After the uprising and the flight of about 360 Jewish prisoners on October 14, 1943, the German perpetrators promptly began dismantling the death camp Sobibor and, by doing so, destroying the evidence of the mass murder they had committed there. The approximately 280 prisoners who remained behind were murdered right after the uprising. To dismantle the camp, Jewish prisoners from the death camp Treblinka were brought in.I Most likely, they were shot immediately after the demolition work had been completed in late November or early December 1943. The buildings in Camp III, that is to say, in the area where the Jewish children, women and men had been murdered and hastily buried, were torn down, and the gas chambers were blown up. In Camp II, where the large warehouses containing stolen possessions had been located, only the buildings of the “hereditary farm” – as the Germans called the camp’s pigsties, horse stables and barn, etc. – were still standing. Even the barracks that had been located in Camp I and in which the Jewish prisoners’ workshops and accommodations had been, were taken down. Only in the German perpetrators’ former residential and recreational area, the so-called Vorlager, all 17 buildings were preserved. Polish railway worker Jan Krzowski observed at the time: “Where the camp had been, the ground was plowed up, subsequently harrowed… and then a coniferous forest was planted.”II
Starting in January 1944, the Baudienst [German agency for the mobilization of Polish workers,] quartered several dozen forced laborers in buildings formerly belonging to the killing site. On July 20, 1944, the Red Army’s First Belarusian Front reached the Bug River. In the following days, the entire region around Sobibór was liberated. Already on July 22 and 23, 1944, members of the Soviet army had begun questioning inhabitants from the surrounding villages about events at the killing site and compiling reports. In the months that followed, members of the Red Army conducted additional inspections of the former death camp.
Not long after the liberation, starting in October 1944, the terrain around the Sobibór train station became a collection point for members of the Ukrainian minority who were being resettled by train from Poland to the Soviet Union. The buildings of the former death camp that still existed were dismantled by those awaiting resettlement in order to use it as fuel for heating and cooking. Wood was also taken to the Soviet Union for construction purposes.
The local population likewise used the former camp buildings as a source of building materials. Ultimately, two buildings remained standing in the area of the former “Vorlager”. One was the “Altes Kasino”, which, among other things, had served as accommodations for Camp Commandant Franz Reichleitner, and the other was the building that had housed the local post office in the prewar era. German perpetrators had also lived in this building at the time of the camp’s existence.III The building that the Germans called the “Kasino” was torn down only after 1984. The former post office, along with the remaining grounds of the “Vorlager,” passed into private ownership, while the wooded area and the open space containing the mass graves were turned over to the local forest service.
On September 28, 1945, the Main Commission for the Investigation of German War Crimes in Poland [Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce] asked the County Prosecutor’s Office in Lublin to open an inquiry into the former death camp that had existed in Włodawa County. Subsequently, on October 4, 1945, Prosecutor Kazimierz Schnierstein of the Voivodeship court in Lublin and Examining Magistrate Sergiusz Urban of Włodawa began an investigation into the crimes committed at Sobibor. On November 23, 1945, Judge Schnierstein, acting on behalf of the Interior Ministry of Poland, wrote a preliminary report. Among other things, it was noted in the report that “the barracks [on the grounds of the camp] were burned down or dismantled, ashes and bone fragments of the cremated corpses lay in flat sand-filled graves that are spread out over the terrain.” At this location,the report continued, “there were only the frames of the residential buildings (of the Gestapo and the guards), from which the doors, windows, and remnants of the furnishings had been removed by the surrounding population.”IV The investigation into the Sobibor death camp was closed for good in October 1946.
