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24 march 2019

Jules Schelvis' Sobibor is an invaluable documentation of the Shoah, a compelling and at the same time punishing book to read.

Schelvis was a survivor of the Sobibor extermination camp, though he was only there for a few hours after his deportation from the Netherlands. Any longer, and it is near-impossible he could have survived. Sobibor – unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, but akin to its fellow "Reinhardt" death camps (Treblinka and Bełzec) – was not a camp where anything was produced for the Third Reich, except corpses. The SS men who ran these camps murdered nearly all comers as soon as they arrived, with intermittent "selections" of some workers for slave-labor camps elsewhere (by means of which, Schelvis was spared). The special-purpose death camps were the most evil (if there's a relativity to such a thing), and the most secret, of all Nazi establishments. The killers would sometimes remark on how proud future generations would be of their work, but the care they took to keep their crimes hidden belies their confidence in that assertion.

Schelvis dedicated his life to the near-impossible task of documenting Sobibor. His wife and her family died there, and he was determined that their memory, and that of the many thousands who suffered with them, should not fall into oblivion. Near-impossible, though, because Nazis physically erased Sobibor as much as they could, and destroyed its records (deliberately minimal to start with). Official references to what the SS did at Sobibor are few, usually oblique and euphemistic.

The men who ran the camp were hand-picked for their capacity for silence – though this distinction was not really a vote of confidence from Nazi officialdom. The higher-ups knew that there was something wrong with most of the SS men they sent to places like Sobibor, however central their violence was to Hitler's mission. Sobibor, Treblinka, Bełzec were not places that regular units rotated through. The killing, done on a relentless, unfathomable scale, deranged most normal people put to it, and a Darwinian process of sorts meant that only the most violent and amoral characters specialized in death-camp killings.

The victims' experience was brief: they would get off trains and head straight for gas chambers. Their clothing, valuables, and hair would be stripped; their dental gold removed after they died. This ghastly routine prevailed through 1942 and 1943, till the late-1943 revolt that led to the closing of Sobibor. The revolt has been the subject of many narratives and some fictionalizations, but Schelvis' matter-of-fact chronicle is as thrilling as any suspense novel could be.

Despite its status as a single-minded killing machine, Sobibor needed some basic slave labor to keep it going. The SS kept a small group of Arbeitshäftlinge – labor-prisoners – alive to work on the camp itself. The basic idea was to have a tiny contingent of SS men supervise "Ukrainians" (captured Soviets) who oversaw the labor prisoners and other camp functions. The Arbeitshäftlinge, explains Schelvis, would routinely be killed and replaced with new arrivals. In the fall of 1943, some Jewish soldiers of the Red Army arrived, and were put to work instead of being put to death. An amazing character named Alexander Petsjerski organized a surprise attack on the SS men, killing quite a few, and led several hundred prisoners out of the camp. The revolt was somewhat Quixotic and its consequences tragic, in that all those who stayed behind in the camp were subsequently murdered. They would have been murdered in short order anyway, but the moral dilemma of having to save one's self while abandoning others surely weighed on the rebels.

Soon after the revolt, the Nazis closed Sobibor, as they had closed other death camps. The whole enterprise was too precarious, the garrisons too small and the locations too remote (because of the imperative for secrecy). People will sometimes ask why Jews being sent to certain death did not rebel, and the simplest answer is that they did – they did in Warsaw, they did at Treblinka and Auschwitz, they did as partisans across Eastern Europe. In the case of the death camps, captive Jews ultimately made their operations untenable by rebelling. If any hope comes out of the story of Sobibor – which is just about the worst thing in human history – it is that evil may not be able to subsist beyond a certain point. People will ultimately shake it off, even with great odds against them – in part because evil so corrodes the evil-doer.

Schelvis gives great context for Sobibor, at times giving a capsule history of the entire Holocaust and at others a more general history of similar camps. His approach is never patronizing, yet at the same time he does not assume that the reader is already a specialist on the history of the Holocaust.

Schelvis closes the book with brief items on known survivors and perpetrators. The list is small. Only 47 of the Sobibor rebels ultimately survived the war, as against 170,000 who died there. The list of identified SS men at the camp, as mentioned, was small: some were killed during the revolt or elsewhere during the war, and a few were brought to trial much later. The stories of individuals (including Schelvis himself) are the most intriguing part of the book. The survivors' paths took them in strange and contradictory directions. Regina Zielinski, for example, a Polish Jew, wandered around Poland looking for a haven after her escape from Sobibor. She ultimately reckoned that the safest place to alight would be Germany. Zielinski traveled to Frankfurt-am-Main and took a job as a housemaid, learning German as quickly as she could from the family's four-year-old son. With murderous groups of many kinds scouring Poland for Jews to kill, this move made weird sense and led to her surviving the war, moving to Australia, and later adding her oral history to the archives that Schelvis collected for his book.

Schelvis, Jules. Sobibor: A history of a Nazi death camp. Edited by Bob Moore. Translated by Karin Dixon. Oxford: Berg, 2007. D 805.5 .S62S34