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Sobibor

Almost everyone has heard of Auschwitz and Treblinka. However, few people have ever heard about Sobibor, where the biggest prisoner escape of World War II took place on October 14, 1943.
   
 The death camps- Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were quite different from Auschwitz a concentration camp with gas chambers for those too weak to work. They were giant death machines. Every Jew sent to Sobibor was to be gassed within twenty four hours with the exception of a couple hundred Jews chosen to maintain the camp (Rashke vii). They too were destined to be killed when Operation Reinhard was completed, if they lasted that long.
    
Sobibor was near the village and railway station of Sobibor, in the eastern part of the Lublin district in Poland, not far from the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line (Arad 3). Established as part of the operation of Aktion Reinhard, the camp was built in a sparsely populated, woody, and swampy area beginning in March 1942 (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust). In April 1942, SS Obersturmfuhrer Franz Stangl was made camp commandant. Stangl, who had visited Belzec, another death camp, had studied the extermination techniques there, and had introduced them in his own camp. After the experimental killings were carried out in Sobibor in April 1942, routine mass extermination began there in early May 1942 (Arad 75).
    
The camp staff included twenty to thirty SS men, most of whom had taken part in the Euthanasia program (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust 1373). In addition, ninety to one-hundred and twenty Ukrainians worked in the camp. The camp was in the form of a rectangle 1,312 by 1,969 feet (400-600 meters) in area, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence with tree branches intertwined in it to conceal the interior. There were three areas: the administration area, the reception area, and the extermination area.

Floor Plan of the Camp

-The Administration Area
    It consisted of the Vorlager (the camp closest to the railway station and Camp I. It was fenced from the rest of the camps and contained housing for the Jewish prisoners and the workshops in which some of them were employed.

The Reception Area

  
  Also known as Camp II was where the Jews were brought to go through various procedures prior to their being killed in the gas chambers. Barracks were erected indicating the direction to the "cashier" and the "baths" (Arad 77). At the "cashier" the Jews were ordered to submit their money and valuables (77). In the forest house was a room which overlooked the path where the naked people had to pass on their way to the "tube" and gas chambers, and the victims handed their money and valuables through the window. When time permitted, the Jews received numbers as receipts for the money and valuables they had submitted, to make them believe that they would truly receive everything back after the baths (77).

"Many times the whole process, from disembarkation until entering the gas chambers, was accompanied by beatings and atrocities carried out by some of the Germans and the Ukrainians. For example, there was a dog named Barry who was trained by the SS men to bite the Jews, especially when they were naked on the way to the gas chambers. The beatings, the bitings of Barry, and the shooting and shouting of the guards caused the Jews to run through the "tube" and push themselves into the "baths," hoping to find some escape from the hell around them" (77-78).

The Extermination Area
    The extermination area, Camp II, which was located in the northwestern part of the camp, was isolated from the other two camps. It contained the gas chambers, the burial trenches, and the housing for the few Jewish prisoners that were employed at the camp. The gas chambers were located inside of a brick building. The capacity of each square chamber, which measured 172 square feet, was 160 to 180 persons. The entrance to the chamber was a platform at the front of the brick building. Yet there was a second opening to each chamber through which dead bodies were removed after gassing. The gas, carbon monoxide, was produced by a 200-horsepower engine in a nearby shed, from which it was piped directly into the chambers (The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust 1375). Also nearby, were the burial trenches, each 164 to 197 feet long, 33 to 49 feet wide, and 16.4 to 23 feet deep. A narrow-gauge railway ran from the railway platform to the burial trenches, to transport all those too weak to make it to the chambers alone or to transport those that had arrived to the camp already dead. Inside of the extermination area, 200 to 300 Jewish prisoners were also kept to remove the bodies of the deceased from the gas chambers and then clean up the chambers. There was also a special team of prisoners, called the "dentists," who's task was to extract gold teeth from the mouths of the murdered victims before their bodies were put into the trenches (The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust 1375).

First stages toward extermination:
   
 
The first stage of extermination want on for three months, from the beginning of May to the end of July 1942. The Jews brought during this period came from the Lublin district in Poland, and from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria. The whole procedure, from the arrival of the train to the burial of the victims took three hours. In the meantime, the railway cars were cleaned up, the trains departed, and another twenty cars with Jews entered the camp.
    
At the end of August 1942, three more gas chambers were constructed with the capacity to contain 3450 to 550 people. Franz Stangl was transferred to Treblinka and his place was taken by SS- Obersturmfuhrer Franz Reichsleiten.

