Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp

A Review
Published: 2008-09-09

Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, by Jules Schelvis (Berg Publishers/USHMM, Oxford 2006).

Like all of the alleged “pure extermination camps”, Sobibór near Włodawa is wrapped in obscurity. No more than a handful books have been devoted to this camp, where allegedly hundreds of thousands of Jews, most of them deported from Poland but also from Austria and the Netherlands, were killed in gas chambers with engine exhaust and later incinerated on giant “grills” made of railway gauge. In 1968, former Sobibór prisoner Stanislaw Szmajzner’s book Inferno em Sobibor was published in Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro. In 1980, Israeli historian Miriam Novitch published a collection of short testimonies (Sobibor. Martyrdom and Revolt, Holocaust Library). The camp was treated in Yitzhak Arad's work Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1987), as well as in Gitta Sereny's book about Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness (McGraw-Hill, New York 1974). A book on the Dutch Jews deported to the camp, De Negentien Treinen naar Sobibor by Elie A. Cohen, was published in 1979. Two other former inmates have written books on the camp as well: Thomas Blatt wrote From The Ashes Of Sobibor (Northwestern University Press 1997) and Sobibor- The Forgotten Revolt (Issaquah 1997), while Dov Freiberg’s book Surviving Sobibor was published in English by Gefen Books in 2007. The work which will be reviewed here, Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp by Jules Schelvis, was originally published in Dutch in 1993 by De Bataafsche Leeuw, Amsterdam, as Vernietigingskamp Sobibor. A German edition, entitled Vernichtungslager Sobibor, was published by Metropol Verlag in 1998. The reviewed 2006 English translation is based on the revised Dutch edition from 2004.

Schelvis and Sobibór

First of all it should be noted that the Dutch-Jewish author of the book is far from a disinterested academic third party to the subject he is treating. In June 1943, Schelvis was deported from the Dutch camp Westerbork to Sobibór together with his wife and her family. When arriving Sobibór, the young wife and her parents were sent away, allegedly to the gas chambers, while Schelvis together with 81 other young men were transferred to Dorohucza (Dorohusk), a nearby labor camp (Schelvis was later sent to the Radom ghetto and from there on to Auschwitz, another “extermination camp” which he miraculously managed to survive). The author thus writes about the camp under the (we might assume sincere) belief that Sobibór was a death trap where his nearest ones were brutally killed by a group of callous sadists. But the personal involvement of the author does not end with this personal trauma. In the drawn out appeal process of former Sobibór SS Karl Frenzel between 1982 and 1985, Schelvis acted as a witness as well as Nebenkläger (a civil plaintiff in German trials). This fact is reflected in the number of passages devoted to this individual German guard, as well as the epithets bestowed upon him (”the hangman of Sobibór”). In contrast, Gustav Wagner, the SS man usually painted out to be the Sobibór “angel of death”, is given very little space, despite the many tantalizing questions surrounding his arrest, extradition trial and subsequent “suicide” in Brazil in 1980.

Revision of the Sobibór death toll

Since the early post-war years it has been commonly alleged that 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibór between 1942 and 1943. The so-called Höfle telegram, discovered by historian Peter Witte in 2000, shows that 101,370 Jews had been deported to Sobibór by December 31, 1942. According to the new research on Jewish transports to Sobibór presented by Schelvis, another 70,000 Jews were sent to the camp during 1943. This figure should however be taken with a grain of salt, as the evidence for at least two transports (the last ones, supposedly from occupied Soviet territory and containing several thousand people) comes exclusively from eyewitness testimony (pp. 218-220). The total death toll as per Schelvis thus amounts to approximately 170,000 people (p. 110, 198). As is not uncommon in the field of Holocaust mathematics, a large number of previously supposed victims – in this case 80,000 people – have suddenly turned into unexplained non-beings.

In the light of this revision of the number of Jewish deportees, it is curious to read what Erich Bauer, the alleged gas chamber supervisor or “Gasmeister” of Sobibór, had to say on the death toll. According to Bauer’s “confession”, written while serving a life sentence in a Berlin prison, he had at one occasion overheard camp commandant Franz Stangl mention that 350,000 Jews had been killed at Sobibór (quoted in Klee The Good Old Days, p. 232). Since Stangl left Sobibór for Treblinka in September 1942, it follows that the final death toll would be much higher – that is, if we are to believe Bauer’s testimony rather than the documentary evidence of the Höfle telegram. Despite this, the “repentant perpetrator” Bauer is considered by Schelvis a key witness whose statements are assumed to be truthful even when clashing with those of other major eyewitnesses, for example on the issue whether the first gas chambers were built of wood or concrete (something I have treated in an online article for CODOH Web, “The alleged first gas chamber building at Sobibór”). It seems curious that Bauer, who, if the gassing story was indeed true, must have known with accuracy the capacities of the gas chambers as well as the average number of daily gassings, could have been so wide off the mark as to put credence in the figure reportedly mentioned by Stangl.

