Sobibor: Operation Reinhard Death Camp and Site of the Most Successful Uprising by Jewish Prisoners During World War II
One of the most significant yet little known events of the Holocaust took place on October 14, 1943 when the Jewish prisoners of the Sobibor death camp revolted, killed several of their SS and Ukrainian guards, and escaped. Approximately 250,000 innocent men, women, children, and infants were murdered at Sobibor between May 1942 and October 1943. Of the three hundred that escaped during the revolt only forty seven survived the war. Aside from the perpetrators they are the only eyewitnesses to the horrors that took place inside Sobibor. An examination of the Sobibor death camp perpetrator confessions and survivor testimonies offer a glimpse into the Operation Reinhard death camps that were created with the purpose of murdering all of the Jews living in the Nazi’s General Government area. The Operation Reinhard camps evolved in response to the Nazi “Final Solution,” which if fully achieved, would have ended in the complete extermination the Jewish population of Europe. An estimated 1.7 million victims were murdered in the Operation Reinhard camps, most within hours of their arrival.
The Operation Reinhard death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka had their genesis in the aftermath of the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Shortly after the partitioning of Poland between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, several of its administrative districts were incorporated into the German Reich, while others were lumped together in a region that the Nazis called the General Government. At the time of its creation the Nazis’s General Government contained the most dense Jewish population in Europe. The Germans estimated that approximately 2.3 million Jews lived in the area.
Three weeks after the invasion on September 21, 1939 Reinhard Heydrich, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s second in command, issued orders to the SS and police forces in the General Government regarding steps toward the “ultimate aim” in dealing with the Jews of the General Government. According to Heydrich’s orders the SS and Order Police were to relocate “Jews living in the countryside to concentration points within the larger cities” to areas “either by a major railway junction, or at least along a railway line.” Furthermore Heydrich added that “…all Jewish communities of fewer than 500 heads should be disbanded and relocated to the nearest concentration area.” It was decided that the Lublin area located far in the east near the new border with the Soviet Union would be the main concentration area for many of the Jewish people that would be forced out of their homes. The Nazis designated Lublin a Jewish reservation to be run by the SS. A massive shuffling of civilian populations occurred as tens of thousands of Polish Jews were moved into the Lublin district by the SS and police.
Himmler appointed Odilo Globocnik, a ruthless Austrian anti-Semite, as SS and Police Leader of the Lublin district. The Jewish population of Lublin and the General Government swelled as Jews from Germany and other areas of the Third Reich were shipped in. They were crammed into the already overcrowded ghettos where people lived in squalid conditions, starving and rife with disease. Those who were healthy enough were pressed into work gangs and used as slave labor in various SS and private German enterprises that sprouted up in the newly occupied territory. It was during this time that Globocnik constructed the Majdanek concentration near Lublin to house 50,000 slaves that would be employed in various SS run enterprises.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union led to new developments in the Nazi’s search for a “final solution” to their Jewish “problem.” In the summer of 1941 when victory over the Soviets seemed imminent Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy made the decision to accelerate their “final solution” and exterminate all of the Jews in the territories under their control. This task was delegated to Reinhard Heydrich in the summer of 1941. Heydrich set about coordinating the various components of the the Nazi bureaucracy necessary to commit mass murder including: the SS, the Nazi party, government ministries, the military, and German railway service. This planning culminated with the now infamous Wannsee Conference held in January 1942. At this meeting organized by Heydrich and attended by secretaries of government ministries, representatives of German occupational governments, and SS department heads, the systematic destruction of the Jews of Europe was discussed openly. State Secretary Dr. Josef Buhler, represented his boss, Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of the General Government, at the conference. Buhler argued forcefully and demanded that the “final solution” be applied first to the Jews of the General Government as soon as possible. Buhler’s request that the Jews of the General Government in Poland be eliminated first was accepted by all of those in attendance. This decision sealed the fate of millions of people.
