The Sobibor Death Camp was one of the Nazis' best-kept secrets. When Toivi Blatt, one of the very few survivors of the camp, approached a "well-known survivor of Auschwitz" in 1958 with a manuscript he had written about his experiences, he was told, "You have a tremendous imagination. I've never heard of Sobibor and especially not of Jews revolting there." The secrecy of the Sobibor death camp was too successful; its victims and survivors were being disbelieved and forgotten.
The Sobibor Death Camp did exist, and a revolt by the Sobibor prisoners did occur. Within this death camp, in operation for only 18 months, at least 250,000 men, women, and children were murdered. Only 48 Sobibor prisoners survived the war.
Sobibor was the second of three death camps to be established as part of Aktion Reinhard (the other two were Belzec and Treblinka). The location of this death camp was a small village called Sobibor, in the Lublin district of eastern Poland, chosen because of its general isolation as well as its proximity to a railway. Construction on the camp began in March 1942, overseen by SS Obersturmführer Richard Thomalla.
Since construction was behind schedule by early April 1942, Thomalla was replaced by SS Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, a veteran of the Nazi euthanasia program. Stangl remained commandant of Sobibor from April until August 1942, when he was transferred to Treblinka (where he became commandant) and replaced by SS Obersturmführer Franz Reichleitner. The staff of the Sobibor death camp consisted of approximately 20 SS men and 100 Ukrainian guards.
By mid-April 1942, the gas chambers were ready and a test using 250 Jews from the Krychow labor camp proved them operational.
Arriving at Sobibor
Day and night, victims arrived at Sobibor. Though some came by truck, cart, or even by foot, many arrived by train. When trains filled with victims drew near the Sobibor train station, the trains were switched onto a spur and led into the camp.
"The camp gate opened wide before us. The prolonged whistle of the locomotive heralded our arrival. After a few moments we found ourselves within the camp compound. Smartly uniformed German officers met us. They rushed about before the closed freight cars and rained orders on the black-garbed Ukrainians. These stood like a flock of ravens searching for prey, ready to do their despicable work. Suddenly everyone grew silent and the order crashed like thunder, 'Open them up!'"
When the doors were finally opened, the occupants' treatment varied depending on whether they were from the East or the West. If Western European Jews were on the train, they descended from passenger cars, usually wearing their very best clothes. The Nazis had relatively successfully convinced them that they were being resettled in the East. To continue the charade even once they had reached Sobibor, the victims were helped from the train by camp prisoners dressed in blue uniforms and given claim tickets for their baggage. A few of these unknowing victims even offered a tip to the "porters."
If Eastern European Jews were the occupants of the train, they descended from cattle cars amid shouts, screams, and beatings, for the Nazis presumed that they knew what awaited them, thus were thought more likely to revolt.
"'Schnell, raus, raus, rechts, links!' (Fast, out, out, right, left!), shouted the Nazis. I held my five-year-old son by the hand. A Ukrainian guard snatched him; I dreaded that the child would be killed, but my wife took him. I calmed down, believing I would see them again soon."
Leaving their baggage on the ramp, the mass of people were ordered by SS Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner into two lines, one with men and one with women and young children. Those too ill to walk were told by SS Oberscharführer Hubert Gomerski that they would be taken to a hospital (Lazarett), and thus were taken aside and sat upon a cart (later a little train).
Toivi Blatt was holding his mother's hand when the order came to separate into two lines. He decided to follow his father into the line of men. He turned to his mother, unsure of what to say.
"But for reasons I still cannot understand, out of the blue I said to my mother, 'And you didn't let me drink all the milk yesterday. You wanted to save some for today.' Slowly and sadly she turned to look at me. 'This is what you think about at such a moment?'
"To this day the scene comes back to haunt me, and I have regretted my strange remark, which turned out to be my very last words to her."
The stress of the moment, under the harsh conditions, did not lend to clear thinking. Usually, the victims did not realize that this moment would be their last time to speak to or see each other.
If the camp needed to replenish its workers, a guard would shout out among the lines for tailors, seamstresses, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Those who were chosen often left brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters, and children behind in the lines. Other than those who were trained at a skill, sometimes the SS chose men or women, young boys or girls, seemingly randomly for work within the camp.
Out of the thousands who stood on the ramp, perhaps a select few would be chosen. Those who were chosen would be marched off at a run to Lager I; the rest would enter through a gate that read, "Sonderkommando Sobibor" ("special unit Sobibor").
Those selected to work were taken to Lager I. Here they were registered and placed in barracks. Most of these prisoners still did not realize that they were in a death camp. Many asked other prisoners when they would again be able to see their family members.
Often, other prisoners told them about Sobibor, that this was a place that gassed Jews, that the smell that pervaded was dead bodies piling up, and that the fire they saw in the distance was bodies being burned. Once the new prisoners found out the truth of Sobibor, they had to come to terms with it. Some committed suicide. Some became determined to live. All were devastated.
The work that these prisoners were to carry out did not help them forget this horrific news; rather, it reinforced it. All the workers within Sobibor worked within the death process or for the SS staff. Approximately 600 inmates worked in the Vorlager, Lager I, and Lager II, while approximately 200 worked in the segregated Lager III. The two sets of prisoners never met, for they lived and worked apart.
Workers in the Vorlager, Lager I, and Lager II
The prisoners who worked outside Lager III had a wide range of jobs. Some worked specifically for the SS, making gold trinkets, boots, clothing, cleaning cars, or feeding horses. Others worked at jobs dealing with the death process, sorting clothes, unloading and cleaning the trains, cutting wood for the pyres, burning personal artifacts, cutting the women's hair, and so on.
