cause of death was suicide.
In the post-war period, several trials against Trawniki guards took place in the Soviet Union. Some of them had served in Sobibór. Several death sentences were handed down in these processes.
On November 30, 2009, the trial of Trawniki guard John (Iwan) Demjanjuk began in Munich. He was charged with complicity in the murder of 28,060 people in the Sobibór extermination camp. Demjanjuk was sentenced to five years in prison, which he did not have to serve, as there was no risk of him absconding. He appealed against the sentence and eventually died in March 2012 in a nursing home in Bad Feilnbach in Bavaria.
1 from Johann Niemann’s private collection of photographs
2 from the collection of Bildungswerk Stanislaw Hantz
3 from the archives of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum
Dov Berek Freiberg, Catalog Nr. 26227
Drawing by Josef Richter, Catalog Nr. 2415
Photograph of Ester Raab, Catalog Nr. 25073
4 from Jules Schelvis, Vernichtungslager Sobibor [English version: Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp]
5 Archives of Yad Vashem, 102C03
6 State Archives of North Rhine-Westphalia, Westphalia Department [Landesarchiv NRW Abteilung Westfalen], Q 234 Nr. 4564