Second Stage:
    

The second stage began once work on the railway had been completed and transports to Sobibor resumed. Winter arrivals had usually frozen to death by the time they arrived at the camp. Other transports consisted of people who had been stripped naked to inhibit them from escaping the train. From October 1942 to June 1943 a total of 70,00 to 80,00 Jews from Lublin and the Eastern Galicia districts were brought to Sobibor.

In February 1943, Heinrich Himmler paid a visit to the camp, and watched the extermination of several hundred Jewish girls. Four transports from France arrived as well as nineteen others from the Netherlands. The Dutch Jews who arrived were also killed, but only after they had written letters to their families about the labor camp they thought they were in. The last transports to arrive in Sobibor were from the Vilna, Minsk, and Lida ghettos. This brought the total number of Jews killed at Sobibor throughout the period of the camp's operation to about 250,000 people.
    
At the end of the summer of 1942, the burial trenches were opened and the process of burning the victims' bodies began. The corpses were put into huge piles and cremated. 
 

Ideas and Organization for Resistance

The first ideas concerning organization, resistance, and mass escape were raised by the prisoners in Sobibor at the beginning of 1943. However, it was not until the late spring or the summer of 1943 that the ideas of resistance and escape began taking on some organizational form (Arad 299). 
    
On July 5, 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered the closing of Sobibor as an extermination camp and its transformation into a concentration camp. However, it is believed that the final solution was going to liquidate all of Sobibor.
    
The event that prompted the operational decision to form an underground organization was the killing of Jewish prisoners from Belzec death camps. After the liquidation of the camp at Belzec, the 600 who still remained in the camp were brought to Sobibor in late June of 1943 (299). They were told that they were being taken to Germany to work, but when they arrived at Sobibor they were removed from the train in groups of ten and shot. From a note found among the clothing of the murdered, the Sobibor prisoners learned that those who had been killed were like themselves, prisoners. The Sobibor prisoners were suddenly confronted with the certain fate that awaited them (299). 

"We worked for a year in Belzec. I don't know where they are taking us now. They say to Germany. In the freight cars there are dining tables. We received bread for three days, and tins and liquor. If all this is a lie, then know death awaits you, too. Don't trust the Germans. Avenge our blood!" (299)

    
The leading figure in the circle of those with ideas for resistance, was Leon Feldhendler, the former chairman of the Judenrat, the Jewish council in a town in eastern Galicia (Holocaust 1377). The group's aim was to organize an uprising and a mass escape from Sobibor. The Lieutenant Alexandr Pechersky, a prisoner of war from the camp of Minsk, was recruited into the underground and put in command. Pechersky and Feldhendler's 

I. Plans of Escape 

The many plans that occurred in Sobibor prior to the uprising of October 14, 1943 did not succeed and were barely if ever, attempted. In order to prevent escapes, the Germans had planted mines along the entire circumference of the camp, hence it was almost impossible for the prisoners to escape their surroundings. Here are some of the main plans that the resistance organization performed before the actual occurrence of the actual escape.
    In the summer of 1943, the Ukrainians presented an opportunity of escape for the Jews. They promised that for a substantial sum of money they would arrange for trucks to drive by on a night in which they would be on guard and take with them a number of prisoners (Holocaust 1377). Then Ukrainians with lorries would take the prisoners across the Bug River and there they would be able to organize a partisan unit (Arad 300). The Ukrainians requested the money to hire the trucks to be paid in advance. Yet, many of the underground prisoners were suspicious and were not sure whether or not to give the money in advance or only after the prisoners were taken out of the camp. This proposal was refused after a Ukrainian approached a member of the underground group and informed them that only fifteen Jews could be removed from the camp (301). Many of the underground members soon believed that the entire plan had only been a way in which to lure the prisoners out of the camp, take their money, and kill them.
    Feldhendler's group, organized another plan, in which the group would kill the SS men while they were sleeping (302). The killing would be carried out by the youngsters, the so-called putzers, who worked in the SS living quarters. On the day the plan was to be carried out, the youngsters along with older prisoners would kill the sleeping SS men with the axes they had used for work (302). Yet this plan, was eventually dropped. Few were confident, that the youngsters even with the help of some older prisoners would be able to kill the men. This plan would have had to be carried out in the early morning which meant that they would have escaped during the early afternoon hence being more susceptible to being caught (302).
    Another plan was to dig a tunnel that would lead from Camp I outside of the mine field. The escape was to start in the barrack where the prisoners were living and its length had to be 120-130 meters (302). The work on this tunnel was continued for two months and part of it was completed, yet after the Germans discovered a tunnel in Camp III, the underground members feared they would find their tunnel and the idea was abandoned (302).
    Nevertheless, all these plans lacked thorough detailed planning and lacked leadership and military training. "In spite of the repeated failures at organizing an escape and in spite of the heavy collective punishment that caused a drop in the morale and self-confidence of the prisoners, the Underground group headed by Feldhendler did not give up their ideas of resistance and escape" (305). The prisoners soon learned that they could not rely on others for help and that their only hope was their own abilities and strengths.

