Deep in a forest in the east of Poland, a team of archaeologists is hard at work. And, slowly but surely, the evidence of an unthinkable crime has begun to emerge. What more Nazi-related horrors have they uncovered, buried here for decades beneath a tarmac road?
This excavation began in 2007. Researchers from the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research were working on land near Sobibór, a village in Poland’s Lublin district. They knew the area had been home to a Nazi extermination camp, although little evidence of its gruesome past remained.
However, the team, working alongside Sobibór Museum director Marek Bem and locally based archaeologist Wojciech Mazurek, began to make some very unnerving findings. And, over the years, these warranted further excavations.
Finally, in September 2014, the archeologists made a historic announcement. The institute, working in partnership with the Majdanek State Museum and the German-Polish Foundation, had uncovered overwhelming evidence that an unspeakable horror had taken place at Sobibór.
Of course, everybody already knew about one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century: the Final Solution. This formal proposal for the extermination of Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe was set in motion in January 1942 at the Nazi Party’s Wannsee Conference near Berlin, Germany.
Extermination camps were then set up across Europe, and in March 1942 work began on a facility at Sobibór. This particular location was chosen for its closeness to a railroad line linking Poland and Ukraine.
SS officer and civil engineer Richard Thomalla, who had overseen the building of another camp 90 miles away at Belzec, supervised the Sobibór camp’s construction. Moreover, shockingly, some 80 Jews from the surrounding area were imprisoned and forced to help build the facility. Then, after its completion, they were all sentenced to death.
In April 1942 the camp claimed more victims. Indeed, around 250 Jews were transferred to Sobibór from nearby Krychow to test the facilities, and none of them ever returned.
While in operation, Sobibór was split into three sections. The first section contained prisoner barracks where inmates were assigned a paltry 12 square feet in which to sleep.
The second section was where the Sonderkommando – Jewish men and women who were forced to assist in the incarceration and extermination of their fellow victims – worked. Here, camp occupants were prepared for their final moments.
In the third section, camp occupants were systematically murdered in groups of up to 500 in one go. Ultimately, it’s estimated that more than 250,000 Jews met their end at Sobibór. However, it wasn’t until the recent excavations that the full horror of what went on there was finally revealed.
It seems that on October 14, 1943, the prisoners at the camp rebelled. During this uprising, 11 SS officers were killed and around 300 inmates escaped. As a result, SS head Heinrich Himmler decided to shut down the camp, even though most of the prisoners were ultimately recaptured.
The facilities at Sobibór were subsequently dismantled, with trees planted to disguise their remains. Furthermore, the buildings that had seen thousands of deaths were torn down, and their foundations were concealed beneath tarmac.
The war marched on, though, and two years later the Nazis were finally defeated. But while evidence of their horrific treatment of Jews became immediately obvious after the liberation of places like Auschwitz and Majdanek, the terrifying secrets of Sobibór took a little longer to be revealed.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists uncovered the first indicator of the scale of the exterminations that had been carried out at the camp. That year, more than 1,000 personal effects once belonging to the victims were uncovered.
A second dig in 2009, meanwhile, revealed even more about the camp’s sinister past. For instance, archaeologists found evidence of a structure on the site, as well as possessions like false teeth, keys and coins.
Then, in 2014, the team felt ready to make its official announcement. The researchers said that they believed the Sobibór site had been home to a network of gas chambers in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in one of the most horrific ways imaginable.
“The extermination of people took place there,” Wojciech Mazurek explained to Reuters TV. “[It was] murder by smoke from an engine that killed everyone within 15 minutes in these gas chambers, in torment, shouting.”
The archaeologists had excavated underneath the asphalt road that had been laid by the Nazis to cover their tracks. And there they had found rows of bricks that marked where the gas chambers once stood.
For archaeologist Yoram Haimi, who was a part of the dig, the discovery had a personal significance. Two of his uncles were murdered at Sobibór during the war. Yet with these findings, the truth about the awful fate that befell them – and many thousands more – could finally be known.