The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Operation Reinhard
The Extermination Camps
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka

The Construction of the Sobibor Extermination Camp

Sobibor, a village in a thinly populated region on the Chelm-Wlodawa railroad line, was chosen by the Central Building Administration (SS-Zenttalbauverwaltung) in Lublin as a suitable locality for an additional extermination camp. (Verdict of LG Hagen AZ:II Ks 1/64,p.64 <AZ.ZSL:208 AR-Z251/59, vol. 14, p. 2835>)

The camp extended westward from the Sobibor railroad station, along the railroad track, and was surrounded by a thin coniferous wood. Near the railroad station buildings a siding led into the camp where the deportation trains were unloaded. Originally there were two wooden houses in this locality, a former forester's house and a two-storey post office. The total area of the camp measured 12 hectares, forming a 600 x 400 m. rectangle. Later on the area was enlarged.

Construction of the camp began in March 1942 after the extermination operations in Belzec had already started. SS-Obersturmführer Richard Thomalla, head of the Central Building Administration in Lublin, was in charge of its construction. The workers employed for this purpose were local people from the neighborhood.

At the beginning of April 1942 the building operations slowed down. In order to speed up the work, Globocnik appointed SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl as camp commandant. However, he first sent him to Belzec to gain experience in operating a (Gitta Sereny, Into the Darkness, London, 1974 <hereafter -- Sereny>, pp. 109 f.) camp. The British writer and journalist, Gitta Sereny, had the opportunity to talk to Franz Stangl, the former commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, (while he was in custody.) After Stangl assumed his post, the construction of the camp was accelerated. A group of Jews from the ghetto of the Lublin 'Bezirk' was brought in for construction work.

The first gas chambers in Sobibor were housed in a strong brick building with concrete foundations, in the northeastern part of the camp. Inside were three gas chambers; each measured 4 x 4 m. and could hold 150-200 people at a time. Each chamber had a separate entrance door leading off from a platform on the long side of the terrain. Opposite the entrance was another door through which the corpses were removed. As in Belzec, the exhaust fumes were conducted through pipes from a nearby shed into the gas chambers.

Upon completion of the construction work, extermination tests were conducted in mid-April 1942. Wirth came to Sobibor in order to follow the experiments. He was accompanied by a chemist whose pseudonym was Dr. Blaurock (or Blaubacke). SS-Unterscharführer Erich Fuchs, who served in Belzec, described the preparations for the first gassing trials: On Wirth's instructions I travel led by truck to Lvov and collected a gassing engine there, which I transported to Sobibor. In Sobibor... [we] unloaded the engine. It was a heavy Russian gasoline engine [probably a tank or train engine] with at least 200 h.p. [V-enginel 8 cylinders, water cooled]. We stood the engine on a concrete base and connected the exhaust to the pipe conduit. Then I tried out the engine. To begin with, it did not function. I managed to repair the ignition and the ventils so that the motor finally started. The chemist, whom I already knew from Belzec, entered the gas chamber with a measuring instrument in order to test the gas concentration. Next, an experimental gassing was carried out. I seem to recall that 30-40 women were gassed in one chamber. The Jewesses had to undress on a covered piece of wooded ground near the gas chamber and were driven into the gas chamber by... members of the SS as well as by Ukrainian volunteers. When the women were locked into the gas chamber, 1, together with Bauer, operated the engine. Initially the engine idled. We both stood next to the engine and switched from free-exhaust so that the gases were conducted into the chamber. At the suggestion of the chemist, I adjusted the engine to a certain number of revs per minute so that no more gas had to be supplied. After approximately 10 minutes all the women were dead. The chemist and the SS-Fu"hrer gave the signal to switch off the motor. I packed up my tools and saw how the corpses were removed. Transport was by means of a rail-trolley which ran from the gas chamber to a distant area. (StA Dortmund AZ:45 Js 27-61 <AZ. ZSL: 208 AR-Z 251/59, vol. 9, pp. 1784>)

After this experiment, which confirmed the smooth functioning of the gas chambers, and the completion of some other construction work, the Sobibor extermination camp was ready to operate. It was an improved version of Belzec. The camp was divided into three parts: an administration sector, a reception sector, and an extermination sector. The administration and reception sectors were near the railroad station, while the extermination sector was in a distant part of the camp, even more isolated than in Belzec.

The administration area in the southeastern part was subdi- vided into two camps: the "Pre-Camp" (Vorlager) and Camp I. The Pre-Camp consisted of the entrance gate, the railroad ramp, and the living quarters of the SS-men, the Ukrainians, and their servants -- in contrast to Belzec, here all the SS-men lived inside the camp. Camp I was the area set aside for the Jewish prisoners who worked in Sobibor. This is where their living quarters and workshops were located and where a few of them worked as shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, etc.

The reception sector was called Camp II. After being unloaded, the new arrivals were chased into this area where the huts for undressing and the storage sheds for their valuables were situated. The former forester's house, which was also in this area, served as camp offices and apartments for some of the SS-men. A high wooden fence separated the forester's house from the reception sector.

The "tube," which connected Camp II with the extermination sector, began at the northernmost corner of this fence: it was a narrow path, ca. 3-4 m. wide and 150 m. long, fenced in on both sides with barbed wire intertwined with branches. Along this path the victims were chased into the gas chambers which were located at the other end of the "tube."

Near the entrance to the "tube" were a cow shed, a pigsty, and a chicken pen. Halfway along the "tube" stood a hut known as the "hairdresser's," where the Jewish women had their hair cropped before entering the gas chambers.

The extermination sector, designated as Camp III, was in the northwestern part. It comprised the gas chambers, the mass graves, and separate barracks for the Jewish prisoners working there and for the guards. The mass graves were 50-60 m. Iong, 10-15 m. wide, and 5-7 m. deep. The sidewalls of the ditches sloped in order to facilitate the unloading of the corpses. A narrow track for a trolley ran from the railroad station, past the gas chambers, to the ditches. People who had died in the trains or were too weak to walk from the ramp to the gas chamber were driven in this trolley.

The extermination sector was surrounded on all sides by barbed wire with intertwined camouflage material. Watch towers were located along the fence and in the corners of the camp.

The staffing of the camp was settled simultaneously with the completion of its basic installations. Stangl's deputy was SS-Oberscharführer Herrmann Michel, replaced a few months later by SS-Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner.

The Ukrainian company of guards in Sobibor was made up of three platoons. Erich Lachmann, a former police official who had trained the Ukrainians in Trawniki, was placed in charge of this unit. Being an outsider among the "Euthanasia" group, he was replaced by Kurt Bolender in the autumn of 1942. In Sobibor, as in Belzec, each member of the German personnel had a specific function. Upon the arrival of a transport most of the SS-men were given additional, specific tasks connected with the extermination procedure. SS-Oberscharführer Erich Bauer later testified at his trial: Normally, every member of the permanent staff had a specltic function within the camp (commandant of the Ukrainian volunteers, head of a work commando, responsihility for digging ditches, responsibility for laying barbed wire and the like). However, the arrival of a transport of Jews meant so much "work" that the usual occupations were stopped and every member of the permanent staff had to take some part in the routine extermination procedure. Above all, every member of the permanent staff was at some time brought into action in unloading the transports. (StA Dortmund AZ:45 Js 27-61 <AZ. ZSL: 208 AR-Z 251/59, vol. 5, p. 988>) At the end of April 1942 the Sobibor extermination camp was operational.

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