The Ground Water Level at Sobibór 1942-1943

Published: 2008-06-01

1. Introduction

In the following brief article, I will discuss the ground water level at the alleged extermination camp Sobibór during its period of operation, that is between early summer 1942 and autumn 1943, and to what insights gleaned from witness statements, as well as geographical and topographical data implies for the allegations of huge mass graves located inside the perimeter of this camp.

2. The testimony of Franz Suchomel

After the successful prisoner revolt on October 14, 1943, the Sobibór "death camp" was soon liquidated. To oversee this operation a number of SS men were transferred from Treblinka to Sobibór. Among those men was Franz Suchomel, who in the early 1960s left a brief account of his stay at Sobibór. In this we read:

I was also glad that when I arrived in Sobibór there were no Jews. Now I must amend this statement in that there were a few Jews in the camp, perhaps about twenty, who had voluntarily returned after the uprising, or had been in hiding.[1]

In this connection I remember clearly that two Jews, a married couple from Holland were found in Camp l hidden under the floor. By way of explanation I have to say that the barracks in Sobibór were constructed on top of meter high piles to avoid the danger of flooding. The Dutch couple had loosened the floorboards and during the day hid in the space below, they were discovered because at night the barrack was used for the preparation of food.[2]

Suchomel later confirmed the sank nature of the camp site in an interview with British-Jewish journalist Gitta Sereny conducted sometime in the early 1970s:

In Sobibor […] once couldn’t do any killing after the snow thawed because it was all under water. It was very damp at the best of times, but then it became a lake.[3]

Besides the highly curious notion of escaped prisoners returning voluntarily to what is alleged to have been a "pure extermination camp", we here note Suchomel’s statement that the barracks of the camp had to the built on top of "meter high piles" in order to avoid possible flooding. This implies that the ground water level at Sobibór was very high and that buildings at the site had been constructed in accordance with this.

Sobibor Map 1933

Illustration 1: Sobibór and surroundings in 1933. The future camp was built on the plot of land just opposite the Sobibór railway station ("St. Sobibór").

3. The location and topography of Camp Sobibór

The camp Sobibór was located in eastern Poland, a few kilometers south-west of the village of the same name, which is in turn situated on the Bug River and the former Soviet-German demarcation line. The camp was constructed on a piece of land immediately west of the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line , facing the Sobibór train station. The camp was surrounded by a forest consisting mainly of firs and oak trees, as well as by several marshland areas and a number of smaller lakes (cf. Illustration 1).[4]As seen on the 1933 map, there are patches of marshland[5]marked out in the immediate vicinity of, or even inside, the future camp perimeter. Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad writes regarding the location of the camp:

The whole area was swampy, wooded, and thinly populated. The exact location for the death camp was selected by the SS Central Building Administration in the Lublin district.[6]

Also, Jules Schelvis notes that:

The single railway line […] ran through marshland […][7]

Yet, we are to told by the upholders of the orthodox Reinhardt narrative that the site of the alleged death camp was carefully chosen by German functionaries who as early as late 1941 personally visited Sobibór and walked around at the future camp site, including the parts that were still forested.[8]Are we to believe that the German surveyors, who were allegedly planning a facility were tens or hundreds of thousands were to be killed and buried, did not notice the marshy nature of the place, and that they did not bother to measure the ground water level?

A look at a section of a modern topographical map of the area (Illustration 2) shows that the land sloped downward from where Lager II or the "reception camp" once was located, to the former site of Lager III, which allegedly contained the gas chambers, outdoor cremation facilities[9]and mass graves.[10]There thus exist no reason to expect the ground water level to have been lower at the latter site.

Postwar topographical map

Illustration 2. Portion of a postwar topographical map showing the area of the former camp, which was located just west of the railway line.

4. The alleged mass graves and the planned escape tunnel

Yitzhak Arad in his book Bełżec, Sobibor, Treblinka tells us of how Sobibór prisoners hatched an escape plan involving an underground tunnel:

The digging had to be conducted by Boris Tsibulsky, who was by profession a miner from Donbas. The tunnel had to start at the carpentry, which was the closest barrack to the fences and minefields. The tunnel had to originate at the stove in the carpentry and exit behind the minefield, a distance of about 35 meters. According to the plan, its height and width would have to be 75 x 75 centimeters and it would need to be 80 centimeters beneath the earth's surface, so that it would not touch the mine holes. It could not go any deeper, because there was a danger that it might strike water. About 20 cubic meters of soil had to be shoveled out.[11]

The source given for this is revolt leader Alexander Pechersky's booklet Der Ufshtand in Sobibor (Moscow, 1946). We are further told that this plan was aborted on October 9, 1943, after heavy rains had flooded the tunnel. If the tunnel itself measured 75 centimeters in height and was placed 80 centimeters below ground, this means that the ground water level was possibly as high as 1,55 meters below ground.