After the investigation was closed, the terrain was neglected for many years. Visitors found nothing at this site to inform them that approximately 180,000 Jews had been murdered here in the period between May 1942 and October 1943. The terrain remained without fencing and was freely accessible to anyone and everyone. During the first decades of the postwar period, anybody who visited the former site of the camp in Sobibór found a terrain where the earth had been ransacked. The remains of human bones lay on the earth’s surface. Deep trenches had been dug. As at many other locationswhere the mass murder of Jews had been carried out, grave robbers, also called hyenas in the Polish media, came to Sobibór to ransack the terrainin search of valuables or money that the Jewish victims had brought with them. In the late 1940s, Jewish journalist Mordechaj Tsanin of pre-state Israel visited Sobibór. He concealed his origins and passed himself off as a British journalist. This allowed him to gain the trust of a peasant, who then led him to the former killing site. The condition of the terrain there left a deep impression on him:
“The traces of this Golgotha are to be seen to this day. After a 20-minute walk, we reach an empty forest clearing, which at first glance conveys the impression that a village once stood here. It had burned down, however, and its inhabitants had fled. All over the terrain, broken bricks, rags, scraps of paper protrude from the grass. The earth is grey, mixed with ashes. The [earth beneath the] grass has been ransacked, small mounds and depressions have formed. The surface of this no-man’s meadow seems much smaller than the one in Treblinka…. As at all of the other places, as at all of the extermination camps, a wave of gold fever rolled through Sobibór as well. Every piece of earth on the grounds of the former camp and the path from the railroad line has been dug up by the local population. The peasant, who reported this to me in the simple words of a primitive man, continued to believe that if one “did a good job,” one would still find some kind of treasures. This peasant’s every thought revolves around these potential “treasures”. Every question that he later posed to me led in this direction. At a certain point, I even gained the impression that the peasant suspected that I, too, had come to dig in search of these “treasures.”V
Well into the 1960s, it was first and foremost the “hyenas” who took an interest in the terrain. In their search for valuables, the grave robbers ransacked the earth and sifted through the human ashes taken from the mass graves.
After a visit to the site on September 26, 1950, members of the Voivodeship Committee of Jews in Lublin reported they had seen “dug up graves around which human remains are scattered.” They were told, “Plunderers were looking for gold teeth.”VI In early 1960, 14 men from Żłobek, a village in the immediate vicinity of Sobibór, were caught on the grounds of the former killing site. Thirteen of them were sentenced to 1.5 years in prison. A court of appeals in Warsaw overturned the sentences and reduced them to three years probation.VII
That same year, signs were posted in Sobibór to inform potential intruders that this was “a place of execution of victims of the Hitlerite camp,” and that trespassing was punishable by law. In March 1960, a prosecutor from Włodawa came to Sobibór for an on-site inspection. Photos were made of the upturned earth. In his report, the prosecutor noted: “In the depressions as well as across the entire terrain, charred and uncharred bones are to be seen, human skulls and jaws with teeth, long human hair. On some bones and crania, it is to be seen that the corpses are in a very advanced stage of decomposition. Sifted heaps of earth and, separate from them, bones can be seen everywhere. On the edge of one hole lies a prosthetic leg that was pulled from the earth, as evidenced by the rust of the metal parts and the leather, on which earth clings. A very strong, unpleasant smell that stings the respiratory tract hangs in the air above the entire camp.”VIII
Neither criminal prosecution nor warning signs were able to prevent the hyenas from remaining active. Grave robbing on the grounds of the former killing site in Sobibór is documented into the 1980s.
In 2015, the full extent of the consequences stemming from the decades of desecration that took place at Sobibór was discovered. A local resident tipped off Wojciech Mazurek, an archeologist working in Sobibór, regarding two deposits of human ashes in the forest near the memorial site. An investigation of the deposits at these locations confirmed that the earth here contained human remains. Later, a third location with human ashes became known. It is not to be ruled out that further locations will be found. Two of these “fields of ashes” are not on the grounds of the Sobibor memorial site. Nevertheless, the question arises: how can the remains of these murdered persons be incorporated in a dignified manner into plans for the memorial site’s redevelopment?
