Unearthing the Hidden Death Camps of Poland

During World War II, the three Nazi death camps called the Operation Reinhard camps did not have to be big, like Auschwitz, because they had few barracks. Train loads of Jews arrived at Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, and the vast majority were taken straight to the gas chambers- 1.7 million of them. There were hardly any survivors after the war, just a few escapees. Before the Red Army arrived at these camps, the Nazis destroyed their records, bulldozed the facilities, and planted pine trees on top of the mass graves. The sites became forests, with some memorials built later. You could hardly tell there was any history at all in those sites.

In the 21st century, we have forensic archaeology tools to explore these sites and better document what happened there. Investigators use aerial photography, aerial laser scanning technology lidar, and ground-penetrating radar to see what is underground. They have also excavated small areas. Forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls expected to find the foundations of the camp buildings, but her research has also unearthed personal items like jewelry, fences, and even recognizable floor tiles that were traced to their manufacturer. But the work has met with resistance, both from Holocaust deniers, and from Jewish authorities who are torn between wanting to document the sites and the prohibition against disturbing grave sites. Complicating matters, one site is completely covered with an asphalt memorial.

But what happened at these sites deserved to be preserved. The discovery of a metal identification tag bearing the name Lea Judith de la Penha led to a Dutch documentary about the de la Penha family. Who knows what other secrets will be revealed by these excavations? Read about the project to unearth the truth of the Operation Reinhard camps at Sapiens. -via Damn Interesting 

(Image credit: Tajchman Maria

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