Sobibór extermination camp was located in the Lublin district of Poland, close to the village and railway station of Sobibór. The Germans established the camp in March 1942. Between April 1942 and October 1943, approximately half a million Jews were murdered there. The camp was closed down at the end of 1943 after a prisoners’ uprising in October of that same year.
Sobibór was a relatively small, purpose-built, rectangle shaped camp, 400 metres by 600 metres. A barbed-wire fence, which had been woven with tree branches to hide what was inside, surrounded the site.
The camp was divided into three sections: the administration area, reception area and extermination area. The extermination area housed the gas chambers, burial trenches and accommodation for the Jewish prisoners who worked in the camp. The gas chambers were designed to look like shower rooms, so that the victims would not know their fate.
The first camp commandant of Sobibór was SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, who had a staff of between 20 and 30 SS soldiers. Many of these had previously worked on the T4 Euthanasia Programme in Germany. A further 90 to 120 Ukrainians were used as camp guards. In addition, approximately a thousand Jewish prisoners were selected from the strongest of those who arrived at the camp. They worked on the processing of new arrivals and their belongings. These Sonderkommando would be subjected to selections every few days, and the weakest sent to their deaths.
Jews were transported to Sobibór by railway cattle trucks from many countries, including Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Poland. On arrival the Jews were taken directly to the reception area. They were informed that they had reached a transit camp en route to a labour camp. Many of them were forced to write letters to their relatives, to let them know that they had arrived safely at a labour camp. They were then told that they would continue on their journey the next day, but must take a shower and have their clothes disinfected before moving on.
The men and women were separated, the children being taken with their mothers. The Nazis ordered the victims to remove their clothing and hand over their valuables. The Jews were then marched to the gas chambers. They were treated brutally, chased and screamed at by the Ukrainian guards, who fired warning shots at them. About 450 to 550 Jews were forced into the gas chambers at a time.
The whole process, from arrival to burial, took just two or three hours. Prisoners were then ordered to clean out the railway wagons before the trains left and another train of about 20 wagons containing a thousand more Jews entered the camp.
At the end of 1942, in order to hide the evidence of the killings, the Germans ordered the digging up and cremation of the bodies.
There were several escape attempts, some of which were successful. However, the Nazis executed many prisoners as punishment and as a warning to others.
In the summer of 1943, the prisoners, led by Leon Feldhendler, began planning a mass escape. This was helped by the arrival at the end of September 1943 of many Soviet Jewish prisoners of war. This group included Lieutenant Aleksandr Pechersky. He was made leader of the underground group, with Feldhendler as his second-in-command. The prisoners planned to kill the SS soldiers, steal their weapons and escape from the camp.
On 14 October 1943, the prisoners managed to kill 11 SS men and several Ukrainian guards. Around 300 prisoners were able to escape. However, many of them were captured and killed. Most of those who had not joined the escape were also killed. About 50 of the escapees survived the war.
After the uprising, the Nazis destroyed Sobibór. The whole area was ploughed, planted with crops and given to a Ukrainian guard.