Human bone fragments would rise whenever the ground thawed

At former Nazi death camp Sobibor, a post-Holocaust construction boom

After decades of obscurity, a one-time Nazi-built extermination center is being transformed to commemorate Jewish victims and attract more visitors

Reporter at The Times of Israel

The former Nazi death camp Sobibor, in eastern Poland, where more than 200,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. A long-anticipated museum and visitor center is under construction, September 30, 2017 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
The former Nazi death camp Sobibor, in eastern Poland, where more than 200,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. A long-anticipated museum and visitor center is under construction, September 30, 2017 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

SOBIBOR, Poland — For the first time since SS men dismantled and plowed over Sobibor in 1943, significant construction is underway in the most sensitive parts of the former Nazi-built death camp, where up to 250,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

On the heels of a decade-long archeological dig, ground was broken this spring on a long-anticipated museum and visitor center. The structure is emerging atop former barracks in which Jews of all ages were forced to hand over their belongings, undress, and run toward “showers” that were actually gas chambers.

Set to open in 2019, the museum-memorial complex will contain an unprecedented precise map of Sobibor’s Holocaust-era features based on new research. The prisoner revolt that took place on Sukkot in October of 1943 will be recounted, along with the Nazis’ efforts to obliterate evidence of genocide following that escape 74 years ago.

The other major change to take place at Sobibor in recent months was at the mass graves area, where corpses were burned and the ashes buried in pits. Until this spring’s transformation of the site, small human bone fragments rose to the surface whenever the ground thawed, dismaying visitors.

Under the supervision of rabbinical authorities, the graves were covered with permeable geotextile and a layer of white crushed marble. Surrounding the jagged-edged necropolis, a border of larger, dark-colored stones was added to demarcate graves that were extensively pillaged after 1945.

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, geotextile fabric and white crushed marble were used to cover the field of mass graves this spring, September 30, 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

In contrast to the former Nazi death camps at Belzec and Treblinka, the mass graves of Sobibor were not covered in layers of asphalt, concrete, or boulders, during the decades since the Holocaust.

Memorial statue at the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, temporarily displaced during archeology and construction at the site, September 30, 2017. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

With the exception of a rotund “ash mound” monument, the relative barrenness of the “extermination area” helped Poland’s Wojciech Mazurek and Israel’s Yoram Haimi — lead archeologists at Sobibor since 2007 — uncover artifacts and information about the crematoria on which more than 200,000 corpses were “eliminated” in the open air.

Sobibor has been relatively slow to add modern facilities, including a parking lot for buses. Close to the Bug River and Poland’s border with Ukraine, it is a drive of several hours from both Warsaw and Krakow.

Planners hope their efforts will make coming to Sobibor more convenient, and engaging, for both Poles and international tourists. Among museum highlights will be victims’ belongings unearthed by the Polish-Israeli excavation team, including children’s metal nameplates, jewelry with Hebrew inscriptions, and a ceramic mug fragment featuring Mickey Mouse.

Construction taking place at Sobibor since this spring, set to conclude in 2019. Features include the covering of mass graves, top right, with the rotund ‘ash mound’ memorial visible, and a new museum, parking lot, and tourist facilities, bottom left. The former gas chamber foundations will be protected by the rectangular structure shown next to the mass graves. Between the gas chamber foundations and the new museum, visitors will walk along the cynically named ‘Road to Heaven,’ a curving path on which Holocaust victims were herded toward the gas chambers after undressing. (Sobibor Memorial Foundation)

Even with construction taking place at Sobibor during the next two years, archeologists hope to keep excavating at — for instance — the site of a prisoner-built escape tunnel, and in the area of “the ramp,” where victims were delivered to the disguised “transit camp.” In the months ahead, workers will erect a pavilion around the gas chamber ruins unearthed by Haimi and Mazurek in 2014, and a long, winding memorial wall with survivors’ testimony will be built to encircle the mass graves.

Next October, Sobibor will host a gathering to mark the 75th anniversary of the prisoner revolt. The commemoration may be the first of its kind to take place without survivors of the former death camp. By the time the museum opens in 2019, personal artifacts will play a larger role than ever in supplementing the testimony of eye-witnesses, of whom fewer remain alive each day.

A ‘Palestine’ pendant that belonged to a Jewish victim murdered at the Nazi death camp Sobibor, unearthed during excavations undertaken in 2014 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

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