Public memory of Sobibór

Sobibór death camp is not as well-known as some of the larger Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Bergen- Belsen. There are a number of reasons for this. Very few prisoners survived in comparison to other camps, so there were fewer witnesses able to recount their experiences. Sobibór was closed before Soviet troops liberated the area, which means that when they arrived at the camp, they found only a few physical traces left. The formal commemoration of the camp site occurred at a much later date, meaning that Sobibór was overlooked during the establishment of a collective Holocaust memory.

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Railway sign at the station in Sobibór village (Credit: Hannah Wilson ©).

Yet, our understanding of Sobibór and its significance as part of the Shoah is also shaped by the specific factors of nationality and remembrance. Sobibór holds a more significant place in Holocaust history for those countries outside Poland (such as The Netherlands, Slovakia, France and Russia), that lost large proportions of their former Jewish communities following deportations to the Reinhard camps. Awareness of Sobibór is also affected by the patterns of immigration of the camp’s survivors after the war. In Israel, where a number of the Sobibór survivors settled, the anniversary of the camp’s uprising is marked by both private and public commemorations.

In the United Kingdom and the United States, by contrast, it is more common to have been introduced to Sobibór through the cinematic features explored in this exhibition. But while feature film portrayals of the camp bring the heroic aspects of the uprising to wider audiences, this is often at the expense of providing insights into the details of camp life and the experiences of the prisoners. For a number of years, the memory of Sobibór has remained on the periphery of the Holocaust, meaning that these cinematic representations have all been an important part of the development of public awareness of the camp, and its victims. Yet, they also bring with them their own issues of authenticity and narrative, as we aim to address here.

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The ‘Green House’, used by the SS Camp Commandant at Sobibór Death Camp (Credit: Hannah Wilson ©).

By 1947, at the site of Sobibór virtually nothing remained other than the railway ramp and the ‘Green House’ where the Camp Commandant had lived, which still stands today. Crops were planted on the main camp terrain in an attempt to cover any ruins, and all German documents pertaining to the building and function of Sobibór were destroyed. In his 1978 report, Dutch historian Louis de Jong in 1978 included the following testament by Sobibór survivor Ursula Stern:

"At long last came the Liberation [Ursula Stern said a few years ago in Israel, where she now lives]. Our group made for Włodawa. There I met Selma Wijnberg and her fiancé, Chai’m Engel. The first thing we did was to go back to the place where we had suffered so terribly. Not a trace of the camp was left".

In the following years, the site of Sobibór remained neglected and was, indeed, looted by locals from the surrounding areas. Moreover, the survivors of the Sobibór uprising left for a variety of other countries after the war, with only one remaining in Warsaw. Although Alexander Pechersky had acted as chief prosecution witness for ten former Ukrainian guards at a court in Kiev in April 1963, it seems no other survivor was able to visit the Soviet Union during this time. Consequently, many of the survivors did not see each other again until the 1960s, when they were asked to testify at the Sobibór war trials in Hagen, Germany in 1965–66. From this period onwards, greater attention was paid to the narrative and experiences of the Sobibór survivors, particularly the heroism of the revolt. However, the actual figure of camp survivors remains unknown in the history of Sobibór research and is still disputed. This resulted in the absence of a substantial ‘memory group’, and, according to historian Zofia Wóycicka, was also marginalised by the Polish Jewish leaderships’ insistence on building a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also symbolised resistance rather than victimhood.

Nevertheless, in parallel with the 1960s trials, a fundamental step was eventually taken towards commemorating the victims of Sobibór. In 1965, the first memorials were established at the site, though these were not necessarily accurate in portraying the Jewish victimhood of Sobibór. The original memorial plaque, which did not list Jews as being the highest victim group, was changed during the later eighties following the petition of Sobibór survivor Thomas Toivi Blatt. In 1993, a small museum opened on the site, before its closure in 2011 due to lack of funding. The issue of Sobibór was also re-addressed in the controversial trials of John Demjanjuk, a Ukranian guard who had served at the camp. In 1988 he was tried in Israel and found guilty of committing crimes against humanity as ‘Ivan the Terrible’, a notorious guard who had also served at Treblinka death camp,  but the conviction was overturned due to lack of evidence. In America, aims for further prosecution against Demjanjuk continued, and in 2009 he was tried again in Munich, Germany on charges of killing Jews at Sobibór. Many of those who had lost family members at Sobibór attended this trial as co-plaintiffs. In May 2011, he was sentenced to five years in prison, before he passed away in 2012.

Archaeological excavations have been conducted at Sobibór since 2000, resulting in the discovery of the former gas chambers, mass graves, and tens of thousands of artefacts by archeologists Yoram Haimi, Wojciech Mazurek and Ivar Schute. These incredible findings have brought considerable international attention to Sobibór, and in several cases objects with biographical identifications have led to the discovery of living relatives. In 2011, plans began to build a new Memorial and Museum on the site, under the branch of Majdanek State Museum. The first stage of the exhibition opens in October 2020.

As far as we know, the Sobibór survivors have all now passed. Their families, however, continue their legacy and to share the experiences of their parents and grandparents, and other victims.

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Findings from the archaeological excavations at the site of Sobibór, 2016 (Credit: Hannah Wilson ©).

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Findings from the archaeological excavations at the site of Sobibór, 2016 (Credit: Hannah Wilson ©).

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Original railway, Sobibór (Credit: Hannah Wilson ©).