Sobibor was the second camp of Operation Reinhardt to be established and is located about 80 kilometres east of Lublin right on the border with Ukraine. Sobibor was set up specifically as a extermination camp and was located in an area surrounded by several other camps and its real purpose could therefore be partly camouflaged. Construction of the camp began in March 1942 in a sparsely populated wooded area adjacent to the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line, and was intended primarily to assassinate Jews from the Lublin district and eastern Galicia. The extermination camp was not located in the village of Sobibor itself, but was established about twelve kilometers south of Sobibor in a small place called Stare Kolonia Sobibor. Like the other two Operation Reinhardt camps, it was divided into three areas. Camp I consisted of the prisoners’ barracks and kitchen. Camp II was adjacent to the station and was the place where the Jews were allowed to undress, handing over their luggage and valuables. When a new shipment of Jews arrived at the station in Sobibor, they were received by prisoners working on the murder process, an SS officer, who was, dressed a white coat to give the impression of being a doctor, the, he gave a speech in which he told them that they would soon be able to come to a better place and settle down with their families. He assured that Sobibor was just a station on the road. In anticipation of further transport they were asked for hygienic reasons to be deloused, then they would be fed, easier work and they were therefore asked to go to what was camp II.

In camp II there was daily work in the murder process, and it was here that the Jews were prepared for death. Prisoners were asked to undress and surrender their belongings, which were then stored in storage facilities in Camp II. In camp II there was also the command tour where the approximately 30 strong SS staff administered the camp’s activities. In addition to these 30 SS officers, about 100 Ukrainian guards also served. These, like other guards within Operation Reinhardt, had received their special training at Trawniki outside Lublin. Trawniki was also led by Operation Reinhardt. From camp II there was a camouflaged road about 150 metres long to camp III. Inside the camp this road was called the celestial strasse or the tube and went to the gas chambers. Shortly before the gas chambers there was a building where the women had their hair cut off by prisoners who had worked as hairdressers in the civilian life. When the Jews were murdered, the gas chambers were emptied of prisoners working in camp III. The bodies were searched for valuables, gold teeth were removed and the bodies were buried in large mass graves.
On the other side of the platform was the commandant’s villa which was first held by Franz Stangl before being transferred to Treblinka in late August 1942. The new commandant of Sobibor became the Austrian and SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner. Like his predecessor, he had also served at the euthanasia centre in Hartheim before being transferred to Poland to participate in Operation Reinhardt. According to witnesses, Reichleitner was rarely in the camp and once there he was often drunk. The SS officer best known from Sobibor is SS Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner, also a veteran of Hartheim. Wagner was nicknamed Welfel (wolf) because of his brutality and temperament. Wagner could shoot prisoners for the smallest small trifle. When an escape attempt failed, he did not only murder those who tried to escape. He also appointed some fifty, who in turn had to appoint another prisoner to be executed. If they refused to appoint someone, Wagner threatened to execute all prisoners. After the war, he fled to Brazil but was tracked down in 1978 by the famous ”nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal (1908 – 2005) and was demanded extradition by both West Germany and Israel. But because Brazil had no extradition treaty with either West Germany or Israel, he was never left out, and in 1980 he committed suicide under mysterious circumstances.
During Sobibor’s first phase between May and July 1942, there were three gas chambers of 16 square meters, however, as in the case of Belzec, bottlenecks arose when the capacity of the gas chambers was not sufficient in relation to the number of transports arriving in Sobibor. Therefore, three new gas chambers of equal size were built next to the three old ones with a corridor between them. Between 200 and 300 prisoners then worked to empty the gas chambers and prepare them for new victims by flushing away excrements from both floors and walls. In connection with the construction of the three new gas chambers, repairs were also carried out on the railway line between Chelm and Wlodawa before the murder process was resumed in October 1942. Although Sobibor, like Belzec and Treblinka, was set up to assassinate the Jews of the General Government, Sobibor received Jews from much of Europe. It was mainly Dutch jews who were murdered in Sobibor alongside polish jews. Of the more than 100,000 Dutch Jews murdered by the nazis, just over a third of them were murdered in Sobibor. Only in Auschwitz more dutch Jews were murdered, approximately 60,000. Sobibor was the first of the three Operation Reinhardt camps to open the mass graves to cremate the corpses that had begun to pose a health risk.
Heinrich Himmler first visited Sobibor in July 1942, during a visit to the head of Operation Reinhardt Odilo Globocnik in Lublin. On this visit he ordered that Operation Reinhardt be completed and completed by 31 December 1942. The majority of the Jews had also been murdered in 1942 and it was only a matter of time before the remaining had also been murdered. Himmler visited Sobibor and Treblinka again in February 1943. In Sobibor, he witnessed the murder process of several hundred Jewish women arriving at Sobibor from a labor camp in the Lublin district. In early July 1943, Himmler ordered the dismantling of Sobibor’s present functions and installations and reorganized the camp into a regular concentration camp.
The prisoners were aware that as long as new transports arrived, the SS needed them in the murder process and they could therefore feel relatively safe from such a perspective. A small group of prisoners began planning an escape, but their lack of military experience thwarted the escape plans. This changed when, at the end of September, a transport of Soviet prisoners of war arrived in Sobibor. The resistance group contacted Lieutenant Aleksander Peschersky and asked if he would plan an escape attempt. Peschersky undertook the mission. The plan was to kill as many SS officers as possible before the actual mass outbreak was carried out in order to paralyse the Nazi countermeasures. The Ukrainian guards were extremely dependent on the SS. On October 14, 1943, the plan was implemented and the prisoners managed to kill several SS officers in secret. This was done by attracting them in one way or another to sheltered places where they were then killed. The prisoners then took their weapons and tried to get over as many weapons as possible.
The killing of the SS officers was eventually discovered and a mass outbreak began where about 300 prisoners managed to escape into the forest. Most were killed during the escape attempt or captured by the SS and Gestapo during the subsequent hunt. Other prisoners were given by local residents, but some thirty survived the war by, among other things, joining various party groups in the area. The prisoners still managed to kill eleven SS officers and several Ukrainian guards, but not the commandant Reichleitner and Wagner who were elsewhere during the uprising. They later returned to dismantle the camp and murdered those prisoners who did not participate in the uprising. Because of the secrecy surrounding the escape plans, most prisoners did not know the escape plans. The leaders of the uprising were very careful to keep any informers and unreliable persons out of the plan so that the uprising would not be revealed prematurely. The prisoners working in camp III had no idea what was going on because the contact between camp III and the rest of the camp was virtually non-existent. After the uprising, plans to reorganise Sobibor into a concentration camp were also scrapped. Therefore, the Nazis demolished the camp and planted trees and other things to hide the traces of the approximately 250,000 Jews who were murdered in the camp.

