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Sobibor - Extermination camp


The railroad station at Sobibor. Three regular German railway personnel


       Extermination camp Sobibor was established in March 1942. The camp was built in the form of a 400 x 600 m rectangle. It was surrounded by a 3 m high double barbed wire fence, partially intertwined with pine branches to prevent observation from the outside including from the station area. Along the fence and in the corners of the camp were wooden watchtowers. Each of the four camp areas was individually fenced in as well. In Camp I, called the SS Vorlager, were the SS administration building and housing, and the workshops of the Jewish command. Camp II was the reception area but the real extermination site was referred to as Camp III. Later an other section was added, called Camp IV. The ammunition bunkers were built there which in turn were surrounded by land mines. At fist there were three gas chambers housed in a brick building. The Nazis used carbon monoxide produced by diesel engines to kill their victims. Later, three more gas chambers were added. Operations began in April 1942, immediately after the arrival of Franz Stangl. Operations ended following a successful inmate revolt on 14 October 1943. It is estimated that the number of deaths reached 250,000, the majority of the victims were Jews.


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Location of the Extermination camp Sobibor.


       Starting from 1st November 1941, three extermination camps were constructed to murder the population of adjacent ghettos and other victims from surrounding areas: the first extermination camp was at Belzec, Sobibor followed next and finally Treblinka was added. They were located in the far east of Poland near the borders with the modern states of Belarus and the Ukraine. The camps had to be located near main railway lines since victims were to be transported by rail. Also, they had to be located as much as possible in sparsely populated areas because of the secrecy Operation Reinhard demanded. Interestingly, the extermination camps at Birkenau, Chelmno and Majdanek did not conform to this sought after standard. Under the guise of pretext, victims were told they were transported toward the east for resettlement and subsequent work. Initially, some seven-hundred Jewish workers were temporarily engaged to build the camp. Local Polish workers and Jewish slave laborers began construction work on the site in March 1942. The planners for this new project were able to incorporate the experience previously gained at Belzec.

 
Map Copyright Jennifer Rosenberg, 1998

Vorlager: 

  • Housing for the SS (including the "Swallow's Nest" and the "Merry Flea")
  • Housing for the Ukrainian guards
  • Armory
  • SS kitchen
  • The ramp
  • Bakery

Lager I:

  • Barracks for prisoners
  • Workshops (such as tailor, shoemaker, carpenter, mechanic, etc.)

Lager II:

  • Location where new arrivals were stripped of their possessions and clothing
  • Location of processing objects taken from new arrivals

Lager III:

  • Gas chambers
  • Pyres for burning corpses
  • Housing for prisoners working in Lager III

Lager IV:

  • In summer 1943, warehouses began to be built to store captured ammunition

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

       The first camp was for the Jewish prisoners who were required to service the SS men and Ukrainian guards in their ghastly task. En route from the platform to where the buildings were where deportees had to leave their luggage, clothing and other belongings. The victims went on to an enclosed area within the second camp, entirely shielded by barbed wire intertwined with tree branches. Once arrived, the deportees were forced to undress in the open before proceeding along a fenced in passageway which the Nazis called Himmelstrasse - Road to Heaven. Once they had passed through this alley they moved on towards the shaving hut for women and ultimately the gas chambers.

       The third camp was the most remote area and was screened by trees. Inside was the brick building which housed the 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. After the poisonous air had done its job and was evacuated, the corpses were removed through a second door and buried in huge, specially excavated pits. Carts, later trolleys on a small rail track, were used to carry deportees who were too sick or infirm to walk to the execution pits where they were shot in order not to delay the killing process.

       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 camp. The platform and station building was designed to reassure them. The train station even had a clock. The deportees were too confused, tired, and afraid to have noticed that the clock always gave the same time. It did not work! They were then separated according to gender and age: young children went with the women. They were relieved of their luggage and valuables, forced to undress and driven up the Road to Heaven, men first, to the gas chambers. Women were shaved in a hut located along the Road to Heaven. The actual killing process itself took about 20-30 minutes. The processing of the content of a convoy made up of 20 cattle cars took about 2-3 hours.

       Between August and September 1942, the killing stopped while repairs were made to the main rail track feeding Sobibor. 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 execution pits. Sobibor, now under the command of Reichleitner, continued operations again in October 1942 and worked through to the summer of 1943.

       Over this period of time, 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. Also between March and July 1943, 19 Dutch transports brought 35,000 Jews from the Netherlands. 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.

 

 Funeral for the slain SS men

Some of the survivors of the revolt front middle, Selma and Sacha


       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 later assisted by Alexander (Sacha) Pechersky, a Jewish officer and a Red Army POW who had arrived in the camp in September 1943. The uprising was launched on October 14, 1943. In the fighting for freedom that followed, 11 SS men and a number of Ukrainian guards were killed. Some three hundred Jews escaped, but dozens were killed in the mine field around the camp and dozens more were hunted down in the days following the revolt. Of the Jews who broke out, less than 50 survived to see the end of the war. One of them, Selma Wijnberg born in Groningen in the Netherlands and shown in the picture below, went to live in the United States with her husband Chaim Engel. The camp was liquidated in the month of October 1943. All the buildings were destroyed and the and the site disguised as farm land.