Unbeknownst to those present at the meeting, Heydrich had already begun preparations for the extermination of the Jews of the General Government months before the Wannsee Conference. A special organization, later called “Operation Reinhard” in Heydrich’s honor after his May 1942 assasination by members of the Czech Underground, was set up in Lublin and headed by Globocnik. Globocnik was charged with planning the deportation and extermination activities of the entire operation. This included the transportation of Jews to the death camps, killing the Jews, seizing valuables from victims, sorting them, and shipping them back to Germany. To help accomplish this a number of SS men and Order Policemen were transferred from the Nazi Euthanasia program to Globocnik’s Operation Reinhard command beginning in October 1941. This group of ninety-two Euthanisia Program men formed the core of the Operation Reinhard death camp staff. They brought with them the knowledge and expertise in operating facilities designed for killing large numbers of people with poisonous gas. Globocnik charged these men with building three death camps and gave them a loose set of verbal guidelines. The camps were to be built close to railways to facilitate transportation, located far from inhabited areas in order to maintain secrecy, and lastly they had to be close to the recently conquered Soviet lands so as to to encourage the belief that the Jews who had disappeared had reached labor camps in the vast expanses of the East.
Construction on Belzec, the first of the Operation Reinhard death camps, began in November 1941 and was completed by mid December under the supervision of former Euthanasia program supervisor Christian Wirth. Being the first of the death camps, Belzec served as an experimentation site. The other Operation Reinhard death camps were built and organized according to the results obtained there. The first transports of Jews were gassed at Belzec in early 1942 using carbon monoxide exhaust fumes from a large gas powered motor piped into hermetically sealed gas chambers designed to look like disinfection showers. Wirth also instituted a policy of having Jews do the manual labor associated with their own destruction. Groups of people on incoming transports were kept alive and forced to remove and bury corpses while others were made to sort and organize clothing, valuables, and other goods stolen from the victims. Periodically, these prisoners would be murdered and others selected to take their place.
At the same time that Wirth was experimenting in mass murder at Belzec, construction began on Sobibor. Sobibor, the second of the Operation Reinhard death camps, was under the command of Franz Stangl – another Euthanasia Program veteran. Several modifications were made based on the experience at Belzec. Sobibor was nearly three times the size of Belzec to allow more maneuver room and a longer path from where victims disembarked from trains to the gas chambers. The warehouses used for sorting and storing stolen clothing and goods were built within the camp perimeter close to where victims stripped naked prior to entering the path to the gas chambers. At Belzec they were outside of the main camp area, which proved to be cumbersome and difficult to hide from the outside populace.
Sobibor was divided into three subcamps: I, II, and III. Camp I, located on the south end, contained prisoner barracks and various workshops including a blacksmith, mechanic shop, cobblers, a laundry, and others. Prisoners with special skills were selected upon arrival at Sobibor and worked in the shops. A fenced pathway three to four meters wide led from the railroad platform to Camp II in the center of the Sobibor. This area contained the buildings where victims undressed as well as warehouses used for sorting and packing stolen goods to be shipped back to Germany. Another fenced path, sardonically called the Himmelstrasse or “road to heaven” by the SS guards, led from Camp II to Camp III in the northwest corner of Sobibor. A wooden shack situated a few yards from the end of the path and the entrance to Camp III served as a “barbershop,” where the hair of women was shorn off and packed for shipping to Germany where it was be used to make felt. In Camp III there were three gas chambers that had a capacity of killing 600 people in a matter of minutes by means of exhaust fumes from a large automobile engine. Groups of Jews were selected from arriving transports to remove and bury corpses from the gas chambers, search orifices for valuables, and extract gold dental work from victims. These people lived in a barrack in Camp III and were kept alive for a short period of time until they were murdered and replaced with new arrivals. A narrow gauge railroad with trolleys led from the railroad platform to Camp III and was used to transport those who were too sick, disabled, or elderly to walk to the gas chambers. The rail line ended at a pit where Ukrainian guards and SS men shot them.
