Anne Lepper & Andreas Kahrs A photograph collection published in 2020 provides the first visual insight into the topography of the Sobibor death camp. The photos from the collection also illustrate how accurate the descriptions and memories of the few survivors of the camp had been, as provided during the decades after the war.
Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka. After the Nazis had successively ceased operations in the three “Aktion Reinhard” death camps in spring 1943, they initially covered up all their traces. When they finally left the site, hardly any material evidence remained that could have provided information about the topography of the camps, until the much later phases of archeological excavations. For many decades we lacked any visual documentation that could have offered an impression of how those places, unique in history, might have looked. The lack of visual representation was one of the main factors for which “Aktion Reinhard” barely found its way into public awareness and cultural memory despite its major significance for the history of the Holocaust.
Imagining the camps
In the years following the war, it was primarily the memories and accounts of the few survivors of the camps that provided an idea of how subsequent generations were to imagine sites of the unimaginable. For a long time, their testimonies, statements in court, and maps drawn up according to their descriptions -either during the trials against the perpetrators or by historical commissions -were the only sources that could provide us with information about the camp topography. Thus, it was the survivors who, with their memories and legacies, created the basis for the vision we have of the "Aktion Reinhard" camps. They were the only ones who could describe what it had really looked like inside the camps, and only they who could recall what kind of impression the camp made on the deportees arriving at the railway ramp.
The extraordinary role of the survivors in public knowledge of the camps is also reflected by the fact that, to this day, we know very little about the topography of Belzec. It is only through the report given by Rudolf Reder, and the incomplete account of Chaim Hirszman, that we have some information: the only two survivors among almost half a million victims. It is evident that, concerning “Aktion Reinhard”, the most valuable information could only be expected from the survivors of the camps, from which there were so few. For instance, the limited number of perpetrators who appeared in court remained vague in almost all their statements and were hardly questioned in detail by the investigators and judges.
Similarly, the special role that recollections of the survivors also had in the development of the 1987 film "Escape from Sobibor" is sufficiently known and is discussed as part of this online exhibition “Sobibor on the Screen”. Several survivors were actively involved in the making of the film and thus the sets were developed according to their accounts. However, it is only now - almost 37 years after the film’s release- that a collection of photographs has surfaced, including images from inside the Sobibor campground. Crucially, these images show how accurate the film's portrayal of the topography of the camp was, especially in the case of the housing area of the German camp staff.
The pictures in question belonged to the former deputy camp commandant, Johann Niemann. Sixty-two remarkable pictures from the collection show scenes from the inside of the death camp, and thus for the first time give a visual impression of what Sobibor looked like. Yet, the photos from the Niemann collection only convey a highly subjective impression. They reflect the perspective of a perpetrator who, in the desire to create a private memento for himself, captured the various stages of his career photographically and combined them with images from his private life. Thus, even though the images provide a visual insight into Sobibor's topography for the first time, they must still be viewed with caution when it comes to critical source research. It is only through a critical examination of the photos that we can really understand them, and by juxtaposing them with the memories and descriptions of the survivors.
The Niemann collection
The full photo collection of Johann Niemann, who was the first to be killed in the prisoners' uprising on 14 October 1943, comprises a total of 360 photos. Niemann first arrived in Sobibor in late summer 1942 from the Belzec camp, where he had already been part of the first group of German perpetrators to set up the camp in winter of 1941. Most of the photos show the so-called “Vorlager”, the housing area of the German SS camp crew, and are intended to give viewers an impression of the relaxing leisure activities provided for staff during their deployment "in the East". The collection has since been published in German and Dutch, with an English edition to be follow in 2022. The physical collection itself has been acquired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and is now accessible through the institution’s digital archives.
Interestingly, when we first consulted the extensive source material available to find possible references to the places depicted in the photographs, we were led back to "Escape from Sobibor". In the opening of the film, during a sequence of less than a minute long, we see the elaborate design scenery of the so-called “Vorlager”, which begins the story of Sobibor. Just as it has been described in several of the survivors' testimonies, we see a garden in front of small pretty houses, which gives the impression of a small, picturesque village. The film presents this aspect as a deliberate deception, and as part of the German strategy in the camp. The supposed idyll that was meant to conceal the true function of the camp is abruptly interrupted by the escape attempt of two prisoners, who subsequently find their death in the hail of bullets from camp guards and in the minefield that surrounded Sobibor. Throughout the rest of the film, this ‘idyllic’ staging of the “Vorlager” is not depicted again. It is as if the illusion of the kind of place that Sobibor might have been, is quickly destroyed after the "arrival" of the viewers and the scenes of death that follow.
