This small proof of my professional skill was enough to make this brute a little more accessible and believe what I had told him. He finally decided I was to be taken from the files and I took advantage of the opportunity to add that I had three “brothers” who also manufactured jewels and whom I would like to have with me.
He nodded his agreement and my “brothers” joined me. Before he could go on with his work I still found a little courage to tell him that my old father was in that crowd, although I had not been able to find him. The German then said we might be able to find my father next day.
Thus ended that short but profitable dialogue.”
Shlomo Szmajzner was selected by Gustav Wagner, Moshe Bahir described this cruel and most feared member of the Sobibor SS personnel:
“He was a handsome man, tall and blond – a pure Aryan. In civilian life he was, no doubt a well-mannered man; at Sobibor he was a wild beast. His lust to kill knew no bounds.
I saw such terrible scenes that they give me nightmares to this day. He would snatch babies from their mother’s arms and tear them to pieces in his hands. I saw him beat two men to death with a rifle, because they did not carry out his instructions properly, since they did not understand German.
I remember that one night a group of youths aged fifteen or sixteen arrived in the camp. The head of this group was one Abraham. After a long and arduous work day, this young man collapsed on his pallet and fell asleep.
Suddenly Wagner came into our barrack, and Abraham did not hear him call to stand up at once before him. Furious, he pulled Abraham naked off his bed and began to beat him all over his body. When Wagner grew weary of the blows, he took out his revolver and killed him on the spot. This atrocious spectacle was carried out before all of us, including Abraham’s younger brother.”
No history of Sobibor would be complete, without some accounts of the activities of SS- Oberscharfuhrer Karl Frenzel. Selma Engel recalled:
“And also one day, Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel came out. Frenzel was one of the worst SS in the camp and he came to Camp One. He went with his whip, he went in the barrack and everybody in the barrack was sick, had to go out and had to stay in the middle.
I remember so vividly there was a boy from I knew from Assen, from another town, from the Zionist organisation and he was standing there and, they all were standing for a long time in the middle of the camp and they all got shot, right away.”
On 19 July 1942, on the eve of the Great Action concerning the Jews of Warsaw, Himmler visited Sobibor, one of the “Aktion Reinhard” death camps in the Lublin area. On the same tour he also visited the SS Training Camp at Trawniki, where a number of photographs were taken.
At the end of July 1942 the deportations to the Sobibor death camp temporarily ceased because of construction work on the Lublin – Chelm railway line, during the next two months only a few smaller transports from some nearby ghettos arrived at the camp. During August 1942 Commandant Stangl was transferred to the Treblinka death camp, and his place was taken by Franz Karl Reichleitner, a former euthanasia colleague, you had served with Stangl in Hartheim.
In all the three death camps, the initial gas chambers capacity were found to be wanting, and Erwin Herman Lambert, and Lorenz Hackenholt after completing the construction of new gas chambers at Treblinka, went to Sobibor.
Erwin Lambert testified after the war:
“It was sometime in autumn 1942 but I don’t remember exactly when. At that time I was assigned by Wirth to enlarge the gassing structure according to the model of Treblinka.
I went to Sobibor together with Lorenz Hackenholt who was at that time in Treblinka. First of all, I went with Hackenholt to a saw-mill near Warsaw. There, Hackenholt ordered a big consignment of wood for re-construction in Sobibor.
Finally, both of us went to Sobibor, we reported there to the camp commander, Reichleitner. He gave us the exact directives for the construction of the gassing installations. The camp was already in operation, and there was a gassing installation. Probably the old installation was not big enough and reconstruction was necessary.
Today I cannot tell exactly who participated in the reconstruction work, however, I do remember that Jewish prisoners and so-called “Askaris” took part in the work. During the time that building was in progress, no transports with Jews arrived.”
The new gas chamber building had six chambers, three on each side of a corridor that ran through the centre of the structure; now 1,300 people could be gassed at the same time. When the construction work on the railway was completed, transports started arriving again, at the Sobibor death camp.
Lorenz Hackenholt in 1940
In early spring 1943, Himmler once again visited the “Aktion Reinhard” Headquarters and the death camps of Sobibor and visited Treblinka.
In anticipation of Himmler’s visit the camps were thoroughly cleansed.
Karl Frenzel (Sobibor) testified at his trial regarding this visit:
"The visit was announced a few days ahead. The leadership of the camp took steps to make order in the camp… I was ordered, together with some Unterführer’s and Ukrainian guards, to take over the outside security of the camp and guarantee Himmler’s personal security. When Himmler visited the gassing installation in Camp III, I guarded the surrounding area.
