Sobibór extermination camp was built in a marshy forest area by 80 Jewish forced laborers who were murdered immediately following the completion of their work. During the construction process, the German’s put into practice lessons learned in Bełżec. The infrastructure of the murder facilities was improved, particularly the sealing of the gas chamber doors. Transporting Jews to the facility was better organized, based on meticulous planning for the regional population. It was also decided to create a permanent core of Jewish prisoners as “skilled” staff, in order to make camp maintenance and the extermination process more efficient.
The camp at Sobibór occupied an area of 400 600 meters. Here, some 250,000 Jews were killed. The camp at Sobibór was in operation for 18 months — much longer than its two sister camps Bełżec (which operated for eight months) and Treblinka (which operated for 13 months). The extermination camps in the Lublin District were initially intended to exterminate Polish Jewry alone, while the more sophisticated gas chambers at Birkenau, which began operating in the late summer of 1942, were meant primarily for the extermination of Jews from the other countries of Europe.
Beginning in the early spring of 1943, in accordance with regional planning, dozens of long trains moved back and forth across Poland, picking up human cargo, transporting it to the death camps, and making additional runs. The camp at Bełżec was closed after it completed its task of murdering the Jews of the Lublin District and Galicia. Treblinka began operating as the extermination camp for the Warsaw ghetto, which had a Jewish population that outnumbered that of most of the occupied countries. When the number of transports dwindled toward mid-summer 1943, it appeared increasingly possible that the camp would soon be closed.
At Sobibór, located at the heart of the regional network of forced labor camps, labor selections for the various camps took place regularly, in contrast to Bełżec and Treblinka. For this reason, and despite its relatively long period of operation, far fewer people were murdered at Sobibór than at the two other camps. On July 5, 1943, after Bełżec had already been closed and when Treblinka was about to be closed, Himmler ordered the conversion of Sobibór into a concentration camp. Prisoners in the camp, who were of course unaware of this changed function, feared that the construction of the new wing, the mining of the area (aimed at defending the future concentration camp from partisan attacks), and the less frequent transports reflected an intention on the part of the Germans to close the camp and murder the hundreds of Jews it still held.
Evidence of this fear can be found in the notes in the clothes of the final 300 prisoners who arrived from Bełżec and were murdered at Sobibór in the early summer of 1943, after the camp was dismantled. The moment the sealed car doors were opened in Sobibór, the prisoners sprang from the cars and ran in all directions. All of them were shot and killed before they were able to leave the ramp. The notes found in their clothing reveal that they had made a firm decision not to enter the gas chambers.
This is the general background for the crystallization of a Jewish underground in Sobibór. Prisoners tried to escape throughout its entire period of operation, and some attempts were successful. However, most escapees were caught, and in reprisal the Germans carried out public executions of dozens of Jewish prisoners. In this context, the Jewish underground resolved to organize a rebellion during which all the prisoners would escape, making it impossible to inflict collective punishment on prisoners who remained in the camp.
Most of the plans considered were rejected by the underground due to their lack of military expertise. But in September 1943, the transports of Jews from Vilna, Lida, and Minsk included Jewish prisoners of war from the Red Army who supplied the underground with the operational knowledge they lacked. Eventually, the underground produced a daring plan for an uprising that would involve killing the SS soldiers, securing weapons, and breaching the camp fence in battle in an area that was not mined, to enable all the prisoners to escape. Although the plan encountered serious difficulties as a result of unanticipated developments, the uprising was carried out, resulting in the death of 11 SS soldiers and a few Ukrainians. Some 600 camp prisoners began to escape, but approximately half were killed in the minefields or by German fire. Some of the prisoners did not even try to escape, in some cases due to physical exhaustion and in other cases — mostly non-Poles — because they were unfamiliar with the surrounding area and did not know the language.
Prisoners who worked in the camp’s extermination area did not participate in the uprising because the other Jews in the camp had no way of contacting them, and they knew nothing about the plan. Despite the problems encountered, approximately 300 prisoners succeeded in reaching the woods, though most were subsequently killed during the chase. The few who survived were killed after the war in pogroms that took place in Poland. Of all the prisoners of Sobibór, only 50 survived. After the uprising, it was decided to close the camp. The last Jews to work dismantling the camp — particularly those who worked in the extermination area and covering the traces of the extermination process — were shot when their work was completed.
By July 1944, the Germans were using the facilities in the proximity of the ramp and huts that remained standing as a construction services camp. Between 1945 and 1947, the ramp served as a major railway junction for the transport of Poles from the east in preparation for their resettlement in western Poland, and the transport of Ukrainians from Poland for “resettlement” in the Ukraine. At times, large masses of displaced persons had to stay at Sobibór for a few days, and the camp’s remaining huts provided them with wood to burn for heating and cooking. The forester’s watchtower and the kommandant’s building were eventually returned to their rightful owners. The train station in Sobibór operated regularly until 1999.