October 29, 2020 — New York
By Bjorn Okholm Skaarup
“Sobibor was once a visually black hole. These photos now validate what the survivors have been telling us all along,” says Anatol Steck, Project Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is referring to a collection of photographs from the Sobibor extermination camp compiled by its deputy commandant, Johann Niemann, which the museum recently acquired. Sobibor was the second of three extermination camps opened during Operation Reinhard, the Nazi term for the genocide of Poland’s Jews. Among the estimated 1.8 million Jews killed in the Polish “General Government,” ten percent perished in this camp, hidden away in the deep “Forest of the Owls” (Sobibór in Polish).
The collection consists of 361 photographs, half of them compiled in two photo albums. In 2015, Niemann’s grandson gave this entire, hitherto unknown collection to Bildungswerk Stanislaw Hantz (BSH), a German organization of volunteer historians, which later donated it to the Holocaust Museum. BSH historians and Martin Cüppers, Director of Forschungsstelle Ludwigsburg of Stuttgart University, recently published the photos in book form, Fotos aus Sobibor.
The photographs show Niemann starting out as a house painter apprentice before entering the SS, ultimately serving in both the Belzec and Sobibor death camps: “I am sure that similar collections were destroyed right after the war”, says Anatol Steck, “but in this case there was no reason for the family to do so, because the perpetrator, Niemann, was no longer alive, and this material was pretty much forgotten about and ignored. What I find amazing is that it goes from the very beginnings to the very end and shows how this ordinary man becomes a willing mass murderer on behalf of the German state.”
Dr. Jürgen Matthaus from the Holocaust Museum credits the perseverance of Niemann’s grandson, who discovered and donated not only the photo archive, but also related personal letters, inventory lists, and account books. The 50 Niemann photos from Sobibor (as well as four from Belzec, taken when he served there) provide exceptionally rare visual glimpses into the Operation Reinhard camps, known until now almost exclusively from ”Schöne Zeiten,” the photo album kept by the last Treblinka commander, Kurt Franz.
Franz and Niemann began their parallel careers in late 1939, when they were both summoned to Berlin to interview for jobs with the Aktion T4 “euthanasia” program. In later trials and interviews Franz recounted that Niemann had charge of the Belzec Totenlager, and was involved in the experimentation with gassing methods that were later imitated in Sobibor and Treblinka. Arriving at Sobibor in April 1942, Niemann personally brought the diesel engine used for the first gassings there in May. By then he was already a brutalized technocrat with more than two years of expertise in mass murder.
One of Niemann’s two photo albums was compiled at Brandenburg, one of the three Aktion T4 killing centers, where Niemann worked as Brenner (stoker) in 1940-41. Numerous photos display him and his wife relaxing at the Austrian T4 resort on Attersee in September 1941 following the official termination of the Aktion T4, which had until then employed more than 500 men and women, some of whom met and even married during their service. On photos from this “reward trip” Johann and Henriette Niemann are seen with their close friends, Herbert and Danida Floss. Floss would later join Niemann in Sobibor and there (and later in Treblinka) gain his skills as a cremation expert, overseeing the burnings of an estimated 700,000 corpses. The authors of Fotos aus Sobibor attribute most of the Niemann photos to the brothers Franz and Joseph Wolff, the official photographers of Aktion T4 who also joined Niemann and Floss in Sobibor.
Two months after the Austrian getaway, Niemann was again united with his T4 colleagues. Their new top-secret operation, later known as Operation Reinhard, was run from Lublin by former Vienna Gauleiter Odilo Globočnik, who appointed his fellow Austrians and former T4 employees as commanders of both Sobibor and Treblinka. Most of Niemann’s 50 Sobibor photographs date from the spring and summer of 1943, after most of the estimated 185,000 killings there had already taken place. The rotating camp personnel totaled about 50 Germans and 400 foreign auxiliary guards.
The bird’s-eye views of the camp on these photos enable a thorough reconstruction of its size and appearance. Although no detailed photos of the gassing and cremation facilities appear, a closer look reveals the excavator arm of a huge mechanical digger behind the treetops in the hidden Camp III, where thousands of corpses were being piled onto enormous funeral pyres. Niemann’s photos of the auxiliary guards include two that purportedly show Ivan Demjanjuk, whose surviving identity card recorded him in Sobibor from March 1943. One of these shows the auxiliaries posing near the “tube”, a curved, narrow path leading the victims from Camp II towards the gas chambers in Camp III—and also reveal the roof and chimney of the Camp III gassing facilities.
Among the Operation Reinhard camps, Sobibor received the largest number of arrivals from Western Europe (including 34,000 Dutch Jews), who often came with plenty of food and belongings. Some 600 Jewish prisoners were kept alive for shorter or longer periods to carry out construction work or to sort through the enormous loot from the murdered victims. In late June 1943, while going through the clothes of the recently arrived (and instantly killed) last Jewish Sonderkommando from Belzec, prisoners found written notes warning that Belzec had been liquidated, and that Sobibor would be next. Most of the Sobibor photos date from this period and show the SS staff before their imminent transfer to Trieste in Northern Italy. On snapshots from the garrison area, Niemann and camp commandant Franz Reichleitner, the sadistic Lagerspiess Gustav Wagner, and the self-declared Gasmeister Erich Bauer are seen relaxing on a terrace surrounded by garden flowers. These and other SS men are photographed playing chess and music, consuming alcohol or enjoying themselves in the company of local female servants. No one is armed or seemingly worried about their personal safety in these rare photos, taken only a few months before the prison riot that led to the violent deaths of 11 of these SS men.
