Published On: Tue, Jan 28th, 2020

Newly released PHOTOS of top Nazi officer give rare glimpse of life inside Sobibor death camp

The new release of photos belonging to a Nazi commander at the Sobibor death camp sheds new light on the Holocaust site, of which very few images were known to exist. Sobibor was destroyed by the Nazis after a prisoner uprising.

The cache of photographs featuring the Sobibor camp, which operated in Nazi-occupied Poland between May 1942 and October 1943, was made public by the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin on Tuesday. The collection of 361 photos and dozens of other documents is also set to be put on display by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

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The collection was donated by the descendants of Johann Niemann, deputy commandant of the death camp. Niemann was killed by an ax-wielding Jewish prisoner on October 14, 1943 during the famous Sobibor uprising – one of the few successful death camp riots against the Nazis. After the uprising, the camp was razed to the ground by the Nazis, who tried to erase the memory of Sobibor altogether, and few artifacts survived to tell the story of this terrible place.

“At least 167,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor. However, until now we had almost no photographic evidence of this Nazi killing center,” director of the USHMM Sara J. Bloomfield said.

The photos give a rare glimpse of how the death camp looked and operated, showing some of the key structures of the horrific killing site.

View of the Sobibor killing center, early summer 1943. ©  USHMM

Many photos feature Niemann himself – the SS officer apparently enjoyed greeting his soon-to-be victims in person at the train arrival ramps.

Johann Niemann posing on horseback on the arrival ramp at the Sobibor killing center, summer 1943. ©  USHMM

They also show other SS officers and auxiliary guards – recruited among Soviet POWs and willing civilians, primarily from the Ukrainian population of the Nazi-occupied territories – at work.

Gate of the Sobibor killing center, 1942-43. ©  USHMM

And they were also photographed having fun off-duty, mere meters away from their horrifying ‘workplace’.

SS personnel relax on the patio of the officers’ dining room at Sobibor (known as the “Kasino”), 1943. ©  USHMM

Apart from the photos from Sobibor itself, the collection features pictures snapped by the death camp’s personnel during a 1943 trip to Berlin.

In 1943, staff from the Sobibor killing center went on a field trip to Berlin. This photo shows Sobibor personnel with officials of Hitler’s chancellery. ©  USHMM

It also highlights Niemann’s murderous ‘career’ even before he was assigned to Sobibor. The Nazi officer partook in the so-called Aktion T4 forced ‘euthanasia’ program, and served for a time in another death camp, Belzec.

Auxiliary guards pose under the supervision of Johann Niemann (center) in the courtyard of the camp commandant’s building. Belzec killing center, spring 1942. ©  USHMM

At least two photos are said to feature John Demjanjuk – a Ukrainian-born Sobibor death camp guard, who was convicted by a German court in 2011 as an accessory to the murder of 27,000 Jews. Demjanjuk died in 2012, aged 91, while appealing the verdict, having maintained his innocence and claimed that all the evidence against him was forged by the Soviet Union.

Group photo of auxiliary (Trawniki) guards at the Sobibor killing center, spring 1943. Demjanjuk is believed to be the man in the middle of the first row. ©  USHMM

As the authenticity of the newly-surfaced photos is of no doubt, they may finally end speculation over Demjanjuk’s innocence or otherwise for good – if the researchers can positively establish the man pictured is indeed him.

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