As has been pointed out in the online video documentary One Third Of The Holocaust, the escape tunnel story stands in blatant contradiction to the dimensions of the alleged Sobibór mass graves as given by Arad (no source for them is stated, presumably they derive from the verdict of the Hagen Sobibór trial):

The burial pits were 50 to 60 meters long, 10 to 15 meters wide, and 5 to 7 meters deep. For easier absorption of the corpses into the pits, the sandy sidewalls were made oblique.[12]

This would mean that the mass graves were situated mostly below ground water level – which of course is absurd.

According to Jules Schelvis, who in turn relies on statements made by former Sobibor SS Kurt Bolender – a man who later killed himself in his prison cell, leaving a suicide note stating that he died an innocent man – there were ever only two burial pits in "Lager III", of which the second one apparently had been utilized only to a smaller degree before the burials were stopped.[13]

5. The grave pits reportedly discovered by Andrzej Kola

In an article published in The Scotsman on November 26, 2001, we read that Polish archaeologist Andrzej Kola and his team had discovered seven mass graves at the former Sobibór camp site. The largest of them is claimed to have measured 210 x 75 feet (64 x 23 meters), with the six others measuring 60 x 75 feet (18.3 x 23 meters). The average depth stated for all seven mass graves was 15 feet (4.6 meter). The graves allegedly discovered by probe drillings were said to contain "charred human remains" and under them a layer of "remains in a state of decay". Given that the dimensions stated in the article are correct, the mass graves would have a total maximum volume of 18,388.04 cubic meters. However, since such large pits with straight walls are unrealistic, one would have to calculate with oblique walls, as well as a covering layer of soil or sand and several other, thinner layers of soil or sand between individual layers of corpses. It would be fair to assume that this would take away about 15 percent of the maximum volume, giving an effective volume of roughly 15,630 cubic meters. With a density of about 5.5 corpses per cubic meter, the graves would be able to contain the 85,000 allegedly buried bodies.

Given an effective depth of 1.5 meter, and taking oblique walls into account the total volume of the seven pits would be (5996 x 0.9 =) 5396.4 cubic meters. Such mass graves would at the most have been able to contain about half the alleged number of bodies.

It should be noted that a map of the camp as it allegedly was in June 1943, drawn by B. Rutherford in 2002, that is, after the Kola excavation, shows not 7, but 6 mass graves.[14]Of those grave pits, the biggest one seems to have somewhat larger surface dimensions (approximately 75 x 23) than those given by Kola for the largest detected mass grave. Since it is irregular, having a vague L-shape, it is possible that the tip of the "L" was originally interpreted by Kola as a separate pit. North to the tip of the L-shaped pit is a quadratical grave marked out as measuring roughly 20 x 20 meters. Close to it is a third grave pit of irregular shape but of estimatedly the same surface area. South of this is another irregularly shaped grave, measuring approximately 15 x 20 meter. To the south of the former (alleged) borders of "Lager 3", the death camp proper, we find two smaller rectangular mass graves marked out, one measuring approximately 10 x 25 meters, the other one about 9 x 23 meters. The larger one of those pits is located just behind the old chapel which allegedly functioned as the Sobibór "Lazarett", a place where invalids, the infirm and elderly were supposedly shot (instead of being brought to the alleged gas chambers). The mass graves marked out on the Rutherford map thus have a combined surface area of roughly 3280 square meters. Given the average depth stated by Kola (4.6 meters) they would have a total maximum volume of 15,088 cubic meters and plausible effective volume of (15,088 x 0.85 =) 12,825 cubic meters. An effective depth of 1.5 meters would on the other hand result in a total maximum volume of 4920 square meters and a plausible effective volume of 4182, indicating far fewer buried corpses than alleged by the orthodox narrative.

The most troublesome aspect of the 2001 excavation is the complete lack of publicly available documentation. Despite seven years having passed since the drills and diggings were reportedly made, not a single article, paper or scientific report has appeared on them, neither in English, Polish, or any other language. The only available source of information consists of the brief and even contradictory press reports published in November 2001.[15]The lack of available confirmation has been confirmed on an exterminationist website focusing on archaeological studies of Sobibór[16], as well as in personal communication to this author from Israeli scholar Yoramhai Haimi.[17]Unless documentation is made public the evidential value of Kola’s work must be considered highly questionable, if not nil.

