As I was thinking this week of what I wanted to write on, the news came through that the last living survivor of the Sobibor Uprising had passed away at the age of 96. Semion Rosenfeld had died this past Monday in Israel. When we hear stories like Semions, we need to take time and reflect what these men and women gave up, many their own lives, to save themselves and future generations. I have been fortunate enough to sit and listen to four survivors tell their stories, and I urge you, if you have the opportunity, to sit and listen to them in person, it is time well spent.
The Camp: Operation Reinhard
Sobibor was constructed in a sparsely populated area of Poland, near the towns of Chelm and Lublin. These towns had Jewish populations that would need to be “relocated” as the Nazi’s continued on with the Final Solution.
Sobibor was an extermination camp first and foremost. It was designed and built as two camps with each being broken down into three areas: administration, barracks and storage, and extermination, burial and cremation. The design of the camp was highly influenced by what the Nazi’s had learned in building Belzec. They used local Polish workers and Jewish slave labor to construct the camp itself.
Each camp was roughly 1300 ft by 2000 ft in dimension, surrounded by three rows of barbed wire fences with watchtowers. Outside the camp itself were minefields, so that if anyone, by some slim chance, made it past the guards, the barbed wire and the watchtowers, the mines would certainly kill them. There was the well know “reception area”, where trains carrying prisoners were unloaded, people sorted and then around a thousand or so Jewish slave laborers would descend upon the train cars and reception area. It was their job to clean up baggage left behind and clean out the cattle cars before they set out again to be filled with human beings.
The newly arrived would be forced into the first section of the camp. Here they would have found the Jewish prisoners that served the SS and the Ukrainian guards. As well as buildings that would house the belongings that they would unknowingly be leaving behind them. This would then lead them along the path to the second section of the camp.
This section of the camp was heavily camouflaged by trees. Like leading cattle into slaughter, the Nazi’s did not want to newly arrived to know what lay ahead of them. The more they knew, the higher chance of a revolt. Through the pathway, the newly arrived were led to the gas chambers. Women and children however, would first be led to the shaving hut and have their heads shaved, their hair to be sent back to Germany to make rough work clothes and to line the boots of those serving on U boats. Along the path were also the storage buildings for the clothing and valuables of the victims. All staying hidden from view of those newly arrived.
After moving through section two, they would be led into section three, the most secluded and secret of the three sections as it contained the gas chambers. Section three held three thick brick buildings, each held a gas chamber. Each gas chamber measured 12 ft by 12 ft and could hold between 160 to 180 people in each one. Unlike most camps that used Zyklon B poison, Sobibor used a diesel engine that pumped carbon monoxide through tubes and into the gas chamber. If someone was too sick to make the walk to the gas chamber, they would be placed in a cart, wheeled to the pit behind the gas chambers and shot. This was death on a massive scale.
In the gas chambers worked 200-300 Jewish laborers. They worked in teams and had some of the most horrendous jobs in the camp, they cleaned out the gas chambers after each use. The dead were taken via cart outside, mouths examined for any gold teeth (which were promptly removed), cremated and then dumped into mass graves.
Franz Stangl was the first commandant of Sobibor. He was already familiar with the extermination that Hitler wished to carry out against the Jews and Roma population of Poland. Stangl was a veteran of Aktion T4 (see post of February 5, 2019 Aktion T4: Euthanasia, Killing of Innocents in my archives) in which the Nazis first started by killing anyone who had a mental or physical disability. When he arrived at the camp, Stangl brought with him 20-30 SS men who had worked in Aktion T4, along with a company of Ukrainian guards.
Each soldier and guard were made to sign a pact of secrecy, the Nazi’s did not want people to know what was going on here, thus the soldiers could not talk about it outside the camps. The Ukrainian guards were sent to special training camps in Trawinki, near to Lublin, to learn the process of killing that took place within the camp.
The construction and running of the camp were directly under Heinrich Himmler, who visited the camp often.
For just over a year, the camp operated, strictly as a killing center. Its one and only function was murder on a large scale. To understand the scale of the operation, we have to look at the numbers that came into the camp itself.
Twenty rail cars would arrive into the camp, within two to three hours, the entire population of those rail cars would be dead. From May 1942 until July 1942 over 100,000 Jews from Lublin, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria would be transported to Sobibor. They would come through ghettos through out Poland. The camp would close briefly from August to September of 1942 while repair work was done on the main railway line into Sobibor, however the killing would pick back up in October 1942 with the camp now under the command of Franz Reichsleiter. From October until Spring of 1943 over 300,000 people were murdered in Sobibor, primarily Jews and Roma peoples. Including the camps first transports of Jews from France and Holland.
If the SS saw an attractive, well dressed Jewish woman, she would be singled out and then used for sex amongst the guards. The guards referred to that woman as “the Merry Flea”.
When July 1943 rolled around, Himmler ordered that Sobibor become a concentration camp instead of a single purposed extermination camp.
In the Spring of 1943 prisoners from other camps began to arrive in Sobibor. Smaller camps were being torn down and their populations sent to the larger extermination camps. This would play a pivotal role for Sobibor.
The inmates began to notice that they are getting fewer and fewer transports come in, and rumors begin to fly that the camp is to be shut down. What they do not know is that there is talk higher up the chain of command to refit the camp to process captured ammunition, and salvage it for use within the German military. And that construction for that purpose had already begun with a partially underground barracks, and the first shipment of ammunition already inside the camp.
