Ultimately responsible for the murders in the context of Aktion Reinhardt, was the Nazi-leadership who after all gave the order to organize the death camps. The systematic murder of the Jews in the General Government (Eastern Poland) was coordinated by the fanatical National Socialist Odilo Globocnik, head of the SS and police services in the district of Lublin. The highest authority in the camp was the camp commander: in Sobibor Franz Stangl was in charge first, followed by Franz Reichleitner, both Austrians. Stangl had been involved in the murder by poison gas of mentally and physically handicapped persons. After protests from the Christian churches, Hitler decided to put an end to this so-called Aktion T4 in 1941. Partly based on his experience Stangl was appointed commander of Sobibor the following year, where he organized the extermination operation. In August 1942 he was succeeded by his compatriot Reichleitner, who was stricter than his predecessor but who rarely showed his face in the camp. He left the daily management to Gustav Wagner, who had also been involved in the murder of the mentally and physically handicapped. Countless prisoners who worked in the camp considered him one of the most cruel SS. Everybody tried to steer clear of him as much as possible, because he was known to shoot prisoners for no reason at all. Together with Karl Frenzel Wagner decided which newly arriving Jews had to work in Sobibor, or in a work camp nearby. Most of the prisoners who arrived in Sobibor, however, were sent straight to the gas chambers.
"I was well-liked by the Jews"
A total of twenty-five to thirty German SS men were deployed in Sobibor, but never more than eighteen at the same time. Surviving prisoners who had been forced to work in the camp for any length of time, have vivid memories of their bullies. Because in addition to the continuous and methodical murder by gassing or shooting, the SS staff in the camp carried on a constant reign of terror. Even the people who had to work in the camp never knew whether they would be sent to the gas chamber – frequently over nothing. It becomes clear from the memories of survivors that nearly every SS man appeared to have his own sadistic specialty. Hubert Gomerski, for example, is said to have killed prisoner with a stick with nails protruding from it. Paul Bredow often targeted young girls he would beat severely with a whip. Paul Groth and Kurt Bolender would sic dogs on prisoners. These men apparently without qualms abandoned themselves to all kinds of violence, while at the same time organizing the murder of tens of thousands of victims. However, what memories the camp SS have of their crimes and of the brief contacts with individual prisoners they sent to their deaths, we do not know.
We do have biographical data on a few perpetrators, and some of them have made statements about Sobibor during interrogations in German courts. During those trials they did not dispute the mass murder in itself, but they all indicated not feeling responsible for their actions, which they minimized or flat-out denied. A disconcerting look inside the head of one of the perpetrators was granted to those present in the courtroom in Göttingen by the feared Karl Frenzel, where he was tried in 1962. ‘I feel I am justified in saying,’ he stated, ‘that I was well-liked by the Jews’. Only Stangl, the first commander of Sobibor, showed a willingness to talk at length about his past with a reporter after his arrest in Brazil and extradition to Germany. But his account is also intended primarily to make himself look good and depict his participation in the crimes as insignificant.
When SS-Obersturmbahnführer Stangl was appointed commander of Sobibor in April 1942, he brought with him some thirty SS, who - like himself - had participated in the murder of mentally and physically disabled persons. The men who had been transferred to Sobibor were obliged to sign a statement compelling them to observe secrecy. Taking photographs inside the camp was strictly forbidden and even after leaving the service the SS were not allowed to talk about their work in the camp. The SS who organized the killing, were officially not allowed to appropriate belongings of the prisoners, and were supposed to send all valuables and usable belongings of the victims to the German Reich. Every three months they could take two to three weeks leave. On 12 February 1943 the camp SS celebrated. As Aktion Reinhardt was largely completed, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler honoured favoured the camp with a visit and a banquet was prepared in his honour. Earlier that day the camp comanders had brought a few hundred girls and women from Lublin to Sobibor to demonstrate the exceptional efficiency of the killing operation to Himmler and his retinue.
The German SS personnel were assisted by Ukrainian guards, who had undergone special training in Trawniki near Lublin. They were generally Red Army soldiers taken prisoner, who had joined the Germans voluntarily or otherwise. In many cases these Trawniki had a choice between starving in the POW camp or joining the German army as Hiwis (Hilfswillige, or voluntary helpers). They came from almost every Soviet republic, but mostly from the Ukraine and the Baltic states. They were often under the command of Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) from the Soviet Union, who spoke both Russian and German. About 250 Trawniki worked at Sobibor at any given time. They guarded the camp near the gates, in watchtowers, and they patrolled the perimeter of the camp. They also guarded the prisoners in the Waldkommando who worked in the woods. Inside the camp complex they guarded the entrances between the different sections of the camp. In addition, they guarded Lager III where the gas chambers were located, in order to prevent contact between this section and other sections of the camp as much as possible. On orders from the Germans they carried out most of the executions in the camp. The Polish Jews named them the ‘blacks’ after the colour of their uniforms, or ‘karaloechies’ (cockroaches). Quite frequently they surpassed their German masters in cruelty towards the prisoners. They were armed with whips and captured Russian carbines. But as the Germans never fully trusted the Trawniki - for example: in December 1942 two of them fled the camp with five Jewish women - they were issued only a few cartridges and only when they were on duty.