The ‘Operation Reinhard’ camps were established in Eastern Poland, with the sole intention of killing those who arrived there. Only a small number of arrivals were spared to maintain the camp’s function, and to sort through the belongings of the deceased. The three main Reinhard Camps, Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, were built in East Poland, and functioned between 1942-43. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these camps. From April 1942 until mid-October 1943, the German SS and their auxiliaries killed at least 170,000 people at Sobibór alone.
Group portrait of Jewish forced laborers at the Belzec camp (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzeum Regionalne w Tomaszow Lubelski ©).
The Sobibór death camp was located near the small village of Sobibór, in the eastern part of the Lublin district of Poland, close to the Chełm – Włodawa railway line. The camp was 5km away from the Bug River which today forms the border between Poland and Ukraine. German SS and police authorities constructed Sobibór in the spring of 1942 as the second killing centre within the framework of Operation Reinhard. The terrain was swampy, wooded and sparsely populated, providing the SS with an opportunity for deception and discretion concerning their crimes and murderous activity. At its largest development, 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, and the entire camp was surrounded by a minefield 50 feet wide to prevent access and escape.
Camp Staff and Authorities
The chief commanders (or ‘Commandants’) of Sobibór were SS First Lieutenant Franz Stangl, who oversaw initial operations from April until August 1942, and SS Captain Franz Reichleitner from August 1942 until November 1943. Under their authority, the staffing at the camp consisted 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 prisoners of war of various nationalities from the Soviet Union or Ukrainian and Polish civilians selected or recruited for this purpose. This particular guard unit was trained at the Trawniki training camp, a special facility of the SS and Police Leadership in Lublin. The staff were particularly brutal, and consistently used aggression and violence against the prisoners and victims. Some of the female arrivals also experienced sexual violence at the hands of the Trawniki-trained staff, as several of the Sobibór survivors later testified.
Everyday camp life
Oral history interview with Esther Terner Raab (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection ©)
Life and the Killing Process in the Camp
“We could see signposts, figures carved beautifully in wood […] Could such a place be a death factory? […] I knew better. Even as I passed the green cottage with the idyllic name ‘Swallow’s Nest’ on the door, I knew I was here to die. But why? […] Barbed wire and Ukrainian guards with rifles surrounded us. It was hopeless. There was no chance of escape…” (From the Ashes of Sobibór, Thomas Toivi Blatt)
The topography of Sobibór was divided into three parts: an administration area, a reception area, and a killing area. The administration area contained offices, housing for the staff, and barracks for the small prisoner labour force, who were selected for work in the area after being transported to Sobibór. The reception area held the railway siding, ramp, and the area where the victims undressed. Here, there were also warehouses for storing the victims' possessions, which were sorted by the prisoner labourers and sent back to the German Reich. Staff helped themselves to valuables, and even commissioned custom jewellery from the Jewish goldsmiths whose lives were spared so they could carry out this work. The killing area included gas chambers, mass graves, and barracks for prisoners assigned to maintain and 'clean' the gas chamber. A narrow path deemed ‘The Road to Heaven’ connected the reception and killing area where new arrivals at the camp were marched naked to their death.
Camp staff began regular gassing operations at Sobibór in May 1942. Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars would arrive at the Sobibór railway station and enter the reception area via a specialised passage and platform. Jewish and Roma prisoners were brought from across occupied Europe, including France, Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Poland. On arrival in Sobibór, the prisoners were told that they had arrived at a labour camp. They were ordered to hand over their valuables in exchange for a ‘ticket’ and assured that they would be able to claim their belongings later. The guards ordered the Jews into the barracks and forced them to undress and run along The Road to Heaven to the gas chambers, labelled as showers. Jewish prisoner labourers were forced to shave the hair of the women, and once the gas chamber doors were sealed, guards in an adjacent room started an engine which piped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was then repeated with the next victims that arrived. Initially the bodies were buried in mass graves after they had been searched for gold. Later the SS staff decided it was much more efficient to burn the bodies on layered metal racks made from rail tracks.
The small number of men and women prisoners who were selected for specific jobs faced fear, humiliation and back-breaking work on a daily basis. Living conditions were extremely dismal. The women were mainly given domestic tasks, including knitting, cleaning, laundry, and ironing, as well as sorting through packages and victims’ belongings. Hella Weiss, aged 14 when she arrived at Sobibór, recalls: “As in a dream I heard a voice of one of the Germans say, ‘who can knit?’ and I stepped out of line… in my childhood my mother taught me how to knit socks.” Though many of the female prisoners were young and had little work experience, they adapted quickly to the tasks required of them for fear of punishment and beatings by the guards. In Weiss’ case, she was able to apply the skills she had already acquired at home.
