Sign for the train station at Sobibor, circa 1930. USHMM (N00943.01), courtesy of Polskie Koleje Panstwow S.A.

Sobibor was a death camp where approximately 250,000 primarily Jewish men, women and children from Poland, the Netherlands, France, Slovakia, Germany and Austria were murdered. It was also the site of one of the most remarkable acts of resistance to take place at a Nazi death camp.  On 14 October 1943, inspired by some Soviet POWs who had recently arrived at the camp, several hundred of the surviving inmates pitted themselves against the vastly superior strength and weapons of the Nazi SS and the Ukrainian guards.  Stealing whatever weapons they could lay their hands on, the group managed to kill eleven Nazis and an unknown number of guards.  The majority of the escapees died in the following days, killed by minefields around the camp, or shot by guards who combed the surrounding countryside for survivors.  Fifty men and women, however, made it through to the end of the war, and their reports give us a surprising amount of information about cultural life, to the extent that it existed, at Sobibor.

At the beginning of its operation, unlike its fellow Operation Reinhard camps Treblinka and Belzec, Sobibor did not have a camp orchestra.  Instead, arriving trains were blasted with music from loudspeakers. It seems, however, that an orchestra was established later on, as the survivor Dov Freiberg remembered arriving at Sobibor to the “cries of women and children, shouts and wild laughter of the SS men, the noise of a working engine, and music played by an orchestra”.  As was typical at Nazi death camps, from every transport a handful of healthy-looking inmates were selected to staff the killing process; in addition, the camp maintained barracks for the small number of camp personnel, secretaries and workers.  These prisoners, who might live for weeks or even months, were sometimes forced to participate in ‘cultural activity’. When there were no volunteers to be in a choir, for example, guards ordered a group of men and women to sing.  Eventually there developed a real chorus under the direction of a volunteer conductor.  When prisoners marched to work, they were also made to sing: usually military marches in German, Polish, Ukrainian or Russian.

There were more abusive uses of music.  Guards would force Jewish prisoners to sing anti-Semitic songs; at the end of the ‘performance’, surrounding prisoners would be made to kneel and say ‘Amen’.  On other occasions inmates were forced to lie in coffins while the SS sang anti-Semitic verses, or would be forced to dance together.  Prisoners were also forced regularly to sing an ironic song composed at Sobibor, with the chorus “our life is happy here/ we receive good food/ how happy we are in the green forest/ where I stay”.  One former inmate, who took part in the later revolt, believed that

the music, the dancing, and the women all had one purpose – to kill any thought of liberation that the prisoners might have; they [the Germans] wanted to turn them into unthinking instruments.

There were also, however, moments of musical comfort and co-operation.  Those ‘lucky’ enough to be assigned to the barracks rather than sent directly to the gas chambers tried to find solace in any way possible: many turned to their faith and recited evening prayers together, and there was also spontaneous singing in the barracks in the evenings, after the work day was over.  One survivor, for example, remembered the lovely singing voice of a Dutch Jewess who arrived in the summer of 1943. She described how one night

a young, beautiful girl from Holland entered the barracks.  She started to sing the well-known song ‘Mother’.  She had a strong, pleasant voice, and the word ‘mother’ was expressed sadly and movingly.  This was the only word that I understood … I wanted to cry.  I had lost my parents only a few days before.

Group portrait of participants in the uprising in the Sobibor death camp. [Photograph #10625]

Sources

Arad, Y., 1987. Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Extermination Camps, Bloomington and Indiananapolis: Indiana University Press.  

Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.  

Langbein, H., 1994. Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-45, New York: Paragon House.