I remember that afterwards all the Unterführer were assembled in the canteen, and Himmler delivered an address to them…”
In honour of Himmler’s visit a special gassing of several hundred young Jewish girls took place. This is confirmed by the testimony of SS-Oberscharführer Hubert Gomerski who served at Sobibor:
"I remember the visit of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler in Sobibor, I saw Himmler with the whole group going in the direction of Camp III."
Heinrich Himmler found both camps to be relatively idle, and thus gave the order for transports from Netherlands and France to go to Sobibor.
In March 1943 four transports from France brought 4,000 people to Sobibor, virtually all of those transported were murdered, apart from Joseph Duniec. Nineteen transports arrived at Sobibor from the Netherlands between March and July 1943, carrying 34,313 Jews. In the first two transports passenger trains were used, after the 10 March 1943 cattle wagons were used.
Transports from the Netherlands were greeted by the SS with a polite welcome, in order to allay any concerns the deportees may have, at least during the initial reception phase. Once naked and in the ‘tube,’ no more deceptions were required.
Ilana Safran recalled her deportation from the Netherlands:
“Later we were transferred to Westerbork, the gathering place of Dutch Jews, and we remained there for one week, in April 1943 we left for Poland. The journey to Poland was dreadful; the prisoners from western countries believed that they were going to labour camps.
In 1943 the Poles already knew that Sobibor was a death camp and when they arrived they refused to leave the train. When we reached Sobibor, a selection took place, young girls were placed on one side, the others including children, went to the gas chambers. We were given postcards, “Write to your families that you have arrived safely.” I wrote a card to some Dutch friends, it reached its destination and I found it after the war.”
Of course, given the camps destructive nature, almost all of the Dutch Jews were murdered, only 18 out of the 34,313 Jews survived, most having been selected for labour camps on the Sobibor ramp. The SS administration even encouraged the Dutch Jews to send postcards to Holland, saying they had arrived safely in Poland.
On the 5 July 1943 Himmler ordered the addition of a munitions supply area (Camp IV). Bunkers were built and to improve the camp’s security mines were laid
On the 20 July 1943 the so-called ‘Waldkommando’ (Forest Commando), whose job it was to fell trees for expansion, collecting firewood, and branches for camouflaging the barbed-wire fences, revolted, eight prisoners escaped, all the others were shot.
Herszel Cukierman and Josef Zukerman, participants in the uprising at Sobibor
Kalman Wewerik recalled the event:
“One spring day in 1943 about 30 men of the Waldkommando (forest commando) were taken out, under Ukrainian guards, to work. Later that day we saw the Ukrainians herding a much smaller body of Jews back to the camp.
The Jews were bloodied, in bad shape. They were dragging many corpses with them. We were told that two of the Jews, Kof and Podchlebnik, had asked for permission to go to a nearby well and bring back water for their fellow prisoners. This was around mid-day and the men were thirsty. When they got to the well, they attacked the Ukrainian guard accompanying them, took his weapon and ammunition, tossed him into the well, and took off.
When they didn't return with the water, the other Ukrainian guards became suspicious and herded the remaining Jews together, under heavy guard, until the matter would be clarified. These Jews understood what had occurred; they knew that they were finished whatever would happen. When one or two escaped from a group, the whole group was killed. So these desperate Jews took off in all directions, the Ukrainian guards firing at them and pursuing them.
Some of those Jews were said to have successfully escaped. However, those who were caught alive were brought back, tied up (hands and feet), sat down and ordered to look straight ahead while they were savagely clubbed by the Ukrainians.
We were ordered to stand in a semi-circle and to watch the "spectacle"; we were also ordered to laugh loudly during the ordeal of our poor fellow Jews. These unfortunates, however, had the courage to shout out, while they were being tortured. One, a religious Jew, yelled: "The end of the Hitler is coming!" Another shouted: "Shma Yizroel!" Then the Ukrainians shot them all; one unfortunate had to be shot 3 times before he died.
Security Police & SD report about the revolt at Sobibor (click text)
Security Police & SD report (English translation)
The Ukrainians were foaming at the mouth as they clubbed them. Sobibor was full of those Ukrainians, the henchmen of the SS. For 2 or 3 months after this incident we were tormented and abused even more than usual.”
In July / August 1943 an underground group was formed amongst the Jewish prisoners, under the leadership of Leon Feldhendler, who had been the chairman of the Judenrat in the Zolkiew ghetto.Transports started to arrive from the Reichskommissariat Ostland during September 1943, principally from Lida, Minsk and Vilna. In one of the last transports from Minsk, Jewish soldiers serving in the Red Army were brought to Sobibor from the labour camp in Sheroka Street.
Among the prisoners was Alexsander Pechersky, better known as Sascha, due to his military experience he became the camp’s underground commander, with Feldhendler as his deputy.