Eda Lichtman, a Sobibor survivor and one of the main characters in the film, was on set and able to describe the situation in the “Vorlager”. The opening scene seems to relate strongly to her descriptions, which were arguably more accurate than any other. After all, she had to work for the Germans in this part of the camp for months. Moreover, through the visual comparison of the Niemann pictures which capture this particular area, it is astonishing to see how closely the arrangement of the film set is, in relation to the perpetrator photos from Sobibor:
"When you walked into the camp, it gave the impression of a resort. Beautifully built villas, casino, gardens, gravel-covered paths, lawns, flower beds, rose and sunflower avenues carefully concealed and deceived the eye of strangers that the death factory was there.“ (Eda Lichtman, in Tel Aviv 1984)
Thus, Lichtman's testimony and the accounts of other survivors demonstrate how the photographs can be placed in ‘real’ context, simultaneously deconstructing the intended perpetrator narrative.
“Reading” the photographs with the help of the survivors' testimonies
Following the same principle of juxtaposing the survivors' testimonies with the photos of the perpetrators, it is possible to read the images in a new light, and to make visible what was "invisible" at first glance. Through this method, some images revealed – with the help of the testimonies – a kind of “second reality”.
Several pictures in the collection capture a relaxed leisure scene of SS men sitting on the terrace of the "new casino". Looking at the picture, nothing indicates where they are – or that less than 200 meters away, Jewish prisoners are imprisoned in the middle of a death camp. Though we only physically see camp staff around Commandant Reichleitner (second from left) and his deputy Johann Niemann (third from left), two civilian women working in the kitchen of the “Vorlager” and a guest from the German Border Patrol (right), the Jewish prisoners can also be made "visible" in the picture with the help of the afore mentioned contextualization. Various survivors recalled that the new buildings, such as this, had to be built by their fellow prisoners. This included equipping them with carpentered furniture, as can be seen in the following picture:
Jakub Biskubicz, a Polish Jew from Hrubieszów, recalled the expansion and renovation phase in the camp:
"The construction of the casino for Germans also belongs to this period. It was a luxury building with terraces, on one side of the street was white gravel and on the other [were] black stones, on the side were flower beds. [...] Three carpenters (there were 3 brothers whose names I don't know), good professionals, provided the new buildings, which were intended for the Germans, with new furniture."
(Jakub Biskubicz, in Hagen 1965)
Similarly, a closer look at the richly laid table also indirectly reveals the actual function of the place as a killing centre. The high-quality glasses and various foodstuffs were, most probably, brought to the camp as part of the deportations from Western Europe, and were therefore the property of murdered Jews. As many of the survivors recalled, there was a large depot of plundered valuables from the victims, which was regularly looted by the perpetrators.
The conception of the rectangular "Vorlager" also included a well, which was in the center of the complex. It can be seen from the terrace of the casino. In various testimonies, the well stands as a symbol of the fact that this part of the camp was also a place of terrible violence. In the words of Mordechaj Goldfarb, a Polish Jew who was deported to Sobibor from the nearby Piaski ghetto, this violence can also be made visible in the photographs of the Niemann Collection.
„There were two wells near the casino, I was once thrown into one of these wells, which was not far from the casino, Wagner had beaten me. [...]” In a second account he added: “I got beatings from Wagner almost every day. Once a transport arrived with a whole painter's workshop. I was supposed to quickly fetch paint from the magazine. I took this opportunity to get something to eat. It took him too long for me to come back. He shouted, "Painter, where are you?". He ran to the gardener, got a sharpened stake, beat me from the magazine to the casino. He also beat me until roll call in the afternoon at 4 o'clock and still after roll call, finally he threw me into a well. I was taken out in the dark.“ (Mordechaj Goldfarb, in Hagen 1964)
The pictures from the “Vorlager” also portray SS-Gustav Wagner, as mentioned by Goldfarb, who was widely feared among the prisoners as a notorious perpetrator of brutality. Below, we see him on the well-known terrace, overlooking the well in the middle of the square:
Johann Niemann's photographs also document other parts of the camp that were directly related to the mass murder, but which were framed in a similar and supposedly “harmless” way. In the middle of the so-called Camp II, where prisoners would enter the passage to the path leading to the main killing and mass grave area, there was a small farm called "Erbhof" (a term from the racist Nazi settlement policy, which was supposed to regulate the passing on of land in "Aryan succession").
