Archaeology is typically associated with the study of ancient history, but a recent excavation at the infamous Sobibor extermination camp in Poland has demonstrated its incredible potential for uncovering secrets locked within modern ruins. As the Sobibor dig has revealed, there is still lots to learn about the Holocaust — including those things the Nazis tried to hide during the waning years of the Second World War.
There is much that is not known about Sobibor. Located in eastern Poland, the concentration camp was completely leveled in October 1943 by the Nazis following an unsuccessful and bloody uprising. And given that the war looked very much in doubt by that point, they were eager to cover their tracks.
And indeed, the Nazis had a lot to be ashamed about: it's estimated that over 250,000 Jews, Slavs, and Romani were put to death in the Sobibor gas chambers.
Now, owing to the efforts Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi, many of the mysteries of what actually happened at Sobibor are finally being revealed — one grid at a time.
As reported in Haaretz, Haimi — who lost family members in the camp — is using standard archaeological techniques to piece together the layout of the camp, while looking for artifacts and other clues that could help historians chronicle the events that transpired there. Haimi is sifting the earth for anything left behind, while also relying on more non-invasive, high-tech aids such as ground-penetrating radar and global positioning satellite imaging.
What he's found has been nothing short of stunning — including evidence that more people may have died at Sobibor than previously thought:
Over five years of excavations, Haimi has been able to remap the camp and has unearthed thousands of items. He hasn't found anything about his family, but amid the teeth, bone shards and ashes through which he has sifted, he has recovered jewelry, keys and coins that have helped identify some of Sobibor's formerly nameless victims.
The heavy concentration of ashes led him to estimate that far more than 250,000 Jews were actually killed at Sobibor.
"Because of the lack of information about Sobibor, every little piece of information is significant," said Haimi. "No one knew where the gas chambers were. The Germans didn't want anyone to find out what was there. But thanks to what we have done, they didn't succeed."
The most touching find thus far, he said, has been an engraved metal identification tag bearing the name of Lea Judith de la Penha, a 6-year-old Jewish girl from Holland who Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial confirmed was murdered at the camp.
Haimi calls her the "symbol of Sobibor."
Among other things, Haimi was able to figure out where the Nazis placed poles to hold up the camp's barbed wire fences — and even locate the infamous Himmelfahrtsstraße, or the "Road to Heaven," a path upon which the inmates were marched naked into the gas chambers. Based on this finding, he was able to determine where the gas chambers themselves were located. And there's more:
He also discovered that another encampment was not located where originally thought and uncovered an internal train route within Sobibor. He dug up mounds of bullets at killing sites, utensils from where he believes the camp kitchen was located and a swastika insignia of a Nazi officer.
Along the way, he and his Polish partner Wojciech Mazurek, along with some 20 laborers, have stumbled on 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."
He 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.
And indeed, Haimi's work has not gone unnoticed by other archeaologists and historians:
"I think the use of archaeology offers the possibility of giving us information that we didn't have before," Deborah Lipstadt, a prominent American Holocaust historian from Emory University, said. "It gives us another perspective when we are at the stage when we have very few people who can speak in the first person singular."
Lipstadt said that, if the archaeological evidence points to a higher death toll at Sobibor than previously thought, it would not be "of sync with other research that has been done."
In addition, the archaeological site could be used an important tool against Holocaust denial. Haimi believes that, with survivors rapidly dying, it could soon become a key tool for understanding the Holocaust, calling it "the future research tool of the Holocaust."
Be sure to read the entire detailed account in Haaretz.
Top image via AP, inset image via.