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Sobibor

  
 (in the past)  - darkometer rating:  8 -
 
UPDATE 2017: great changes are afoot at this site. A whole new, modernized museum is in the making. Meanwhile extensive archaeological work is ongoing that has already unearthed invaluable insights and authentic relics.
 
NOTE that until the opening of the new memorial, the site will be temporarily closed to the public! Watch this space for updates, and wait until the inauguration of the revamped new memorial before heading to this remote spot!
 
For the time being I will leave the text below stand that describes the state I found Sobibor in in spring 2008. 
-------------------------------------------

Sobibor was of one of the three purpose-built death camps that were established by the Nazis in the east of Poland as part of thew "Final Solution", code-named "Operation Reinhard" ... the most "industrialized" part of the Holocaust. These camps, which were much smaller in size than the "normal" concentration camps, were built solely for the purpose of systematic mass murder by means of gas chambers.
  
The site is somewhat better known than its counterparts because of the Sobibor revolt of 1943. As a memorial site, however, it is the least developed one of all the former camps in Poland.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 
More background info: together with Treblinka and Belzec, the camp at Sobibor was a pure death camp, set up for the sole purpose of implementing Operation Reinhard, i.e. the planned extermination of Europe's Jews.
 
Almost all of the victims, who were transported to the camp by freight trains were sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival. Only a small number were selected to do work and actually stayed for any period of time as inmates/prisoners. In particular, they had to serve as "Sonderkommandos" ('special commandos' – specifically selected by the SS for this purpose).  That is: they were (temporarily) spared the same fate of being gassed but now they instead had the sickening task of emptying and cleaning the gas chambers after the killing and removing "valuables" such as gold teeth from the corpses. The dead were then buried in huge mass graves. The whole process took only two to three hours. As in Treblinka and Belzec exhaust fumes were used in the gas chambers (but never Zyklon B, like in Auschwitz or Majdanek).
 
The camp at Sobibor was set up in the spring of 1942, shortly after Belzec, and was "operational" from May. When the camp at Belzec was dismantled, the remaining inmates were sent to Sobibor, which continued to be operational – until the revolt of October 1943.
 
It is largely due to this unique event of an uprising and escape from the camp that the name Sobibor is much better known in the world than Belzec. The 1987 TV film "Escape from Sobibor" (or sometimes just "Sobibor") starring Rutger Hauer, Alan Arkin and Joanna Pacula has probably contributed further to the fact that the name became more ingrained in the world's collective memory (demonstrating the importance of modern media in the shaping of that memory – even though this film didn't reach such a mass audience as later Auschwitz-themed movies did, in particular the big Hollywood production "Schindler's List").
 
The uprising at Sobibor culminated in a mass escape, when about 600 inmates managed to flee. Most of them were later recaptured and executed, but about 50 of them managed to survive to the end of the war. Some of them later emigrated to Israel or the USA. Thomas Blatt is perhaps the most famous Sobibor survivor.
 
After the revolt at Sobibor, the camp was dissolved, all installations dismantled – and, like at the other death camps, the former killing site was planted over and camouflaged as a farm. Although the revolt meant that more people survived Sobibor than Belzec, the camp was hardly any less deadly.
 
According to rough estimates, between 200,000 and 250,000 people, mainly Jews, were "industrially" murdered here and buried or cremated – and were subsequently nearly forgotten.
 
To this day, the site of the former camp at Sobibor is one of the least visited Holocaust sites (see below). It was not until 1961 that the first small memorial was erected. Other monuments followed, but it has always remained a comparatively minor memorial site.
 
For many years these early memorials controversially failed to point out that the vast majority of victims had been Jews (as was typical of Holocaust sites within the Eastern Bloc – cf. Auschwitz, Ravensbrück or Buchenwald). Moreover, part of the premises were even used as a playground and nursery/kindergarten! This at least has stopped. Today, this building houses a small museum.
 
Nevertheless, Sobibor is still a rather low-key, underdeveloped and abstract site – especially when compared to other such sites, in particular Belzec – and as such it's only really for the most dedicated dark tourists (and of course for Jewish 'roots'-tourists – who usually visit the place on organized tours), at least for the time being.
 
It remains to be seen whether the general trend of putting more effort and money into developing memorial sites of this nature to a higher standard (cf. not only Belzec but also e.g. Mittelbau-Dora or Bergen-Belsen) will one day also reach Sobibor. It would surely deserve more recognition.
UPDATE: precisely this is now happening: an all-new museum is underway and extensive changes can also be expected to the open-air parts of the memorial site!
 
 
What there is to see:  UPDATE: all that's described in the text below is bound to change massively. While the site is being completely reworked and archaeological research is being conducted, it remains temporarily closed to the public!!! Wait for further notification before heading there.
------------------------------
 
From the small car park next to today's small museum, a woodland path leads to two memorial monuments, which stand rather coldly and forlornly in the middle of the forest.
 
Beyond these there is a clearing in the forest, and in it is the central part of the memorial: here a low stone wall encircles a shallow mound of ash  – from the remains of the victims. This memorial's design is somewhat reminiscent of the mausoleum at Majdanek, only much smaller and without a dome over it.
 
More recently an "avenue of remembrance" leading through the woods has been added roughly retracing the route that victims on their way to the gas chambers had to walk. Overall, however, the memorial site at Sobibor is very abstract. Nothing of the former camp remains – only the train station with its platform, the name still displayed on its rusting sign, creates a vague sense of authenticity.
   
Apart from the small museum by the car park, no attempts at any secondary commodification have (yet) been made ... unlike at Treblinka and in particular Belzec. When I visited Sobibor (in a wintry April), this museum was still closed, so I can't comment first-hand on its contents. I can only presume that it will be similar in extent and nature to the counterpart in Treblinka. It's very doubtful it can be anywhere near as state-of-the-art as the museum at Belzec, let alone any larger institutions of its type.  
 
This means that a visit to Sobibor is only really for the very dedicated. Those who expect more in terms of museum-type interpretation will be disappointed. Only go if you are prepared for the sense of desolation, remoteness and underdevelopment that so characterizes this nonetheless extremely dark place.
 
 
Location: on the easternmost edge of Poland, just a stone's throw away from the Belarusian and Ukrainian border, roughly 10 miles (15 km) south of the provincial town of Wlodawa and just under 30 miles (50 km) north of Chelm – from there it is another 40 miles (65 km) or so west to Lublin.
 
Google maps locator:[51.4492,23.5925]
  
 
Access and costs: very remote, not easy to get to; but otherwise free.
 
Details: getting to this forlorn place in easternmost Poland is "hardcore" dark tourism. There are no connections by public transport. Passenger trains on the old train line leading to the station at Sobibor have been discontinued. Buses at best get you to villages in the vicinity – from where you could walk to the memorial site. The place is however quite a distance from the village of Sobibor, or other dwellings nearby. It's literally in the middle of the woods.
 
In short, to get here as an individual traveller you'll need your own means of transport, i.e. a car (although there are also hardened travellers who get here by bicycle). In any case, you'll need a good detailed map that also shows smaller country roads. The memorial is to be found off a minor unnumbered country lane through the woods connecting the 816 road, which straddles the border river Bug, and the 812 connecting Chelm with Wlodawa. If you don't have your own means of transport you'll have to either resort to being chauffeured by taxi or join an organized tour.
 
Access to the site is free and it's open all year round; the small museum, however, is open only in the summer (from 1 May to 14 October), daily from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
UPDATE: temporarily closed to the public, while archaeological research is being undertaken and a new museum is under construction!!!
 
 
Time required: a visit to the memorial site needn't take long, neither does the small museum. Both should take about half an hour. It's the getting there that takes disproportionally longer, so that visiting Sobibor is at least a half-day excursion – probably best from Lublin as a base, unless you choose Wlodawa for that, which is much closer by but also a lot more provincial.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: when picking Lublin as a base from where to make the excursion to Sobibor and from where to explore eastern Poland, then a visit to the site of Lublin's very own former combined concentration camp and death camp, namely Majdanek, is a must.
 
A small museum in Wlodawa also has an exhibition about the history of Sobibor, so if you make it to that town as well, you could just as well take in that museum too.
 
Otherwise, the only somewhat "dark" thrill to be had in this isolated landscape is the fact that you're so close to the border with Belarus. Incidentally, as this border has become the European Union's outermost border area, ever since Poland joined the EU, border police checks are a likely occurrence, so do make sure you have all the necessary documents on you that you may be asked to produce (see this anecdote).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing that could be of mainstream tourist interest is to be found in the immediate vicinity, apart perhaps from the sparsely populated forest landscape itself – and maybe the little town of Wlodawa not far from the site. Lublin, which is a likely base for day excursions in these eastern parts of Poland, has a lot more to offer (see under Majdanek). The drive from Lublin to Sobibor can best be combined with a stopover in Chelm.
 
The pretty little town of Chelm features a remarkable basilica and also offers a particularly special attraction: the underground chalk chambers. There are guided tours, also available in (broken) English, that allow a glimpse into and short walk through parts of this old artificial cave system. The tour is complemented by a little "ghost" performance – very cute!
 
 
 
  • Sobibor 0Sobibor 0
  • Sobibor 1 - old train stationSobibor 1 - old train station
  • Sobibor 2 - monumentsSobibor 2 - monuments
  • Sobibor 3 - mound of ashSobibor 3 - mound of ash
  • Sobibor 4 - avenue of remembranceSobibor 4 - avenue of remembrance
  • Sobibor 5 - museumSobibor 5 - museum
  • Sobibor 6 - memorial plaquesSobibor 6 - memorial plaques
  • Sobibor 7 - Chelm chalk chambers ghost performanceSobibor 7 - Chelm chalk chambers ghost performance
  • Sobibor 8 - Chelm chalk chambers lower cavernsSobibor 8 - Chelm chalk chambers lower caverns
  • Sobibor 9 - Chelm chalk chambersSobibor 9 - Chelm chalk chambers

 

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