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Sobibor Extermination Camp: Jewish Prisoner Uprisings

Part 1

Note: The materials in this section were transcribed by Mr. Kenneth McVay of Vancouver, Canada. Mr. McVay's award-winning Nizkor Project is one of the largest collections of Holocaust-related materials in the world.—Ben Austin

                             YAD VASHEM ARCHIVES CAMPS - 1                        THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS                  Structure and Aims * The Image of the Prisoner                             The Jews in the Camps    PROCEEDINGS OF THE FOURTH YAD VASHEM INTERNATIONAL HISTORICAL CONFERENCE                           Jerusalem, January 1980                                  YAD VASHEM                                JERUSALEM 1984                                 SEVENTH SESSION                             Chairman: Bela Vago              JEWISH PRISONER UPRISINGS IN THE TREBLINKA AND SOBIBOR                             EXTERMINATION CAMPS    YITZHAK ARAD    A. "Operation Reinhard" Camps    The Erection of the Camps              At the same time that preparations were being made for the   destruction of the Jews in the General-Government in Poland, in what was called Operation Reinhard (Einsatz Reinhard), three death camps were being   erected in the Lublin region--at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.  The first camp, at Belzec, was set up alongside the Tomaszow-Lwow railroad and went into operation in March 1942; the second, Sobibor, was erected near the Brest-Litovsk-Wlodawa-Chelm railway line and became operational in April 1942; the third, Treblinka, was set up near the Warsaw-Bialystok railway and started operating on July 23, 1942.  These three camps were placed under the command of the SS and Police Leader of the Lublin district (SS und Polizeifu"hrer--SSPF), SS General Odilio Globocnik, even though the Treblinka camp was located in territory under the control and responsibility of the SS and Police Leader of the Warsaw district.  The intention was to concentrate all the annihilation activities of Operation Reinhard under a unified command.         The key people and professional staff at Operation Reinhard headquarters and the staff of the camps came from the T-4 organization, which had conducted Operation Euthanasia--the killing of mental patients and the chronically ill in the Reich.  These activities had been stopped in the fall of 1941 in the wake of pressure from church groups and public opinion in Germany.  Himmler made ninety-two of the 400 people in the T-4 organization available to Globocnik.  The key member of the group of transferred personnel was Sturmbannfu"hrer Christian Wirth.  Wirth and his men had technical and professional experience in killing people by gas.  This was the method they had used in Operation Euthanasia and which they now introduced in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.  Wirth was commandant of the Belzec camp, the first that was put into operation, and served in that post until August 1, 1942.  At that time he was appointed supervisor of the three camps, with his office located in Lublin.  The first commandant of the Treblinka camp was Dr. Eberl, and Franz Stangl, who succeeded him, was the first commandant of the Sobibor camp.  They, too, had been on the staff of Operation Euthanasia.        The three camps were erected according to the same basic plan, and   Sobibor and Treblinka were virtually identical in structure (see the    following sketch of the Treblinka camp)[Not included in this transcription.  knm].  They occupied a relatively small area, from one-quarter to one-half sq.  km.  (about the size of a football field).  The camp was divided into two separate sub-camps.  each having its own distinct function.  Camp A included the railway platform, the staff housing, the quarters of the Jewish prisoners, the camp offices, warehouses, and an open square for handling the people who arrived on the transports and for dealing with their belongings.  Camp B, called the "extermination area," included the gas chambers.  burial pits, fire pits for burning the corpses, and the quarters of the Jewish prisoners who were employed at various jobs in this part of the camp.  A narrow path, from 2 to 4 meters wide, fenced on both sides and running for about 100 meters, led from the area where the victims had to undress to the gas chambers in the extermination area.  This path was called Heaven Street (Himmelstrasse) or The Tube (Schlauch).  Both sections of the camps were surrounded by two or three barbed-wire fences, some of which were camouflaged with tree branches so that it was impossible to observe from outside what was going on inside the camp.  The extermination area and the path leading to it were also blocked off from the rest of the camp with fences, tree branches, and earth embankments, so that even from the other parts of the camp it was not possible to see what was going on there.      The Camp Staff           The permanent staff of each of the Operation Reinhard death camps was comprised of German SS men and Ukrainians.  In addition, Jewish prisoners were kept and employed for various tasks.      The SS Staff           The number of SS people ranged from twenty to thirty.  The SS people occupied the command and administrative positions in the camp and were responsible for the various installations, which were operated by the Ukrainians or by the Jewish prisoners.  The camp commanders had the rank of Hauplsturmfuhrer--Stangl in Treblinka, Reichleitner in Sobibor and Hering in Belzec.  The assistant camp commanders Kurt Franz in Treblinka and Niemann in Sobibor had the rank of Untersturmfu"hrer.  The remaining SS people bore a variety of ranks, Unterscharfu"hrer, Scharfu"hrer, Oberscharfu"hrer.  