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Germany to support creation of Sobibor memorial

December 24, 2018

Germany's government will put €1 million toward supporting a Holocaust memorial at Sobibor. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in the Nazi extermination camp from 1942 to '43, the victims of Operation Reinhardt.

Polen, Sobibor: Gedenktafel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Wierzchowski

Fountain pens, books, playing cards, earrings, combs, hairpins, watches and thousands of other items were taken from prisoners shortly before they entered the gas chambers at Sobibor. Today, there are only small memorials to mark the murders at the site of the extermination camp. Objects dug up over the years of archaeological excavation will be stored at another memorial site: Majdanek, near Lublin.

Germany will offer €1 million ($1.14 million) toward a permanent exhibition at Sobibor so that visitors never forget the country's Nazi-era crimes. The finances will initially go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which will then transfer it to Sobibor. The exhibition is scheduled to open within two years.

"Sobibor can now be redeveloped as a memorial site," said Piotr Mateusz Andrzej Cywinski, the head of the foundation and the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum for the past 12 years. "A building is currently being constructed there to house the future permanent exhibition. Remembering Sobibor is important. There was an uprising here by the inmates against the camp guards. That only happened in two other places: in Treblinka and in Auschwitz-Birkenau."

After signing the agreement with Cywinski, Rolf Nikel, Germany's ambassador to Poland, said the financial contribution would help ensure that "the memorial to the crimes that were committed by Germans, in the name of Germany, can be maintained."

Piotr Cywinski and Rolf Nikel sign the Sobibor agreement
Cywinski (left) and Nikel signed the agreement on December 19 in WarsawImage: DW/M. Sieradzka

Systematic murder

Along with Belzec and Treblinka, Sobibor is one of the three extermination camps set up under Operation Reinhardt. From July 1942 through October 1943, more than 2 million Jews and an estimated 50,000 Roma were murdered across Europe. In Sobibor alone, more than 34,000 children were killed using exhaust fumes from diesel engines. Though most of the victims at Sobibor were Polish, Jews and Roma from the Netherlands, Slovakia and France were also gassed here. At least 20,000 German Jews were among the victims.

Though there is no agreed-upon death toll for Sobibor, estimates range from 170,000 to more than 300,000 people killed. On October 14, 1943, the prisoners staged their uprising, and about 300 succeeded in fleeing the camp; fewer than 60 of them survived.

In 2007, Polish and Israeli archaeologists began to excavate the site of the former camp. In 2014, they uncovered the remnants of the gas chambers. Thousands of personal items that had been stolen from victims were discovered. 

Archaeological dig at Sobibor
Archaeological excavation led to the recovery of the belongings of murdered prisonersImage: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Poland is trying to raise awareness

For years Poland's government has been trying to bring international attention to Sobibor, and to collect money for the memorial. Israel and EU countries such as Slovakia and the Netherlands — from where the Nazis deported Jews to their deaths at Sobibor — have also shown an interest.

Germany's Left party has called on tthe government to budget €4 million to the Sobibor project since 2015. The lawmaker Brigitte Freihold said it was necessary "for Germany to fulfill its obligations, which were laid out in the Terezin Declaration." The Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues was signed by 46 states. Countries pledged to ensure the upkeep of Holocaust memorials.

Freihold also spoke of young Germans' "appalling" lack of knowledge about their country's history. According to a recent poll by CNN, 40 percent of Germans aged 18 to 34 know nothing, or very little, about their country's systematic extermination of Jews and other minority groups during the Holocaust.

The Quarrel about the Former Concentration Camp Sobibor