Lies and obfuscations about Himmler's Sobibor directive

Published: 2011-05-22

by Thomas Kues


Peter Black is a Senior Historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1981. He is also the former chief historian for the "Nazi hunting" Office of Special Investigations of the United States Department of Justice.

In a long article entitled "Foot Soldiers of the Final Solution: The Trawniki Training Camp and Operation Reinhard", published in the prestigious exterminationist journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Black has the following to tell us about the Sobibór "extermination camp"[1]:

"Himmler had intended to convert it [Sobibór] into a concentration camp servicing a plant that recycled captured ammunition; Pohl and Globocnik convinced him instead to make Sobibor into a 'transit camp' (Durchgangslager)"

As a source Black offers [2]:

"On plans for an ammunition recycling plant, see circular order of the Reichsführer-SS [initialed R. Brandt], July 5, 1943; Chief of WVHA [signed Pohl] to Reichsführer-SS, July 10, 1943; and Reichsführer-SS/Personal Staff [initialed Brandt] to Pohl, July 24, 1943, NARA, RG 238, NO-482."

However, if we look at the Nuremberg document NO-482 referred to by the venerable Senior Historian of the USHMM we find that the crucial part of Himmler's 5 July 1943 directive reads as follows:

"Das Durchgangslager Sobibor im Distrikt Lublin ist in ein Konzentrationslager umzuwandeln. In dem Konzentrationslager ist eine Entlaborierungsanstalt für Beutemunition einzurichten."

In English translation:

"The Sobibór transit camp, located in the Lublin district, is to be converted into a concentration camp. A dismantling unit for captured enemy munitions is to be set up in the concentration camp."

And in Pohl's reply from 15 July 1943 (not 10 July as stated by Black) we read:

"Gemäß Ihrer obigen Anordnung soll das Durchgangslager Sobibór im Distrikt Lublin in ein Konzentrationslager umgewandelt zu werden.
Ich habe mich mit SS-Gruppenführer Globocnik darüber unterhalten. Wir beide schlagen Ihnen vor, die Umwandlung in ein Konzentrationslager aufzugeben, weil der von Ihnen erstrebte Zweck, nämlich: in Sobibór eine Entlaborierungsanstalt für Beutemunition einzurichten, auch ohne diese Umwandlung erreicht wird."

In English translation:

"According to your above instructions, the Sobibór transit camp in the Lublin district is to be converted into a concentration camp. I have discussed this with SS-Gruppenführer Globocnik. Both of us propose to abandon this conversion, as the purpose intended, viz. to set up at Sobibór an installation for the defusing of enemy munitions, can be realized without such a conversion."

Then on 24 July 1943 Himmler's personal assistant, Rudolf Brandt, replied back [3]:

"Der Reichsführer-SS ist mit dem Vorschlag, den Sie und SS-Gruppenführer Globocnik hinsichtlich der Belassung des Durchgangslager Sobibór im Distrikt Lublin in dem augenblicklichen Zustand gemacht haben, einverstanden, nachdem der vom ihm gewünschte Zweck auf diese Weise erreicht wird."

In English translation:

"The Reichsführer SS agrees to the proposal [made] by you and SS-Gruppenführer Globocnik concerning the maintenance of the Sobibor transit camp in the Lublin district in its present state, as the desired objective can be attained in this manner."

To summarize: On 5 July 1943 Himmler ordered that the "Sobibór transit camp" was to be converted into a concentration camp equipped with a dismantling unit for captured enemy munitions. On 15 July Pohl on behalf of himself and Globocnik wrote to Himmler, recommending that said conversion be abandoned, as the installation of the dismantling unit could be achieved without it. Finally on 24 July Brandt wrote and confirmed that Himmler agreed with the proposal.

It is clear as day from even a cursory glance at these letters that Pohl and Globocnik did not "convince" Himmler "to make Sobibor into a 'transit camp'". In fact it was the other way around: the camp was designated a transit camp (Durchgangslager) at the time Himmler wrote his directive. This leaves only two possibilities: either Black has not read the source he cites, which seems utterly unlikely considering that it's one of only a handful surviving documents pertaining to a field which he is well-acquainted with, i.e. Aktion Reinhardt, or he is consciously distorting the actual contents of the document. In that he would not be alone, as several exterminationist historians have published false or misleading statements about NO-482. To give just two examples: In his article on Sobibór for the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust Yitzhak Arad writes that "On 5 July 1943, Himmler ordered Sobibór to be closed as an extermination camp and transformed into a concentration camp".[4]

Raul Hilberg writes in his standard work The Destruction of the European Jews that [5]:

"Sobibór was appropriately called a Durchgangslager (transit camp). Since it was located near the Bug, on the border of the occupied eastern territories, the designation fitted the myth of the ‘eastern migration.’ When Himmler proposed one day that the camp be designated a Konzentrationslager, Pohl opposed the change."