All the SS in the camp wore grey army-like uniforms.      The Ukrainian Staff           On the staff of each of the camps there were approximately 80-120   Ukrainians.  Their main job was to guard the camp.  They manned the guard towers and other positions and patrolled along the fences between positions.  When transports arrived the Ukrainians provided armed cover at the railway platform, in the reception square and along the path to the gas chambers (the guarding of the train on its way to the camp was carried out by a different guard unit and was not the camp's responsibility).  They also guarded within the camp and prevented contact between the Jews in the camp and those in the extermination area, and operated the motors that supplied the gas for the gas chambers.  Like the German personnel, they, too, took part in the shooting executions.  The Ukrainian staff in the death camps had been organized beforehand and had been trained in the Trawniki camp near Lublin.  Some of them were Soviet prisoners of war and some were local Ukrainians who volunteered for the German service.  Among the Ukrainians there were also Volksdeutsche from Soviet areas.  They wore black uniforms, and their personal weapon was a service rifle.  Some of the guard towers manned by the Ukrainians were equipped with machine guns.           The Jewish Prisoners.  The number of Jewish prisoners kept for various service jobs in the camp ranged from 700 to 1,000, with about 600-700 in camp A and 150-300 in camp B.           The Jews in the first group were divided into two groups: the first   was facetiously called the "court Jews" (Hofjuden) and the second was   called the "square Jews" (Platzjudend).  Most of the "court Jews" were skilled workers or were employed in workshops or in building the camp.  Compared to the others, their situation was relatively good.  The "Jews  of the square" were also divided into a number of groups:  one group was employed on the railway platform when the transports arrived.  Their job was to remove from the cars the bodies of those who had died en route, to remove the packages and to clean the cars.  Other groups were positioned in the square where the Jews were ordered to undress; their job was to sort and arrange the clothing and belongings and to ready them for shipment to Germany.  In addition, there were the so-called "gold Jews" who sorted gold and other valuables, and a group of barbers who sheared the women's hair   before they were sent to the gas chambers.  From time to time additional groups of workers were formed for various jobs, including camouflaging the camp fences with branches brought from the nearby forest, construction, paving roads in the camp, and the like.  Among the Jewish prisoners there was also a group of women.           The Jews who were kept in the extermination area worked mainly at   removing the dead bodies from the gas chambers and transferring them to  the pits.  When it was decided to cremate the bodies, on a pile of discarded old rails set aside especially for that purpose, they were   also put to work at that.  Another group of working Jews was called the "dentists"; they extracted gold teeth from the bodies that had been removed from the gas chambers before they were brought to the pits.  There were others who worked in the services in the extermination area--the kitchen, laundry, and the like.  The Germans prevented any contact between the Jews in the two parts of the camp.  At times Jews were shifted from the first camp to the second, but never back from there.  To head the group of Jews the Germans appointed a "camp elder" (Lagera"lteste), or, as he was sometimes called, "head Capo" (Oberkapo).  Each of the two parts of the camp had its own "camp elder," and the Germans also appointed a Jewish   Capo for each work group.  To keep a check on what the Jewish prisoners were thinking and doing, the SS found informers among them, but the prisoners quickly learned to recognize these informers and to take precautionary measures.           The relatively small size of the camp and the manner in which it  was constructed, including the system of barbed-wire fences and the guard   towers, which provided an unobstructed view of the camp area, plus the size of the German and Ukrainian staff and its activity in all parts of the camp, enabled maximum control and surveillance of the goings-on in the camp and of the movement of Jewish prisoners.  The only places where the Jews were not under constant observation were the workshops in the daytime and the barracks at night.  But the Germans paid frequent visits there, too, and the presence of informers facilitated surveillance of what was going on inside.      Secrecy and Deception as the Major Principle in the Operation of the German Annihilation Apparatus           In order to understand why the uprisings in Sobibor and Treblinka   were carried out by the few hundred Jews retained to work in the camp   and not by the hundreds of thousands brought there for extermination,   we must consider the system of secrecy and deception and the technique of extermination used by the Nazis.  We must also deal with the question of what was known to the Jews who were brought on the transports of the fate awaiting them.           The decisions reached at the highest levels of the Third Reich about   the destruction of the Jews and the instructions for carrying them out, which were passed on to the lower levels of the German administration were a closely guarded state secret.  The concentration of the Jews in their various countries of residence in occupied Europe and their transport in trains to the annihilation camps in Poland engaged a large bureaucratic and operational apparatus that included both Germans and non-Germans.  