Sobibor was established as a result of ‘Action Reinhard‘ – the plan to destroy the Jewish population of Poland. Sobibor was one of a number of death camps in Poland, such as Belzec, Majdanek and Treblinka, which were established to murder as many Jews and other “undesirables” as possible. Sobibor, which opened in March 1942, and its first commandant was Franz Stangl. The camp witnessed the only ‘mass’ breakout of prisoners at a death camp. Sobibor was shut down in October 1943.
Sobibor was built to primarily ‘deal’ with the Jews from the city of Lublin and the Chelm area. Built in remote woodland near the small village of Sobibor, the camp was near to a railroad line which facilitated the work that Sobibor was meant to carry out. Sobibor was also used to house Russian prisoners-of-war. Compared to Auschwitz it was a small camp measuring just 1,300 feet by 2,000 feet.
The victims arrived by rail and were almost immediately taken to the gas chambers. In the first two months of the camp coming into use (May to June 1942), 100,000 Jews were murdered. In the summer of 1942, three new gas chambers were built to accelerate the whole process. Ironically, changes to the rail line meant that the murders all but stopped between August and September 1942. The camp re-started its work in October 1942.
Proportionate to its size, Sobibor was the smallest of the death camps in Poland, it killed many people – a total of 260,000 in the near 18 months that the camp was open. It is thought that the whole process from arrival at Sobibor to death took no more than 3 hours. As the victims at Treblinka were to find out, Stangl was a consummate administrator.
Sobibor also witnessed the largest mass breakout of any of the death camps. On October 14th, 1943, two SS officers were killed by the inmates while trying on boots made by those in the camp. The dead SS men were stripped of their weapons and 300 inmates risked the barbed wire and mines that surrounded the camp to get into the nearby forests. Many were killed but some 50 got away. Tainted by this event, Sobibor was shut down in October 1943 and the whole area was planted over with trees in an effort to mask the horrors that had existed there.