But, as already shown, Himmler did not propose “to designate this camp a concentration camp” but ordered the camp to be “converted into a concentration camp” – the difference is certainly not irrelevant!

Anti-revisionist blogger Roberto Muehlenkamp has resorted to the following contrived argument in order to prove Himmler's, Pohl's and Brandt's designation of Sobibór as a transit camp to be what exterminationists call Tarnsprache (camouflage langauge)[6]:

"Contrary to what Kues would like to believe and insists in maintaining, said directive and the related correspondence are everything other than evidence that Sobibór was the 'transit camp' that Himmler claimed it to be (...). Following the suggestions of Globocnik and Pohl, Himmler eventually became convinced that the 'transit camp' didn’t have to be converted into a concentration camp to install there a station for processing booty ammunition, obviously because it already had a large labor force being managed and controlled in a manner akin to what was practiced in concentration camps. As a mere transit camp would not have required such a large labor force, Himmler’s correspondence with his subordinates shows that Sobibór was not what it was claimed to be, i.e. not a transit camp."

Elsewhere Muehlenkamp presents his argument in its full glory [7]:

"Actually the document that T[homas] K[ues] offers in support of his 'perfect harmony' claim in his footnote 2 ('In a letter sent to eight high-ranking members of the SS administration, among them the head of SS-WVHA, Oswald Pohl, on 5 July 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered "The Sobibor transit camp [Durchgangslager], located in the Lublin district, (...) to be converted into a concentration camp” (a transformation which eventually did not take place); Nuremberg Document NO-482') belies rather than supports his claim, if one looks at it more closely. [Next follows an English translation of the relevant letters of NO-482].

Why, one wonders, did Himmler propose that the Sobibor camp be converted into a concentration camp in order to install there a station for processing booty ammunition? Obviously because he reasoned that such station required a fairly large labor force and collecting and controlling such fairly large labor force required the kind of organization that characterized the concentration camps run by the SS-Economics and Administration Main Office.

Why, on the other hand, did Globocnik and Pohl not consider it necessary to implement such organization? Obviously because Sobibor already had a fairly large labor force, which could be put to the task of processing booty ammunition, and this labor force was being managed and controlled in a manner akin to what was practiced in concentration camps.

In fact the camp held about 700 inmates at the time of the revolt on 14 October 1943. There’s no reason why a mere transit camp, a place where people were deloused and bathed and then put back on the train to their final destinations, should have required such a large labor force, which was not much smaller than that of Treblinka Labour Camp. What were all these people, directed in a concentration-camp-like manner by a dozen-or-so SS-men and a hundred-or-so Ukrainian guards, doing in a mere transit camp?

To cut a long story short, the fact that Globocnik, Pohl and eventually also Himmler considered Sobibor suitable for installing an ammunition-processing station without any transformation, obviously due to the size of its inmate population, shows that Sobibor was not what it was being called in the above-quoted documents, i.e. not a transit camp."

To summarize: Because the Sobibór camp held some 700 inmates at the time of the prisoner uprising on 14 October 1943, it could not reasonably have been "a mere transit camp", because such a camp would not possibly have required a labor force that large. Ergo Sobibór could not have been a transit camp. This supposed argument does not hold water, for several reasons.

To begin with, Muehlenkamp has ignored that the dismantling unit requested by Himmler was indeed installed in Sobibór, with a consequent demand for labor involved in both construction and sorting/dismantling of captured ammunition. Jewish Sobibór witness Dov Freiberg writes in his memoirs about events taking place in August-September 1943 [8]:

"There was another wave of construction at Sobibor camp and again, trains full of construction supplies arrived. Unlike the last frenzy of construction, however, which was intended to increase the capacity of the death machine, now weapons and ammunition warehouses were being built, most of them underground. At this stage Lager 4 was set up, which the Germans called Nordlager - northern camp - in the north-east corner of the existing camp, in the open area between the railway platform and the forest, and it continued into the forest, close to the Lazarett. High-ranking officers landed in light planes and ran around the area with maps and plans, while our SS officers were dragged along behind them. The establishment of ammunition warehouses in a death camp didn't seem logical - was it possible that a foreign party would set up in a camp run secretly by the SS? It seemed likely that the Germans were going to destroy the death camp and turn it into a munitions base. The work was performed at a swift pace. Before the first bunkers were completed, transports of ammunition had already arrived and were temporarily stored outside, next to the bunkers."