Pechersky came up with a simple plan for a mass escape, which involved killing the SS camp staff in a short but sustained burst, and escaping with the onset of darkness. The revolt was planned to occur on the 13 October 1943, but the unexpected arrival of SS troops from the labour camp at Osowa, resulted in a 24 hour delay.
On the 14 October 1943 with Reichleitner, Wagner and Gomerski on leave, the SS garrison were considerably weakened, and now the die was cast. At about 4pm, deputy commandant Johann Niemann visited the tailor’s shop to try on a new uniform. There he was killed by Alexsander Shubayev with a blow from an axe.
Not surprisingly, with such an occurrence, who killed which SS man, when and where is filled with confusion and conflict, whether Johann Niemann or Joself Wolf was the first of the camp staff to be killed.
Yehuda Lerner testified about his part in the uprising:
German Military Cemetery at Chelm - Funeral of Sobibor SS Men
(click text to enlarge view)
“My assignment was to liquidate Scharfuhrer Graetschus who was in charge of the Ukrainian guard. I was happy for the opportunity given to me to kill a German.
We had prepared axes which we had sharpened in the smithy. We took up our position an hour earlier. At four o’clock we were sitting in the rooms and waited. According to the plan the first one to arrive was Niemann. He came in time and entered the room where the tailors working for the Germans were sitting.
Five minutes later the German entered that I and my friend awaited, he said that he hoped his winter overcoat was ready. The tailor brought the the coat and started to fit it on him.
It turned out that the German was closer to me than to my friend. I was sitting and sewing a button on a coat for a Ukrainian and the axe was between my legs. I got up, keeping the coat over the axe, approached the SS man from behind and split his head. We put the body beneath the table the tailors were working at.”
The list of Germans killed in the revolt:
SS- Oberscharfuhrer Werner Dubois was also severely wounded in the attack on the armoury, he was hit with an axe and shot in the chest, but he survived the attack.
On the 15 October 1943 the SSPF Lublin advised SS- Brigadefuhrer Wilhelm Gunther his neighbouring SSPF in Luzk, in a radio message that some 700 Jews had broken out the Sobibor camp and would be escaping in Gunther’s direction, and that counter measures should be taken.
At that time Sobibor held about 700 Jews, and not all of them escaped, approximately 300 managed to break out to the forest and taste freedom. In the forest they were hunted by SS, Police and Ukrainians, and most of them lost their lives. In addition to this an unknown number of Jews lost their lives to Polish underground groups, who took their money and then their lives.
Those Jews who remained in the camp during the revolt – mainly the religious and foreign Jews, who did not know the language or the country, were killed on the spot. This also included the prisoners in Camp III, who because of their isolation knew nothing about the revolt.
On the 20 October 1943 five cargo wagons left Treblinka death camp to Sobibor with a few dozen Jews and their Kapo Karl Blau, to dismantle the camp. They had been involved in the dismantling of Treblinka death camp following the revolt, in August 1943.
SS man Ernst Zierke
The work took about a month to complete and when this was accomplished the Jewish workers were murdered in the most brutal fashion. Early in the morning of the 23 November 1943, Gustav Wagner announced the final liquidation.
The Kapo Karl Blau and his wife committed suicide the night before, the thirty remaining Jewish workers were forced to lie down on the cremation site consisting of narrow gauge rails, where they were shot in the back of the neck, in groups of five. Gustav Wagner, and the Ukrainians Bodessa and Kaiser played an active role in the executions which took about one hour.
The bodies were cremated and along with the cremation rails were buried on the grounds of the former Camp III.
The Germans dismantled the incriminating gas chamber installations and other buildings, but a number of former camp facilities were used by the Baudienst (Construction Service) until July 1944, when the Red Army and Polish forces defeated the Germans.
Most of the barracks were not destroyed by the SS, but rather in the immediate post-war period, the ramp for example was used until 1947 for gathering Ukrainians, who were destined for resettlement to the Ukraine, or to the western parts of Poland. While these Ukrainians waited for their trains, sometimes this took one week, they demolished the remaining wooden barracks for fuel or camp fires.
The large forester’s watchtower was not destroyed because this densely wooded area, needed such a tower for observation, in case of fire. The watch tower collapsed and was removed in 2003. The former commandant’s house, also known as the “Swallows Nest” during the death camps time was also not destroyed, since it originally belonged to the forester’s administration, and was not strictly connected to the mass murder process.
The dismantling of the Sobibor Death Camp
As with the other camps, the precise number of victims may never be known, with the discovery of the telegram from Hofle to SS – Obersturmbannfuhrer Heim in Krakow showed the number of Jews murdered in Sobibor up to the year end of 1942 as 101,370.
