When German organizations released new photographs taken inside the Nazi death camp Sobibor last week, coverage focused on the apparent presence of the late John Demjanjuk in two images.
Even beyond serving as potential evidence tied to the so-called “devil next door,” the Sobibor photos give historians new details about the Holocaust and its perpetrators. Glimpses of the killing installations are visible in several images, and the personal lives of German perpetrators — both men and women — have been captured in new detail, according to experts.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this collection,” said historian Edna Friedberg of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). “The photos expand and solidify our knowledge of the implementation of the Final Solution,” she told The Times of Israel.
This week, a book containing about 80 new images of Sobibor was published in Germany. Only a few of the photos were released through media so far, including a wide-shot of the camp taken from a guard tower.
The photos are part of a collection donated to USHMM by the grandson of Johann Niemann, Sobibor’s deputy commander. Niemann was the first officer killed by Jewish prisoners during the 1943 uprising that enabled dozens of prisoners to survive the war. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, few of the Jews brought to Sobibor were selected for the temporary survival of forced labor.
The photos expand and solidify our knowledge of the implementation of the Final Solution
In the album, Niemann documented his career from involvement in the “T4” euthanasia program against disabled Germans to his position as second in command at Sobibor. In less than two years of operation, more than 200,000 Jews — largely from Poland and the Netherlands — were murdered in several sets of gas chambers.
In some of the photos, field trips by the SS officers of Sobibor to Germany are shown. The wives and girlfriends of SS men appear — for example — on a bus excursion in Potsdam. Back at Sobibor, local women are pictured on the patio of the officers’ mess hall with beer and wine.
“With these photos we see a lot of known perpetrators in a way we haven’t before,” said Friedberg. “We can look at their body language and get a sense of their familiarity and ease. These people worked their way up the system and moved up the ranks, and the system drew on these people.”
The provenance of Niemann’s album is also fascinating, said the historian. After Niemann was killed in the uprising staged by Sobibor’s Jewish prisoners, his belongings were returned to his wife in Germany. Among the objects was an inventory making note of the slain Nazi officer’s two albums.
Although it was forbidden to take photos inside the death camps, Friedberg believes similar albums were made but destroyed after the war. After all, perpetrators still had to worry about photos of them being discovered and used at trial. For Niemann’s family, however, there was no need to destroy the album.
The brave Jews who fought in the uprising gave us the album, so to speak
“In that sense,” said Friedberg, “the brave Jews who fought in the uprising gave us the album, so to speak.”
The album bears similarities to the so-called “Lili Jacob Album” from Auschwitz-Birkenau and an album called “The Beautiful Years” attributed to the master of Treblinka, Kurt Franz.
‘The most important photo’
Several images in the new “Sobibor Perpetrator Collection” stand out for showing aspects of the three “Operation Reinhardt” death camps, of which Sobibor was the most remotely located.
In one image, about two-dozen auxiliary guards — including Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk, it appears — are sprawled out on the ground, their rifles pointed upward. Aspects of the genocide are also visible in the background.
One decade ago, Israeli archeologist Yoram Haimi excavated the cynically-nicknamed “Road to Heaven,” a tube-like path through which Jews were herded from undressing barracks into the gas chambers.
Uncovering locations where fence-posts once stood, Haimi’s mapping matched testimony of a path that curved before reaching the gas chambers. This curve, combined with camouflaged fencing lining “the tube,” helped confuse victims and screen the process from onlookers.
Historian Friedberg of USHMM agreed with Haimi’s assessment of the photo. The museum’s academic partners in Germany, she said, confirmed the presence of parts of the gas chamber building roof, as well as part of the building where women had their heads shaved.
According to Haimi, whose two uncles were murdered at Sobibor, “the most important photo” of the release is one showing an “SS Sonderkommando” sign above a gate. Two guards are visible in the stark-looking, slanted image. Although some captions have called this a gate into the killing installation part of Sobibor, or Camp III, Haimi said this is incorrect.