Freiberg further informs us that around the same time "about a hundred strong young men were selected from the Minsk transport [in mid-September 1943]".[9] Jules Schelvis on the other estimates the number of workers selected from this transport at 80.[10] These men worked chiefly with carpentry and construction projects connected with the new "Lager IV". [11]

Another Jewish Sobibór witness, Thomas Blatt, mentions "the girls who sorted the captured Soviet ammunition in Lager IV".[12] According to Jules Schelvis the sorting of the ammunition was carried out by "a new commando consisting of fifty women and sixty men".[13]

Intercepted radio messages confirm that unused ammunition from occupied Russia was delivered for recycling to the "SS Durchgangslager Sobibor" at the end of October 1943 (i.e. after the prisoner revolt).[14]

Thus we know that more than a hundred inmates were employed in "Lager IV" with construction work and the sorting and dismantling of captured enemy munition. That Soviet-Jewish POW:s were sent to Sobibór in September 1943 makes perfect sense in this context, as they would naturally have been familiar with the types of munition used by the Red Army.

As for the total number of Sobibór inmates we have only three documents providing indications:

1) A telex from the commmander of the security police in the Lublin district to the duty officer at Krakow on 15 October 1943, in which we read: "On 14.10.1943, around 17:00 hours, uprising of the Jews in the Sobibór SS-camp, 40 km north of Cholm. [...]. Some 300 Jews have escaped, the remainder were either shot or are now in the camp."[15]

2) On the same day SS-Gruppenführer and HSSPF Lublin Jakob Sporrenberg notified his fellow HSSPF in Luzk (Belarus) that "about 700 Jews" had escaped from "Lager Sobibor" and were thought to be headed across the Bug river.[16]

3) In a report from SS-Untersturmführer Benda of the Security Police and SD in Cholm dated 17 March 1944 the number of escaped inmates is given as 300.[17]

Since all testimonies describing the revolt agree that the number of escapees was nowhere near 700 the logical conclusion is that 300 is the most reliable estimate of how many inmates escaped on 14 October 1943. It then seems reasonable to assume that the figure of 700 mentioned in Sporrenberg's message might have corresponded to the total number of Jews in the camp, but nonetheless this is mere speculation. However, since most testimonies further agree that about half of the inmate population did not participate in the escape, I will consider it fully possible that Sobibór indeed had some 6-700 inmates at the time of the uprising. The Jewish witness Leon Felhendler stated that the inmate population initially amounted to about 100 and gradually increased to "around 600".[18] The higher figure mentioned by Felhendler might then possibly have increased to some 700 in September 1943 in connection with the construction of Lager IV.

What then did these inmates work with?

As seen above, at least 110 (possibly up to 190) prisoners worked in the munition dismantling unit in Lager IV.

According to Yitzhak Arad each of the Reinhardt camps had the following inmate work commandos in the parts of the camp outside the "death camp proper" (called "Lager III" in Sobibór) [19]:

- Platform workers (Bahnhofkommando); 40-50 prisoners working at the train platform with the disembarkation and unloading of train transports.
- Transport Square Workers (Transportkommando); about 40 prisoners engaged in activities carried out on the fenced-in square where the Jewish arrivals undressed.
- "Gold Jews" (Goldjuden); nearly 20 people whose task it was to receive and sort the money, gold, valuables, foreign currency, and bonds taken from the arriving Jews.
- Hair Cutter (Friseurs); 10-20 men who cut the hair of the female arrivals before these entered the "death camp proper".
- Sorting Team for Clothing and Belongings (Lumpenkommando); 80-120 who worked with the collection, examination, sorting, bundling, storing, preparation for shipment and loading of clothing and belongings confiscated from the arrivals.
- Forest Team (Waldkommando), a few dozen prisoners working with the cutting of wood for heating and cooking in the camp. This team was enlarged once cremations began and the demand for firewood increased.