It did not take long for the women to realise the goal and purpose Sobibór had: the survivors described the smell of burning bodies and the smoke rising up from the section of the camp they were forbidden to enter. Some of them, including Regina Zielinski, found their own families’ belongings whilst working in the sorting barracks: “There was even my mother’s jacket. Later on, we had to sort those clothes, and I even undid a little pocket on the jacket where she had her wedding ring sewn in. It was very hard to bear that, but life somehow had to go on till the next moment, and our life in Sobibór was only counted by the moments.” They knew that their position as labourers, and the 'privilege' of not being killed immediately, was their only chance for survival. Many of the survivors testified about life in Sobibór in their post-war testimonies, or in the war trials of the perpetrators. [See our Resources page for some of these testimonies]
Survivors of the Sobibór extermination camp, taken in 1944. (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ©)
Underground and Uprising
“Sasha (Pechersky), jumping up on a table, made a short speech in Russian, his native language. His voice was clear and loud so that everybody could hear, but also composed and slow. He told the prisoners that most of the Germans in the camp had been killed. There was no turning back. A terrible war was ravaging the world and each prisoner was part of that struggle. He promised that dead or alive, they would be avenged and so would the tragedy of all humanity. He repeated twice that those prisoners who, by some miracle survive, should forever be a witness to this crime.” (From the Ashes of Sobibor, Blatt)
The mass prisoner uprising at the Sobibór death camp is considered one of the most successful acts of Jewish resistance during the Second World War. Prior to the 1943 uprising, smaller-scale escape attempts from Sobibór had been made, both successful and unsuccessful (See the story of Jozef Kopf and Shlomo Podchlebnik).
However, as the Holocaust progressed, the remaining prisoners at Sobibór became aware of the fact that the scale and frequency of the killing operations in the facility were diminishing. If the camp were to close, they would no longer be needed by the Nazis. Moreover, they received information that the Bełżec camp had been dismantled, and all surviving prisoners had been transported to Sobibór to be killed: a fate which they would also share if the camp eventually fulfilled its purpose. They even found written notes hidden in the clothing of the last murdered prisoners from Bełżec, which were sent to the sorting barracks. The prisoners at Sobibór organised a resistance group in the late spring of 1943. A plan was initiated by members of the Jewish underground in the camp who, in addition to their own existing thoughts of escape, saw an opportunity when a transport of Jewish-Soviet POWs with military expertise arrived, including Alexander Pechersky, a former lieutenant in the Soviet army. On October 14th, 1943, the escape plan was initiated when a small group of prisoners killed eleven SS men and several Ukrainian guards, allowing for the subsequent mass escape of camp inmates. It is important to note that the female prisoners also played an important role in the uprising. Due to their work roles in the camp, they had access to clothing from the sorting barracks. The women prisoners were able to move about more easily around the camp – because they were seen as less of a threat than the men, and were able to gather information as well as to gain access to the guards’ quarters and obtain ammunition.
It is estimated that around 300 prisoners were able to flee Sobibór initially, although most were chased down and killed or did not survive crossing the minefields surrounding the camp. Around 100 were caught in the manhunt that followed, and the small minority of prisoners who remained in the camp were also murdered before its closure. It is estimated that of those 300, only 48 of the Sobibór prisoners survived the escape, and lived to see the end of the war.
Closure of the Camp
After their escape, the small number of Sobibór survivors all endured terrible hardships, living in constant fear and in inhumane conditions. Each of the former prisoners of Sobibór carried with them their own story of survival, and these stories remain an important testament to the human spirit. The women showed tremendous courage, leadership and determination during their period of survival after the camp. Some former prisoners joined anti-Nazi partisan groups who were living in the Polish forests, participating in clandestine warfare and acts of violence against the German occupiers. Some applied their survival skills to hiding and seeking help from locals. Although there is no evidence that new prisoners ever arrived in Sobibór after the murder of remaining Jewish prisoners in November 1943, a small Trawniki-trained guard detachment remained at the former killing centre through at least the end of March 1944. After the area was liberated by the Soviets in July 1944, the few remaining camp barracks were briefly used by the Red Army.