Many SS, local police officials, government officials and railroad workers were part of this apparatus.  Yet despite the involvement of thousands of people in these activities, the Nazis succeeded in keeping the purpose of the transports, their real destination, and the fate awaiting the deportees a secret, even from parts of the Nazi apparatus that dealt directly with the deportations and transportation of the Jews to the death camps.  Those levels and sections within the Nazi annihilation apparatus that knew the truth about the destination of the transports kept this secret very well.  In fact, the SS who took part in Operation Reinhard were required to  sign a special declaration of secrecy.         The millions of Jews who were taken from their places of residence,  ghettos or transit camps did not in any way know that they were being  brought to extermination camps nor did they know what fate awaited them.  Most of them had not even heard of the existence of such camps.  Rumors about the death camps did, it is true, reach Warsaw and other ghettos in Poland, but the public for the most part did not want to believe them.  Even most of those who escaped from the trains that were on their way to the extermination camps did not know the trains' real destination.         More than one-quarter of a million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, who  from July to September 1942 were brought to Treblinka--which was only  80 kilometers from Warsaw--did not know what fate awaited them.  When  they got off the train at the camp platform they were met by a heavy guard of SS men and Ukrainians, but their eyes immediately encountered the large sign announcing the following in Polish and German:              Jews of Warsaw, for your attention!  You are in a transit camp      (Durch-gangslager) from which you will be sent to a labor camp      (Arbeitslager).  As a safeguard against epidemics you must immediately      hand over your clothing and parcels for disinfection.  Gold, silver,      foreign currency and jewelry must be placed with the cashier, in      exchange for a receipt.  These will be returned to you at a later time      upon presentation of the receipt.  For bodily washing before      continuing with the journey all arrivals must attend the bathhouse.       (Adalbert Ruckerl, Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungslager im Spiegel      deutscher Strafprozesse--Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Munich,      1977, 219)         This announcement was also delivered to the prisoners orally by a SS  officer, who also announced that the old and sick for whom walking was difficult would be transferred to a field hospital (lazarett) near the train platform; they would be assisted by Jews who worked in the camp.  He promised that in the hospital the old and infirm would receive medical attention.         From the moment a "shipment" of several thousand people set foot on  the platform until its total liquidation in the gas chambers, no more  than an hour or an hour and a half passed, sometimes even less.  During that time the men were separated from the women and children; they were ordered to undress, and their clothing was arranged in packages; they handed over their valuables; the women's hair was shorn, and the people were led to the "showers," which of course were the gas chambers.  They were forced to do all of these things at a run, under a hail of shouts, blows and bullets from the So men and the Ukrainians, and the barking and biting of dogs.  The suddenness and speed with which all of this was done, the constant running, and the atmosphere of terror and threat put the people in a state of shock that kept them from thinking about what was happening around them or from taking any action of resistance.              This method was used with all the extermination transports that  arrived in sealed freight cars in the latter part of 1942 from the territory of the General-Government in Poland and from the occupied  territories of the Soviet Union.  A slightly different method was used  for transports that arrived from Western Europe, the territory of the  Third Reich, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans from the end of 1942 until  the middle of 1943.  These transports arrived in passenger cars.  Upon arrival they found an "ordinary" railway Station with signs pointing to ticket windows, tables indicating the departure times of trains to various destinations and other normal station installations -- all, of course, fake.  The alighting from the train was carried out in a polite and calm manner.  The camp personnel encouraged the arrivals to write postcards to their families and friends telling them that they had come to a labor camp; they  were even given an address for receiving mail (those arriving in Sobibor  were told to write Arbeitslager Wlodawa [Wlodawa Labor Camp]).         After the postcards were sent, everything having been done in a  peaceful and polite atmosphere, the situation changed radically: a torrent of shouts, blows, dog bites and bullets rained down on the people, who were stricken by an even greater shock and paralysis than that felt by the Jews from Poland and the Soviet Union.  In this way they were driven toward the gas chambers.         It is thus clear why those hundreds of thousands of Jews were unable  to organize and respond.  It is equally clear why the underground that carried out the uprisings was formed by some of those few Jews who had been selected from the transports to work for a certain period at various jobs in the camp.  They came to know what was happening in the camps and what fate awaited them; in addition, they had the time to organize their resistance. 

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