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Extermination in practice

Despite the fact that the Polish Jews had been confronted with persecution and terror since the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, they generally did not have a clear picture of what was happening in Sobibor. Some of them had heard that Jews were being murdered, but found that hard to believe. The Western-European Jews were completely unaware of what type of camp they had entered, and on arrival frequently thought that Sobibor was a labour camp. Even the Jewish-Russian prisoners of war, who had seen the German extermination policy firsthand knew almost nothing about the extermination camp. Even they did not register what was waiting for them, when from the train they saw, just before they reached the camp, Polish farmers gesturing that the prisoners would be killed. Farmers from the surrounding area knew more. They regularly saw the enormous fire blaze up from the camp and many had seen only empty trains leave the camp.

Halfway through April of 1942 approximately 250 Jews, mainly women, were transported from nearby Krychów to Sobibor and killed during a ‘test gassing’ in the presence of all SS staff.Richter2431 Early May 1942 the first phase of the industrial murder started, which lasted until late July. During this period mainly Poles from the district of Lublin were murdered in Sobibor, but also German and Austrian Jews. Most trains had about twenty carriages, with 2,000 to 2,500 persons inside. As soon as a transport was announced, the Bahnhofkommando was mobilized. It consisted not only of SS-personnel and Ukrainian guards, but also of prisoners, on average some fifty young men. In Sobibor also, the Nazis forced to Jews to cooperate in their own destruction. After they had opened the train doors, these Arbeitshäftlinge had to spur the prisoners on to jump on to the much lower Rampe (platform) and to quickly move to the Vorlager and Lager II. They also helped sick and disabled prisoners off the train, while the SS egged them on to be aggressive. Ukrainian guards armed with carbines formed a cordon so the prisoners could not escape. The sick and disabled were loaded on to horse-drawn carts and allegedly transported to the camp hospital; in reality they were shot a few hundred metres away behind an old chapel by a firing squad made up of Ukrainians. After the Jewish members of the Bahnhofkommando had cleaned the cars, they could get ready to handle the next stage of the transport.

The prisoners who had been taken to Lager II were told when they got there that they had to shower before they - so they were told - were to continue their journey to labour camps in the Ukraine. Their clothes had to be disinfected first too. Men and women were to undress separately in the undressing area. The children stayed with the women. Valuable items had to be handed in; if you tried to hide anything you would be shot immediately. The naked men and women were then pushed separately through the narrow corridor of barbed wire covered with green branches to Lager III, in the direction of the gas chambers. Before the women were herded into the gas chambers they had to have their hair cut off in one of the barracks. Everything happened in a great hurry and with constant yelling and cursing by the guards, who also hit out with their whips. The death-struggle of the victims in the gas chambers lasted about twenty to thirty minutes. Two to three hours after the arrival of a transport, the bodies were already in the ground. Later the bodies from the gas chambers were burned.

Late July 1942 the railway between Lublin and Chelmo needed to be repaired, because the rails had subsided into the boggy ground. Transports to Sobibor were interrupted and the killing stopped for the time being. In the meantime three additional gas chamber were built, so capacity could be doubled and 1,200 people could be gassed at the same time. The second phase of the mass murder started in October 1942. Horse-drawn carts were replaced with lorries, that transported the sick and the elderly directly from the platform on a special side rail to Lager III where they were executed by means of a shot in the neck. In July 1942 the transportation of Dutch Jews to the camps in the East started. Nineteen transport left for Sobibor; the first on 2 March 1943, the last on 20 July of that year. Of the estimated 102,000 Jews who were taken from the camps Vught and Westerbork, 34,131 were killed in or near Sobibor.

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