Official estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000 but Erich Bauer, known as the Gasmeister recalled after the war:
“I estimate that the number of Jews gassed at Sobibor was about 350,000. In the canteen I once overheard a conversation between Frenzel, Stangl and Wagner. They were discussing the number of victims in the extermination camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor and expressed their regret that Sobibor ‘came last’ in the competition.”
The Sobibor Trial
On 6 September 1965 the German court in Hagen initiated criminal proceedings against twelve former SS men, accusing them of crimes against humanity.
On 20 December 1966, the following sentences were handed out:
Karl Frenzel - Carpenter.
Arrested in 1962, accused of killing 42 Jews and participating in the murder of approximately 250,000 Jews. Found guilty of personally killing 6 Jews and of participation in the mass murder of approximately 150,000 Jews. Sentenced to life imprisonment.
Franz Wolf - Warehouse clerk.
Arrested in 1964, accused in 1964, accused of personally killing one Jew and participating in the mass murder of 115,000 Jews. Found guilty of participation in the mass murder of at least 39,000 Jews. Sentenced to eight years in prison .
Alfred Ittner - Labourer
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 57,000 Jews. He was found guilty of participation of the murder of approximately 68,000 Jews. Sentenced to four years in prison.
Werner Dubois - German railroad employee and mechanic.
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 43,000 Jews He was found guilty of participation in the murder of at 15,000 Jews. Sentenced to three years in prison.
Erich Fuchs - Truck driver
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 3,600 Jews Guilty of participation in the murder of at least 79,000 Jews. Sentenced to four years in prison
Erich Lachmann - Mason
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 150,000 Jews. Acquitted.
Heinz – Hans Schutt - Salesman,
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 86,000 Jews. Acquitted.
Heinrich Unverhau - Male Nurse and professional musician.
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 72,000 Jews. Acquitted.
Robert Juhrs - Porter – Janitor.
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 30 Jews. Acquitted.
Ernst Zierke - Sawmill worker.
Accused of participating in the mass murder of approximately 30 Jews. Acquitted.
Erwin Lambert - Ceramic Tile salesman
Accused of participating in the mass murder of an unknown number of Jews. Acquitted.
Kurt Bolender - Hotel porter
Arrested in 1961, accused of personally killing approximately 360 Jews and of participation in the mass murder of approximately 86,000 Jews. Bolender committed suicide in prison before sentencing.
Earlier several key SS officers who had served at Sobibor were tried, such as SS-Oberscarfuhrer Hubert Gomerski, who was arrested but acquitted in a 1947 euthanasia trial. When his participation in the crimes committed at Sobibor were proven, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on 25 August 1950.
SS- Untersturmfuhrer Johann Klier was arrested, but based on the testimony of Sobibor survivors, that Klier was a person who felt compassion for the Jews and secretly tried to help them, he was released.
In the 1965/66 trials the accused claimed that once assigned to serve in a death camp, there was no way out, citing the statement made by Christian Wirth, to the personnel at Sobibor, “if you do not like it here, you can leave, but under the earth, not over it. However, Klier who asked to be transferred from Sobibor was not killed but allowed to leave.
One of the worst murderers in Sobibor was SS-Oberscharfuhrer Erich Bauer, the gas chamber “meister”, was recognised on the streets of Berlin, by survivor Samuel Lerner. On 8 May 1950 Bauer was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life in prison, as the death penalty had been abolished.
Bauer died in the Tegel prison in Berlin 1n 1980.
Werner Dubois admitted during the trial his guilty part in the extermination of the Jews, his court testimony at Hagen read:
“It is clear to me that in the extermination camp, murder was committed. What I have done was only to assist in the murder. If I were to be found guilty it would be justified, murder is murder. We are all guilty."
"The camp had a chain of command and if one link in the chain were to refuse to co-operate then the whole system would collapse. We did not have the courage to disobey orders.”
Franz Stangl the first commander of Sobibor, was tried for his activity at Treblinka, but Sobibor was excluded for administrative purposes.
A few of the Ukrainian guards who served at Sobibor were brought to trial in the Soviet Union, such as:
Memorial plaques at the Sobibor Death Camp
They were found guilty and executed for their crimes.
In April 1963, at a court in Kiev where Sasha Pechersky was the chief prosecution witness, ten former Ukrainian guards were found guilty and executed and one of those tried was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. A third trial was held in Kiev in June 1965, where three former death camp guards from Sobibor and Belzec were executed by firing squad.
In 1961 a first memorial was built, today a fine memorial and small museum and a church stands on the site of the former Lazarett,and five plaques, stating that 250,000 Jews were the victims of Sobibor.
The unloading ramp was used until 1960 but all railway traffic ceased in 1999, the Sobibor station now stands idle.