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Extermination in practice


Although the sole reason for the existence of Sobibor was the systematic extermination of Jews, there were also prisoners who were forced to work to maintain the camp. Initially some 120 men and women, later the number of Arbeitsjuden rose to approximately 600. Young and strong men and women were selected from the transports, and were used in the killing process as well as made to work for the camp’s SS-staff. All of these prisoners were exposed to the whims of the guards who could punish the prisoners as they pleased. Almost every day and at the slightest excuse, prisoners were shot, beaten, or herded into the gas chamber after all; the ‘vacancies’ were filled with newly arrived prisoners. In time the camp command decided not to kill so many workers so as not to disturb the efficiency of the labour processes in the camp. In Sobibor also the SS used Kapos, who were recruited from among the prisoners. They were active as foremen and supervisors and they enjoyed certain privileges. But they were very much aware that in time they, too, would be going to the gas chambers in Lager III.

Similar to the concentration camps, life for the Arbeitsjuden in Sobibor was organized in a military fashion. There were morning and evening roll calls and the work was done in different Arbeitskommandos. The Jewish members of the so-called Bahnhofkommando were the ones who had to open the arriving trains and who spurred the unsuspecting passengers on to jump out quickly.Richter2416Later on they were also the ones who had to take away the bodies of the people who died on a transport and thoroughly clean the train. By far the largest group of prisoners worked in the Lumpenkommando, sorting the clothes and other possessions of the victims, gathering valuables and removing any reference to the identity of the former owner. The clothing was loaded on to trains and transported to the German Reich. Another group of prisoners gathered and sorted the jewellery, gold, paper currency and securities of the victims. Although these robbed items officially were intended to go only to Germany, there was a lot of stealing and intense trafficking in the camp. Supervising SS forced the prisoner to hand over valuable items to them, while the Ukrainian guards also lined their pockets as much as they could, and outside the camp paid for alcohol and women with gold and jewellery. Sometimes prisoners managed to bribe the Ukrainians with valuables and exchange these for food and medicine.

In the nearby woods the Waldkommando worked under strict surveillance, felling trees and cutting them up. The wood was needed to burn the bodies that were no longer being buried since the autumn of 1942. Still other groups of prisoners grew vegetables and fruit, or tended to the livestock. Hofjuden was the name for the prisoners who had to clean the SS barracks, or who worked as tailors, cobblers or jewellers. Only female prisoners were in charge of cutting the hair of the women who were taken to the gas chambers. Even more traumatic was the fate of the prisoners who were put to work in Lager III, where the gas chambers were and the executions took place. This group of Jewish prisoners, who were treated with exceptional cynicism, was completely separated from the rest of the camp, and in order to avoid any contact with the others they had their own kitchen and laundry. It was their job to get the bodies from the gas chambers, break the gold teeth from the mouths with large pliers and then throw the bodies in the mass grave and cover them with chlorinated lime. Later on the bodies from the gas chambers were immediately burned. The prisoners who worked here also had to clean the gas chambers and remove the blood and excrement. Physical and mental exhaustion meant they could only do this work for a short period of time; when they were on the brink of exhaustion, it was their turn to be gassed. Their places were immediately taken by prisoners from yet another transport. No single prisoner who was made to work in Lager III survived Sobibor.

Read more about the revolt in Sobibor

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