By Martin Smith | 25 September 2014
Over the last five years a team of archeologists led by Yoram Haimi and Wojciech Mazurek have been excavating the Nazis’ death camp at Sobibor in Poland – now they have reached the remains of previously hidden gas chambers.
What they have found has fundamentally transformed our understanding of the camp, including evidence that more people may have died at Sobibor than previously thought. It was estimated that 250,000 people perished there, that figure is now being revised to 360,000.
Between 1941 and 1944 the Nazis attempted to find a “final solution to the Jewish problem”,creating a program of extermination that killed millions.
More than half of the victims were murdered in six killing centres: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Chełmno in western Poland and Treblinka, Sobibór, Majdanek and Bełżec in eastern Poland.
Although historical research on the “Final Solution” has been and continues to be very intensive, the archaeology of the extermination centres has been very limited in its scope. All the sites of the former extermination centres have been turned into heritage centres featuring museums and memorials.
This has made serious investigation of the sites very difficult. However over the past 10 years it has been possible to carry out excavations at two killing centres – Treblinka and Sobibór.
The archeological team at Sobibor have also discovered another encampment that was not located where originally thought and uncovered an internal train route within the camp.
They have dug up mounds of bullets at killing sites, utensils from where the camp kitchen was located and the swastika insignia of a Nazi officer.
Their digs have found thousands of personal items belonging to the victims: eye glasses, perfume bottles, dentures, rings, watches, a child’s Mickey Mouse pin, a diamond-studded gold chain, a pair of gold earrings inscribed ER — apparently the owner’s initials — and a silver medallion engraved with the name “Hanna”.
The archeologists have also uncovered a unique version of the yellow star Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis, made out of metal instead of cloth, which researchers determined to have originated in Slovakia.
Sobibor was the site of a heroic uprising by prisoners in October 1943. The Jewish inmates killed SS men with axes and knives, cut telegraph and electric wires and set the death camp ablaze. Hundreds of prisoners escaped. After the uprising, the Nazis tried to erase all traces of Sobibor’s existence, literally burying the evidence of their crimes.
I will be visiting the excavation site next week and will post a more detailed report here at Dream Deferred.