However, what the inmates did see were the bodies coming in from the men who dismantled Belzec. During the sorting of the former Belzec inmates clothing, notes are found describing what has happened to them, to serve as a warning to those in Sobibor. One note said: “We have worked in Belzec for a year and did not know where we were going to be sent. They told us that we would be going to Germany. That is why we were given enough bread, canned foods and vodka for three days. It was all lies. We are now in Sobibor and we know what will happen next. Understand that after us, death also awaits you! Avenge us!”
Now, with knowing what is to befall them, a small committee is formed to try and figure out how to escape from the camp. Some of the possible ideas are to poison the SS, burn the entire camp down or digging escape tunnels. The one main problem that they keep running into is “how to organize a mass escape?”
Leon Feldhendler is the first to emerge as a leader of the committee, however when a train arrives carrying Red Army POW’s they quickly enlist the help of Lt. Alexander “Sasha” Petsjerski. Within a very short time, Sasha has a plan of escape: 1. The Red Army soldiers kill a large number of SS and take their weapons, 2, Prisoners attend evening roll, just like normal, where the Red Army soldiers now dressed as the SS would kill the remaining guards, 3. Encourage prisoners to escape.
The revolt was planned for October 13, 1943 as three of the most feared SS would be on leave: Franz Reichlietner, Gustav Wagner and Hubert Gomerski. However, there is a kink. On the 13th the SS from nearby Osowa camp visited unexpectedly, so the revolt was put off until the next day.
October 14, 1943 the plan was put into action. In the early morning hours, a large number of SS men are lured into the tailoring hut under the guise of trying on new uniforms and checking that they meet the standards. The prisoners in that hut used axes to kill the SS men, the members of the Red Army then donned their new uniforms and took their weapons.
A Czech electrician cut communications outside the camp while money and valuables were divided up amongst the insurgents to use as payment outside the camp. They ran into another issue when SS Karl Frenzel did not show at the carpenters’ shop as he was scheduled to do. While an unexpected SS man showed up in the auto shop and was promptly stabbed to death.
With all the things going wrong, Sasha called roll call early. Many of the prisoners who did not know about the revolt began to panic. They didn’t see the “usual” SS men and they did not know about the revolt itself. They spread out all over the roll call area and a guard was killed in the midst of the crowd.
During the chaos SS Erich Bauer, the self-titled “gas master of Sobibor”, arrived back in the camp. Once he realized what was happening, he opened fire on the fleeing prisoners. This created a gun fight between the SS, Ukrainians and in the watchtowers and the insurgents. The missing Karl Frenzel appeared from nowhere and emptied his machine gun into the crowd.
Of the estimated 600 prisoners that tried to escape, only 47 actually made it and survived the war. Those who were not killed by gun fire, died trying to scale the barbed wire fences and were shot by men in the watchtowers, other tried to run across mine fields that had not yet been cleared by the insurgents. Twenty-nine SS men were killed, twelve by insurgents. One hundred and fifty prisoners remained in the camp and were executed by the SS and Ukrainian guard. After the revolt, Himmler ordered the camp razed to the ground. There was not be a trace left of it, it was now an embarrassment to the Nazi elite.
However, there is always a trace to be found. In 2014 two archaeologists found what they believe to be the foundations of the gas chambers and the paths leading into them, as well as the path leading to the crematorium. They also found, just sitting in the top soil, human bone fragments scorched white from the crematoriums.
The names of the survivors:
Schlomo Alster Moshe Bachir Antonius Bardach
Fiszel Bialowitz Symetta Bialowitz Jakob Biskubicz
Thomas (Tovi) Blatt Hershel Cuckierman Josef Cuckierman
Josef Duniec Chaim Engel Leon Feldhendler
Eda Fischer Berek Freiberg Herman Gerstenberg
Musite Goldfarb Josef Herszman Zyndel Honigman
Abram Kohn Josef Kopp Chaim Korenfeld
Chaim Leist Samuel Lerner Jehuda Lerner
Jitschak Lichtman Yefim Litwinowski Abraham Margulies
Chaskiel Menche Zelda Metz Alexander Aronowitz Petsjerski
Schlomo Podlebnik Esther Raab Semion Rosenfeld
Ajzik Rotenberg Stanislaw Szmajzner Urusla Stern
Boris Taborinsky Kurt Thomas Chaim Trager
Aleksej Waizen Arkady Wajsparir Abraham Wang
Hella Weiss Kalman Wewerik Selma Wijnberg
Resina Zielinsky Meier Ziss
Violence is not new to this world. Hatred even less so. The only way for us to keep from repeating these same mistakes over and over again, is to let love rule our hearts instead of fear. Fear is what keeps people in bondage and fear is what keeps people that spout hate in power. Hitler spread lies and fear about the Jewish people, and those who did not know better and even those who did, followed him. The more we let people like Hitler, preach hate and division, the more we will be divided. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, brown, green or any color of the rainbow, inside we are all exactly the same and we all want the same things: to follow our dreams, to be free to love and get love in return, to build a home and a life. All very basic human ideals and the only way for us to achieve them is to work together against fear, hatred and bigotry.
I hope that you have found inspiration in this week’s blog. If you did, please share it with family and friends on your social media and via email, even become a follower of the blog. Until the next time, live, laugh and love! See you in two weeks!