On July 2, 1947, the Polish parliament created the Council for the Protection of Monuments to Fighting and Martyrdom by act of law (Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa, ROPWiM). The Council’s task was “to coordinate the activities of the state authorities, organizations, and social institutions in the area of memorializing the places of struggle and martyrdom of the Polish People and other peoples.”IX With that, the Council was entrusted with the responsibility for building places of remembrance at the locations of the former killing sites of “Aktion Reinhard”. Well into the 1960s, however, such memorial sites still did not exist, neither in Sobibór nor at the sites of the other two former “Reinhard” death camps, Bełżec and Treblinka. There was no memorial stone in Sobibór, no installation, no monument to remember the 180,000 Jews who were murdered at the camp . And this although the Council just two years after its founding had resolved to dispatch a commission of experts to Sobibór to assess conditions on the ground there in 1949.X It took two more years before the minutes of the presidium’s meetings yielded any indication that initial project planning for remembrance in Sobibór was foreseen for 1951. The following year, a decision was made to take out a loan to finance the construction of a memorial site in Sobibór, but actual appropriation was delayed until the end of the 1950s.XI
In April 1959, the results of the monument protection council’s work in the years since its founding were discussed in the presence of Poland’s deputy minister of culture and art. The participants at this meeting noted with dissatisfaction that the grounds of the three former death camps of “Aktion Reinhard” – Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec – had not been cleaned up, but were still being desecrated, which in their opinion had “harmful social consequences.” A radical change of thinking was called for and introduced. The debate over the constructionof a memorial site in Sobibór was finally taking shape.
In 1960, the National Council of the Lublin Voivodeship submitted a plan for the protection and development of the grounds of the former Sobibor death camp to the Ministry of Culture in Warsaw. According to this plan, realization of the memorial site was supposed to cost 400,000 Polish złoty.XII In 1961, a designfor the construction of a memorial site in Sobibór was accepted.xiii During an on-site inspection in Sobibór in May 1962, representatives of the monument protection council suggested that “a highly impenetrable fence with barbed wire would enable an overseer to supervise the terrain with the help of an alert dog. In the clearing of the former crematorium, the churned up immediate surroundings should be provided with memorialization and protection to an adequate extent, for example, by means of concrete slabs.” During this inspection, the visitors saw fresh traces of ten holes in the ground that grave robbers had left behind.XIV
That same year, the presidium of the monument protection council decided to complete construction of the memorial site by 1963 and expressed the need for the permanent supervision of the grounds.XV According to this plan, construction was supposed to be completed by September 1963, however, it came to delays. It ultimately took until June 27, 1965, before the memorial site in Sobibór could finally be opened. Sobibór was thus the last of the three former “Reinhard” camps to receive a memorial site. The Lublin and Włodawa branches of the monument protection council issued invitations to the opening ceremony. A “speech by former inmate of the Sobibor camp” Aleksandr Pecherskii was announced. But Pecherskii’s presence in Sobibór on June 27, 1965, is not documented.XVI
The memorial site designed by Lublin architect and urban planner Romuald Dylewski consisted of three elements: a symbolic mound of ashesXVII at the site of the mass graves, a stone obelisk, which marked the location of the gas chambers, and a sculpture by Mieczyslaw Welter. The latter’s work depicted a dying mother with a child in her arms. The pedestal bore a plaque that read: “In memory of those murdered by the Germans between 1942 and 1943.” During planning for the memorial site, the site of a pit for shootings at the Sobibor camp, the so called “Lazarett” (infirmary), was left out. In the 1920s, a wooden chapel had been built for the area’s Catholic inhabitants. In the first months of the camp’s existence, the “Lazarett” was located right behind the chapel. Sobibor survivor Moshe Bahir reported: “In the “Lazarett” was a large pit; it was near the chapel. The so-called sick were led to this pit and, after being shot, buried there.” XVIII After the withdrawal of the Germans in 1944, the chapel was again used for religious services. In 1987, the wooden chapel was finally replaced by a building of brick and mortar.