Current status: Demolished with museum (1999).

Location: 51° 26' 50" N, 23° 35' 37" E

Get there: Car.

My comment:

When I visited Sobibor in 1999 it was still an unknown camp in the sense that it had not reached out to a wider circle. It was most people like me who knew about camps like Sobibor and Belzec. Treblinka was a little more famous, much thanks to Olof Palme’s speech Christmas 1972 when he compared the US bombings of Hanoi with Treblinka. The museum itself was also modest and consisted of no more than a small wooden house with some pictures and objects. Of course, everything in Polish and English translation was available only in the form of a worn paper booklet. Outside the museum there was a monument and at the mass graves there was a large hill with a small built-in glass cube with ash. This cube was often vandalized. The railway station was apparently also preserved including both tracks and the sign with the text Sobibor.

In the woods around the monument and the hill, it was still possible to find traces of the camp in the form of barbed wire that had grown into the trees. If you went and kicked a little in the ground, it was not unusual that you could find a simple shard, piece of sheet metal, board patch or the like that was probably a remnant of the camp. The museum also did not have much visitors where it was a bit remote and close to the border with Ukraine. Nowadays, Sobibor is better known, much thanks to popular media, the internet and not least social media, which gives the camp a spread it was nowhere near before.

Starting in 2012, Sobibor has undergone a renovation with a new modern museum and new information boards along Himmelsstrasse, now also with English translation. There have also been archaeological excavations of the gas chambers. All in all, this has certainly been to the advantage of the place. But I can sometimes appreciate the simple and unpretentious before the advanced and lavish. Sobibor, with its somewhat worn exterior and seclusion, gave the right emotional conditions that one was on historic ground where one had to recreate the camp in the mind from the books one had read about camp. This feeling I want to preserve and the best method to preserve that feeling is not to travel back.

Follow up in books: Arad, Yitzhak: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka – The Operation Reinhardt death camps (1987).