The Holocaust, Shoah in Hebrew, is the persecution and mass murder of about six million Jews by the Nazis, mainly during the Second World War. The archaeology of the Holocaust is the study of the material remains – sites and artifacts – that are associated with these genocidal actions. A considerable number of Holocaust sites can be studied archaeologically. In fact, the locale of each of the hundreds of the ghettos is potentially a subject of archaeological investigation, but the greatest attention is paid to locales were mass extermination of Jews was carried out, either in the extermination centers in Poland or in the areas were mass murder of Jews was carried out by special squads, mainly in the former Soviet Union. The victims of the special squads were shot in or at the edge of huge trenches that became mass graves, the only physical evidence of the killing. Although many such graves were located and inspected by Patrick Desbois (2008), the archaeological aspect of this project is limited.
More than three million Jews were exterminated in six killing centers in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Chełmno in western Poland, and Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek in eastern Poland. These sites are most important for the archaeological research of the Holocaust, and the discussion will therefore focus on them. Typologically, the six locales fall into two groups. The first group comprises Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, very large slave labor camps, which operated as extermination centers as well. Most of their structures and artifacts were in place when the Red Army arrived there. The second group of sites includes Chełmno and the three “Operation Reinhardt” sites, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. These were constructed in 1942 and were operative until late 1943, when they were intentionally erased by the SS. In contrast to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, these sites were leveled and no structural remains of Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka were left on the terrain.
Extermination centers were excavated immediately after WW II, when the Polish authorities investigated the sites, but these digs were not carried out in the framework of archaeological research. The first large-scale archaeological excavations of an extermination center were conducted in Chełmno by Łucja Pawlicka-Novak in three phases, in 1986-1987, 1997-2002 and 2003-2004 (Pawlicka-Novak 2004a; 2004b). In the “Castle of Kulmhof” she uncovered the remains of the basement rooms and the corridor through which the naked Jews were marched to the gas vans. Numerous artifacts were found here, including Judaica objects. The mass graves of Chełmno were excavated ca. 4 km north of the castle, in the Rzuchów forest. In addition to five mass graves, a number of structures, which probably served for cremation, were unearthed there.
The Bełżec extermination center was explored by Andrzej Kola (2000) in 1997-1999 . In addition to excavating a number of structures, Kola also used the technique of drilling, manually coring every five meters with a 65 mm probing drill down to depths ranging between 6 and 8 m. Kola suggests that there were 33 mass graves at Bełżec that were up to 5 m deep; their fill consisted mostly of charcoal and cremated remains. About a fifth of the graves also contained decomposing corpses in the state of wax-fat transformation. Kola identified one of the excavated features, Structure G, as the gas chamber that operated after Bełżec had been restructured in summer 1942. This conclusion is problematic, since Structure G was a wooden construction, while the historical evidence indicates that the gas chamber at Bełżec was built of concrete.
Kola excavated Sobibór in 2000-2001 using the same technique as in Bełżec, namely combining digging structures and drilling cores every five meters (Kola 2001). Since the cores yielded charcoal, cremated remains and wax-fat, as in Bełżec, Kola suggests that there were seven mass graves at the site. The largest structure excavated by Kola is structure E, which he interprets as the place where the victims undressed before being taken to the gas chambers. After the excavations terminated, an official publication of the Sobibór museum referred to this structure as a remnant of the gas chambers (Bem 2006).
Wojciech Mazurek, Yoram Haimi and Isaac Gilead started a new excavation project at Sobibór in 2007-2010 (Gilead, Haimi & Mazurek 2009). More recently, during 2011-2013, in conjunction with the building of a new museum and a memorial at Sobibór, excavations at the site were continued by Mazurek and Haimi. Exploration of the area adjacent to structure E demonstrated that it could not be the location of either the undressing barrack or the gas chambers, because the excavated sediment consisted of heavy ashes and artifacts, such as glass bottles, cigarette cases, fragments of dentures etc., without any remains of a structure or remains of building materials.
