Sobibor nazi gas chambers discovered, archaeologist interviewed


This 2018 video is about archaeologists uncovering buried gas chambers at Sobibor death camp.

Translated from Leiden University in the Netherlands:

Digging for the gas chambers of Sobibor

Leiden archaeologist Ivar Schute recently discovered the foundations of the gas chambers of Sobibor extermination camp. “The Holocaust is almost incomprehensible. This work makes it tangible.” What use were his archaeology studies for this?

What is the reason for this excavation at Sobibor?

“There will be a new museum and a symbolic path to the place where the camp once was. For a long time one could hardly see anything there: after the great prisoners’ escape in 1943 the Germans broke down the camp and planted trees to cover the tracks of their crimes. The site is an international project of Israel, Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia. These are the countries where most of the victims came from. In World War II, nearly 35,000 Dutch people were transported from Westerbork to Sobibor. After Auschwitz this is the largest Dutch mass grave.”

How did you got involved?

“I was asked because I have experience with excavations at the Westerbork camp, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. With three other archaeologists, I am reconstructing the path that the people walked at that time after arrival. From the train station to the gas chambers.”

How did you discover the fundamentals of the gas chambers?

“We used drawings of refugee survivors and we have dug carefully. Without machines, because there are so many human remains. The graves should be disturbed as little as possible, the field work is supervised by a rabbi. Bit by bit we could reconstruct the camp because extermination camps often had the same format. First we localized the barber barracks and the so-called Himmelfahrtstrasse, the road to the place where they were gassed. Then you know it must be the gas chambers at the end thereof. After removing the asphalt we found the foundations of the chambers.”

Who: Ivar Schute (1966)

Study: Archaeology (1984 – 1992, worked already during study) …

Favourite place in Leiden: “I live in the Witte Rozenstraat. At number 57 is the house where the physicist Paul Ehrenfest lived and where Albert Einstein often came to visit.

Paul Ehrenfest was from an Austrian Jewish family. His Witte Rozenstraat 57 home was designed by his wife, Tatyana Alexeyevna Afanasyeva. She was a mathematician. Born in Ukraine (then part of the Russian empire), she became a member of the Bolshevik tendency of the Russian Social Democratic Party; later of the Communist Party.

Around the corner is ‘t Kasteeltje, the villa at the Jan van Goyenkade 44. There lived a former classmate of Einstein whom he visited when he was in Leiden. Intriguing places, but I’ve never been in there.”

What does this work do emotionally with you?

“It’s a very intense experience. During the excavation, I can focus well on the work, but of course it does not leave me unmoved. I dug there for two months and returned to the Netherlands, the images in my head. It gets a niche by talking a lot about it. The Holocaust is almost beyond comprehension, but this work makes it tangible. We found many human remains and personal belongings such as glasses and crockery that mainly came from Dutch Jews. They lived up to the last under the assumption that they were going to a labour camp and had brought precious belongings. A very painful discovery.”

How did you get involved in war archeology?

“As a little boy I already wanted to be an archaeologist, I was always looking for shards. I graduated about prehistoric times, but because of stories by my grandparents I am also interested in World War II. Until a decade ago, archaeologists spent very little attention on this period. Because it is relatively recent and because there are so many sources. I and another archaeologist tried hard to really get attention for it. Excavations can provide new information indeed. About many camps it is not known what they looked like and therefore it is not known what is the location of the gas chambers and the mass graves. That you only can only identify in an archaeological way.”

Which skills gained during your study come in handy for this work?

“I had a very good field training and already as a student I could lead major excavations. We learned to be very critical and careful: you can only do an excavation well once. Thanks to my former teacher Martin Verbruggen, an expert in physical geography, I know how important it is to look at a spot from the whole landscape development in that area. Then you will understand better how an area became as it is now. That way of archeology is not obvious. Many archaeologists do not look beyond the limit of the hole.”

What is the best advice you ever received?

“When I graduated professor Louwe Kooijmans said to me: “You have to get more contacts in society.” He meant that I was still too restless for science. I went to work for the archaeological research bureau RAAP where I still work for. Through this work, I got in touch with all kinds of people, from farmer to developer, with diverse interests. That way I learned to make trade-offs, but also to improvise and to work on solutions. It was good advice by Kooijmans!”

(December 18, 2014 – LvP)

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