Legacy of a camp executioner: 361 photos from Sobibor


The black-and-white photos show a kind of village with white houses. There is a wooden gate, with carvings that represent a gem. Below the inscription: Erbhof, Hofstede. Everything well maintained and it looks almost lovely. But the watchtowers, waving flags with SS runes and swastika make it clear that these photos shed light on a dark past: this is the Sobibor extermination camp.

Until now there was only a rudimentary image of the camp. There was a map based on an aerial photo and witness statements from survivors. How it looked further was not well known. “I thought it was all much more provisional,” says historian Andreas Kahrs of the Humboldt University in Berlin, who has often been there. He is one of the scientists who did research into the photos that were discovered in 2015 and were presented in book form in Berlin last Tuesday.

Sobibor was a Nazi death camp: most of the Jewish prisoners were sent directly to the gas chambers after entering. A total of 170,000 people were killed. In 1943, the camp was also the scene of a major prisoner revolt.


The photos also give a good insight into the career of Johann Niemann, the deputy commander of Sobibor, who was killed with an ax during the camp uprising in 1943.

The photos come from his legacy. Recently a grandson of Niemann gave them to an amateur historian and handed them over Bildungswerk Stanisław Hantz, an association that organizes training trips to Sobibor, among other things. Researchers from the association, including Kahrs, then started an investigation with Martin Cüppers from Stuttgart University. “At the beginning of last year, we still found documents and eighty photos with the grandson in the attic and in cupboards. In total there are 361 photos. ”


Staged photo of Johann Niemann on horseback, summer 1943. In the background a living barracks of camp guards, in the foreground a piece of wood can be seen: part of the platform where the trains arrived in Sobibor.
Photo from discussed book

Niemann was born in 1913 in Völlen, near the Dutch border, more than twenty kilometers northeast of Bourtange. He was the fifth in a family of nine children. At the age of eighteen, Niemann joined the NSDAP and the SA, and later the SS. Through a period as a guard in the Esterwegen concentration camps – near his birthplace – and Sachsenhausen, Niemann started a career in the Nazi destruction system. From 1939 he was involved in Aktion T4 in Grafeneck, Bernburg and Brandenburg, the euthanasia of 70,000 mentally and physically handicapped. Niemann was charged with burning the corpses. The photos from that period show civilians, in the background the buildings where the atrocities took place. One of the photographs also shows Gottfried Schwarz, who had a similar career to Niemann: he was deputy commander of the Belzec extermination camp after Aktion T4, before he was killed by partisans in Italy in 1944. Of the approximately 120 people who, according to recent research, were closely involved in the destruction practices, more are included in the photos. One of them is Franz Wolf, who was responsible for, among other things, the photographic “documentation” of Aktion T4. He is probably also the one who has taken many photos in Niemann’s collection. Niemann himself had no camera and did not take photos. He ordered them after. Witness the inscription “30 Stück” on the back of a photo he was not the only one.


After a short period in Belzec, Niemann arrived in Sobibor in the spring of 1942. Here, among other things, he had a heroic photo of himself on horseback made on the platform and printed as a postcard. The fifty photos of Sobibor mainly show the Vorlager, where people enjoyed a drink in uniform and kept animals. The photos that the researchers found later also include fourteen photos of the ceremonial lay-out and funeral of Niemann. Nicely preserved by his wife Henriette, who lived in his native village and was sixteen when she became pregnant with the ten-year-old Niemann.


Group photo with Johann Niemann (third from the left) on the terrace of a new one officer canteen in Sobibor. Photo from discussed book

The photos also show that Henriette has regularly visited her husband in the places where he did his death work. She was also there when he was allowed to make a reward trip to Berlin with two SS friends and Ukrainian guards. According to historians, who call the investigation of Nazi women still unexplored territory, Henriette was also a convinced Nazi who appointed Dutch war criminal Jan Hajo Klimp escaped from prison after the war.

Also read: Pechersky the Jewish hero of Sobibor

The traces of destruction and the crica are 170,000 Jews killed in Sobibor. Traces that, for example, have come to light through archaeological excavations. “But you do see the courtyard in the Erbhof where the victims had to undress before they passed through the Schlauch, the Snake, were taken to the gas chambers, “says Kahrs. On three photos you can also see the crane with which the corpses were laid on stake. And there is even a glimpse of the gas chambers. On a group photo with Ukrainian guards you can very easily see an angular type of chimney. “We had been viewing the photos with magnifying glasses and digital magnifications for two years before we discovered them. Then you think: how could I not have seen it. ”


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