Transfers to labor camps in the Włodawa region

Schelvis devotes one of the chapters of his book to the fate of the Dutch Jews who were transferred upon arrival at Sobibór to some of the labor camps in the Włodawa region. 700 Dutch men were sent to dig peat at Dorohucza (p. 119). Allegedly only two – one of them our lucky boy Jules – survived the war. A number of women were also sent to camps in Lublin. All in all some 1,000 Dutch Jews – according to “rough estimates” – were selected for work camps in the General Government.

If at least a thousand of the 34,313 deported Dutch Jews – who in Sobibór eyewitness testimony often are portrayed as being frail and less accustomed to physical labor than the Eastern European Jews – were transferred to labor Polish General Government, how many able-bodied Polish-Jewish deportees were then not selected for work in the same camps?

It may further be noted that the fact that the number as well as identities of the Jews deported to Sobibór from the Netherlands is known from registers, in the future may help us determine the actual fate of the deportees. Allegedly, only about 20 of them survived the war. Full access for independent researchers to the Arolsen archives could very well make this possible. Related to this, Schelvis provides the following revealing insight into the deportee registration process (p. 52):

“Two copies [of the prisoner registers] were given to the transport leaders for the journey east, creating the impression, perhaps, that they knew the deportees by name, and that the list would facilitate registration on arrival at the camp.

At Auschwitz this may indeed have been the case – unless of course the victims were sent straight to the gas chambers. But the lists compiled for Sobibór were only ever intended to disguise the Germans’ true intentions. The transport leaders would have passed the lists on to the camp commandant, but the most he probably ever did with them was to file them in a drawer somewhere. No further action was ever taken.”

The assertion in the latter part of the quoted passage of course exclusively rests on the mass gassings story, for which Schelvis presents not a single shred of documentary or forensic evidence. The actual camp files may very well have ended up on the shelf of some locked and barred KGB archive.

Passed over in silence

The perhaps best way to find out the weaknesses of this volume is not by scrutinizing what is written, but pointing out that what is not written – or more precisely, what is passed over in (conspicuous) silence by the author. Jules Schelvis’ Sobibor is (as admitted by its subtitle) far from the definitive history of the camp. It is in places more thorough than Arad’s twenty years older book, but it is a curious “thoroughness” which lack in weight. The allegation of a mass murder and subsequent burial and cremation of 170,000 people is never backed up with physical evidence, and the few war-time documents shown do not prove any homicidal activity. There is also no mention of the (still unpublished) excavations and drillings reportedly carried out at the former camp site by Polish archaeologist Andrzej Kola in 2001, despite Schelvis’ text being revised well after that date.

What especially stays in my memory after reading this book is one the photographs reproduced. All in all Schelvis shows us some 60 pictures (mainly passport type photos of survivors and camp personnel), but most of them can be viewed elsewhere or are frankly not very interesting. For example, we are shown a rather blurry photo of a “heap of ashes” but it is impossible to determine from the picture its dimensions or contents. No bones or bone fragments are visible. The photo which stuck with me shows Hubert Gomerski, a bespectacled old man with whitened hair wearing a cheap-looking beige jacket. We see him slightly from behind, as he is walking away from the camera along some street. According to the caption, Gomerski is hurrying away from the court building where he has appeared as a witness for the prosecution. On the same page, we are shown a vintage photo of Gomerski in uniform together with some other members of the Sobibór staff. The caption of this photo claims that Gomerski was a callous and brutal murderer. Is this true? Did he really receive a fair trial back in 1950, as implied by Schelvis? Was he able to speak his mind openly to his interrogators and lawyers, or was he, like Auschwitz SS man Hans Aumeier, handed a number of leading questions, demanding that he stated what he “knew” about the “gas chambers”? The anonymous-looking old man on the photo knew the truth about Sobibór. Did he dare confide it to anyone? To his friends? To his family? To himself, in private writings possibly left behind at his death? Most likely we will never know, and for us who are waiting for the true history of Sobibór and the other Reinhardt camps to emerge from the swamp of “Holocaust” mythography, Mr. Schelvis’ book will unfortunately not provide us with more than a few puzzle pieces, scattered among heaps of peripheral information and obscurantist rhetoric, such as Schelvis’ empty tirade against us accursed Holocaust skeptics (p. 3):

“The SS staff quotations that have been included in my book have been taken from statements and interrogations which they themselves endorsed with their signatures. Still there are those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge – now also on the Internet – the existence of the extermination camps. They will find incontestable evidence to the contrary in this book.”

Of course no informed revisionists deny the existence of the camps themselves, it is the mass murders allegedly carried out inside them which are brought into question – but naturally Schelvis cannot let go of a good straw man. May one hope that Schelvis takes the time to read the online revisionist texts on his favorite “corpse factory”? I at least would welcome his comments.

Schelvis’ book is well worth buying (or borrowing) as a work of reference by those interested in the Aktion Reinhardt “death camp” issue, since it contains lengthy quotations from a number of hard to find witness testimonies. Among other tidbits, we learn (on p. 176) that a former SS squadron commander who assisted in the hunt for escaped Jews after the Sobibór prisoner revolt, witnessed how several of the escapees voluntarily returned to the camp and reported to the camp watch – a bit unexpected it may seem for an alleged death camp!

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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, A Review
Published: 2008-09-09
First posted on CODOH: Sept. 7, 2008, 7 p.m.
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