The builders of the chapel sought to use the new chapel to reconstruct the prerogative of interpretation for the Sobibór area. A wooden relief showing a symbol of Christian martyrdom – a life-size representation of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan monk who had been murdered at Auschwitz – was mounted on one of the chapel’s outer walls.XIX The redesigning of the chapel on the grounds of the former killing center and the wooden relief caused a stir and became the subject of controversy.XX Survivor Thomas Blatt remarked, “This carving conveyed the unfortunate and erroneous impression that non-Jews, particularly Catholics, were victims of Sobibor.”XXI
The Sobibor memorial site’s design also failed to include supervision of the terrain and construction of a forester’s lodge, as originally called for by the monument protection council.XXII
Concealing the Jews as a Victim Group
In keeping with the political dictates of the time, the speakers at the opening of the memorial site in 1965 did not mention that the victims were Jews.
A massive granite wall was built at the entrance of the place of remembrance. Alongside lettering reading “Sobibor” was a plaque that read: “A Nazi extermination camp was located at this site from May 1942 until October 1943. In this camp, 250,000 Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, Poles, Gypsies were murdered. On October 14, 1943, an armed uprising broke out in the camp. After a fight with the Nazi guards, several hundred inmates fled.” This description of the camp did broach the issue that Jews belonged to the camp’s victims. At the same time, however, the actual purpose of the camp not only went unmentioned, it was falsified. The camp did not serve the purpose of murdering prisoners of war, Poles, or Roma and Sinti, rather it was built for the murder of Jews.XXIII
In 1987, the U.S. “Holocaust Sites Preservation Committee” and its chairman, Sobibor survivor Thomas Blatt, approached the Council for the Protection of Monuments to Struggle and Martyrdom with a request to have a new plaque mounted on the granite wall. In 1991, the censured plaque was removed and a new one mounted.XXIV The new plaque said that “250,000 Jews and 1,000 Poles” were murdered in Sobibor.XXV On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Sobibor, this text was added to plaques in five languages – English, Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, and Dutch – and mounted in a row on the wall at the memorial site’s entrance. Among the speakers at the dedication ceremony was Marek Edelman, one of the commanders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 2003, a plaque was added in German and then, in the years that followed, in Slovak and French, so that ultimately the text could be read in eight different languages.XXVI
In the course of redeveloping the Sobibor memorial site, the wall with the lettering “Sobibor” was torn down in 2013. The plaques were removed and placed in storage.
The Forgotten Memorial Site
Even after the construction of the original memorial site in 1965, the local forest service remained responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the terrain in Sobibór. During construction, no high-quality materials were used, and in the years that followed, the terrain remained without permanent supervision. After five years, repairs costing about one million złoty were already necessary.XXVII
In 1974, the number of visitors increased, and the forest administration decided to build a parking lot and a wooden building with a lobby on the grounds of the former camp. Two rooms were envisaged for overnight stays. Later, this wooden building served as a training center for the forestry, then as a daycare center with an outdoor playground. The building was located on the site where the deportees gathered after their arrival and had to undress before being driven through a corridor to the gas chambers. In the autumn of 2014, the wooden building was torn down in the course of memorial site’s redevelopment.
New Start in the 1990s
In 1993, the Sobibòr memorial site was incorporated into the county museum in neighboring Włodawa. On the 50th anniversary of the uprising of the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor, the first exhibition about the killing center’s history opened to the public. It was located in the wooden building that had, among other things, had served as a day care center. The museum was open only for half a day during the summer months.
In 2003, the Avenue of Remembrance, a joint initiative of the Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz and the Sobibor memorial site, was officially opened.
Archaeological Investigations at a Place of Mass Murder
Comprehensive archaeological investigations on the grounds of the former Sobibor death camp got underway in 2000. Teams of archaeologists excavated large parts of the terrain in various sectors, finding in the process about 11,000 objects that came from Jews that had been murdered here. In 2014, the former foundations of the eight gas chambers were laid bare. In the course of the archaeological work, the path that the Jews took to the gas chambers was also finally located.