In this picture, there is nothing to indicate the horrors of what was hidden behind the barns on the right-hand side. Yet, concealed by these structures was was the so-called "Schlauch", a narrow, curved passage through which the Jews were forced into the gas chambers. The "Schlauch" began on the right side of the sandy square in the foreground. Sobibor survivor Esther Raab had to work on the farm during her time in the camp. She had been born to a Jewish family in Chełm, about 30 km from Sobibor. In one of her testimonies, she remembered this place, making “visible” what had been deliberately omitted from Nieman's photos:
From about August 1943 I worked in the breeding of Angora rabbits. The barrack in which the rabbits were kept was located in the area of the third field of the general camp, directly on the road leading from the barrack (where the clothes were left behind) to the gas chamber. I could watch daily how the SS men and the Ukrainian guards bestially drove the naked people into the gas chamber, beating them with carbine pistols and stabbing them with bayonets.” (Esther Raab, 1972)
The entrance gate to the "Erbhof" can be seen in the collection from two different perspectives. In the second picture, we see the wooden fence adjoining the gate on the left. In the later phase of the camp, the closing of the gate made it possible to shut off the sandy square in front of it, which thus became an enclosed courtyard. Here, as mentioned in the quotation from Esther Raab, the deportees had to undress and then hand in their last remaining valuables in a small house labeled "Kasse."
Many victims wanted to prevent their valuables from falling into the hands of the Germans. They hastily buried rings, necklaces, and gold in the sand. But the German camp staff was prepared for this as well, and assigned a Jewish work commando to search for the items. Through the words of Moshe Bahir, who was deported from Zamość to Sobibor and later testified as a witness in the Adolf Eichmann trial, the images of the "Erbhof" take on a new dimension:
"It was often not without shooting. The dog Barry was also chased at people to intimidate them. Then the people had to go through the tube. As soon as they were gone, we had to rake the sand to find any hidden money or gold.“(Moshe Bachir, 1965)
A new form of visual representation
The photos presented here are just a few examples from the Sobibor album which demonstrate how the images from the Niemann Collection can be juxtaposed with the survivors' testimonies, and thus contribute to the reconstruction of the topography and history of the camp. Through this method of interpretation, the memories of the survivors can become “visible”, and thus change our understanding of the images, as told through the perspective of the victim rather than of the perpetrator alone. Now that there are no survivors left to speak publicly about what took place at Sobibor, their testimonies have taken on a new significance, by telling the story of the camp alongside these subjective photographs. By combining the different sources, then, a new form of visual representation of Sobibor is being created. And perhaps, in the future, their testimonies will provide further insight into unseen photographs of Sobibor, or other places of the National Socialist extermination system, which might turn up somewhere in German attics and are waiting to be questioned and critically analyzed. Anne Lepper is the representative of the International School for Holocaust Studies Yad Vashem in the German-speaking countries. She also serves as a voluntary stuff member of the German Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz and has organized a number of other educational initiatives that focus on the history of Nazi killing sites in Poland and other countries. She is a co-editor of Fotos aus Sobibor: Die Niemann-Sammlung zu Holocaust und Nationalsozialismus (2020) and has written widely about wartime Jewish aid networks. She is completing a Ph.D. in history at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Dr. Andreas Kahrs studied History and Political Science in Hamburg and Kraków and received his PhD from Humboldt University Berlin. One of his main areas of work is research and educational work on "Aktion Reinhard“. He is a member of the Bildungswerk Stanislaw Hantz, which has been carrying out educational and remembrance work at the sites of "Aktion Reinhard" for over 20 years. Andreas is co-author and co-editor of the book "Fotos aus Sobibor. Niemann-Sammlung zu Holocaust und Nationalsozialismus", (Berlin 2020) and co-editor of the book „Kalmen Wewryk: Nach Sobibor und zurück“, (Berlin 2020). He is currently working on an online project on the transit ghettos in the Lublin district.