II. The Outbreak

October 14, 1943 was a day just like any other routine day. Pechersky was at his command post in the carpentry workshop in the early morning while Feldhendler had taken up his position in the warehouse (Rashke 213). Communications between the two men were handled by the putzers who were able to move freely between Camp I and Camp II. Since Pechersky was satisfied with the way things were going in both camps, he asked Leitman, another Underground committee member, to send him the commanders of the battle teams one by one so that he could brief them about their assignments. When Tsibulsky came, Pechersky explained to him that his task was the most important. "He, together with two other prisoners of war, would be taken by Capo Pozyczka to Feldhendler in Camp II." (Arad 323) They were to liquidate the Germans there. It is this event that would be the first to start the whole operation. However, Pozyczka and three other prisoners were taken away by the SS. 
     
Hence, the quiet liquidation of the SS staff in the camp, started around 15:30 (325). Since the SS men frequently visited the storerooms, Feldhendler decided to have the killings take place there (Rashke 219). The first SS men invited into the storeroom was Unterscharfuhrer Josef Wulf; he did not suspect a thing. At that moment, Tsibulsky and another prisoner of war, stepped out of their hiding place in the storeroom and cracked Wulf's head with their axes. The dead body was dragged into a bin and covered with clothes. Slowly but surely as the SS men entered the storeroom, shoemaker shop, and the warehouse, they would be killed. The Ukrainian Klat, Niemann, Goettinger, Greischutz, and Beckman were all killed (Arad 327).  After the signal for role call was given, and the Jews were supposed to line up in rows of three, Pechersky realized that there was no turning back. All the Jews surged forward, some with hatchets in their hands, attacking the SS. This attack prompted some controversial testimonies. According to Pechersky "the attack on the armory did not succeed" (330). 

" People came streaming from all sides. We had previously selected seventy men, nearly all of them Soviet prisoners of war, whose task it was to attack the armory. That was why they were in the forefront of the column. But all the others, who had only suspected that something was being arranged but didn't know when and how, now found out the last minute. They began to push and jostle forward, fearing they might be left behind. In this disorderly fashion we reached the gate of Camp I. A squad commander, a German from Near-Volga, approached us, 'Hey, you sons-of-bitches,' he shouted, 'didn't you hear the whistle? So why are you pushing like a bunch of cattle? Get in line, three in a row!' As though in response to a command, several hatchets suddenly appeared from under coats and came down on his head" (329).

     
In truth, the initial stage of the attack did succeed and the prisoners penetrated the armory. At that point, the quiet part of the uprising came to an end. Automatic fire from a watch tower and some other directions was opened on the prisoners running toward the camp's main gate. The prisoners who succeeded to run through the gates, fences, and mine fields. Pechersky and the other leaders of the uprising had lost control over the events and the mass of prisoners who were running in all directions. This was around 17:15 (331)

The first stage of the uprising-the quiet liquidation of the majority SS staff in camp-had been accomplished successfully. However the second stage of the uprising, the roll call and march toward the gate, was not carried out according to plan (333). And although the leaders of the uprising had taken into account such a development and had created another escape route through fences and minefields, this alternative was not planned in detail. Which is why when the shooting began, prisoners began running in all directions and the Underground leadership lost control. Over half the prisoners, three hundred out of six hundred who were in the main camp, succeeded in crossing the fences and mining fields and escaping into the forest (333). However, most of them were killed by their pursuers. Those who had not joined the escape for various reasons, and had remained in the camp were all killed as well. At the end of the war, about fifty Jews survived of those who had escaped during the uprising (Holocaust 1378). 

Works Cited

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka - The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.  Bloomington; University Press, 1987.

Rashke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor. Boston; Houghton Miffin, 1982.

"Sobibor" Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. NY; Macmillan Publishing, 1990.