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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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"
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).
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka - The Operation Reinhard
Death Camps. Bloomington; University Press, 1987.
Rashke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor. Boston; Houghton Miffin,
"Sobibor" Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. NY; Macmillan