Except for the above work commandos, Arad writes,

"part of the prisoners were employed at other activities. Groups of prisoners were engaged in construction of barracks, in stringing barbed-wire fences, and in paving roads inside the camps. In the autumn and winter a special 'potato team' was established. Potatoes were the camp's principal food, and as winter approached, large quantities were brought to the camp. [...]. Some prisoners worked in the vegetable garden, pigsy, chicken coop, and cowshed, and in the SS personnel's baths. A few prisoners were employed in cleaning and disinfecting the huts and toilets.
There were also prisoners who supplied direct personal services to the SS and Ukrainians. They included doctors, a dentist, and several barbers. A small group of boys was employed to polish and clean the shoes and uniforms of SS personnel. These boys worked in and around the SS barracks. In addition, there were groups of skilled workers, like tailors, shoemakers, smiths, mechanics, carpenters, and others, known as the 'court Jews,' who continued to extend services to the German and Ukrainian staff, as they had since the first stages of the camps' activity."[20]

In Sobibór there also existed a group of 15 young female prisoners who worked with knitting socks and sweaters using wool taken from the baggage of arrivals.[21] There were also at least one Sanitäter (medic) tending sick inmates (Kurt Thomas aka Kurt Ticho) [22] and two Jews working in the inmate kitchen (Hershel and Josef Cuckierman).[23] Jewish historian Reuben Ainsztain states that two groups of Sobibór inmates also worked at a nearby quarry.[24]

No-one disputes that the Germans confiscated belongings and valuables from the Jews who arrived in the Reinhardt camps, and it is most likely that arrivals had their hair cut off, as part of the delousing process. Moreover a large number of Jews were no doubt cremated at Sobibór; deportees who had died en route to the camp or who were subjected to "euthanasia" because of mental or physical illness, as well as inmates who fell victims to disease or were executed - and thus there was need for a Waldkommando. It is also far from unbelievable that the SS personnel and guards employed a number of Jewish artisans for their own convenience. All of the above described work commandos are therefore fully compatible with Sobibór the transit camp.

Remains then the inmates housed in the separate "death camp proper", Lager III.

The sources diverge widely on the number of this group of inmates. In his Eichmann trial testimony Ya’acov Biskovitz gave their number as 80. Thomas Blatt estimates their number to a mere 30 man. Another witness, Chaim Engel, states that “about fifty, sixty Jews” worked in camp III. Arad on the other hand estimates their number at 200-300.[25] Schelvis, referring to a 1985 court verdict, states that the total number of inmates in Lager III as of mid-April 1943 (when a large number of convoys from the Netherlands were arriving at Sobibór) numbered around 150 prisoners.[26] As at this time all inmates in Lager III were reportedly executed because of a failed attempt at a mass escape, and since there are no known survivors from the Lager III inmates, the estimate presumably derives from testimony left by camp personnel.

Following the transit camp hypothesis the Jewish inmates of Lager III could have been employed with a number of tasks: handing out towels and soaps, helping out with the delousing process, cleaning and repairing showers and delousing facilities, guiding deportees from one station in the delousing area to another, assisting in the embarkment on departing trains etc. etc. The archeological evidence shows that the deportees, contrary to the established picture, entered Lager III at least partially dressed, since a large number of remains of clothing and toilet articles were found inside the discovered building remains in that part of the camp,[27] not least in the enormous barracks designated "Object E" by Andrzej Kola, which likely housed the main delousing facility. Further archeological findings from Belzec and Chelmno together with statements from Sobibór eyewitnesses strongly suggest that number tags were used to register the Aktion Reinhardt (and Chelmno) deportees and/or their clothes/belongings that were to go through delousing.[28] Accordingly, the Jewish inmates in Lager III could have also worked with handing out or attaching such tags, as well as with the handling of toilet articles and other items carried by the deportees. According to Reuben Ainsztain a kitchen was installed at a later stage in Lager III.[29] This may have been done in order to better to provide the deportees awaiting further transport with nourishment. Inmates could have worked with preparing and distributing food and water to the deportees.

