In this two-parter, CARR Senior Fellow and Holocaust historian, Chris Webb, describes the horrors, lifes and times of prisoners in labour camps around the Sobibor area of Poland in the interwar period.
In accordance with the German plans at the very beginning of the occupation, the Lublin district of Poland was intended to become ‘the pillar of the GeneralGouvernement’s agricultural policy. In order to modernise the agriculture in this region, the German authorities wanted to regulate the small rivers and to improve the meadows. Therefore the Wasserwirtschaftsinspektion (Inspection for the Water Economy) in the Lublin district installed a network of small work camps during 1940. Jewish and Polish prisoners worked there. Chelm County became one of several centres for these camps. The Sobibor death camp was built in this district in early 1942.
In 1940, Jews mainly from the Lublin and Warsaw districts were sent to these work camps. They received an official salary of 96 zloty per month, but this amount was poor reward for extremely hard work in often very difficult conditions. These forced labour camps were set up in the swampy surroundings of Sobibor, and were located at Adampol, Czerniejow, Dorohusk, Kamien, Krychow, Luta, Nowosiolki, Osowa, Ruda Opalin, Sawin, Siedliszcze, Sobibor village, Staw-Sajczyce, Tomaszowka, Ujazdow, Wlodawa, and Zmudz.
In some places the camps were located in school buildings, abandoned farms, or industrial buildings. Except for the camp at Krychow, the prisoners lived in barns on private farms or in a mill, in the case of Staw-Sajczyce. The camps were under the supervision of the German civil administration but the prisoners were guarded by Trawniki-manner or by the Jewish Police in Osowa. In the camp at Sawin, the Jewish prisoners were also supervised by Jewish Police and Polish Guardsmen, who worked for the Wasserwirtschaftsinspektion.
The prisoners were forced to work 8-10 hours daily, most of the time they stood in water in wet clothes, without the opportunity to change them. Food was also a major problem. Only those who came from towns close to the camps had the opportunity of obtaining some food from home. The Jews taken from the Warsaw Ghetto or Warsaw district depended on the camp’s kitchens. If they had some money they could buy bread from the local peasants. In camps, like Krychow, the prisoners were killed when camp commandant Adolf Loeffler discovered they had made contact with local Poles. The Polish farmers accused of selling food to the prisoners were beaten. In Osowa, these contacts were not so strictly forbidden. Because they had no money, the Jews exchanged their clothes for food.
In 1941, alone, 2,500 out of 8,700 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto had to be released from the camps because of sickness. Many Jews died of starvation, typhus epidemics and the harsh working conditions. In several camps such as Osowa or Sawin they were shot in mass executions. In the autumn of 1941, in Osowa, the last remaining group of 58 Jewish prisoners were executed close to the camp. Two of them survived and became functionaries in the next period between 1942, and 1943.
In 1941, approximately 2,200 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were sent to Krychow, Osowa, Sawin, and Staw-Sajczyce. The number of people who were released from these camps during June and July 1941, when almost all the large buildings were taken over by the German Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union, is not known. In Osowa the average number of prisoners was 400-500 people, in Siedliszcze, approximately 2,000 and, in Sawin, 700 -800.
Krychow was the largest camp within the network, located South-West of Sobibor close to Hansk village. It was built before the Second World War as a detention camp for Polish criminals. Even then the prisoners had to regulate the rivers of this region. In 1940, the Hansk local administration received an order from the German civil administration to prepare buildings of the former camp for transporting Gypsies. These were Gypsies from the Gypsy camp in Belzec. The whole group of Gypsies have been estimated to have been between 1,000 and 1,500 people. According to the statements by Polish witnesses from Hansk, the Gypsies in Krychow were not guarded and not forced to work. Most of them could not speak Polish. They exchanged their clothes for food and begged for money. In the autumn of 1940, they were deported from Krychow. Some of them were sent to the Siedlce Ghetto.
Between the end of 1940, and early 1941, most of the prisoners in Krychow were Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and local Polish and Ukrainian farmers, arrested for not having paid their impositions. Around 1,500 prisoners in Krychow, according to witnesses in Hansk, were beaten by the guards and suffered from starvation and illness. 150 Jews worked as manual workers. Many Jews had to work in fields that belonged to the German ‘Colonists,’ or at the manors taken over by the Germans. Even women and children between eight and twelve years old, had to work there. With the beginning of Aktion Reinhardt all of these forced labour camps were reserved for Jews only. After their families had paid sums of money for their release, they were set free at the beginning of 1942.
The Jews arrived from the liquidated ghettos in the surroundings of Sobibor, Rejowiec, Siedliszcze, Sawin, Wlodawa and Chelm or were sent after selection to the Sobibor death camp; the transports from abroad were subjected to selections. People from Slovakia, Holland, Germany and Austria did not realise or could not believe that their relatives and friends were being led away to be murdered in the gas chambers. Sobibor was almost unique in selecting large groups of prisoners to work in other camps. It is unknown how many people were selected at Sobibor for work in the local forced Labour Camps.
Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Founder at Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.
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