The Jews that worked in Sobibor lived in constant fear of Camp III. Prisoners found too sick or weak to work were routinely taken to Camp III where they were killed. The fences between all of the camps and around the exterior perimeter were kept camouflaged with pine branches that were cut and intertwined between the strands of barbed wire by a crew of Jewish prisoners. There is no known prisoner who entered Camp III at Sobibor and survived. In spite of this, prisoners in Sobibor all knew what went on there. There were some instances of communication between the Jews of Camp III and Camp I. When Jewish prisoner Stanislaw Smajzner arrived at Sobibor his life was spared because he was a goldsmith. A few days after his arrival he received a note delivered by a Ukrainian guard from a friend who had come to Sobibor in the same transport. His friend Abraham was alive in Camp III and bribed the guard to deliver the note to Smajzner informing him that his parents and extended family had been murdered along with nearly everyone else on the trasport. Smajzner corresponded with his friend by bribing the same guard with gold to deliver notes. In his memoir Tragedy of a Jewish Teenager Smajzner included the following details from one of Abraham’s letters regarding how the killing in Camp III took place:
…thousands of Jews pass through the gate …they go down a long corridor and enter Camp 2. There they are stripped of their last belongings, and made to stand there, naked, until they are led into a large shack where they are allegedly going to have a bath. Hundreds of people enter that shack at a time …the door is locked and hermetically sealed. Then a large Diesel motor is set to work, and its exhaust pipe is passed through a hole in the wall, so that the gasses of combustion are blown inside, until everyone is asphyxiated.Stanislaw Smajzner, “Extracts from the Tragedy of a Jewish Teenager,” Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, 2006, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/sobibor/smajzner.html.
The first transports of Jewish victims began to arrive at Sobibor in late April 1942. Upon arrival victims were met at the rail platform by several SS men, dozens of armed Ukrainian guards, and a group of Sobibor prisoners in blue jumpsuits called the Bahnhof Kommando whose job it was to assist victims with luggage and any who were sick or lame. How victims were treated depended on where they were coming from. Jews from Western Europe often arrived at the death camps in nice passenger cars and did not have the least bit of suspicion that they were about to die. The Nazis calmly explained that they were at a transit camp where they could rest but first had to take a disinfection bath. Men were separated from women and children, and those with desired skills or professions were selected for work details. Western Jews were made to fill out postcards to friends and family saying that they had arrived safely in the East. Violence was not typically used with these people unless they resisted in which case they were savagely beaten.
Polish and other Eastern European Jews, however, were packed into cattle cars without food or water for transport to Sobibor and often knew what was in store for them when they arrived at their destination. Many attempted to resist or escape upon arrival. The SS men and Ukrainian guards were prepared for this and immediately shot or savagely beat any person who tried to flee. Sobibor survivor Fiszel Bialowitz, who worked in the Bahnhofkommando, wrote that “…the Polish Jews are beaten from the moment they step down from the cattle cars or in some cases from the moment they refuse to depart from the cars.” The SS and Ukrainians were unrestrained in their violence against the Polish Jews – including women and children. Survivor Esther Raab witnessed SS man Karl Frenzel murder a crying baby during the arrival of a transport of Polish Jews by bashing its skull against a boxcar at the Sobibor rail siding. Male victims in these groups were usually gassed first to prevent them from revolting when they heard the screams of women and children in the gas chambers. Some transports of Eastern Jews arrived full of corpses due to long waits in the hot sun without water, in which case camp prisoners had the grisly task of removing the bodies.
People who were kept alive to work in Camps I and II of Sobibor lived in a constant state of terror. The SS and Ukrainian guards carried whips which were used liberally for slightest offenses and often for their own self gratification. A prisoner who received a beating and showed physical signs of injury such as blood, bruises, or a limp was usually taken to Camp III and shot. Some guards who were more sadistic than others would use any excuse to terrorize prisoners. The SS man Bolender had a dog named Barry who would attack on command and maul his victim ripping off chunks of flesh. More often than not the victim would end up in Camp III. The SS guards also made a pastime of entertaining themselves at the prisoners’ expense often in the most sadistic fashion. SS men and Ukrainian guards would make prisoners do calisthenics or run the gauntlet and shoot those who stumbled or could not keep up. Other “games” involved things like tying the bottom of a prisoner’s pant legs and putting a rat in his trousers. If the prisoner moved he was shot. These SS past times frequently included the humiliation of prisoners; Jews were made to hold mock funerals with a prisoner laid out in Hasidic garb and chant self-abasing anti-Semitic slurs. Most prisoners did not last more than a couple of months in the camp. Those who did learned to survive by trying not to be noticed and making themselves as indispensable as possible to the Nazis. Craftsmen who were particularly skilled in a trade desired by the Nazis stood a better chance at long term survival.
