55 Years ago a Monument in Sobibór was built
On June 27, 1965 the ceremonial unveiling of the monument honouring the victims of the German extermination site in Sobibór, took place within the area of the camp. The monument was erected by the initiative of the Polish authorities represented by the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.
The ceremony was attended by numerous delegations from Poland as well as the representatives of the East Germany embassy. Alexander Pechersky, one of the leaders of the Sobibór’s prisoner uprising, had been invited as the guest of honour, but the Soviet authorities denied him entry to the Polish territory. Therefore, he did not appear at the ceremony.
The spatial development concept introduced in 1965 within the area of the former extermination camp was designed by Romuald Dylewski (1924-2019), an architect and urbanist associated with Lublin. It deserves a special recognition that he based his design upon the elements which “are ascertained and constitute the essence of the deed perpetrated in that place.” These included: the unloading ramp together with the spur line, the traces of the gas chambers, and the burial area where the ashes of the victims rest. Dylewski proposed his idea to create a path that would connect these three essential elements. The asphalt road began at the unloading ramp, where the trains transporting the deportees would arrive. From there, the path would stretch towards the area of the gas chambers location, where a column alluding to their existence was erected. It had a form of an 8-metre tall cuboid built of unevenly chopped stones. The design additionally proposed to embed some original brick components of the gas chambers building (the Germans had blown up the gas chambers during the camp’s liquidation), as well as to install a large figurative sculpture on the monument’s frontal side, suspended on metal pins.
From the gas chambers ground, the road would stretch towards the glade with mass graves, into the area of the former Lager III, where the Germans would at first burry the victims, and later burn their remains on the specially prepared fire grates. The path would culminate with a 6-metre tall mausoleum-mound created within a circle of a 50-metre radius. The pedestal built of rock rubble was surrounded by pavement leading around the mound. A glass showcase was designed at its front, offering an overview of the victim’s bones. Press articles published in 1965 implied that the victims’ remains collected from within the camp area were placed inside the mound. It was not confirmed by the archaeological research conducted in 2000, although it is certain that the mound’s outline corresponds with the location of the ashes’ burial sites.
The sculpture introduced in Dylewski’s design was created by Mieczysław Walter. His work represented a child cuddling to an anguished motherly figure. Both silhouettes were installed upon a pedestal and placed against the column-monument. This solution corresponded with the concept of the Lublin-based architect.
The sculpture was made out of artificial stone and iron filings (in the 1967 Sobibór brochure referred to as reinforced cement). These combined materials, however, proved to be impermanent, and the statue soon suffered substantial damage. The rusted filing would cause the entire parts of the sculpture to break off and thus, in 1973, the experts assessed its condition as catastrophic. It was imperative to reforge the sculpture into a different type of material. The sculptor suggested the use of granite, but as it proved too expensive, red sandstone was used instead. Welter re-created the sculpture in this new material, and, in 1977, it was placed on a new pedestal. During the works, a decision was made to move the sculpture a couple metres further from the column, thus the power of its meaning was reduced. It was especially noticeable to the representatives of the Fine Arts Studio in Lublin, who participated in the reconstruction process. Their suggestion was to “take down the stone and concrete pillar that, from [their] perspective, was unfortunately situated in the direct vicinity of the monument.” The stone column, however, remained intact.
The architectural and landscape concept that is currently being implemented by the State Museum at Majdanek as a memorial site within the former extermination camp in Sobibór, continues the principles established in the 1965 concept. In accordance with it, the glade with mass graces has already been covered with white stones. In the following year, the outline of the gas chambers will be displayed in their original location, and the sculpture-monument will be moved to a different location. Once renovated, it will be placed near the entry to the path that historically lead to the gas chambers (the so-called Schlauch/tube). This symbolic location will undoubtedly invoke the awareness of tragedy experienced by the victims who in that specific place were separated from their loved ones, and led to extermination.
1. The column-monument and the statue of mother cuddling her child in its original 1965 form. “In the memory of those murdered by the Hitlerites between 1942 and 1943” were the words engraved onto the commemorative plaque installed over the monument’s side.
2a, 2b. The translation of the letter written by Alexander Pechersky a few months before the unveiling ceremony. The letter was sent to Janusz Wieczorek, the head of the Office of the Council of Ministers and the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.
3a, 3b. The ceremony programme, which included a speech by Alexander Pechersky. He was also unable to come to Poland in the following years to personally pay homage to the victims of the death camp in Sobibór. He passed away in Rostov-on-Don, on January 19, 1990.
4. The design of the Sobibór monument prepared by Mieczysław Walter, purchased for the collections of the State Museum at Majdanek in 1966. Bronze casting, height: 59 cm, width: 27,5 cm, depth: 12 cm.