The second Niemann album documents another “reward trip,” this time a bus tour from Lublin to Berlin in the late summer of 1943. The photographs show the tour bus starting off in a camp near Odilo Globočnik’s Lublin headquarters, which served as the sorting facility for the looted goods from the death camps. The album shows Niemann in the company of his two SS subordinates, Herbert Floss and Hubert Gomerski, and 22 auxiliary guards being greeted and guided around Berlin and Potsdam by officials from the Führer’s private chancellery. These include Dieter Allers and Werner Blankenburg, who hired the personnel to carry out the genocide and personally inspected all killing facilities. Niemann’s photos show these so-called ”desk murderers” together with the actual perpetrators, thus revealing the collective and bureaucratic nature of this vast state enterprise.
Shortly after the Berlin trip Niemann wrote to his wife that he was “personally doing very well,” while also revealing the plans for his future transfer to Trieste. Some weeks later, however, a group of captured Jewish Red Army soldiers organized a revolt with almost surgical precision. Within an hour, they lured the SS men, starting with Niemann, into the camp workshops and killed them one by one with axes before cutting off electricity and telephones and launching a mass escape. Half of the 600 prisoners escaped, though fewer than 60 survived the war. The last survivor, Semion Rozenfeld, was shown the Niemann photos before his death last year at the age of 96. Rozenfeld had managed to rejoin the Red Army and fought his way to Berlin, where he wrote “Sobibor-Berlin” on the ruins of the conquered Reichstag. The last photos in the archive show the elaborate funeral service held for the 11 murdered SS men; their Aktion T4 bosses Allers and Blankenburg came all the way from Berlin to Poland to oversee their internment.
The successful October 14 revolt in Sobibor (following the revolt in Treblinka two months earlier) enabled nearly 120 prisoners—about one for every ten thousand murdered victims—to reveal the horrors inside these camps. Some survivors would later recognize their former tormentors, as was the case with Gasmeister Erich Bauer, and Hubert Gomerski, who had joined Niemann on the bus tour to Berlin. While several of these and other SS defendants later gave important historical testimony about their activities in the death camps, their light sentences dwarfed the enormity of their crimes. When Schindler’s List premiered in 1993, not only were some of the survivors of the Holocaust in Poland still alive, but so were some of the worst perpetrators: Kurt Franz, the last commander of Treblinka and creator of the “Schöne Zeiten” album, acting Sobibor Camp I commandant Karl Frenzel, who had been the main target of the October 14 revolt, and Niemann’s travel companion Hubert Gomerski from the Sobibor Totenlager. Charged with hundreds of individual cases of torture and murder committed while working in mechanized death factories, they served only a part of their original life sentences and all died as free men in the late 1990s. Gomerski even managed to win almost 64,000 DM as compensation for some of his time served.
As late as 2009, a last Sobibor trial was held in Germany, with Ivan Demjanjuk in the dock. Some of the photos may show Demjanjuk, and this discovery, if made earlier, would have been useful during his Israeli trial, which failed to identify him as Ivan Grozny of Treblinka. The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Ben Ferencz, who personally entered numerous liberated camps before overseeing the Einsatzgruppen Trial, comments on the Demjanjuk trials: “He was not Ivan the Terrible, but he was Ivan the Not so Terrible from another camp. It was a case of mistaken identity. But everyone who was employed in these camps was a participant in mass murder. Don’t tell me the opposite, because I saw it in action.” Erich Bauer, who appears on several of the Niemann photos was perhaps more honest than any other defendant in his admission of such shared guilt: “I cannot exclude any member of the Sobibor camp staff of taking part in the extermination operation. We were a blood brotherhood gang in a foreign land. We were a band of fellow conspirators."
The Niemann photos show the many small cogs in the grinding wheel of the Nazi genocide top-down, from its bureaucrats to its most humble foot-soldiers. The donation of the archive by Niemann’s grandson represents an unusually noble gesture, as its contents incriminate not only his grandfather, but ultimately also his grandmother, who is revealed to have profited handsomely from her husband’s activities. Scrutiny of Henriette Niemann’s account books from 1942-44 reveal deposits made to her and her parents’ accounts of almost 40,000 RM (about seven times Niemann’s yearly salary). Most of this ill-gotten wealth would soon become worthless due to the postwar abolishment of the Reichsmark.
Jürgen Matthaus comments on the discovery and its implications for future research: “As shown here the Holocaust did not only involve a small group of perpetrators. It was really a shared undertaking.” Henriette Niemann’s continued loyalty to the cause was demonstrated by her choice of a new husband, a prominent Dutch SS collaborator sentenced to 12 years in absentia for war crimes committed in Holland. She would also maintain her friendship with Danida Floss, who was widowed only a week after the Sobibor revolt when her cremation expert husband was killed by his own auxiliaries. In the summer of 1944, the two young widows grieved together during another holiday trip to the Aktion T4 resort on Attersee.
The Sobibor Perpetrator Collection has now found a fitting home at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where it will contribute significantly to our knowledge of a harrowing chapter of modern history.
Bjorn Okholm Skaarup is an historian and sculptor, based in New York. He contributes regularly to the Danish weekly Weekendavisen, and has had major public sculpture installations throughout New York City.