Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

Case Study: Sobibór

A photograph taken by one of the leading SS officers at Sobibór, Johann Niemann, showing a SS entrance to the camp, c.1943. Most of the prisoners transported to the camp arrived through a separate entrance by the train tracks.
Prior to the Nazi rise to power, Trude and Jan Abraham lived in Germany with their son, Fritz. In 1934, the family fled the Nazi persecution of Jews and relocated to Amsterdam. In 1943, the family were imprisoned in Westerbork transit camp before being deported to Sobibór, where they were murdered on arrival.
As the most senior SS officer on duty, Johann Niemann was a key target in the Sobibór uprising of 14 October 1943, and was the first SS officer to be killed during the revolt.  In this photograph, taken by Niemann in the months before his death, one of the watchtowers used to guard prisoners in the camp can be seen. C.1943.

Sobibór was one of the three extermination camps in the German-occupied area of Eastern Poland created by the Nazis as part of Operation Reinhardt .

The camp opened in the spring of 1942 and operated until October 1943. It was made up of three smaller areas known as sub-camps. Camp I contained the main entrance to the camp, the living quarters for the SS and guards, and workshops where prisoners carried out forced labour. Camp II contained the reception area, which was where prisoners initially arrived and had their clothing and belongings taken from them. Camp III contained the gas chambers and a living area for the small number of prisoners who were forced to work.

Sobibór was staffed by experienced SS officials, who were assisted by Ukrainian auxiliaries. In total, over 180,000 people were murdered at Sobibór.

Conditions inside Sobibór

Sobibór was a death camp, and as such almost all of those who were transported to Sobibór were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival.

When the need arose, however, very small numbers of people who arrived in the camp were selected, separated and used for forced labour. This group were referred to as the Arbeitshäftlinge (workers). The Arbeitshäftlinge were forced to complete a range of jobs across the various different areas within Sobibor. These jobs included removing the bodies of those who had died on the journey to the camp, and sorting through the clothes and possessions taken from those who were murdered. Arbeitshäftlinge who were skilled in trades such as goldsmiths or tailors also worked in workshops in Camp I.

Other prisoners known as the Sonderkommando  were forced to work in Camp III, where they assisted with the mass murder of prisoners. The Sonderkommando were isolated from the other Arbeitshäftlinge at Sobibór, and were banned from telling any new prisoners who arrived on transports at Camp III what was about to happen to them.

Conditions for those forced to live inside Sobibór were extremely difficult, unsanitary and uncertain. As well as forced labour, the Arbeitshäftlinge were sometimes made to take part in recreational activities, such as dancing or singing, as a form of humiliation and entertainment for SS officials. Female prisoners were also frequently victims of sexual violence and assault by SS officers working at the camp.

The Sobibór Uprising

On 14 October 1943, an armed uprising at Sobibór took place and hundreds of prisoners were able to escape.

The revolt was planned after rumours spread in the summer of 1943 that Sobibór was due to be closed down and dismantled, and all of those who still worked at the site would be murdered. In response to these rumours, a small group of Polish prisoners in the camp formed a resistance group and began planning an armed uprising, so that they could escape before being killed. In September 1943, a group of Red Army soldiers, including Lieutenant Alexander Petjersky, were imprisoned in the camp and joined the resistance group – using their military experience to create a more detailed strategy for the revolt.

The uprising began at 4pm on 14 October 1943, when Johann Niemann, the acting commandant, was killed after being lured into the tailors’ workshop in Camp I. Over the following hour the prisoners managed to kill nine other SS officers.

At around 5pm, the daily roll call began and other SS staff members became aware that something unexpected was happening. The SS opened fire and began shooting at the prisoners who had gathered for the roll call. In response, some prisoners returned fire at the SS, while others in the camp began to make their escape on foot. To do so, they had to cross the minefields which surrounded the camp, some of which were triggered and began exploding. Chaos reigned, and many prisoners were shot by guards or fatally wounded by the mines as they tried to escape.

In total, approximately three hundred prisoners were able to escape during the uprising. In the hours and days following revolt, Nazi SS officers searched extensively for those who had escaped, and managed to re-capture and then kill around one hundred people. Of the remaining two hundred escapees, approximately fifty survived until the end of the Second World War. Along with a handful of others, these escapees were among the only survivors of Sobibór.

On 15 October, all remaining prisoners in Sobibór who were unable to escape were murdered.

Aftermath and Closure

A memorial erected at the former site of the Sobibór extermination camp.

A memorial erected at the former site of the Sobibór extermination camp.

Courtesy of Jacques Lahitte, Wikimedia Commons.

Following the uprising in October 1943, Sobibór was dismantled by prisoners who had been transferred from another extermination camp, Treblinka , and the camp was closed.

To further erase any evidence of the camp’s existence, the Treblinka prisoners were also murdered in November 1943, and a pine forest was planted over the former camp.

In total, over 180,000 people were murdered in Sobibór during its existence.

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