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Sobibor Extermination Camp: History & Overview

The second extermination camp to come into operation through the Nazi “Operation Reinhard,” the extermination camp at Sobibor was established March 1942.  Its first commandant, Franz Stangl, presided over about 700 Jewish workers engaged temporarily to service the camp, however this number would soon grow exponentially. Sobibor operated from April 1942 until the camp was destroyed following an inmate revolt in October 1943. Approximately 250,000 people were murdered here, the vast majority being Jews.

Railroad to Sobibor Death Camp

Sobibor consisted of two camps which were divided into three parts: administration section; barracks and storage; and finally the extermination, burial, and cremation section. Initially, three gas chambers housed in a brick building using carbon monoxide and three more gas chambers were added later.

Located in a sparsely populated area of Poland so as not to attract much outside attention, Sobibor was strategically placed also in relation to the concentrations of Jews in the Polish cities of Chelm and Lublin. The planners were able to incorporate the experience already gained from constructing the Belzec concentration camp, and the Nazi’s used local Polish workers and Jewish slave laborers to build the camp.

The site measured roughly 1,300 by 2,000 feet, surrounded by a triple line of barbed wire fencing and guarded by watchtowers, and was sub-divided into two camps with a reception area that included the spur line and platform which could accommodate up to 20 railroad wagons.

The first camp held the Jewish prisoners required to service the SS men and Ukrainians. Enroute to the second camp from the platform where buildings were the deportees left their luggage and clothing. Within the second camp was an enclosed area, entirely shielded by tree branches intertwined with the barbed wire, where deportees undressed in the open before proceeding up a fenced in passageway called `the tube1 towards the shaving hut for women and the gas chambers. Also in camp two were storage huts for clothing and valuables.

The third camp was the most remote area and was screened by trees. Inside was the brick building housing three 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. The corpses were removed from a second door and buried in huge, specially excavated pits. Carts, and later trolleys on a small rail track, were used to carry deportees who were too infirm to walk to the burial pits where they were shot so as not to delay the killing process.

Map of Sobibor Death Camp

In April 1942, Franz Stangl, an SS officer with a background in Operation T4, arrived to take command. Stangl commanded a mere 20-30 SS men, mainly from the T4 program. There was also a guard company of Ukrainians. About 200 to 300 Jews worked in teams at the gas chambers and burial pits. They cleaned out the killing rooms, removed gold teeth from the corpses and pushed trolleys heaped with bodies towards the pits. About 1,000 Jews worked at the platform cleaning up the rail trucks and removing debris, and in teams at the shaving hut, the undressing barracks and in the sorting sheds.

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 adjacent building was designed to reassure them. They were then separated according to gender and age: children went with the women. They were divested of their luggage and valuables, forced to undress and driven, men first, to the gas chambers. Women were shaved in a hut before they were taken to be gassed. The actual killing process took about 20-30 minutes. The `processing1 of a convoy of 20 wagons took about 2-3 hours.

Between August and September 1942, the murdering stopped while repairs were made to the main rail track feeding Sobibor, and 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 burial pits. The camp, now under the command of Franz Reichsleiter, continued operations in October 1942 and worked through to spring 1943.

Group portrait of people who took part in the uprising of Sobibor
(picture taken in 1944)

Over this period, 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. Between March and July 1943, 19 Dutch transports brought 35,000 Jews from Holland. 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.

Women were also used as sex slaves. According to Ada Lichtman, one of only three survivors from a transport of 7,000 Jews sent from Krakow to Sobibor, German guards selected well-dressed Jewish women from Germany and Austria to serve them in their barracks, which they called “The Merry Flea.”

Licthman survived because she worked as a seamstress. One of her duties was to clean and sew dolls taken from Jewish children so the guards could give them as presents to their children.

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 subsequently assisted by Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish officer in a transport of Red Army POWs which arrived in the camp in September 1943. The uprising was launched on October 14, 1943. In the fighting, 11 SS men and a number of Ukrainian guards were killed. Three hundred Jews escaped, but dozens were killed in the mine field around the camp and dozens more were hunted down over subsequent days.