Then there is the indisputable fact that a large number of Jews died at Sobibór. These Jews perished en route due to various causes, died from illness in the camp, were executed as reprisal for escape attempts, or were subjected to "euthanasia" (likely utilizing lethal injections, possibly also through shooting) as mentally ill or carriers of epidemic diseases (categories of Jews that the German authorities certainly did not want to have resettled in the east). The total number of deaths at Sobibór might have amounted to some 10,000.[30] The part of Lager III where these victims were buried and later cremated was most likely separated by some means from the "clean side" with the delousing facilities. No doubt a number of inmates were involved in the gruesome business of handling and disposing corpses.

To conclude: The presence of 600-700 Jewish inmates in Sobibór fits perfectly well with the transit camp hypothesis, as there was certainly enough work for them all of them to carry out. Roberto Muehlenkamp's "argument" regarding the letters of NO-482 is therefore devoid of any value: the number of inmates at Sobibór throws no doubt on Himmler's, Pohl's and Brandt's designation of Sobibór as a "transit camp" (Durchgangslager). Their use of that designation is fully congruent with the state of evidence, which allows for only one conclusion: that Sobibór indeed was a transit camp. There is a good reason why Black, Arad, Hilberg and Muehlenkamp have felt compelled to meet the contents of NO-482 with lies and obfuscations.

Before he bothered to write this helplessly flawed criticism Mr. Muehlenkamp should moreover have recalled a truism well-known to all those knowledgable about the socio-economics and technologies of Ancient Rome and Egypt: When slave labor is available in (virtually) unlimited amounts, efficient utilization of said manpower is not a pressing issue.


[1] Peter Black, "Foot Soldiers of the Final Solution: The Trawniki Training Camp and Operation Reinhard", Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 2011), p. 41.
[2] Ibid., p. 96, note 305.
[3] Quoted from Jules Schelvis, Vernichtungslager Sobibór, Metropol Verlag, Berlin 1998, p. 174.
[4] Israel Gutman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 3-4, MacMillan, New York 1990, pp. 1376.
[5] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 3rd ed., Yale University Press, New Haven/London 2003, p. 1028.
[8] Dov Freiberg, To Survive Sobibor, Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem 2007, p. 283.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jules Schelvis, Sobibór. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, Berg, Oxford/New York 2007, p. 238.
[11] Ibid., p. 241.
[12] Thomas Toivi Blatt, From the Ashes of Sobibor. A Story of Survival, Northwestern University Press, Evanston (IL) 1997, p. 141.
[13] J. Schelvis, Sobibór. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, op.cit., p. 147.
[14] PRO: HW 16/39 (ZIP/GPD 2041 DD-FF, message DD 14, transmitted 27 October 1943. I here quote the summary of the message found online at According to J. Schelvis (Sobibór. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, op.cit., p. 188, 196 n. 44), however, the message relates the sending away of munitions from the camp, something which indeed sounds more logical.
[15] Contained in NO-482, also reproduced in several books, for example Thomas (Toivi) Blatt, Sobibór. The Forgotten Revolt, HEP, Issaquah 1998 (unnumbered page in attachment).
[16] PRO: HW 16/38 (ZIP/GPD 1956 CC-HH, message DD 12, transmitted 15 October 1943 at 1115h. Reproduced online:
[17] NO-482 Reproduced in the appendices to Miriam Novitch, Sobibor. Martyrdom and Revolt. Documents and Testimonies, Holocaust Library, New York 1980. Also online:
[18] J. Schelvis, Sobibór. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, op.cit., p. 69.
[19] Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington/Indianapolis 1987, pp. 108-110.
[20] Ibid., p. 110.
[21] Ibid., p. 114.
[22] J. Schelvis, Sobibór. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, op.cit., pp. 86-87.
[23] Ibid., pp. 232-233
[24] Reuben Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe, Paul Elek, London 1974, p. 746.
[25] Jürgen Graf, Thomas Kues, Carlo Mattogno, Sobibór. Holocaust Propaganda and Reality, TBR Books, Washington DC 2010, p. 81, note 179.
[26] J. Schelvis, Sobibór. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, op.cit., p. 142.
[27] J. Graf, T. Kues, C. Mattogno, Sobibór. Holocaust Propaganda and Reality, op.cit., pp. 154-159.
[28] Ibid, pp. 100-101, 331-333.
[29] R. Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe, op.cit., p. 746.
[30] J. Graf, T. Kues, C. Mattogno, Sobibór. Holocaust Propaganda and Reality, op.cit., pp. 168-170.

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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Lies and obfuscations about Himmler's Sobibor directive
Published: 2011-05-22
First posted on CODOH: May 22, 2011, 10:41 a.m.
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