Redesigning and Redeveloping the Memorial Site in Sobibór
In 2008, a commission of experts, which included government officials from Poland, Slovakia, Israel and the Netherlands, agreed to redesign the place of remembrance at the site of the former death camp. Not only was the terrain to be redeveloped, but a museum was to be built. In the years that followed, the commission worked out a draft for the area’s redevelopment and supervised the archaeological work at the site.
In June 2011, the Sobibor memorial site was closed for a short time due to financial problems until it was finally “upgraded” within the landscape of Poland’s museums in 2012. The county museum became a state institution, officially attached to the Majdanek memorial site in Lublin.
Within the framework of the memorial site’s redevelopment, the terrain was expanded to 25 hectares (61.5 acres). Nonetheless, the new plan did not incorporate the entire area of the former killing site. The camp’s railroad platform, the former shooting site behind the Catholic chapel, and the German perpetrators’ residential area were left out. Thus, private residential homes – in part the former quarters of some of the perpetrators – are still on the grounds of the former killing site to this day. Moreover, it was decided to build the museum on the former grounds of the camp – namely at the location where the deportees gathered and had to undress before being forced to the gas chambers. On October 29, 2020, the exhibition at the newly built museum was finally opened to visitors.
I Jules Schelvis calculated the number of Jews who fled and those who were shot, see Jules Schelvis, Vernichtungslager Sobibor, Berlin 1998, p. 201.
II Jan Krzowski, statement, August 7, 1974, District Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Lublin, OKL DS. 1373, in Jules Schelvis Documents, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Record Group 804, 3.2.21.
III Esther Raab reported this on October 10, 1977, Landesarchiv Nordrhein-Westfalen Münster (LNW Münster), Q234, Nr. 4572, as did Eda Lichtmann on February 23, 1966, LNW Münster, Q234, Nr. 4457.
IV A. Schnierstein, prosecutor of voivodeship court in Lublin, Report to the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland in Cracow, November 23, 1945, quoted in Marek Bem and Wojciech Mazurek, Sobibór: archaelogical research conducted on the site of the former German extermination centre in Sobibór 2000-2011, Warsaw-Włodawa 2012, p. 31.
V Mordechaj Canin [Tsanin], “Sobibór,” in: Przez ruiny i zgliszcza. Podróż po stu zgładzonych gminach żydowskich w Polsce [Through ruins and debris. A journey through hundreds of destroyed Jewish communities in Poland], Warsaw 2018, pp. 459–466, here pp. 459-460.
VI Wojewódzki Komitet Żydów w Lublinie do Centralnego Komitetu Żydów w Polsce [Voivodeship Committee of Jews in Lublin to the Central Committee of Jews in Poland], September 26, 1950, Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, 355/38, 22.1.9.
VII See Pawel Piotr Reszka, Płuczki [Abrassions], p. 160.
VIII Stanisław Matysiak, Włodawa County prosector, Report on inspection of Sobibór, February 27, 1960, Staatsarchiv Lublin (APL), Record group 988 (Sąd Wojewódzki w Lublinie [Voivodeship Court Lublin]), Sign. 4/711 (IVK 90/60), p. 25.
IX Quoted from the activity report of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom] for the period from November 15, 1960 to November 15, 1962, AMMP-IV-55/9 (ROPWIM 1/97).
X Protocol of the meeting of the presidium of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], May 21, 1949, AMMP-IV-55/2 (ROPWIM 1/25).
XI Protocol of technical meeting of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], June 25, 1951, AMMP-IV-55/5 (ROPWIM 1/43).
XII Presentation on the work of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], November 8, 1960, AMMP-IV-55/11 (ROPWIM 1/100).
XIII Protocol of the meeting of the presidium of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa in Lublin [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], September 29, 1961, AMMP-IV-55/12 (ROPWIM 1/109).
XIV Stefan Guirard and Jozef Kowalik, Report on on-site inspection of the Sobibor und Belzec camp sites, May 4-5, 1962, AMMP-IV-55/14 (ROPWIM 1/134).
