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Jesus L. Miguelez

Construction of Sobibor

Sobibor was the name of a small village in a wooded area on the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line, 8 km south of Wlodawa. The whole area was swampy, thinly populated, and wooded. The location of this death camp was selected by the SS Central Building Administration in the Lublin district. It was built alongside the railway and was surrounded by a pine forest. Two wooden buildings existed in the area selected for the camp. The entire camp area encompassed a rectangle 600 x 400 meters (Arad 30). It was enlarged at a later date. The camp’s construction began in March 1942.

Richard Thomalla, SS Obersturmführer, was put in charge of the construction of Sobibor. The local people were employed at building the camp. A group of eighty Jews were employed at Sobibor for construction work. They came from the ghettos in the vicinity of the camp. After completing their work, the Jews were shot. The construction was behind schedule by the beginning of April 1942. Odilo Globocnik appointed SS Obersturmführer Franz Stangl as the commander of Sobibor. After Stangl’s arrival, the building of the camp was accelerated. Another group of Jews from the Lublin district was brought for construction work.

The First Gas Chambers

The first gas chambers erected in Sobibor were in a solid brick building with a concrete foundation. These chambers were located in the northwest part of the camp, which made them more isolated from the other parts of the camp than in Belzec. In this building, there were three gas chambers. Each one was 4 x 4 meters and they had the capacity of about 200 people. Each chamber had two doors. One door allowed for entrance and the other for removal of the corpses. Outside there was a shed with an engine that supplied the carbon monoxide for the gassings. The gas was conducted from the engine exhaust to the gas chambers through pipes.

The First Experimental Killings

The first experimental killings were carried out in Sobibor in the middle of April 1942. About 250 Jews were brought from the Krychow labor camp for this purpose (31). After the experiments and the completion of other construction work, Sobibor death camp was ready for its task. 

The Structure of Sobibor Death Camp

The structure of Sobibor was similar to that of Belzec. The camp was divided into three main parts. They parts were the administration area, the reception area, and the extermination area. The administration and reception areas were close to the railway station, while the extermination area was in the remote part of the camp.

The administration area, in the southeast of the camp, was divided into two sub-camps. These were the “Forward Camp” (Vorlager) and the sub-camp known as Camp I. The Forward Camp included the entrance gate, the railway ramp, and the living quarters of the SS men and the Ukrainians. In Sobibor all of the SS men lived inside the camp. Camp I housed the Jewish prisoners who worked in Sobibor. Camp I included their work area and their living quarters.

Camp II was the reception area. The Jews who arrived with the transports were driven inside this area. Camp II included the undressing barracks of the victims and the barracks where their clothes and belongings were stored. A tube connected Camp II with the extermination area. The tube was a narrow passageway about 3 to 4 meters wide and 150 meters long (32). The victims were driven through here to the gas chambers.

Camp III was the extermination area. This camp was located on the northwest side. It included the gas chambers, the burial pits, a barrack for Jewish prisoners employed there, and a guard barrack. The burial pits were 50 to 60 meters long, 10 to 15 meters wide, and 5 to 7 meters deep (33). There was a railway with a trolley which led from the railway station up to the burial pits, bypassing the gas chambers. The whole camp was fenced off by barbed wire intertwined with tree branches to prevent outside observation. The sub-camps were fenced off from each other by dense barbed wire. There would later be a Camp IV or North Camp for the storage of booty ammunition.

The Hierarchy of Non-Jews in Sobibor

Stangl was the leading figure in Sobibor and supervised the work. He wanted the SS men in the camp to be involved in the killing. Stangl wanted them to be partners in the murder.

Oberscharführer Hermann Michel, Stangl’s deputy, was second in command in Sobibor until he was replaced by Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner. Camp I and Camp III had their own commanders. The commander of Camp I was Oberscharführer Weiss who was later replaced by Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel. Kurt Bolender served as commander of Camp III from April until autumn 1942. He was replaced by Oberscharführer Erich Bauer. Alfred Ittner was in charge of administration of the camp. He was later transferred to Camp III (33).

The Ukrainian guard unit was organized in three platoons. Erich Lachman became their commander in Sobibor. He was replaced by Kurt Bolender in the autumn of 1942. Each member of the German staff in Sobibor was in charge of a specific duty and function in the process of annihilation.

Operation of the Death Camp

Sobibor was ready for operation toward the end of April 1942. The routine mass exterminations began in early May of 1942. The killing process in Sobibor was an improved version of that of Belzec. The deportation trains stopped at the station of Sobibor. No more than 18 to 20 freight cars were taken into the camp at a time.

Elderly people, the sick, and invalids who could not walk were told that they would be taken to a Lazarett to receive medical treatment. They were taken directly into Camp III to the open pits and shot. A barrack for undressing was erected after the first few weeks. There were signs to the cashier and the baths. At the cashiers the Jews were ordered to submit their money and valuables. The cashier was SS Oberscharführer Alfred Ittner who was the camp’s accountant.

The transports arrived in the evening or night. They were kept under guard until the morning. Usually no extermination activity was carried out in the dark. Sometimes, the process of disembarkation was accompanied with beatings and atrocities such as having a trained dog named Barry bite the Jews (78). The beatings, the bitings of the dog, and the shouting caused the Jews to run through the tube into the baths.

