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.
Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibor, recalled in an interview with Gitta Sereny, his visit to the Krychow Labour Camp during April 1942:
“Baurat Moser suggested we make a round of the camps he supplied in the district. The first camp I saw was about half-way between Chelm and Sobibor, a farm called Krychow, It employed two to three hundred Jewish women, mostly German or at least German speaking. I went in there to look around. There was nothing – you know – sinister about it: they were quite free, if you like:it was just a farm where the women worked under the supervision of Jewish Guards. Well I suppose you could call them Jewish Police. As I say I looked around and the women seemed quite cheerful – they seemed healthy. They were just working, you know. They were armed with weissen Schlagmitteln (white implements for beating). “
Aside from the difficult conditions of life and work, in spring and summer, mosquitoes were a big problem and selections in the camps were regularly organised. Sick people and children were sent by horse-drawn carts or by foot to the Sobibor death camp. In the camps located very close to Sobibor, the inmates knew about the death camp. This psychological pressure shattered their will to resist and survive. In many Polish testimonies, the witnesses mentioned the passivity of the prisoners. In Osowa village, 7 kilometres away from Sobibor and surrounded by a vast forest, no prisoners escaped from the camp, although some Poles attempted to help them.
SS-Arbeitslager Dorohucza, which was located half-way between Lublin and Chelm, some five kilometers from Trawniki became operational in late February and early March 1943. Here prisoners were forced to dig peat, in very harsh conditions. Out of the 500 Jews, about half of them were Dutch Jews selected on the ramp at the Sobibor death camp.
The Commandant of Dorohucza was SS-Hauptscharfuhrer Gottfried Schwarz, who had served with distinction at the Belzec death camp. According to other SS Officers, Robert Juhrs and Ernst Zierke, who also served at Belzec and Sobibor death camps, it was confirmed that the last commandant of Dorohucza was Fritz Tauscher, who had also served at the Belzec death camp.
Dorohucza camp was liquidated during the Aktion Erntefest massacre in November 1943, when the Jewish prisoners in most of the Jewish Labour Camps in the Lublin district were brutally murdered in early November 1943. Robert Juhrs recalled the events of November 1943:
“After the Jews had vacated their barracks, their quarters were searched. Then the Jews guarded by the police unit left in the direction of Trawniki. I found out later that all the Jews from this commando were shot near the trenches within the Trawniki command area. A few days after the operation, we received orders from Lublin to go to Sobibor.”
Only during the final liquidation of the Adampol Labour Camp near Wlodawa on August 13, 1943, did some of the prisoners who were in contact with the partisans, try to organise any resistance and fight against the police. It is important to mention that most of the inmates in Adampol were Polish Jews who knew their fate. During the liquidation of this camp, 475 Jewish prisoners were executed on the spot. Most of the foreign Jews had no possibility of escaping because they did not know the language, the region, or the people.
In Sawin, successful escapes by two Czech Jews are known, one of those who escaped lost his mother during a selection in Sawin, and only found out after the war that Sawin was not far away from the Sobibor death camp. In other camps the biggest group of prisoners were Jews from outside of Poland. Polish witnesses very often mention their frequent close contact with Czech Jews. Polish farmers realised that among the deportees were Jews who had converted to Christianity. For example, in Sawin, a dentist from Czechoslovakia was a member of the church choir, and her son played the violin during mass. Christian Jews from Czechoslovakia were also in Krychow.
Zygmunt Leszczynski from Hansk stated:
“Among the Jews who were in the camp in Krychow there were also Catholics. I saw how, during the transport to Krychow some of them stopped before the cross which was close to the street and they crossed themselves and prayed. I saw also that some of them wore small crosses on the chest.”
In the summer and autumn of 1943, most of these Labour Camps were liquidated and their inmates were sent to the Sobibor death camp. From Krychow the prisoners were taken on horse-drawn wagons. From Sawin they had to walk and many of them were killed on the way to the death camp.
Henryk Stankiewicz from Sawin made a statement:
“I remember we were together with my father in front of our house 5 -8 meters away from the street. Suddenly we saw the ‘Kalmuk’ – probably a Ukrainian guard – and behind him several hundred marching people in a column. They walked very slowly and looked starved and dirty. Several of them took off their hats and told us words of farewell: ‘Goodbye Mr Stankiewicz we are going to the fire.’ “
After the selections in the Labour Camps and during their final liquidations the Germans forced the Polish farmers to use their horse-drawn wagons to transport the old people and the invalids. In front of the main gate of the death camp in Sobibor, the Poles had to abandon the wagons and Ukrainian guards from the camp drove the wagons through the gate. Then the Poles heard the victims screaming and after one or two hours the wagons were brought back to them.
Probably the last camp to be liquidated was in Luta village. The camp existed, according to the testimonies of local inhabitants, until the Sobibor revolt on October 14, 1943. The inmates from Luta observed a group of Sobibor death camp prisoners who tried to escape to the nearby forest. After the revolt the Jews from Luta were taken to the death camp and murdered.
In Osowa, a small cemetery can be seen with graves of the prisoners who died in the camp. It is very difficult to say how many people passed through the Sobibor area work camps, or perished there.
Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Founder at Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.
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