XV Protocol of the meeting of the presidium of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], May 18, 1962, AMMP-IV-55/12 (ROPWIM 1/109). The date was confirmed by the monument protection council on March 1, 1963, when it was stated at a meeting of the presidium that construction should be completed by September 15, 1963.
XVI On the organizers’ itinerary establishing the exact course of the day’s events in Sobibór on June 27, Pecherskii’s planned appearance is crossed out. In addition, only the newspaper Za wolność i lud [Nr. 13, July 1-15, 1965] reported that guest of honor Pecherskii had been in Sobibór. In all of the other press reports on the ceremony, he was not mentioned, cf. folder “Sobibór,” Archiv Muzeum pod Zegarem, Lublin.
XVII For decades, information persisted that the ashes of murdered Jews were contained in the “mound of ashes.” An investigation by the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun in October 2000 as well as in May 2001 showed that there were no human ashes or bones in the mound of ashes.
XVIII Moshe Bahir, statement, December 14, 1965, LNW Münster, Q 234/4464.
XIX Kolbe was admitted to the Concentration Camp Auschwitz in May 1941. There, he volunteered to go to the hunger bunker instead of a father of two sons. When he had not yet died after two weeks, he was murdered with an injection of phenol. In October 1982, Kolbe was canonized by the Pope as a martyr. Kolbe also had the reputation of an anti-Semite. In two mass-circulation Catholic periodicals, he spoke out against the Jews: since Poland is the “biological main reservoir” of world Jewry, which “eats into the body of the people like a cancerous growth,” there is just one solution: “The Jews must emigrate.”
XX Cf. Antoni Pacyfik Dydycz, “O kaplicy w Sobiborze” [On the chapel in Sobibór], Tygodnik Powszechny, January 4, 1987, p. 2.
XXI Thomas “Toivi” Blatt, Sobibór – der vergessene Aufstand, Hamburg, Münster 2004, p. 181. Therefore, various public figures, such as Simon Wiesenthal, among others, sent letters of protest to the responsible Catholic church authorities, cf. Simon Wiesenthal in Frankfurter Rundschau, September 2, 1986., cf. Jules Schelvis, Sobibor, p. 77; Thomas Blatt, Sobibor. The Forgotten Revolt. A survivor’s report. Issaquah 1997, p. 130.
XXII Cf. Protocol of the meeting of the presidium of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], May 18, 1962, AMMP-IV-55/12 (ROPWIM 1/109).
XXIII Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz, a judge at the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, claimed in 1947 that witnesses said “a certain number of Gypsies and Poles” also perished at Sobibor, see Z. Łukaszkiewicz, “Obóz zagłady w Sobiborze”[The extermination camp in Sobibór],in: Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce [Bulletin the main commission for the investigation of German crimes in Poland], t. III (1947), pp. 49-58, here p. 57. Concrete supporting documentation for a large number of Christian Poles or Roma and Sinti being murdered at Sobibor has never surfaced, cf. on this matter, Robert Kuwałek, “Obozy koncentracyjne i ośrodki zagłady jak miejsca pamięci” [Concentration camps and extermination centers as places of remembrance], in: Feliks Tych and Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, eds., Następstwa zagłady Żydów. Polska 1944-2010 [Consequences of the murder of the Jews. Poland 1944-2010], Lublin 2011, pp. 493-525, here p. 497.
XXIV Cf. Jacek E. Wilczur, “Sobibór – fałsz i prawda” [Sobibór – falsehood and truth], Życie Warszawy, December 13, 1991.
XXV There is no supporting documentation for the murder of 1,000 Christian Poles at Sobibor.
XXVI See Blatt, Sobibór – der vergessene Aufstand, p. 182.
XXVII The maintenance work took place in 1971 and 1972, cf. Reports of the Rada Ochrony Pomników Walk i Męczeństwa [Council for the protection of monuments to struggle and martyrdom], July 19, 1970, AMMP-IV-55/12 (ROPWIM 1/109), September 21, 1971, and June 20, 1972 (AMMP-IV-55/12 (ROPWIM 1/109).