Sobibor was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the town of Sobibór in the Lublin Voivodeship of occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard; the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor. Jews from Poland, France, Germany, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Jewish Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), and possibly Gypsies were transported to Sobibor by rail, and suffocated in gas chambers that were fed with the exhaust of a petrol engine. One source states that up to 200,000 people were killed at Sobibor. Thomas Blatt claims that "In the Hagen court proceedings against former Sobibor Nazis, Professor Wolfgang Scheffler, who served as an expert, estimated the total figure of murdered Jews at a minimum of 250,000."
Beginning in 1940, the Nazis established 16 forced labor camps in the Lublin district of Poland. The Lublin district was intended to become an agricultural center. Except for Krychów forced labor camp, the camps used existing structures such as abandoned schools, factories, or farms to imprison the laborers. Krychow was the largest of the 16 camps and had been built before World War II as a detention camp for Polish prisoners. In 1942, Sobibor extermination camp was built near the forced labor camps.
In mid-April 1942 when the camp was nearly completed, experimental gassings took place. About 250 Jews from Krychow were brought there for this purpose. Christian Wirth, the commander of Belzec, arrived in Sobibor to witness these gassings.
In May 1942, Sobibor began mass gassing operations. Trains entered the railway station, and the Jews onboard were told they were in a transit camp, and were forced to undress and hand over their valuables. They were then led along the 100 meter long "Road to Heaven" (Himmelstrasse) which led to the gas chambers, where they were killed using carbon monoxide released from the exhaust pipes of tanks. SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender described the way the gassing operations ran during his trial:
Before the Jews undressed, Oberscharführer Hermann Michel made a speech to them. On these occasions, he used to wear a white coat to give the impression he was a physician. Michel announced to the Jews that they would be sent to work. But before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection, so as to prevent the spread of diseases. After undressing, the Jews were taken through the "Tube", by an SS man leading the way, with five or six guards at the back hastening the Jews along. After the Jews entered the gas chambers, the guards closed the doors. The motor was switched on by the former Soviet soldier Emil Kostenko and by the German driver Erich Bauer from Berlin. After the gassing, the doors were opened and the corpses were removed by a group of Jewish workers.
Victims included 18-year-old Helga Deen, whose diary was discovered in 2004, writer Else Feldmann, gymnasts Helena Nordheim, Ans Polak and Jud Simons, Gym Coach Gerrit Kleerekoper and magician Michel Velleman.
The camp was split into four sections:
Garrison Area: This included the main entrance gates and the railway platform where the victims were taken off the trains. The Commander's lodge was opposite the platform and was on the right side to the Guardhouse and on the left by the armoury.
Lager (Camp) I: This was built directly west and behind the Garrison Area. It was made escape proof by extra barbed wire fences and a deep trench filled with water. The only opening was a gate leading into the area. This camp was the living barracks for Jewish prisoners and included a prisoner's kitchen. Each prisoner was given about 12 square feet (1.1 square meters) of sleeping space.
Lager (Camp) II: This was a larger section and included an assortment of vital services for both the killing process and the everyday operation of the camp. 400 prisoners, including women, worked here. Lager II contained the warehouses used for storing the objects taken from the dead victims, including hair, clothes, food, gold and all other valuables. This Lager also housed the main administration office. It was at Lager II that the Jews were prepared for their death. Here they undressed, women's hair was shaved, clothing searched and sorted, and documents destroyed in the nearby furnace. The victims' final steps were taken on a path framed by barbed wire. It was called the "Road to Heaven" and led directly to the gas chambers.
Lager (Camp) III: This was where the victims met their end. Located in the north-western part of the camp, there were only two ways to enter the camp from Lager II. The camp staff and personnel entered through a small plain gate. The entrance for the victims descended immediately into the gas chambers and was decorated with flowers and a Star of David.
Before they were sent as guards to the concentration camps, most of the Soviet POWs underwent special training in Trawniki, which originally was a holding center for those refugees and Soviet POWs, whom the Sipo security police and the SD had designated either as potential collaborators or as dangerous persons. The Stroop Report listed a Trawniki Guard Battalion assisting in the suppression of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Though it has never been conclusively proven, it was alleged that John Demjanjuk, a former Soviet POW, worked as a watchguard at Sobibor.
Sobibor was the site of one of two successful uprisings by Jewish prisoners in a Nazi extermination camp — there was a similar revolt at Treblinka on August 2, 1943. A revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1944 led to one of the crematoria being blown up, however nearly all the escapees were killed. Among the few who survived the Auschwitz revolt was Henryk Mandelbaum, who served as a tourist guide at the camp after the war.
On October 14, 1943, members of the Sobibor underground, led by Polish-Jewish prisoner Leon Feldhendler and Soviet-Jewish POW Alexander Pechersky, succeeded in covertly killing eleven German SS officers and a number of camp guards. Although their plan was to kill all the SS and walk out of the main gate of the camp, the killings were discovered and the inmates ran for their lives under fire. About 300 out of the 600 prisoners in the camp escaped into the forests.
Only 50 to 70 escapees have survived the war, however. Some died on the mine fields surrounding the site, and some were recaptured in a dragnet and executed by the Germans in the next few days. Most of those who did survive were hidden from the Germans by other Poles, at the risk of their own and their families' lives.
The revolt was dramatized in the 1987 British TV film Escape from Sobibor, directed by Jack Gold. An award-winning documentary about the escape was made by Claude Lanzmann, entitled Sobibor, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures (Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m.).
Within days after the uprising, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, dismantled and planted with trees.
Franz Stangl, chief commandant of Sobibor and later of Treblinka fled to Syria. Following problems with his employer taking too much interest in his adolescent daughter, Stangl went to Brazil in the 1950s. He worked in a car factory and was registered with the Austrian consulate under his own name. He was eventually caught, arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1971 he died in prison in Düsseldorf, a few hours after concluding a series of interviews with British historian Gitta Sereny.
Gustav Wagner, the deputy Sobibor commander, was on leave on the day of uprising (survivors such as Tom Blatt say that the revolt would not have succeeded had he been present). Wagner was arrested in 1978 in Brazil. He was identified by Sobibor escapee Stanisław Szmajzner, who greeted him with the words "Hallo Gustl"; Wagner replied that he remembered Szmajzner and that he had saved him and his three brothers. The court of first instance agreed to his extradition to Germany but on appeal this extradition was overturned. In 1980, Wagner committed suicide.
Following the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the revolt in 2003, the grounds of the former death camp received a grant largely funded by the Dutch government to improve the site. New walkways were introduced with signs indicating points of interest, but close to the burial pits, bone fragments still litter the area. In the forest outside the camp is a statue honoring the fighters of Sobibor.