“We excavated right there and found where those two poles were placed,” said Haimi. “It was in the German officers’ part of the camp and for the people who walked to Sobibor or came in wagons, according to testimony,” said Haimi.
With the new Sobibor photos being shared around the world, mistakes are being made explaining them, according to Haimi.
For example, one of the most stunning images is a wide-shot of the camp taken from a guard tower. The so-called “ramp” where Jews got off the trains, said Haimi, has been labelled as being toward the right end of the German officers’ village-like complex, or “front camp.”
In actuality, said Haimi, the ramp was located more to the left of those buildings, past the distinctive roof of the “Sparrow’s Nest.” Today, the green and brown building is all that remains of the charming “front camp” belonging to Sobibor’s German SS staff.
Haimi also believes the photo of Niemann on a horse would not have been taken on the ramp, as captions have indicated.
“It would have been too risky for Niemann to have his photo taken there,” said Haimi. In essence, said the archeologist, Niemann would not have created evidence placing him as deputy commander in the area where transports were received.
Instead, said Haimi, it’s likely the image was taken on a farm that was west of the camp, where pigs, ducks, and geese were raised. In addition to the risky nature of the camp’s deputy commander posing on the ramp, said Haimi, the building behind him seems out of place with buildings that lined the ramp.
‘You see they enjoyed themselves’
A key part of Haimi’s excavations at Sobibor involved creating a definitive map of the camp layout, since only one structure — the so-called “Sparrow’s Nest” — remains today.
Although the Germans dismantled the actual killing facilities some weeks after the October 1943 revolt, they did not take apart their serene-looking “front camp.” Nor did they remove other key aspects of the camp at large, said Haimi.
In August 1944, the Red Army photographed the grounds of Sobibor and interviewed eye-witnesses. The “front camp” still had some buildings intact, although others had been stripped down to their brick chimneys. Fencing around the ramp was in place, as were the small guard structures resembling telephone booths.
Photos from the Russian report also showed piles of bones, women’s hair, and baby carriages. As illustrated by these images and on-site interviews, the Germans did not dismantle and thoroughly plow over Sobibor in 1943.
Like the series of Russian photos taken in 1944, the “Sobibor Perpetrator Collection” helps refine our understanding of the camp map, said Haimi. For example, the guard tower wide-shot demonstrates that nearly all of the post-war maps created of Camp I — where Jewish prisoners who served the SS lived — erroneously placed a row of buildings too close to the fence.
For Haimi, the photo was confirmation of what his own excavations had demonstrated, namely the lack of barracks buildings where they were expected to be. The newly released photograph, said Haimi, makes several other points clear.
“You can see that the Germans did not want the prisoner buildings too close to the fence,” said Haimi. “They could not dig tunnels and escape. And it was also safer for the Germans to have that separation.”
The view from the guard tower also matches what survivor Selma Engel said in interviews about the “front camp” of the SS, according to Haimi. “You see the beautiful houses and gardens, like you came to a hotel,” said the archeologist.
For Haimi, the photo collection demonstrates the thinking of Sobibor’s SS officers, contradicting some myths in the process.
“We have heard always the perpetrators say that they were only following orders,” said Haimi. “But you can see in these photos you see they enjoyed themselves and felt at ease just 100 meters away from the gas chambers.”
Since 2017, a museum and visitor center have been under construction at Sobibor. Before construction started, the field of mass graves was covered with crushed white marble. Steps were taken to preserve the gas chamber foundations excavated by Haimi and his Polish partner of more than one decade, Wojtek Mazurek.
According to a spokesperson at the State Museum at Majdanek, some photos from Niemann’s album will be part of the emerging Sobibor museum’s permanent display. For years, the Majdanek museum has stewarded developments at Sobibor, including excavations and ongoing construction of tourist facilities.
Set to open in 2021, the Sobibor museum will house hundreds of artifacts unearthed by Haimi and Mazurek, including the name-tags of murdered children, elaborate jewelry, and souvenirs purchased by victims during travels abroad.