November 1, 1939–September 1943
Operation Reinhard: Maps Reichsfuehrer-SS and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler appoints SS General Odilo Globocnik SS and Police Leader in Lublin District on November 1, 1939. On July 17, 1941, Himmler appoints Globocnik Commissioner for the Establishment of SS and Police Bases in the Occupied Eastern Territories. In early autumn of that year, Himmler tasks Globocnik with organizing the mass murder of Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not annexed directly to Germany, attached to German East Prussia, or incorporated within the German-occupied Soviet Union). This operation later became known as Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard), named after Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office. Three killing centers—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II—are constructed for the sole purpose of killing Jews. Between March 1942 and November 1943, the personnel of Operation Reinhard kill approximately 1.7 million Jews.
March 1942–May 1942
Under the supervision of SS Captain Richard Thomalla, SS and police authorities construct the Sobibor killing center in the spring of 1942 in an isolated area not far from the local Chelm-Wlodawa rail line.
April 28, 1942
After the construction of the killing center, SS First Lieutenant Franz Stangl arrives in Sobibor to take up the position of camp commandant. Stangl had been the deputy supervisor of the so-called "euthanasia" killing center at Hartheim, near Linz, Austria. As the purpose of the "euthanasia" operation was to murder institutionalized persons with physical and mental disabilities in gas chambers at facilities like Hartheim, Stangl was familiar with using carbon monoxide gas for killing large numbers of people.
May 3, 1942
The SS deports 2,400 Jews from the Rejowiec, Chelm county in Lublin District in early April 1942, the first deportation to Sobibor, and murders almost all of them upon arrival. Regular transports began on May 3, with the arrival of 200 Jews from Zamosc. The camp staff conducts gassing operations in three gas chambers located in one brick building. Some 400 prisoners are selected to survive, temporarily, to supply manual labor necessary to support the mass murder function of the killing center. During this first phase of deportations, from early May until the end of July 1942, the Sobibor killing center authorities kill at least 61,400 Jews. Many of them were deported from cities and towns in the north and east of Lublin District; the majority were Jews deported from the German Reich, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia either directly or via the transit camp-ghetto in Izbica. At the end of July, the SS halts deportations to Sobibor in order to modernize the railway spur into the camp.
July 19, 1942
In Lublin, Himmler meets with Operation Reinhard manager Odilo Globocnik and with SS General Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, the Higher SS and Police Leader for the Generalgouvernement. They discuss the killing operations. Himmler orders the "resettlement"—a euphemism for deportation and murder—of all Jews in the Generalgouvernement by the end of 1942. An estimated 1,200,000 Jews reside in the Generalgouvernement. Himmler's order accelerates the killing program.
During the first week of October 1942, the camp authorities resume mass murder operations in the gas chambers of Sobibor with the arrival of more than 24,000 Slovak Jews between October 8 and October 20 from the transit camp-ghetto Izbica in the Lublin District of the Generalgouvernement. The camp authorities kill virtually all of the deportees upon arrival in reconstructed and newly added gas chambers, completed during the two month lull in transports to Sobibor. The improvements in capacity enable the camp authorities to kill up to 1,300 people at a time. Newly constructed as well was a narrow railway trolley from the reception platform to the burial pits in order to facilitate the transfer of the sick, the dead, and those unable to walk directly to the open ovens. Those still alive after this journey are shot by the SS staff or the Trawniki-trained guards.
March 5, 1943
German SS and Police authorities begin deportations of Dutch Jews from the police transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands to Sobibor. In 19 transports from this date until July 1943, SS authorities in Westerbork deport over 34,000 Jews to Sobibor. Camp staff and guards kill almost all of them in the gas chambers or by shooting on arrival in the camp.
Two transports containing a total of 2,000 Jews from France arrive at Sobibor from the police transit camp Drancy, outside Paris. Deportations from France to camps in the east, primarily Auschwitz, began in March 1942 and continue until August 1944.
Following Himmler's order of July 1943 to liquidate the ghettos in Reichskommissariat Ostland, SS and police units liquidate ghettos in Minsk, Lida, and Vilna and deported those who survived to Sobibor. The first transports from Minsk and Lida leave for Sobibor on September 18. Included in the first deportation from Minsk is Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky, a Soviet-Jewish prisoner of war, who, because of his military training, came to play a central role in the resistance movement in Sobibor. In September 1943 alone, SS and police authorities transported at least 13,700 Jews from ghettos in the occupied Soviet Union to Sobibor. The camp authorities gas or shoot most of them upon arrival.
October 14, 1943
Prisoners carry out a revolt in Sobibor, killing nearly a dozen German staff and Trawniki-trained guards. Of 600 prisoners left in Sobibor on this day, 300 escape during the uprising. Among the survivors is Alexander Pechersky, the Soviet prisoner of war who played a key role in planning the revolt. Of those prisoners who escape, SS and police personnel from Lublin district recapture and shoot some 100. Some of the prisoners selected for temporary survival in Sobibor organized an underground resistance organization in early summer of 1943 as it became apparent that gassing operations at Sobibor were slowing. Once the gassing operations were finished, the SS planned to dismantle the killing center and reconfigure the facility first as a holding pen for women and children deported from villages in Belarus, which had been destroyed in the course of so-called anti-partisan operations, and, later, as an ammunition depot. Though no further prisoners arrived after the killing center was remodeled, the facility was guarded by a small Trawniki-trained detachment until at least the end of March 1944. During the year and a half in which the Sobibor killing center operated, camp authorities and the Trawniki-trained guards murdered at least 170,000 people. Virtually all of the victims were Jews.
November 4, 1943–January 5, 1944
In correspondence with Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, Odilo Globocnik files the final reports on the conclusion of Operation Reinhard, the dismantling of the killing centers, and the accounting of the personal possessions, currency, and valuables stolen from the murdered victims. Within the framework of Operation Reinhard, the SS and police killed approximately 1.7 million people.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Where were camps located?
- To what degree was the local population aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within? How would you begin to research this question?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what, if any, actions were taken by other governments and their officials?
- How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews?