Living the Good Life in a Nazi Death Camp: The SS at Sobibor

These photos reveal the leisure activities of the SS members who lived on the grounds of the Sobibor extermination camp

Dr. Judit Konya
In front of the “new casino,” in the SS living quarters of the Lager I compound at Sobibor. From left to right, camp commander Franz Reichleiner, Erich Bauer, responsible for operation of the gas chambers (embracing a Polish woman servant of the SS), Erich Shultze and deputy camp commander Johann Niemann, 1943

A review of the book:

From “Euthanasia” to Sobibor: An SS Officer’s Photo Collection / edited by Martin Cüppers, Anne Lepper, and Jürgen Matthäus, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press

On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference convened under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich in order to discuss practical matters relating to the extermination of European Jewry. A few months later, three extermination camps became operational in occupied Poland—Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, where nearly two million Jews were murdered—as part of “Operation Reinhard”. The sole purpose of these camps was mass murder. In order to hide the extermination process, the Nazis strictly forbade photography in the camps. Nevertheless, a few photographs taken at Belzec and Sobibor when the camps were active have survived.

The Lager II compound at Sobibor, with the sign “Erbhof” (Estate). A German officer stands in the middle, with a Jewish female prisoner at left drawing water from a well and another Jewish male prisoner at the right holding a rake, both are dressed in civilian clothing. Jews were led into this courtyard and commanded to undress, before they were herded into the gas chambers. Afterwards, Jewish prisoners combed the area with rakes looking for any valuable items that may have fallen. Photographed in Summer 1943.]

After the uprising in Sobibor in October 1943, the Germans completely destroyed the camp and planted trees in order to cover up any evidence of mass murder. Archaeological excavations that began in the 2000s have revealed the exact location of the camp’s various compounds as well as some personal belongings of the Jews who were murdered there. The excavations also revealed the foundations of the gas chambers. Their dimensions make it possible to understand the magnitude of the extermination perpetrated at the site.

The camp’s Ukrainian guards (Trawniki) photographed on the parade ground of the Lager III compound.  The man lying down in middle of the front row has often been identified as Ivan Demjanjuk. The gas chamber building is visible in the background. Spring, 1943

The discovery of two private photo albums belonging to Johann Niemann, the camp’s deputy commander, affords a look at the camp’s buildings and the SS men who ran it. The two albums, which had been kept by Niemann’s grandson, include some 350 photos. About fifty of the photos were taken in Sobibor, most of them in the area housing the German officers (Vorlager). The photos show the SS men engaged in leisure activities just a few hundred meters from the pits where bodies were cremated. Among the photos, one can see the Ukrainian guards (including a man who is likely Ivan Demjanjuk), Niemann on his horse, standing by a well, and holding a piglet recently born on the camp’s farm.

One photograph is of an SS officer playing an accordion, another shows a group of jolly SS soldiers in the company of two Polish women during an afternoon lunch break.

Meals would be followed by drinks, coffee, cigarettes and a game of chess. Interestingly, the SS men do not carry weapons, evidence of their sense of personal security in the camp.

In the album, Neimann documented various places and camps he served in as an SS officer. He began as an officer in the “Aktion T4” euthanasia project (in which tens of thousands of disabled and mentally ill German citizens were exterminated on German soil), continued as an officer in Belzec and at the end of his service was appointed deputy commander of the Sobibor extermination camp. A handsome man who paid much attention to his appearance, he loved taking photographs and having his photograph taken.

According to the book, it was this tendency towards vanity that led to his demise, with the start of the uprising at Sobibor on October 14, 1943. That same day, Niemann arrived at the shack used by the camp tailor on horseback. He had come to have measurements taken for a leather jacket that had caught his eye from among the looted items stolen from Jews. The tailor, who was himself a Jewish prisoner, asked Neimann to turn around with his back towards him so that he could take one last measurement for the length of the coat. This enabled another prisoner to enter, hit him with an axe and kill him. He was the first of eleven SS men killed that day in the revolt, which put an end to the camp’s extermination activities.

Both photo albums were donated to an educational center in Germany (Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz), which published them as a book, in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart, along with scholarly essays. The albums are now in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.


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