Sobibor prisoners suffered enormous shock and emotional trauma as they struggled with grasping the fact that their loved ones had been murdered while trying to learn how to survive, many committed suicide. All of the survivors lost people who were close to them, loved ones who were torn away without a chance to say goodbye. They found various ways of coping. Some survived out of hope of escape, others out of a desire for revenge, or to honor the memory of lost family members. Many felt the need to tell the world what was happening to the Jews of Europe at Sobibor. All survivors took calculated risks such as stealing food from the warehouses in Camp II or by taking valuables and using them to barter for food with the Ukrainian guards. Activities of these types were capital offenses. Survivor Selma Wijnberg told of a hungry young boy who was taken out of the sorting sheds in Camp II and shot because an SS man found that he had taken a tin of sardines for himself.
The desire to escape the hell of Sobibor and tell the world what was happening was almost universal among the prisoners. There were various instances of escape attempts with some success, however more often than not attempts were thwarted. On one occasion a crew of prisoners felling trees outside of the camp killed a Ukrainian guard and tried to escape. Three managed to get away, however thirteen were caught and executed in front of the Camp I prisoners. In another incident a group of seventy two Dutch men were executed after it was discovered that they had bribed a Ukrainian guard to help them escape. Although there was no contact with the prisoners in Camp III, it is known that they also attempted an escape by digging a tunnel but were discovered when the tunnel was only a few yards from being finished. Prisoners in Camp I were brought out for a roll call in the middle of the night and heard gunfire in Camp III. The next day they found out through Ukrainian guards that the Camp III Jews had been discovered digging a tunnel and shot. Two prisoners were able to escape from Camp I through a hole they dug under the barbed wire on a dark rainy night. In punishment male prisoners were lined up and every tenth man shot.
In late 1942 the Germans brought a large excavator into Sobibor and began to exhume and burn the half decomposed corpses in the mass graves of Camp III. The glow from the fire was visible for miles around, especially at night, while the stench of burning human flesh polluted the air for miles around. By the end of 1942 over 100,000 Jews had been murdered in the gas chambers at Sobibor. The slaughter continued into 1943 as increasing numbers of transports with Jews from Western European countries arrived. By this time Belzec, the first of the Operation Reinhard death camps, had reached capacity and trains were diverted from there to Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. In April 1943 a group of 300-350 Jewish prisoners at Belzec had finished cremating the corpses, destroyed all the camp buildings, leveled the ground and planted it over with trees and shrubs in an effort to wipe out any trace of its existence. This group was transported to Sobibor for liquidation and decided to fight back instead of going to the gas chambers willingly. All of them were shot and killed on the ramp at the camp entrance. Sobibor prisoners tasked with removing the corpses and searching their clothing found several notes telling what had happened at Belzec and encouraging the Sobibor Jews to fight back or face the same fate. By summer 1943 news also filtered into Sobibor regarding the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the prisoner revolt at Treblinka. Faced with these facts, and the realization that transports were not arriving as frequently, led prisoners in Camp I to believe that their camp would be liquidated in the near future.
In light of these events a group of several experienced men formed a resistance group around the leadership of Leon Feldhender, the son of a Rabbi from Lublin. They began to concoct ideas for an escape that would allow all of the prisoners in Camp I a chance at freedom. Eventually they worked out details for three different plans. The first involved the young shoe shine boys or putzers who went daily before dawn to the barracks of the SS men to polish their boots. The boys were to kill the Nazis while they were still asleep, steal their weapons, and deliver them back to other resistance members who would then fight their way out of camp. The other two plans involved blowing up the SS mess hall while they were all eating or setting buildings on fire and attempting an escape in the ensuing chaos. All of the plans were risky, however as autumn of 1943 approached Feldhender told resistance members that they would have to decide on one before winter snows began to fall making it harder to evade capture and survive in the forest after breaking out.