The 200 or 300 Jewish prisoners who were kept in Camp III to remove the bodies from the gas chambers and bury them had no contact with those in other parts of the camp (79). The truth of what was going on in Camp III became known to the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor at the beginning of June 1942. The extermination of Jews in Sobibor operated for months without interruption. This first phase of killing operations lasted from May until the end of July of 1942. During this period, the Jews were sent from the ghettos in the Lublin district and from Czechoslovakia and Austria to Sobibor. “In May (6-12) 1942, close to 21,000 Jews arrived in Sobibor from ghettos in Pulawi county” (80). Altogether, about 57,500 Jews arrived in Sobibor from the Lublin district. At least 90,000 to 100,000 Jews were murdered in Sobibor in the first stage of killing operations (80).

The large-scale deportation to Sobibor ceased at the end of July 1942 because of the reconstruction work on the railway between Lublin and Chelm. There was a diminished flow of operations during the next two months. At the beginning of October of 1942 the deportations and killings resumed. Until the beginning of May of 1943 the deportations continued at a slow pace. Close to 28,000 people were deported to Sobibor during October and November of 1942 (129). Jews from the Lvov district arrived during the spring and summer of 1943. It is difficult to evaluate the number of Jews murdered in Sobibor after Belzec stopped functioning. There were also mass exterminations from the General Government.

[Heinrich Himmler visited Sobibor death camp in late February or early March of 1943.] In anticipation of his visit, the camp was cleaned. The commanding authorities of Operation Reinhard planned to show Himmler a gassing in action. A special group of young Jews was chosen for this task. The gassing of several hundred Jewish girls was carried out as a show for Himmler. Himmler decided that transports from Holland were to be directed to Sobibor. The camps of Operation Reinhard were supposed to be closed after their tasks were completed. For Sobibor, this task was the annihilation of transports with Jews from Holland. After Himmler’s visit, the fate of Sobibor would be altered. Himmler issued a proclamation on July 5, 1943 that Sobibor was to be transformed from a death camp into a concentration camp. This meant that it would no longer be subordinate to Odilo Globocnik. Pohl, who was to receive control of the camp, wanted it to become a booty ammunition camp and remain subordinate to Globocnik.

This led to the construction of Camp IV or North Camp. The North Camp was where the booty ammunition would be stored and treated. The camp was enlarged as a result of this and the entire northeast section near the railway station was rebuilt. The construction work was carried out by prisoners.

Advancement of Technology in Sobibor

Sobibor was the last camp in which the new, larger gas chambers were installed. The three single-room gas chambers, with a capacity of about 600 people, could not handle the exterminations carried out in this camp. During the two months in the autumn of 1942 in which the activities decreased, the old gas chambers were partially dismantled and three additional gas chambers were built.

The new six-room gas chamber building had a corridor that ran through its center. This made three rooms on each side. The three gas chambers were the same size as the existing one. The gas chambers capacity was now 1,300 people at the same time (123). The new gas chambers began to operate in October of 1942.

Another technological advancement was a narrow railway trolley which ran from the disembarking platform to burial pits in Camp III. This method was supposed to replace the carts pushed by prisoners or the horse-drawn carts on which the dead and the invalids were transferred to the pits.

The Hierarchy Among the Jewish Workers

At Sobibor and other death camps, the leaders understood that in order for the extermination process to proceed faster there needed to be a permanent Jewish work force. Sobibor was the first camp in which a change was instituted regarding the role of the Jewish workers. Stangl realized that a permanent work cadre was needed.

Each work team was assigned a specific task at each station along the route of death. In charge of each team was a capo. He was responsible for the work of the prisoners and they had to obey his orders. “The capo wore a yellow armband bearing the black letters c-a-p-o; he was armed with a club or a whip” (107). The larger work teams were subdivided and each sub-group was headed by a foreman (Vorarbeiter).

At the top of the hierarchy of Jewish prisoners was the “camp elder” (Lagerältester) whose title was emblazoned in white letters on a black armband. The camp elder in Sobibor was Moshe Sturm. He was executed in the late summer of 1943 and replaced by a man the Jews nicknamed the Berliner. In each barrack there was a “barrack elder” in charge of everything that happened in the barrack. The camp elder, the barrack elder, and the capos had the authority to punish prisoners and were exempted from physical labor. The prisoners were divided according to the tasks for which they were responsible.

The Life of Jewish Prisoners in Sobibor

A prisoner orchestra was organized in Sobibor from the beginning. The music accompanied the entire process of extermination. The Germans forced the prisoners to take part in entertainment. They created a choir by force of men and women and forced them to sing. Dances were organized in the evening when the people transported from Holland were exterminated.

Love affairs among the prisoners are mentioned in some of the testimonies. The German camp authorities allowed the men to enter the women’s barracks during the evening hours. It was here where most of the intimate relationships developed. Many of the love affairs ended tragically.

The SS men used the roll calls of the prisoners for entertainment by mocking the Jews. Oberscharführer Weiss forced a prisoner to sing a song in Yiddish while dressed in a long robe and a Jewish cape and a broomstick in his hand. At the end of the song, the prisoners had to fall down on the floor and say Amen. (230) The prisoners also played chess in the evenings.

Works Cited

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Daeth Camps. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 1987.

Works Consulted

"Himmler, Heinrich." The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropeædia. 15th ed. 1993.

"Lublin." The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropeædia. 15th ed. 1993.

Rashke, Richard. Escape From Sobibor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982.

"Sobibor." The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropeædia. 15th ed. 1993.