by Dr. Charlotte Decoster
As part of Aktion Reinhard, the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews, the Nazis established three death camps: Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. Upon its opening in March 1942, Sobibor consisted of three sections, each individually fenced: the administrative, reception and extermination areas. Both surviving victims and perpetrators testify to a path about 10 to 13 feet wide and about 500 feet long dubbed by the SS guards as the Himmelfahrstrasse (Road to Heaven) that led from the reception area to the extermination area. On each side, the path was fenced with barbed wire intertwined with pine branches. Lithuanian guards herded naked victims towards the gas chambers along the path. Today, tall trees cover the previous site of the Sobibor camp.
After a Jewish prisoner uprising in October 1943, the SS liquidated those in the camp and dismantled most buildings, including the gas chambers; they removed any visible traces of the extermination camp. Blueprints of Sobibor are based on the testimony of camp survivors and perpetrators.
In 2007, the Archaeological Division of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research created the Sobibor Archeological Project to reconstruct the layout of the Sobibor extermination camp. The project, led by Israeli archeologist Yoram Haimi and Polish archeologist Wojciech Mazurek, has made great headway in revealing the extermination site. Over a thousand objects related to the Shoah have been found by project members, including an engraved metal identification tag bearing the name of Lea Judith de la Penha, a 6-year old Jewish girl from Holland who Yad Vashem confirmed was murdered at the camp. In an Associated Press article on August 21, 2012, Haimi called her ‘the symbol of Sobibor.’
Haimi and Mazurek are remapping Sobibor using a basic ‘square out and filter’ system, along with more advanced non-invasive high-tech aids such as ground-penetrating radar and global positioning satellite imaging. These methods are useful at outlining Sobibor because each area had separate fencing. Based on the debris collected and patterns in the soil, the archeologists have been able to figure out where the Nazis placed poles to string the camp’s barbed-wire fences. As a result, they recently succeeded in locating the Himmelfahrstrasse. They determined its route by the poles that marked its path. From that, they concluded where the gas chambers would have been located.
Dan Michman, head of Yad Vashem’s Research Institute, noted in an Associated Press article that Haimi’s work shed light on the ‘technical aspects’ of the Holocaust. It also grants insight, for example, on what people chose to take with them in their final moments. ‘His details are exact and that is an important tool against Holocaust denial. It’s not memories, it’s based on facts. It’s hard evidence.’ Once his work is completed at Sobibor, Haimi hopes to move on to research at Treblinka and other destroyed extermination camps. Commenting on the use of archeology in Holocaust research, Haimi said: ‘This is the future research tool of the Holocaust.’