When she was 21, Caroline Sturdy Colls set her sights on what seemed an unobtainable goal: to conduct archeological research at Treblinka, the former Nazi death camp in Poland where up to 900,000 Jews were murdered.
As a graduate student in archeology, Sturdy Colls looked to Treblinka as the ultimate in situ crime scene for her masters’ thesis. Inspired by Holocaust survivors she’d met while growing up, the budding scientist wanted to apply relatively new, non-invasive forensic methods to uncovering evidence at the notorious killing field.
More than a desire to dig in the ground, Sturdy Colls wanted to bring CSI-like tools to Treblinka, seeking — for instance — to identify former camp buildings, or locate previously unknown mass graves.
“I saw working at Treblinka as a cold case,” Sturdy Colls told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from her home near England’s Staffordshire University, where she is an associate professor specializing in forensic and Holocaust archeology.
“Also, I work with families in forensics work, and I can’t imagine what it’s like not to know what happened to your family members,” said Sturdy Colls, who has published extensively on forensics.
In her just-published book, “Holocaust Archeologies: Approaches and Future Directions,” Sturdy Colls lays groundwork for the emerging field of non-invasive investigations of genocide sites. She explains how modern research techniques have been applied at locations of mass slaughter around the world in recent years, but have largely yet to be tried at Holocaust sites.
“Where excavation is not permitted, desirable or wanted, [non-invasive] tools offer the possibility to record and examine topographies of atrocity in such a way that the disturbance of the ground is avoided,” writes Sturdy Colls, who accompanies UK police units on forensic search and recovery work.
“This is mainly due to developments in remote sensing technologies, geophysics, geographical information systems (GIS) and digital archeology, alongside a greater appreciation of systematic search strategies and landscape profiling,” explains the 29-year-old professor.
The first study of non-invasive investigations at former Holocaust sites, Sturdy Colls’s 358-page volume is both a field manual for researchers, and a first-hand account of the herculean efforts required to conduct even a survey of Holocaust-era grounds.
From violating Jewish law, to tampering with an “active crime scene” or offending a site’s current neighbors, the author probes layers of opposition encountered in the field. We also learn how Sturdy Colls overcame these obstacles through — for instance — staging community theater with the locals, or becoming a confidant of Poland’s chief rabbi.
In addition to Treblinka, Sturdy Colls used non-invasive research methods at Nazi-era sites in the Channel Islands and Serbia, forming her interdisciplinary Holocaust Landscapes Project and a framework for the book.
“The physical evidence hasn’t really been looked at,” said Sturdy Colls, who is frequently asked to justify the relevancy of documenting new evidence about “a period of history we know so much about,” she said.
“A lot of people ask me about upsetting people and causing a conflict in a modern situation in order to remember the past,” said the professor, who is helping to create installations with the artifacts she unearthed at Treblinka.
“This kind of research is also a way to raise awareness among stakeholders and people who manage these places, that maybe there is a way they can find out more,” said Sturdy Colls.
Uncover the past, but don’t touch it?
A few hours’ drive south of Treblinka, close to Poland’s border with Ukraine, one of the most isolated Nazi death camps was established at Sobibor, where up to 300,000 Jews from all over Europe were murdered.
Following prisoner revolts at both Treblinka and Sobibor, Nazi authorities closed the camps at the end of 1943. Most of Polish Jewry had been murdered, and new facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau were ready to handle transports from the rest of Europe.
After dismantling the killing facilities, Nazi concealment activities included burying demolished structures under sand, sowing crops, and planting hundreds of pine trees. The grounds were given over to farmers, who were immediately beset with grave robbers intent on retrieving gold from the mass graves.
After decades of looting — not to mention the pouring of concrete over key parts of the camps — it was widely assumed that Treblinka and Sobibor were dead-ends for research. That is until Sturdy Colls came to Treblinka in 2006, around the same time that archeologists more than twice her age — Israel’s Yoram Haimi and Poland’s Wojtek Mazurek — began to investigate at Sobibor.
The Sobibor team focused on “opening” large patches of ground, in which researchers found hundreds of artifacts belonging to victims and camp personnel. Excavations also helped remap parts of the camp, including the path victims took to the gas chambers. Post-excavation aerial photos of Sobibor reveal a giant checkerboard effect, with more squares dug out than left untouched.
Though Sturdy Colls dug some holes at Treblinka, she mostly used non-invasive tools like LiDAR to — for instance — clarify Holocaust-era topography and pinpoint former camp structures.
LiDAR — or light detection and ranging surveys — makes use of satellite data to “strip away” post-Holocaust features like forests and Nazi attempts to destroy camp structures, “revealing the bare earth of the former camp area,” as Sturdy Colls explains.
At Treblinka, LiDAR surveys led the team to uncover several previously unmarked mass graves, a process explained in the book. LiDAR also revealed transport infrastructure and camp-era buildings, including structures associated with the 1943 prisoner revolt.
“One of the key advantages that LiDAR offers over other remote sensing technologies is its ability to propagate the signal emitted through vegetation such as trees,” writes Sturdy Colls in a chapter about above-ground field investigations. “This means that it is possible to record features that are otherwise invisible or inaccessible using ground-based survey methods,” she writes.
Separated from each other by almost half of Poland, the two veteran “diggers” of Sobibor met the young British upstart to compare notes. Sturdy Colls remembers the pair of excavators “being delighted” when they heard she had “dug a hole” at Treblinka.
Half a year ago, Haimi and Mazurek uncovered the foundations of Sobibor’s gas chambers while digging their own holes. Two months later, those remnants were filled in and covered with sand to protect them from winter conditions.
In the months ahead, Sobibor’s other excavation squares will be filled in — with sand first, and then with the construction of a new museum and visitors’ center, as well as a parking lot and memorial structures.
Back at Treblinka, what many consider to be Sturdy Colls’s most significant finding was uncovered using Ground Penetrating Radar, followed by traditional excavation.
Buried underneath a meter of sand, Sturdy Colls found orange terracotta tiles that matched witnesses’ description of the gas chambers’ interior. Also uncovered on-site were dozens of personal items, including the most memorable for Sturdy Colls: a rose brooch.
“These items belonging to women that we found near the gas chambers, we felt that people had tried to hide them and smuggle them,” Sturdy Colls said. “They are the ones for me that send you into an emotional tailspin,” she said.
Even without significant digging, Sturdy Colls documented more evidence than most experts had expected to be found at Treblinka, and she used tools many of them had never heard of.
As for the questions people ask her of the work, a top one is whether or not she’s Jewish — she is not — as well as the inevitable, “who pays the bills?”
With her book shaping Holocaust archeology’s non-invasive future, Sturdy Colls is also opening a dialogue about the value of locating and documenting “new” Holocaust-era sites, whether they are deep inside forests, within former ghetto walls, or underneath the former SS headquarters in the heart of Berlin.
As demonstrated by Father Patrick Desbois and his “Holocaust by Bullets” project to locate mass graves in Eastern Europe, these “digs” are already taking place. The choice is whether or not to involve archeologists and other specialists, as Sturdy Colls points out.
“I’ve grown up alongside this research during the past eight years,” Sturdy Colls told The Times of Israel, “and I suspect it will be a lifelong project.”