1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

The Sobibor Death Camp

Life and Death Within the Sobibor Death Camp

By

The Sobibor Death Camp

A map showing the location of the Sobibor Death Camp.

Copyright Jen Rosenberg.
The Sobibor Death Camp was one of the Nazis' best kept secrets. When Toivi Blatt, one of the very few survivors of the camp, approached a "well-known survivor of Auschwitz" in 1958 with a manuscript he had written about his experiences, he was told, "You have a tremendous imagination. I've never heard of Sobibor and especially not of Jews revolting there."1 The secrecy of the Sobibor death camp was too successful - its victims and survivors were being disbelieved and forgotten.

The Sobibor Death Camp did exist and a revolt by the Sobibor prisoners did occur. Within this death camp, in operation for only eighteen months, at least 250,000 men, women, and children were murdered. Only 48 Sobibor prisoners survived the war.

Established

Sobibor was the second of three death camps to be established as part of Aktion Reinhard (the other two were Belzec and Treblinka). The location of this death camp was a small village called Sobibor, in the Lublin district of eastern Poland, chosen because of its general isolation as well as its proximity to a railway. Construction on the camp began in March 1942, overseen by SS Obersturmführer Richard Thomalla. (Layout of the Sobibor Death Camp)

Since construction was behind schedule by early April 1942, Thomalla was replaced by SS Obersturmführer Franz Stangl - a veteran of the Nazi euthanasia program. Stangl remained commandant of Sobibor from April until August 1942, when he was transferred to Treblinka (where he became commandant) and replaced by SS Obersturmführer Franz Reichleitner. The staff of the Sobibor death camp consisted of approximately 20 SS men and 100 Ukrainian guards.

By mid-April 1942, the gas chambers were ready and a test using 250 Jews from the Krychow labor camp proved them operational.

Arriving at Sobibor

Day and night, victims arrived at Sobibor. Though some came by lorry, cart, or even by foot, many arrived by train. When trains filled with victims drew near the Sobibor train station, the trains were switched onto a spur and led into the camp.

The camp gate opened wide before us. The prolonged whistle of the locomotive heralded our arrival. After a few moments we found ourselves within the camp compound. Smartly uniformed German officers met us. They rushed about before the closed freight cars and rained orders on the black-garbed Ukrainians. These stood like a flock of ravens searching for prey, ready to do their despicable work. Suddenly everyone grew silent and the order crashed like thunder, "Open them up!"2
When the doors were finally opened, the occupants' treatment varied depending on whether they were from the East or the West. If Western European Jews were on the train, they descended from passenger cars, usually wearing their very best clothes. The Nazis had relatively successfully fooled them, made it appear that they were being resettled in the East. To continue the charade even once they had reached Sobibor, the victims were helped from the train by camp prisoners dressed in blue uniforms and given claim tickets for their baggage. A few of these unknowing victims even offered a tip to the "porters."3

If Eastern European Jews were the occupants of the train, they descended from cattle cars amidst shouts, screams, and beatings, for the Nazis presumed that they knew what awaited them, thus were thought more likely to revolt.

"Schnell, raus, raus, rechts, links!" (Fast, out, out, right, left!), shouted the Nazis. I held my five-year old son by the hand. A Ukrainian guard snatched him; I dreaded that the child would be killed, but my wife took him. I calmed down, believing I would see them again soon.4
Leaving their baggage on the ramp, the mass of people were ordered by SS Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner into two lines, one with men and one with women and young children. Those too ill to walk were told by SS Oberscharführer Hubert Gomerski that they would be taken to a hospital (Lazarett), thus were taken aside and sat upon a cart (later a little train).

There were many decisions to be made quickly. But after days or even a week in the trains many were not physically or mentally prepared. What was the best choice? Should the boys act older or go with their mothers?

Toivi Blatt was holding his mother's hand when the order came to separate into two lines. He decided to follow his father into the line of men, thus he turned to his mother, unsure what to say.

But for reasons I still cannot understand, out of the blue I said to my mother, "And you didn't let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted to save some for today."

Slowly and sadly she turned to look at me. "This is what you think about at such a moment?"

To this day the scene comes back to haunt me, and I have regretted my strange remark, which turned out to be my very last words to her.5

The stress of the moment, under the harsh conditions, did not lend to clear thinking. And, usually, the victims did not realize that this moment would be their last time to speak or to see each other.

If the camp needed to replenish its workers, a guard would shout out among the lines for tailors, seamstresses, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Was volunteering a good or bad decision? Those that were chosen, often left brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters, and children behind in the lines. Other than those that were trained at a skill, sometimes the SS chose men or women, young boys or girls, seemingly randomly for work within the camp.

Out of the thousands that stood on the ramp, perhaps a select few would be chosen. Those that were chosen would be marched off at a run to Lager I; the rest would enter through a gate that read, "Sonderkommando Sobibor" ("special unit Sobibor").

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. 20th Century History
  4. Wars & Conflicts
  5. Holocaust
  6. Sobibor Death Camp, 1942 - Introduction

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.