Worth a Trip: Forgotten Holocaust: Sobibór And Bełżec
When it comes to the Holocaust, much of the world’s attention has gone to the atrocities of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. In the far east of Poland are two camps – Sobibór and Bełżec – that are less well known, but that certainly merit a visit in order to better understand the breadth of the Germans’ extermination policy. At these camps, there was no ‘selection’ process, very little chance for the prisoners to work, and crucially no chance for them to survive. In most instances, the victims were simply transported to the camps, off-loaded, undressed and gassed.
Both camps were formed under the Germans’ ‘Operation Reinhard’, their secret plan to murder the Jewish population of occupied Poland, and both operated from early-1942 to 1943. It was at these camps that the Germans perfected their mass-killing techniques, such as using gas, which they would later apply at other extermination centres, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Though the exact numbers of casualties is impossible to verify, the consensus is that around 170,000 people were murdered at Sobibór and 400,000 to 600,000 at Bełżec. There were only three known survivors from Bełżec.
Though these camps attract a tiny fraction of the number of visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau, both Sobibór and Bełżec have small, thoughtful memorials (Bełżec also has a small museum) where you can learn more about these lesser-known killing camps. Sobibór, which lies about 80km east of Lublin, 50km north of Chełm, and 10km south of the modern Polish village of Sobibór, is the harder of the two to reach; there’s only one daily train from Chełm. Inquire at the LOIT offices in Lublin about arranging a tour with a guide. At the time of research, the small museum at Sobibór was closed, but the grounds of the former camp were open to the public and signposted in English.
Bełżec, which lies about 100km south of Lublin, is accessible by regular minibuses from Zamość, or inquire at the LOIT offices in Lublin for tour information. At Bełżec there’s a small museum with photos and text.