History of the camp
The German death camp in Sobibór started its operation at the turn of April and May 1942. It was the second, after Bełżec, extermination centre for Jews within the framework of “Aktion Reinhardt.” The decision to build the camp was most probably taken at the end of October 1941, on account of the planned annihilation of Jews in the General Government and deportation of thousands of Jews from Slovakia to the Lublin District.
Preparations for the building started as early as the late autumn of the same year, but the major construction works were carried out in the spring of 1942. The camp was located on the outskirts of the village of Sobibór. Hidden in the woods, it was isolated from the potential witnesses.
As the camp was located directly on the side of the Lublin-Chełm-Włodawa railway line, the incoming of transports was facilitated. The grounds of the camp were initially divided into three parts: for the SS-staff, for the guards from the SS-Wachmannschaften troops trained in the Trawniki camp, and for the Jews who were put to work in the camp. There were also warehouses erected for the property plundered from the Jews. Camp III, isolated from the rest of the complex, housed a gas chamber used, similarly to the one in Bełżec, for killing people by exhaust fumes produced by an engine.
The camp was in charge of a commandant, to whom the staff made up of SS-officers was subordinated. In total, in the camp served 51 Germans and Austrians, as well as a guarding staff consisting of 120-150 guards – former Soviet prisoners of war. The camp was headed by three commandants. The first one was Richard Thomalla who supervised the construction works. The second one, from April to August 1942, was Franz Stangl. He was then replaced with Franz Reichleitner who led the camp until its liquidation.
The first transports arrived Sobibór as early as the end of March or beginning of April 1942. Consistent process of annihilation started in May 1942 and was continued until the end of June. Jews from the Lublin District were brought to the camp at that time. Simultaneously, transports of foreign Jews from Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were directed there.
The first gas chambers were erected on the pattern of those operating in Bełżec. A wooden building with concrete foundations housed three rooms. Behind them an annex with the engine producing exhaust fumes was located. The gas chambers were linked with the engine by means of pipes. Between June and Septemebr 1942, the Sobibór gas chambers were completely rebuilt. Instead of them a brick building with six rooms was constructed. According to a former SS-officer, two engines were then linked with the chambers. The gassing procedure lasted about 20-30 minutes. Prior to death, women had their hair sheared in a special barracks located near the road leading towards the gas chambers. It was called by the SS-officers “Himmelfahrtstrasse” [Heavenly Road].
Selected Jewish prisoners (600-700 men and women) were put to work in the camp. They buried the dead, sorted the victims’ property or waited on the SS-staff and guards. Among them selections were regularly carried out and the killed ones were replaced with newcomers.
Due to repair works carried out on the Lublin-Chełm railway line, only few transports arrived to the camp in the summer of 1942. Many people were carried on wagons, others were rushed from the nearby towns on foot. Railway transports were restored in September. Along with Polish Jews, Austrian, Czech, German, and Slovak Jews were then brought to Sobibór, who had been previously deployed in the transitory ghettos in the Lublin District. As early as the beginning of 1943, transports from the Galicia and Cracow districts reached Sobibór due to liquidation of the Bełżec camp. At that time the last Jews from some places in the Lublin District were also deported to the camp. Between March and the end of July, nineteen transports from Holland with over 34,000 Jews arrived to Sobibór. In March, four transports from France were directed there. In the early autumn of 1943, to Sobibór were directed the last trains with deportees from Vilnius and Lida, which before the outbreak of the war were on the territory of Poland, as well as from Minsk in Belarus.
Initially, corpses were placed in mass graves in Camp III. In the late autumn of 1942, the bodies began to be incinerated on special grills made from rail tracks.
About 170,000 Jews were killed in the death camp in Sobibór. Among the victims, there were also few Romanies. Polish Jews constituted over a half of the victims. The others were citizens of various Reich-occupied European countries. Names of the victims from the western Europe were written down in the transportion lists, however, the names of Polish and Belarussian Jews deported to Sobibór were not enlisted.
In July 1943, Heinrich Himmler took a decision to transform the death camp in Sobibór into a concentraton camp. Some prisoners from Sobibór were appointed to the task and consequently started construction works related to Camp IV.
In the summer of 1943, a group of prisoners set up an underground committee aimed at offering resistance in case of the camp liquidation. Preparations to a revolt gathered momentum when Germans selected a group of Jewish prisoners of war from Minsk. Their military experience guaranteed success of the armed revolt. The resistance movement in Sobibór was led by Leon-Lejb Feldhendler, representing the so called “old prisoners” – mainly Polish Jews, and Aleksander Peczersky, leading the group of Soviet POWs.
On October 14, 1943, an armed revolt broke out in the camp. It resulted in killing of some SS-officers and a mass escape of prisoners. The revolt did not include Camp III. 46 survived the war, as well as some other fugitives who ran away from Sobibór under other circumstances.
Following the revolt, Germans decided to liquidate the camp. The barracks and gas chambers were torn down by Jewish prisoners from the death camp in Treblinka. As they dismantled all the buildings, they were shot on the grounds of the camp.