November 1, 1939–September 1943
Operation Reinhard: Maps On November 1, 1939, SS Chief and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler appoints SS General Odilo Globocnik to the position of SS and Police Leader in Lublin District. On July 17, 1941, Himmler appoints Globocnik to the position of 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 General Government (Generalgouvernement). This operation later becomes known as Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhard). The effort was named after Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) and a chief architect of the “Final Solution,” following Heydrich’s asssassination in Prague in the spring of 1942. Three killing centers—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka—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. The killing center is located not far from the local Lublin-Chelm-Wlodawa rail line. This is an isolated area located about 50 miles east of the city Lublin, 24 miles north of the town Chelm, and 5 miles south of the town Wlodawa. During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, this area was in the Lublin District of the General Government.
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 "euthanasia" killing center at Hartheim, near Linz, Austria. He was familiar with using carbon monoxide gas in killing large numbers of people, because the purpose of the "euthanasia" operation was to murder institutionalized persons with physical and mental disabilities in gas chambers at facilities like Hartheim.
May 3, 1942
The SS deports 2,400 Jews from the Rejowiec transit ghetto located in Chelm county within Lublin District, in early April 1942. This is the first deportation to Sobibor. Almost all of the Jews brought to Sobibor on this transport are murdered upon arrival. Regular transports begin on May 3, with the arrival of 200 Jews from the city Zamosc. The camp staff conducts gassing operations in three gas chambers located in one brick building. Approximately 400 prisoners are selected to survive, but only temporarily. Those selected are used to supply the 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 had been 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, a village in Lublin District.
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 General Government. They discuss the killing operations. Himmler orders the deportation and murder of all Jews in the General Government by the end of 1942, euphemistically calling this process “resettlement.” An estimated 1,200,000 Jews reside in the General Government. Himmler's order accelerates the Operation Reinhard killing program.
Late July–September, 1942
At the end of July, the SS halts deportations to Sobibor in order to modernize the railway spur into the camp. During the two month lull in transports to Sobibor, they also reconstruct the existing gas chambers and add new ones. Also a narrow railway trolley from the reception platform to the burial pits is newly constructed.
During the first week of October 1942, the camp authorities resume mass murder operations in the gas chambers of Sobibor. Between October 8 and October 20 more than 24,000 Slovak Jews are brought to Sobibor from the transit camp-ghetto Izbica in the Lublin District of the General Government. The camp authorities kill virtually all of the deportees upon arrival in the 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. The newly constructed narrow railway trolley from the reception platform to the burial pits facilitates 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 them 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 deport those who survive to Sobibor. The first transports from Minsk and Lida leave for Sobibor on September 18. Included in the first deportation is Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet prisoner of war (POW) who was transferred to the Minsk ghetto because he was Jewish. Because of his military training, he was to play a central role in the resistance movement in Sobibor. In September 1943 alone, SS and police authorities transport 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 the 600 prisoners left in Sobibor on this day, 300 escape during the uprising. Among the survivors is Alexander Pechersky, the Soviet POW 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 prisoners. Some 50 prisoners survive the end of the war.
November 4, 1943–January 5, 1944
In correspondence with SS Chief 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 kill 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?
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Blatt, Thomas. From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997.
Raschke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Schelvis, Julius. Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp. Translated by Karin Dixon. Oxford/New York: Berg, 2007.