On September 23, 1943 the fortunes of the Sobibor resistance group received a much needed boost in the form of a transport from Minsk. Among the 1,750 people stuffed in the cattle cars was a group of Jewish Red Army soldiers who had been singled out from their fellow prisoners of war (POW) because they were circumcised. The Germans sent them to various concentration camps, eventually they ended up on a transport to Sobibor. The SS men selected eighty of the Russian POWs who were led by Lieutenant Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky and put them to work cutting trees and constructing several storage sheds in an area approximately 100 yards from Camp III. From that vantage point the Russian POWs saw the cremation fires and heard the blood curdling screams of women and children that were later drowned out by the sound of a large motor. The men were deeply disturbed by what they had seen. After observing the proud Russian POWs and their young lieutenant for a few days, Feldhender realized that if he could convince the Russians to join the resistance group they had a real chance to fight back and escape. The Russian soldiers knew how to use weapons and had killed people before in combat. Pechersky was summoned to a meeting of the Sobibor resistance where Feldhender explained that they wanted him to take charge of the escape plans. Sasha accepted and immediately had group members begin collecting useful information regarding the routine of the Ukrainians and SS men as well as the layout of the camp and surrounding obstacles.
In a few day’s time Pechersky formulated a plan that exploited a principal weakness of the SS men who ran Sobibor – greed. The SS men made fortunes by skimming clothing and valuables before they were shipped back to Germany. They also used skilled Jewish creaftsmen to manufacture jewelry, shoes, clothing, and various other items for them. Pechersky’s plan was organized into two phases. In the first phase the putzers, who often worked as errand boys, would lure SS men to the sorting sheds by asking them to come and view goods (which were stolen from victims on recently arrived transports) that they might like to take for themselves. Russian POWs would hide in the sheds and use knives and axes provided by the goldsmith Smajzner, who was now running the blacksmith shop, to kill the SS men when their backs were turned. Most of the SS men also had orders for new clothing items and shoes in the tailor and cobbler shops. Appointments would be set for them to try on new boots or jackets where POWs would also do the killing. All of the SS men in the camp would be quielty killed between four and five in the afternoon. The second phase of the plan called for cutting the phone lines, after which prisoners would line up for five pm roll call and simply march out the front gate. The Soviet POWs would try to convince the Ukrainians to join them in the escape and if they resisted, use captured weapons to fight their way out and break into the armory. Once outside the camp wire, it would be every man for himself.
The plan was carried out on October 14, 1943 and went smoothly until it was realized that it would not be possible to lure all of the SS men to kill them. Jewish inmate Chaim Engel volunteered to slip into the administration office to kill SS officer Beckmann. He found Beckmann at his desk and stabbed him repeatedly while shouting “For my father! For my brother! For all the Jews you killed!” Shortly afterward, SS man Bauer who had been out of the camp that day returned and discovered Beckmann’s body. He sounded the alarm. Pandemonium erupted in the camp as armed POWs and prisoners exchanged volleys with the Ukrainian guards and the surviving SS men. Prisoners who had assembled in the roll call area were confused. Feldhender and Pechersky jumped on top of a table at the front of the yard and one of them shouted: “Brothers! The moment of destiny has come. Most of the Germans have been killed. Let us rise and destroy this place. We have little chance of surviving, but at least we will die fighting with honor. If anyone survives, bear witness to what happened here! Tell the world about this place!” Prisoners ran toward the barbed wire fences, knocked them over, and ran through the mine fields surrounding the camp into the nearby forest.
Approximately 300 people managed to make it into the forests however the danger was not over. Many were caught and shot in the ensuing manhunt while others were murdered by anti-Semitic Polish nationalist partisans. Some were caught and turned in by local Poles for rewards. Many who survived only did so because they had taken enough money or valuables with them to bribe locals to hide them. Fizel Bialowitz and his brother paid the equivalent of a small fortune in gold and diamonds, obtained from the belongings of Sobibor victims who had been gassed, to a Polish farmer who let them hide in his barn until the end of the war.
The Jews of Sobibor killed eleven of their SS tormentors in the uprising and left the SS leadership stunned. A few days after the revolt a team with excavators arrived at Sobibor, wiped out all traces of the camp, and covered it with topsoil to give the appearance of a farm. On October 19, 1943 Odilo Globocnik declared that Operation Reinhard was over. The effort to remove all vestiges of the camps continued throughout the fall and into winter. The Nazis however could not erase the memories of the survivors. Sobibor survivors have returned to Germany to testify against former SS men at their trials. They have produced numerous memoirs and oral histories dedicated to the memory of the 250,000 Jews who perished at Sobibor, to the memory of lost family members, and entire Jewish communities that vanished. In this they have fulfilled the admonition shouted out by Leon Feldhender and Sasha Pechersky to bear witness and tell the world what happened at Sobibor.
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