Where the Nazis once murdered more than 250,000 Jews, authorities plan to construct a visitor center and other structures in the heart of Sobibor, the former death camp in eastern Poland.
The construction – slated to begin next year – was approved by an international steering committee, including representatives from Israel’s Yad Vashem. With a projected cost of $5 million, the project makes Sobibor one of the last former extermination centers to add significant tourist infrastructure.
“I am very impressed that they are building these things at Sobibor,” said Selma Engel, one of only seven remaining Sobibor survivors who escaped from the camp during a 1943 prisoner revolt.
After carrying out a meticulous plan to kill the camp’s SS masters, more than 300 Jewish prisoners fled to the forest; however, fewer than 50 escapees survived until the war’s end.
“Now people will finally be able to see the camp from the road, and know the truth about what was there,” the 91-year old Engel told the Times of Israel in a phone interview from her home in Branford, Connecticut.
“Nobody knows about Sobibor,” said Engel. “They have no idea what it is to be inside a killing machine. I think it is very important that they are doing something inside the camp,” said Engel, one of only several Dutch Jews to survive Sobibor.
However, not everyone agrees that construction inside the camp itself makes sense, including archeologists who’ve excavated at Sobibor since 2007. From their perspective, the site’s historical integrity and future research prospects are best served by building outside the camp, and not on top of Holocaust-era remains.
“We lost the fight, and they are continuing with the visitor center and now a very long memorial wall,” said Israeli archeologist Yoram Haimi. “We think they should do it outside the camp. Never build something inside the camp. But this is not our decision,” he told the Times in an interview.
Clearing the ground
In 2006, Haimi discovered that two of his uncles were murdered at Sobibor. Within a year, the exuberant researcher – typically focused on excavating ancient Israel – arrived on-site at the former death camp, along with Polish archeologist Wojtek Mazurek.
For seven years, Haimi and Mazurek have unearthed thousands of personal items belonging to Sobibor’s victims. They’ve also remapped key parts of the camp by uncovering fences, buildings and – last year – what the researchers believe to be an escape tunnel.
In Camp II, site of the future visitor center, Jewish victims undressed and handed over their valuables before being herded along the so-called “Road to Heaven,” a snaking path leading to the gas chambers. The path – once camouflaged and enclosed by barbed wire –was uncovered by Haimi and Mazurek during early excavation seasons, ending a decades-old debate about its precise location.
At the end of 2013, archeologists unearthed a metal nameplate belonging to Annie Kapper, a murdered Jewish girl from Amsterdam, as well as a shovel probably used in the crematoria, said Mazurek.
“It’s very sensitive to touch this place,” Mazurek told the Times. “Every artifact is important, since it means it was one more human life. The feeling is always a bit sad but it’s very important we can discover these artifacts and show the world,” he said.
The latest excavations yielded several complete skeletons – possibly Poles who were shot by Soviet soldiers, said Haimi. Also uncovered were open-air cremation pits, close to the mass graves, bringing the total of such pits mapped to nine.
“When we opened near the mass graves, we smelled fluids from the bodies,” said Haimi. “It’s been 70 years, and still we smelled them,” he said.
‘When we opened near the mass graves, we smelled fluids from the bodies. It’s been 70 years, and still we smelled them’
As Haimi and Mazurek dug at Sobibor, the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation conducted fundraising for the visitor center. Created in 1991 to assist Nazi victims and promote dialogue, the Foundation has distributed more than one-billion dollars to 700,000 victims, in addition to funding projects at sites like Sobibor.
Working closely with the Foundation, the Polish government’s Sobibor steering committee includes representatives from Israel, the Netherlands and the Slovak Republic. In 2012, the committee unanimously voted to construct a visitor center, museum and new memorial structures. The Majdanek State Museum — which oversees activities at the former death camps Majdanek and Belzec – was brought in to supervise the project.
“The international aspect of this project is particularly important for me,” said Piotr Zuchowski, Poland’s deputy minister of culture and chair of the Sobibor steering committee.
“For the first time in a project of this scale, there has been a long-term cooperation between countries with different history and traditions, as well as with different approaches to the remembrance of the victims of the Shoah,” said the deputy minister. “My intention in the nearest future is to invite to the project all the countries whose nationals were killed in Sobibor,” he said.
In an interview with the Times, the deputy minister praised the steering committee for funding more than half a decade of excavations at Sobibor, a project he called “of unprecedented scope and scale.”
The visitor center’s design was selected through an international architectural competition held last year. The one-story structure – chosen from among 63 submissions – will include almost 10,000 square feet of exhibition halls, classrooms and a cafeteria.
Project plans also call for erecting a memorial wall – almost a mile long – between the visitor center and area of mass graves, parallel to the “Road to Heaven.” The wall will be inscribed with historical information about the camp and will encircle the mass graves themselves, including the prominent “ash mountain” memorial.
Balancing competing interests
The plans for Sobibor are not only welcome, but long overdue, said some Holocaust educators. For decades, Sobibor has been the least visited of the former death camps, due to both its remote location and lack of tourist facilities.
“We have to remember that the Nazis tried to demolish these sites to erase all memory,” said Holocaust scholar and educator Elana Yael Heideman. “Until now, Sobibor has had little more to offer a visitor than barrenness, isolation, and an eerie feeling of emptiness,” Heideman told the Times.
The importance of bringing more people to Sobibor outweighs the “somewhat necessary destruction” involved in creating new facilities, she said.
“Having a museum, albeit one set up facing the path on which people walked to their deaths, is meant to pay tribute to their death by perpetuating knowledge and memory of what transpired there,” said Heideman.
In response to archeologists’ concerns about building inside Sobibor, deputy minister Zuchowski said “exhaustive research” has already been conducted at the proposed construction site.
“It is not considered acceptable by our civilization to create a permanent archeological zone in an area of eternal rest,” said Zuchowski. “This was the scene of the crime, as well as the place of eternal rest – a kind of cemetery,” he added.
When ground is broken next year, archeologists will be on hand to supervise activities and – as permitted by Polish law – halt construction to retrieve artifacts, said Zuchowski.
Haimi and Mazurek await permission to excavate in May, including – they hope – underneath an asphalt-paved square, built as a memorial in 1965. Under this square – almost the size of a soccer field – they expect to find remnants of the gas chambers.
Even in parts of Sobibor not “paved over” since the Holocaust, questions remain. At the mass graves area, unauthorized excavations during the 1990s caused considerable damage, said Mazurek. As with the asphalt square memorial, there is no record of who conducted what Haimi called “a botched dig,” or what was found in the ground.
For six years, the University of Hartford’s Sobibor Documentation Project has recorded findings from each excavation season. A documentary film about the digs, called “Deadly Deception at Sobibor,” is in post-production.
“It’s quite amazing to see this process unfold,” said Avinoam Patt, a modern Jewish history professor involved with the project. “The archeologists are incorporating testimonies of survivors into their research, and we are getting all kinds of information we did not have before,” Patt told the Times.
The question of building inside former death camps revolves around “competing interests,” including the pull between historical and commemorative motives, said James Young, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, and author of several books on Holocaust memory.
Visitors to Sobibor will experience what Young called “a weird kind of collapse between the two processes of forensics and memory.”
“Despite these tensions, there should be room for ongoing discussions to find accommodation for both building and excavation,” Young told the Times. “It seems to me that they can adjust, so long as it’s quite clear in everyone’s mind to what end they are doing this,” he said.