Today’s post is written by Hannah Wilson, a member of our second cohort. She recently participated in excavations in Sobibor, and was there when the site of the gas chambers was discovered. Here’s what she has to say about her experience:
It was a late on a Tuesday afternoon, after a long day of digging and sifting through the rapidly increasing mounds of sand, that I stood with Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi and his Polish partner Wojciech Mazureka amongst the ruins they had already spend months uncovering at Sobibor Death Camp. We were, they assured with absolute certainty, standing in the site of the gas chambers, which were used to systematically murder over 200,000 Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. After seven years of organising several large and excruciatingly precise archaeological excavations at Sobibor, Yoram and Wojciech had finally found exactly what they were looking for, and in precisely the area that they had believed them to be.
The next day the news had gone viral, particularly in Israel with the involvement of Yad Vashem, and Yoram had already conducted around five interviews before he could even register the gravity of the day’s events. Major news sites announced the news online, Polish TV crews came along with German journalists and Dutch media, who were handled by archaeologist Ivar Schute. Ivar, who had also on the excavations at Treblinka, was sent to participate in the project after the team found a metal tag marked with the name Lea Judith de la Penha, a 6 year old Dutch Jewish girl, which raised huge national interest in the Netherlands. Their findings had moved from speculation to being official, and this phenomenal discovery has significantly changed historical perspectives of the Operation Reinhard camps.
When I first arrived at the site of Sobibior, I was not entirely sure what to expect. After hearing the presentation that Yoram gave to my MA Holocaust Studies class at the University of Haifa, I had some basic understanding of what they had found there so far, and the steps that lead them to continue their search. I was enthralled; this method of using archaeology in Holocaust research was something I hadn’t encountered before, and I knew immediately that I would try to join the dig as soon as classes ended. I could not have been there at a more critical time. Within the first couple of hours of sifting, the dig team had already discovered a beautiful gold wedding band with a Hebrew inscription. “You are our lucky charm”, Yoram told me with a sympathetic smile. Shortly after, one of the workers found a pendant made from a Palestinian coin marked with the date 1927, and a silver Star of David. These items, so significant of the Jewish faith, had just been laying silently beneath the ground, as though waiting to be found someday. In this moment, I understood how important Yoram and Wojciech’s work at Sobibior really was.
Working under the close instruction of Ivar, who quickly showed me what needed to be done and how, we continued to find dozens of astonishing artefacts. The area of soil that had been excavated next to the four walls of the gas chambers that were being gradually unearthed, was full of objects that had been taken from the bodies of those who perished. We found dentures, artificial and gold teeth as well as real, parts of spectacles, bullet shells, perfume bottles, combs, jewellery and even bone. We even continued to uncover wooden chess pieces, a silver cufflink of a high ranking German officer, barbed wire, luggage keys and the tag of a Dutch soldier. Wojciech’s two sons, Adam and Oleg, were overseeing two different digs, close to the house of the Kommendant and the platform that lead down from the train station. They found a concrete well full of items, or what we presumed to have been the “garbage” thrown in by the Nazi and Ukrainian guards. As I held these items in my hand, it felt completely surreal. We were, essentially, working in a crime scene. A mass crime that had been committed years before. I thought of my friends, whose family members were killed at this place, and tried to persevere with a heavy heart.
Eventually, after a few days, something quite strange happened at Sobibor that is hard to explain. Being a part of this project was like being in a bubble. The tall trees that surround the site became strangely familiar. The ‘Road to Heaven’, where the Jews were walked naked to their death, became the road that we passed every morning on our way to work. The team of workers are a family, and in several cases are indeed related to one another. One young couple even met there, fell in love and are now engaged. Yoram and Wojciech, when put together, are like brothers. They have a connection that no article or journalist will ever be able to capture, nor what this dig actually means to them. They laugh, they encourage others to laugh, and we made constant jokes as we sat together talking and socialising. I honestly never believed that I would laugh as much as I did during my time there. But this is not a disrespectful act, this is the human spirit, and even though we are dealing face to face with signs of horror and death, humour becomes a kind of defence mechanism. For the Polish workers involved, this is simply a job. Andrzej, the young man with whom I worked each day told me that this work pays far more than his ordinary farm job. Yet, their sensitivity to the situation is constantly shining through. When I asked him how he feels when he comes across such difficult artefacts and the human remains, he replied “It makes me feel sad, but I like this work because I get to learn about history”.