These workers lived daily amid fear and terror. The SS and the Ukrainian guards marched the prisoners to their work in columns, making them sing marching songs along the way. A prisoner could be beaten and whipped for simply being out of step. Sometimes prisoners were to report after work for punishments they had accrued during the day. As they were being whipped, they were forced to call out the number of lashes; if they didn't shout loud enough or if they lost count, the punishment would start over again or they would be beaten to death. Everyone at roll call was forced to watch these punishments.
Though there were certain general rules one needed to know in order to live, there was no certainty about who could be a victim of SS cruelty.
"We were permanently terrorized. Once, a prisoner was talking to a Ukrainian guard; an SS man killed him. Another time we carried sand to decorate the garden; Frenzel SS Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel took out his revolver, and shot a prisoner working at my side. Why? I still don't know."
Another terror was SS Scharführer Paul Groth's dog, Barry. On the ramp as well as in the camp, Groth would sic Barry on a prisoner; Barry would then tear the prisoner to pieces.
Though the prisoners were terrorized daily, the SS was even more dangerous when they were bored. It was then that they would create games. One such "game" was to sew up each leg of a prisoner's pants, then put rats down them. If the prisoner moved, he would be beaten to death.
Another such sadistic "game" began when a thin prisoner was forced to quickly drink a large quantity of vodka and then eat several pounds of sausage. Then the SS man would force the prisoner's mouth open and urinate in it, laughing as the prisoner threw up.
Yet even while living with terror and death, the prisoners continued to live. The prisoners of Sobibor socialized with each other. There were approximately 150 women among the 600 prisoners, and couples soon formed. Sometimes there was dancing. Sometimes there was lovemaking. Perhaps since the prisoners were constantly facing death, acts of life became even more important.
Workers in Lager III
Not much is known about the prisoners who worked in Lager III, for the Nazis kept them permanently separated from all others in the camp. The job of delivering food to the gates of Lager III was an extremely risky job. A number of times the gates of Lager III opened while the prisoners delivering food were still there, and thus the food deliverers were taken inside Lager III and never heard from again.
To find out about the prisoners in Lager III, Hershel Zukerman, a cook, tried to contact them.
"In our kitchen we cooked the soup for camp No. 3 and Ukrainian guards used to fetch the vessels. Once I put a note in Yiddish into a dumpling, 'Brother, let me know what you are doing.' The answer arrived, stuck to the bottom of the pot, 'You shouldn't have asked. People are being gassed, and we must bury them.'"
The prisoners who worked in Lager III worked amid the extermination process. They removed the bodies from the gas chambers, searched the bodies for valuables, then either buried them (April to the end of 1942) or burned them on pyres (end of 1942 to October 1943). These prisoners had the most emotionally wearing job, for many would find family members and friends among those they had to bury.
No prisoners from Lager III survived.
The Death Process
Those who were not selected for work during the initial selection process stayed in the lines (except those who had been selected to go to the hospital who were taken away and directly shot). The line made up of women and children walked through the gate first, followed later by the line of men. Along this walkway, the victims saw houses with names like "the Merry Flea" and "the Swallow's Nest," gardens with planted flowers, and signs that pointed to "showers" and "canteen." All this helped deceive the unsuspecting victims, for Sobibor seemed to them too peaceful to be a place of murder.
Before they reached the center of Lager II, they passed through a building where camp workers asked them to leave their small handbags and personal belongings. Once they reached the main square of Lager II, SS Oberscharführer Hermann Michel (nicknamed "the preacher") gave a short speech, similar to what is remembered by Ber Freiberg:
"You are leaving for the Ukraine where you will work. In order to avoid epidemics, you are going to have a disinfecting shower. Put away your clothes neatly, and remember where they are, as I shall not be with you to help to find them. All valuables must be taken to the desk."
Young boys would wander among the crowd, passing out string so that they could tie their shoes together. In other camps, before the Nazis thought of this, they ended up with large piles of unmatched shoes, the pieces of string helped keep the pairs of shoes matched for the Nazis. They were to hand over their valuables through a window to a "cashier" (SS Oberscharführer Alfred Ittner).
Having undressed and folded their clothes neatly in piles, the victims entered "the tube" labeled by the Nazis as the "Himmlestrasse" ("Road to Heaven"). This tube, approximately 10 to 13 feet wide, was constructed of barbed-wire sides that were interwoven with tree branches. Running from Lager II through the tube, the women were taken aside to a special barracks to have their hair cut off. After their hair was cut, they were taken to Lager III for their "showers."
Upon entering Lager III, the unknowing holocaust victims came upon a large brick building with three separate doors. Approximately 200 people were pushed through each of these three doors into what appeared to be showers, but what were really gas chambers. The doors were then closed. Outside, in a shed, an SS officer or a Ukrainian guard started the engine that produced the carbon monoxide gas. The gas entered each of these three rooms through pipes installed specifically for this purpose.
As Toivi Blatt relates as he was standing near Lager II, he could hear sounds from Lager III:
"Suddenly I heard the sound of internal combustion engines. Immediately afterward, I heard a terribly high-pitched, yet smothered, collective cry-at first strong, surpassing the roar of the motors, then, after a few minutes, gradually weakening. My blood froze."
In this way, 600 people could be killed at once. But this was not fast enough for the Nazis, so, during the fall of 1942, three additional gas chambers of equal size were added. Then, 1,200 to 1,300 people could be killed at one time.
There were two doors to each gas chamber, one where the victims walked in, and the other where the victims were dragged out. After a short time of airing out the chambers, Jewish workers were forced to pull the bodies out of the chambers, throw them into carts, and then dump them into pits.
At the end of 1942, the Nazis ordered all the corpses exhumed and burned. After this time, all further victims' bodies were burned upon pyres built upon wood and helped by the addition of gasoline. It is estimated that 250,000 people were killed at Sobibor.