Extermination camp near the village of Sobibor, in the Lublin district in Poland. Part of Aktion Reinhard, the camp was built in March 1942.
The Structure of the Camp
In April 1942, SS-Obersturmfuehrer Franz Stangl was made camp commandant. In building Sobibor, the Germans drew on experience gained from Belzec. The staff included 20-30 German SS men, most of whom had taken part in the Euthanasia Program. In addition, 90-120 Ukrainians served in the camp. The camp was in the form of a rectangle 1,312 by 1,969 feet (400 x 600 m) in area, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence with tree branches intertwined in it to conceal the interior. There were three areas: administration, reception, and extermination. The reception area was the place where Jews from the incoming transports were brought. The extermination area contained the gas chambers, the burial trenches, and housing for the Jewish prisoners employed there. Each gas chamber, fueled by carbon monoxide, had a capacity of 160-180 persons. When the camp was nearing completion, in mid-April 1942, 250 Jews were brought from the Krychow labor camp and killed in the chambers.
Jewish Work Teams
Able-bodied Jews were chosen to form work teams, to serve the needs of the camp staff and tasks related to the processing of the victims. A total of about 1,000 prisoners were eventually put into these teams. Toward the end of 1942, in an effort to erase the traces of the killings, the bodies were exhumed and cremated; this task, too, was carried out by prisoners. Nearly every day, there were Selektionen among the Jewish prisoners. Only a few survived for more than a few months.
The Murder Process
When a train arrived, the deportees were told that they had arrived at a transit camp en route to labor camps; before leaving, they were to take showers, and their clothes would be disinfected. The men and women were separated (children were assigned to the women), on the pretext of the showers. The victims were ordered to take off their clothes and hand over their valuables. Then followed the march to the gas chambers, which had been made to resemble shower rooms. Some 450-550 persons entered the chambers at a time. Everything was done on the run, accompanied by shouts, beatings, and warning shots. The victims were in a state of shock. When the gas chambers were filled, they were sealed and the gas was piped in. Within 20-30 minutes, everyone inside was dead. The bodies were then removed and buried, after the gold teeth had been extracted. The whole procedure took two to three hours. In the meantime, the railway cars were cleaned, the train departed, and another twenty cars, with their human load, entered the camp.
The First Wave of Transports
The first stage of the extermination operation went on from the beginning of May to the end of July 1942. The Jews came from the Lublin district in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria; 90,000-100,000 were murdered in this stage. The transports came to a temporary halt at the end of July, to enable the Lublin-Chelm railway line to undergo repairs. In Sobibor's first months of operation, the Germans found that the capacity of the gas chambers created a bottleneck. The halt in operations was used to construct three more gas chambers, which doubled the rate of extermination. At the end of August 1942, Stangl was transferred to Treblinka, and Franz Reichsleitner took his place.
The Second Wave of Transports
By the beginning of October 1942, transports to Sobibor were renewed. Until June 1943, 70,000-80,000 Jews from Lublin and the Eastern Galicia districts were brought to Sobibor; and between 145,000-150,000 from the Generalgouvernement. By the end of October 1942, 25,000 Jews from Slovakia had been killed at Sobibor. In March of that year, four transports from France brought 4,000 victims. 35,000 Jews arrived from the Netherlands between March and July 1943. The Dutch Jews were made to send letters to their relatives to let them know that they had arrived at a labor camp. After they had written these letters, they were given the same treatment that was meted out to all the other transports. The last transports came in September 1943 from the Vilna, Minsk, and Lida ghettos, containing 14,000 Jews. This brought the total number of Jews killed to approximately 250,000.
The Closure of the Camp
In the second half of February 1943, Heinrich Himmler paid a visit to the camp and watched the entire extermination procedure. On July 5, 1943, he ordered Sobibor's transformation into a concentration camp. However, owing to the prisoners' uprising, which broke out on October 14, 1943, these plans were abandoned. By the end of 1943, the camp area was plowed under, and crops were planted. A Ukrainian camp guard settled on the former site.
Trials of Sobibor Personnel
Eleven of the SS men who had served at Sobibor were brought to trial. The proceedings took place in Hagen, West Germany, from September 6, 1965, to December 20, 1966. One of the accused committed suicide; one was sentenced to life imprisonment; five were given sentences ranging from three to eight years; and four were acquitted. The camp area was designated by the Polish government as a national shrine, and a memorial was erected on the site.
Throughout the camp's existence, attempts were made to escape from it; some of them were successful. In retaliation for these attempts, the Germans executed many dozens of prisoners. In July and August 1943, an underground group was organized among the Jewish prisoners under the leadership of Leon Feldhendler, who had been chairman of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in Zolkiew. The group's aim was to organize an uprising and a mass escape from the camp. In the second half of September, Soviet Jewish prisoners of war were brought to the camp from Minsk; one of them was Lt. Aleksandr Pechersky. The underground recruited him into its ranks and put him in command, with Feldhendler as his deputy. The plan was for the prisoners to kill the SS men, acquire weapons, and fight their way out of the camp. The uprising broke out on October 14, 1943, and in its course eleven SS men and several Ukrainians were killed. Some three hundred prisoners managed to escape, but most of them were killed by their pursuers. Those who had not joined the escape for various reasons and had remained in the camp were all killed as well. At the end of the war, about fifty Jews survived of those who had escaped during the uprising.
In the Wake of the Uprising
In the wake of the uprising, the Germans decided to liquidate Sobibor, abandoning the idea of turning it into a concentration camp. By the end of 1943, no trace was left; the camp area was plowed under, and crops were planted in its soil.