Thousands of square meters excavated during the seasons of 2011-2013 make Sobibór the most intensively studied Holocaust archaeological site. The results have not yet been published, but preliminary descriptions by Mazurek and Haimi are available on the internet site dedicated to the construction of the new museum and memorial at Sobibór (Mazurek, Haimi & Schute, s.d.). According to documentary sources, the extermination center consisted of four camps. The excavators claim that in camps 2 and 3 they have uncovered a number of features, attested to by other sources. It is suggested that two parallel dark tracks between camps 2 and 3, 4 m apart and with remains of posts every 3 m, are the vestiges of the Himmelfahrtsstrasse, a lane through which the naked victims were driven from camp 2 to camp 3. The lane was concealed from camps 1 and 2 by high fences of barbed wire interwoven with tree branches.
A structure uncovered in camp 3 yielded remains of barbed wire and low pillars that supported the floor and appears to have served as a barrack. It is suggested that this was the barrack of the Jewish Sonderkommando. Below the floor a tunnel was found, probably the escape tunnel that is mentioned in the accounts of the survivors. A number of mass graves have been also investigated in camp 3. Two test trenches, ca. 15 m long and 3 m deep, were cut in what Kola identified as mass graves 1 and 2; although human remains were unearthed here, the excavators maintain that these were not mass graves. Numerous human remains were found in other locales identified by Kola as mass graves, and additional graves have been uncovered, a number of which seem to be of post WW II times. In addition, remains of what seems to have been a crematorium have also been unearthed in camp 3. Despite previous claims, the remains of the gas chambers have not been discovered, and they probably are located below the asphalt on which the two Sobibór monuments were erected (Gilbert 1999, 250).
Compared with the other three extermination centers, Treblinka is the least excavated site. The site consists of two camps, Treblinka I (concentration camp) and Treblinka II (extermination center). It was first studied in the framework of a forensic archaeology research by Caroline Sturdy Colls, who employed non-evasive geophysical methods, mainly Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) (Sturdy Colls 2011; 2012). By using this non-invasive methodology Sturdy Colls arrived at the conclusions that the site had been larger than the limits of the memorial, and some remains of structures have been preserved, notwithstanding the leveling of the site by the Nazis. Remains of structures in the supposedly leveled extermination centers have already been uncovered in the 1980s and the 1990s in Chełmno and Bełżec by Pawlicka-Novak and Kola.
In 2013 Sturdy Colls dug a number of small soundings at Treblinka I and Treblinka II. In Treblinka II she located a number of tiles with a Star of David on their ventral faces, which in her opinion indicate the location of the old gas chambers. However, it is now recognized that the Star of David is actually a six-point star, a commercial logo of Dziewulski i Lange, Polish tile producers active during the first half of the 20th century. Given this fact and the lack of identified in situ structural remains, the claim that vestiges of gas chambers were uncovered at Treblinka remains unsubstantiated.
Excavations of Holocaust sites started relatively recently: the first dig of a major extermination center began in 1986. The volume of the research carried out up to now remains limited, the publications are uncommon, the results preliminary and the conclusions tentative. Despite this, the archaeology of extermination centers attracts the attention of the public and features prominently in the media.
One of the premises formulated by archaeologists and supported by the media is that archaeology can and should prove that millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis in extermination centers and in mass shooting sites. It is proposed that archaeology can assert by excavations the truth of the extermination. However, the reality of the Holocaust has already been established by the historical research and local and international courts. The idea that archaeologists can prove the veracity of the Holocaust, coupled with the pressure of the media to produce instant results in front of the cameras while in the field, is a threat to the integrity and credibility of Holocaust archaeology. More than once were archaeologists tempted to declare in the field that they stand in front of the remains of gas chambers, while, as indicated above, the evidence they uncovered did not support such claims.
Archaeology cannot establish or refute the truth of the Holocaust; it can support it and illustrate it with the physical evidence that was preserved and can be revealed by archaeological methods, mainly by digging and uncovering the actual structures and artifacts and, to a limited extent, by non-invasive methods. Archaeology can be instrumental in determining the exact nature and location of features and artifacts, be it an extermination center, a barrack, a gas chamber, or a memento of a murdered victim. Archaeology is important in illuminating the topography of the concentration and extermination centers, as well as in revealing the artifacts belonging to both the victims and the perpetrators, which are essential for the teaching of the Holocaust and creating museum collections that help preserve its memory