Once a week, the only train that still uses the purposefully built track to the Sobibor station comes to collect wooden logs. The sound echoes through the forest, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The sensation of hearing such a sound in this place was almost otherworldly, and everyone respectfully fell silent as it passed through. Yoram made a point to take me into the nearby town of Włodawa, where approximately 70% of the population had been Jewish prior to the Second World War. They were busy preparing their beautiful synagogue for a culture festival, celebrating the combination of Jewish and Catholic life in Poland. We spent a lot of time with locals, who welcomed Yoram with open arms, as a relative. This only emphasised the extent of the project and how much it has affected the people in the surrounding area in a very positive way. When I had the chance to be alone late in the evenings, I became a little conflicted by the feeling of enjoyment, of being with this group of people so much and actually looking forward to going to work the next day. I was becoming less and less overcome with sadness when we uncovered an artefact, and generally speaking I am a very sensitive person.
As a student of theHolocaust, I think I have had to develop a certain resistance to letting my emotions consume my thoughts, otherwise there is no way I could deal with the intensity of our classes and the material that we deal with. However, I distinctly remember one morning when I found a silver and pearl earring, and I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. There was something about finding jewellery that was harder than anything else, because it is a sign of personal expression, rather than something physical like bone. The owner of these earrings chose to wear this particular pair, perhaps her favourite, on the day she would be gassed at Sobibor. This thought is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
One of the most interesting things to happen at the site is the interaction with the visitors and tourists. The museum is in the process of being completely rebuilt, so eventually these people make their way down to the dig, and they had a lot of questions for us. We had a large group of Israeli schoolchildren arrive with a Holocaust survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, who was absolutely amazed at the work taking place. He expressed his support, and I was able to talk with him a little about my studies. The children stood by the mass grave and sang, which was something quite spectacular to witness in such a setting. The day before I joined, much to my frustration, the British historian and notorious Holocaust denier David Irving had come to Sobibor with a group of American “history enthusiasts”. Fortunately, filmmaker Gary Hochman who is documenting the progress of the dig had joined him on his tour, and recorded him making some obscene observations. “If you’re going to die, there are worse places to do it. It is so beautiful here”, he coldly remarked.
As my time working at the dig came to an end, I realised I would have stayed there until the end, if circumstances had allowed me to do so. When I look back across the three weeks, I felt like the experience had genuinely changed something inside of me. The close friendships that I developed there, living in such a stunning part of the Polish countryside, evenings filled with laughter and great company. Once the announcement of the gas chambers had been made, it felt like the project was coming its much needed climax, and it was so emotional to watch. It took leaving Sobibor to really process exactly what I had been doing there, and it felt like it had been a dream.
On my way back to Warsaw , Gary unexpectedly took me to meet a survivor of the Uprising, Philip Bialowitz, at the Jewish Community Centre. We talked about the dig, his story of courage and survival, and how the press had been also contacting him non-stop. Then came the end of Shabbat, and we were invited to stay and listen to Philip sing. I couldn’t have imagined a more touching and meaningful way to say goodbye. I sat in the synagogue and thought about each and every object that we had discovered. I thought about who they may have belonged to, and how their life had ended brutally in the very place we had been working. These people deserve to be remembered, we owe it to them. What Yoram and Wojciech have done here is something extraordinary for Holocaust history, and it was such an honour to be a small part of it. It was impossible not to feel completely humbled by the success and perseverance of those involved, and that they have finally achieved what they had sought out to do.
Without the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies Program I would never have met Yoram Haimi and had the opportunity to participate in such an outstanding experience. I also want to thank the program for helping to fund my trip and provide me with the historical background that enriched the experience for me.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/