Remembering the 'Dutch Auschwitz' The Story of Sobibor

There is little in Sobibor to remind one of the former Nazi concentration camp where 34,000 Dutch Jews died. That is going to change, thanks in part to help from the Netherlands.
Von Stephane Alonso

Anyone who didn't know better would think they are in a typical Polish hamlet, where clean washing flutters in the wind, farmers on old tractors rumble by and lumbermen lug tree trunks. But Stara Kolonia Sobibór is not typical, nor will it ever be.

During World War II this was the site of the German extermination camp Sobibor, where 170,000 Jews, more than 34,000 of them Dutch, were systematically murdered. It is a difficult place to reach, deep in the forests of Poland's eastern border area, and easy to forget. But that is going to change.

The Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and Israel recently agreed on a major 'renovation' aimed at opening up the former camp to the outside world and pulling it out of the shadow of the well-known Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in southern Poland.


"We must do right by the victims of Sobibor," State Secretary Jet Bussemaker said last week during a working visit to Poland. "The camp is unknown, even in the Netherlands, since virtually no one survived and lived to tell."

Unlike at Auschwitz, there is nothing to see at Sobibor. The Germans dismantled the camp in 1943 after an uprising in which 12 SS officers were killed and several hundred Jews managed to escape. Fifty of them survived the war. The Germans planted trees on the bare terrain.

As Bussemaker's delegation made its way to the edge of the young forest, Jetje Manheim, chairman of the Sobibor Foundation, makes the invisible visible. "Potato soup and raw oats were on the menu," she says. "Anyone who was unable to supplement this ration did not have much hope of survival."

The handful of houses that make up present day Stara Kolonia Sobibór, adjoining the forest, are from after the war, except for a striking green building with a view over the crumbling train platform where the transports arrived. That was the camp commander's house. Now a Polish family lives there.

Hill of Ashes

After the war the Polish were at a loss as to what to do with the extermination camps the Germans had built on Polish soil. Auschwitz quickly became a state museum, but smaller camps like Sobibor were left to revert to nature. Poland was in ruins, there were other priorities.

And of course there was communism, with its own version of the historical truth. "The camp guards in Sobibor were Ukrainian," says Janusz Kloc, the local starosta (county leader). "But you could not say that out loud. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union then, a friendly nation."

In the 1970s an austere monument was built, a 'hill of ashes' at the place where the bodies from the gas chambers were burnt on grates in the open air. A plaque explains that "Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, Poles and gypsies" were murdered here. The fact that it was mainly Jews was kept silent. The Polish suffering could not be overshadowed by Jewish suffering.

"This really shouldn't be," Bussemaker says, pointing to the hill of ashes where she has just laid a wreath. "Somewhere here are all those ashes and we are just merrily treading on it." It is one of the issues she hopes to resolve with the renovation of the camp.

'Road to Heaven'

A great deal has already changed since the fall of communism. There are new plaques -- and these ones do declare the victims to be Jews. And in 2003 a 'reflection lane' was opened, where survivors can place stones with the names of murdered family members. The path roughly coincides with the route to the gas chambers, dubbed the Himmelfahrtstrasse (road to heaven) by the detainees.

"The reflection lane is unique in our country," says Marek Bem, director of the regional museum of Wlodawa, the nearby town in whose territory Sobibor falls. "In Poland we often remember collectively, victims are anonymous. Here there is a story behind every name."

Jetje Manheim, herself a surviving relative, is happy with the attention now being paid to the camp, but she is also concerned. The last thing she wants is for Sobibor to become like Belzec, a former extermination camp to the south, where a giant monument funded by American money was unveiled in 2004. "Holocaust architecture," Manheim calls it.

"Belzec is overwhelming," Manheim says. "You don't get the space for your own thoughts there. Sobibor is much more intimate." She does see room for improvement: the small museum in the hamlet does not have decent toilet facilities or heating. And the texts are in Polish. "But beyond that Sobibor can stay as it is."

Bem too hopes the good intentions of the various governments will not degenerate into architectural bombast. "This is the truth," he says, with a sweeping movement of his arm indicating the forest.

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