Following the revolt, the camp was liquidated in October 1943 and the site demolished and disguised as a farm. The Nazis also planted hundred of trees over the area.

The number of survivors of Sobibor is still unknown and varies in different sources. Yad Vashem says about 50 of the Jews who escaped during the uprising survived. Another source cited by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum says the number was 47. As of March 2014, four remained alive.

In 2001, researchers, archaeologists, and historians in Poland began excavating the Sobibor site in hopes of finding more clues about the camp and those killed within its fences.  Over the next six years little useful information was found, however, in 2007, Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi joined the investigation after he learned that two of his uncles had been murdered at the camp. 

By August 2012, Haimi and his team of workers had uncovered numerous artifacts believed to have been the last possessions of some prisoners. Amid the teeth, bone shards and ashes through which he has sifted, he has recovered jewelry, keys and coins that have helped identify some of Sobibor’s formerly nameless victims. One finding inclduded an engraved metal identification tag bearing the name of Lea Judith de la Penha, a 6-year-old Jewish girl from Holland who Yad Vashem confirmed was murdered at the camp. “The Germans didn’t discriminate. They killed little girls too,” Haimi said in reference to the finding.

Haimi's most important discovery, however, has led to a better understanding of the entire Sobibor site. Based on debris collected and patterns in the soil, he has also been able to figure out where the Nazis placed poles to hold up the camp’s barbed wire fences. That, in turn, led him to his major breakthrough - the mapping of what the Germans called the Himmelfahrsstrasse, or the “Road to Heaven,” a path upon which the prisoners were marched naked into the gas chambers. He determined its route by the poles that marked the path. From that, he determined where the gas chambers would have been located.

While far from finished in his research or excavation, Haimi understands the importance of uncovering more truth about the Holocaust, especially when the generation of survivors is quickly dwindling. “Because of the lack of information about Sobibor, every little piece of information is significant,” said Haimi. “No one knew where the gas chambers were. The Germans didn’t want anyone to find out what was there. But thanks to what we have done, they didn’t succeed.”

In January 2014, Haimi and his Polish colleague, Wojciech Mazurekm, uncovered nine open-air cremation pits and a cabin that housed Jews used for slave labor. About five feet below the cabin floor, they unearthed a man-made tunnel that led to the barbed wire around the camp - most likely used as an escape route.

An archeological dig concluded in September 2014 uncovered gas chambers where a quarter of a million Jews perished. This discovery was the culmination of eight years of excavation and exploration around the area of the death camp. Archeologists also uncovered numerous personal artifacts stolen and thrown away by the Nazis, including rings, coins from Palestine, perfume bottles, and Magen David necklaces. The excavation is being sponsored by Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research, the German-Polish Foundation, and the Majdanek State Museum. 

At the end of 2018, Germany agreed to allocate $1.1 million for a museum at Sobibor, which was planned as part of a new memorial site being constructed by the Polish government in cooperation with Israel, the Netherlands and Slovakia. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and the State Museum at Majdanek also participated in the project. 

The museum opened in October 2020. The visitor center and museum were built where barracks once stood for prisoners to undress before being sent to the gas chambers. The museum has 16 thematic areas explaining the history of Sobibor and the Holocaust in occupied Poland. The museum owns 11,000 artifacts, 700 of which are displayed.

Sources: The Forgotten Camps.
“Israeli Archaeologist Digs Up Past at Infamous Sobibor Death Camp,” Washington Post, (August 21, 2012).
“New excavations shed light on Sobibor death camp,” Israel Hayom, (January 27, 2014).
“Sobibor, “ Yad Vashem.
Jules Schelvis, “Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp,” USHMM.
Wesley Pruden, “The last living witnesses. they wore the yellow star and remember the Nazi terror,” Washington Times, (December 12, 2013).
Reuters, (September 18, 2014).
Bernard Edinger, “Claude Lanzmann Does it Again,” The Jerusalem Report, (January 22, 2018).
“Germany allocates $1.1 million for new museum at former concentration camp site,” JTA, (December 27, 2018).
Matt Lebovic, “In Poland, new Sobibor museum memorializes victims through unearthed belongings,” Times of Israel, (January 1, 2021).
The State Museum at Majdanek.

Photos from USHMM.