Yoram Haimi, an Israeli archeologist who leads a team that has been conducting excavations at Sobibor, came to speak to our students at the Research Forum in December. Haimi has been working in Sobibor since 2007. His team finally accomplished their goal of finding the location of the gas chambers in September 2014. Haimi spoke to our students about the archeological process, the importance of archeology for illuminating the history of the camp, and the many challenges he faced.
Haimi’s team studied aerial photos of the camp from different periods as well the previous work done by a Polish archeologist prior to beginning the excavations. The extent to which Haimi relied on primary sources, including the few survivor testimonies and German documents, to provide clues about the layout of the camp was fascinating. Haimi emphasized the importance of archeological findings, which have helped determine the number of victims based on the size of the mass graves as well as illuminate the structure of the camp such as the fact that there are ten crematoriums. During the excavations Haimi’s team unearthed artifacts such as metal tags which bore a victim’s name that they were able to reunite with relatives. Such discoveries were very moving and reveal the present importance and personal meaning of such excavations. Another heartwarming aspect of Haimi’s presentation is the gratitude he feels towards the local villagers who aided the excavations. Haimi said many of them didn’t know the story of Sobibor prior to being involved in the excavations.
Haimi and his team faced many challenges throughout the excavations. These included gaining funding, getting guidance and permission from Rabbis in how to dig in mass grave, and dealing with the Polish government. Unfortunately the state of Israel would not fund the excavations and the majority of the cost as raised form private donors and organizations. Haimi has more work to do at the site but is unsure whether he will have the resources to continue this year. Haimi also faced the hurdle of getting permission from the Chief Rabbi of Poland regarding where and how to digs so as not to break the human bones that lie buried throughout the area.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle has been in negotiating with the Polish government. Haimi was temporarily banned from the site in 2008 when his finding contradicted those of the Polish archeologist. Haimi and his team were once almost arrested for cutting down trees on the site despite having obtained prior permission to do so. The most contentious issue between Haimi and the Polish government is centered on how best to preserve the site and Haimi’s objection to building a museum and memorial on the site. It is very important to Haimi that the site not be compromised by further building, even for a memorial, so that future generations can study and excavate at Sobibor. Haimi sited Belzec as an example of a site where further study is impossible due to the memorial design that covered the area in concrete. Haimi has been told that if he continues to speak out about the design plans for Sobibor he will be denied access to continue excavating on the site.
Haimi’s discussion of his findings while excavating at Sobibor was fascinating. It illuminated another aspect of obtaining evidence on the Holocaust for our students, the challenges of such a sensitive project in another country that may have different goals, and raised questions about the best way to preserve the physical proof of the Shoah and what types of memorials and museums are appropriate and won’t compromise the physical integrity of the authentic sites.
To read one of our student’s accounts experience of discovering the gas chambers with Yoram Haimi click here
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/