6. Conclusion

As noted earlier, Arad claims that the "exact location" of Camp Sobibór was chosen by SS Central Building Administration in the Lublin district. However, neither Arad nor Schelvis provide documentary sources related to this planning work. It would indeed be interesting to have in our hands contemporary documents produced by this administration, showing the reasons behind the camp’s location.

According to press reports, Polish archaeologist Kola discovered mass graves at the former camp site with depths averaging 5 meters. It would appear that pits of such a depth would risk striking ground water, rendering them useless for the burial of the alleged tens of thousands of gassing victims. Notably "Lager III", the section of the camp supposedly containing the homicidal gas chambers as well as the mass graves and the outdoor cremation facilities, was situated on a lower altitude above mean sea level than the rest of the camp, making it hard to argue that the ground water table stood lower there. 

Until further research, practical-technical as well as archival, has been carried out, the question of the ground water level inside the Sobibór camp during 1942-43 cannot be accurately answered. However, witness statements as well as geographical and topographical data on the camp site’s location indicate that the ground water table at Sobibór stood markedly higher than general – something which in turn clashes with the notion of a spot handpicked for the location of a "pure extermination camp", requiring the digging of huge mass graves. Are we to believe that the people who picked the camp site did not bother to measure the ground water level? Such pertinent questions are answered with mere silence by the orthodox Holocaust historians.    


Notes

[1]
That several escaped prisoners voluntarily returned to the camp – something which seems almost incredible if Sobibór indeed was the death camp it is made out to be – is also attested to by one of the local SS officers who assisted in the hunt for the escapees. On March 26, 1961, the former squadron commander of the 1st Squadron of the SS-Polizei-Reiterabteilung III, Erich Wullbrandt, testified before a court in Braunschweig, West Germany: "During the night and even before, in the evening, a few of the escaped Jews returned to the camp voluntarily. I actually saw four or five prisoners return. They reported to the camp watch by the entrance gate and were taken in by the Hilfswilligen [Ukrainian auxiliaries] who were stationed there. I cannot recall them being ill-treated. The Hilfswilligen took them to the barracks where the other prisoners were. I have no idea what happened to them later. I could not say whether they were shot in the end." (ZStL-251/59-5-833; quoted in Jules Schelvis, Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, Berg/USHMM Oxford/New York 2007, p. 176). 
[2]
Protocol of official examinations carried out in Alotting, Bavaria, on Januari 24 and November 7, 1962. Quoted at http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/sobibor/sobiborliquidation.html
[3]
Gitta Sereny, Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, Vintage Books, New York 1983, p. 115.
[4]
"Mapa Taktyczna Polski 1:100 000", map drawn up by the Wojskowy Instytut Geograficzny 1933-1937. This portion was mapped in 1933. Online: http://www.mapywig.org/m/WIG100_300DPI/P43_S37_OPALIN_300dpi.jpg
[5]
On the legend of the map (not seen on this page but printed on for example http://www.mapywig.org/m/WIG100_300DPI/P38_S34_MALKINIA_300dpi.jpg) this graphical pattern is keyed as Bagna, b łota i trzę sawiska , "marshland and swamps". The short horisontal blue lines inside the forested areas indicate Grunty podmokte, which is also "marshland" or "wetland".
[6]
Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1987, p. 30.
[7]
Schelvis, p. 28.
[8]
Ibid, p. 27.
[9]
From Schelvis’ description it appears that all 170,000 victims were incinerated on a single "grill".
[10]
Lager II (the reception and sorting camp) was situated just to the right of the altitude figure "169.7" on the topographical map. The small road marked in white that runs above it in a northwestern direction is a "symbolical representation" of the Schlauch or camouflaged fenced-in funnel which supposedly led to the gas chambers. Lager III with the alleged gas chambers, mass graves and cremation grills was located in the open area on the same map which is marked miejsce martyrologii.
[11]
Arad, p. 311
[12]
Ibid, p. 33.
[13]
Schelvis, pp. 110-112.
[14]
Online http://www.death-camps.org/sobibor/pic/bmap21.jpg
[15]
For example, when comparing the item distributed by the Associated Press bureau on November 23, 2001 with the article published in The Scotsman, one find that Kola interprets the remains of a barrack as a possible gas chamber in the former item, while the same structure is stated to have been a hospital barrack in the Scotsman article.
[16]
The site is www.undersobibor.org
[17]
E-mail communication from Mr. Haimi to the author on April 29, 2008.

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Author(s) Thomas Kues
Title The Ground Water Level at Sobibór 1942-1943
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Dates published: 2008-06-01, first posted on CODOH: May 30, 2008, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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