Location and Construction of the Camp
Operation Reinhard: Maps The small village of Sobibor is near the present-day eastern border of Poland, about three miles west of the Bug (Buh) River and five miles south of Wlodawa. During the German occupation of Poland, this area was in the Lublin District of the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not directly annexed to Germany, attached to German East Prussia or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union).
German SS and police authorities constructed Sobibor in the spring of 1942 as the second killing center within the framework of Operation Reinhard, the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin to murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. It was built along the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line, in a wooded, swampy, and thinly populated region. At its largest extension, the camp covered a rectangular area of 1,312 by 1,969 feet. Branches woven into the barbed-wire fence and trees planted around the perimeter camouflaged the site. The entire camp was surrounded by a minefield 50 feet wide.
The authorities at the Sobibor killing center consisted of a small staff of German SS and police officials (between 20 and 30) and a police auxiliary guard unit of between 90 and 120 men, all of whom were either former Soviet prisoners of war of various nationalities or Ukrainian and Polish civilians selected or recruited for this purpose. All members of the guard unit were trained at a special facility of the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, the Trawniki training camp. Commandants of the Sobibor killing center were SS First Lieutenant Franz Stangl from April until August 1942 and SS Captain Franz Reichleitner from August 1942 until November 1943.
The Sobibor killing center was divided into three parts: an administration area, a reception area, and a killing area. The administration area included camp offices, housing for the German and Trawniki-trained guards assigned to the camp, and barracks for the prisoner labor force. The reception area held the railway siding, ramp, barracks where the victims undressed, and warehouses for the victims' possessions. The killing area included gas chambers, mass graves, and barracks for prisoners assigned to forced labor. A narrow enclosed path called the "tube" connected the reception and killing areas.
After some experimentation, the camp authorities began regular gassing operations in May 1942. Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars arrived at the Sobibor railway station. Twenty cars at a time entered the reception area, where the camp guards ordered victims out of the trains and onto the platform. German SS and police officials announced that the deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables. The Germans ordered the Jews into the barracks and forced them to undress and run through the "tube," which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. The women's hair was shorn in a special barracks inside the "tube." Once the gas chamber doors were sealed, in an adjacent room guards started an engine which piped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was repeated with the next freight cars.
Members of the Sonderkommandos (special detachments)—groups of prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers-worked in the killing area. They removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners selected for temporary survival worked in the administration-reception area, facilitating detraining, disrobing, relinquishment of valuables and movement into the “tube” of new arrivals. They also sorted the possessions of the murdered victims in preparation for transport to Germany, and were responsible for cleaning out freight cars for the next deportation. German SS and police personnel and the Trawniki-trained guards periodically murdered the members of these detachments of Jewish laborers, and replaced them with persons selected from newly arriving transports.
In the autumn of 1942, on orders from Lublin, German SS and police personnel, using Jewish forced laborers selected from arriving transports, began to exhume the mass graves at Sobibor and to burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder. These efforts aimed at obliterating all traces of mass murder.
Deportations to Sobibor
German SS and police officials conducted deportations to Sobibor between May 1942 and the fall of 1943. Between late July and September 1942, deportations by train to Sobibor from points south were suspended while repairs were made on the Chelm-Lublin railway.
German SS and Police officials deported Jews to Sobibor primarily from the ghettos of the northern and eastern regions of Lublin District in the Government General. The Germans also deported Jews to Sobibor from German-occupied Soviet territory, Germany itself, Austria, Slovakia, Bohemia and Moravia, the Netherlands, and France. In all, the Germans and their auxiliaries killed at least 170,000 people at Sobibor.
Sobered by both the sense that killing operations in the facility were winding down and information that Belzec had been dismantled and all surviving prisoners liquidated, prisoners at Sobibor organized a resistance group in the late spring of 1943. After considering several options for escape and augmented in numbers and military training skills by the arrival of a number of former Soviet-Jewish prisoners of war from the Minsk ghetto in late September, the prisoners opted for an uprising, following the liquidation of key German camp officials. On October 14, 1943, with approximately 600 prisoners left in the camp, those who knew the plan for the uprising initiated the operation. The prisoners succeeded in killing nearly a dozen German personnel and Trawniki-trained guards. Around 300 prisoners succeeded in breaking out of the killing center that day; around 100 were caught in the dragnet that following and more than half of the remaining survivors did not live to see the end of the war.
Dismantling of the Camp
After the revolt, the Germans and the Trawniki-trained guards dismantled the killing center and shot the Jewish prisoners who had not escaped during the uprising. Pursuant to discussions in the SS hierarchy in the summer of 1943, the Germans had intended to transform the facility first into a holding pen for women and children deported west from occupied Belarus after their fathers and husbands had been murdered in so-called anti-partisan operations, and later, into an ammunition supply depot. Although there is no information that new prisoners ever arrived in Sobibor after the murder of remaining Jewish prisoners in November 1943, a small Trawniki-trained guard detachment remained at the former killing center through at least the end of March 1944.
Series: Killing Centers
Critical Thinking Questions
- Where were camps located?
- To what degree was the German population and the local Polish community aware of Sobibor, its purpose, and the conditions within? How would you begin to research this question?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about the killing centers? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials?
- What choices do countries have to prevent, mediate, or end the mistreatment of imprisoned civilians in other nations?
- How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews?
- How can recently found documents and images affect our understanding of historical events, including the Holocaust?