Preparing for a coming era without Holocaust survivors, filmmaker Gary Hochman’s riveting new documentary, “Deadly Deception at Sobibor,” highlights scientific technologies that have allowed archaeologists to bring proof of Nazi crimes.
In the film, he shows how archaeologists probe beneath a Polish forest using ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography to “electronically image” underground features of Sobibor, where Germany murdered approximately 250,000 Jews in gas chambers and then completely dismantled the camp.
Other proof of Nazi Germany’s attempts at wiping out Holocaust crimes was also exposed during a 10-year investigation by a team of experts including geoscientists, archaeologists and geographers.
“This is one of the first examples of Holocaust denial and distortion perpetrated by the Nazis,” said Hochman, a veteran documentary filmmaker for public television and managing director of Changing Minds Productions, based in Connecticut. “There is a good reason why most people never heard of Sobibor,” Hochman told The Times of Israel.
Screened recently at Jewish film festivals in San Diego and Denver, “Deadly Deception at Sobibor” is narrated by acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh. The film is part of Hochman’s Sobibor Documentation Project, a digital archive with video archaeological excavation evidence, survivor testimony, hand-drawn maps, secret telegrams, Luftwaffe aerial photos, and other primary sources.
“The Nazis were meticulously trying to remove all traces of their crimes,” said Hochman, who documented excavations of all major areas of the camp, including the removal of 1960s-era asphalt that revealed the camp’s gas chamber foundations.
“It is a crime scene, and the evidence the Nazis concealed underground was never meant to be found,” said Hochman.
It is a crime scene
Most films about Sobibor focus on the famous prisoner revolt in October 1943, but “Deadly Deception at Sobibor” brings Holocaust “memory work” in a new direction — one that merges science and history to gain new insight into how the extermination facility operated, said Hochman.
The film’s main protagonist is Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi, who first visited Sobibor after learning that two of his uncles were murdered there.
In partnership with Polish archaeologist Wojtek Mazurek, Haimi co-led more than 10 excavation seasons at the former death camp. Dutch archaeologist Ivar Schute joined the excavation team, representing a search for 34,000 Dutch victims murdered at Sobibor.
In the film, Sobibor survivor Philip Bialowitz — who died in 2016 — provides eyewitness testimony about his experiences, the 1943 revolt, and how he survived the rest of the war.
“The history of Sobibor is a tale of detection with many parts,” said Hochman, who called the investigations he filmed “a new form of first-person testimony of victims from beyond the grave.”
“Each object found represents a voice silenced by the Nazi factory of death that states, ‘I was here’ and ‘this is what happened.’ That is what’s important about video documentation,” said Hochman.
In one segment of the documentary, Hochman and Haimi visit the former death camp Majdanek, where researchers compare artifacts unearthed at Sobibor with remains at Majdanek, in Lublin. Later, digital animations of gas chambers, mass graves, and open-air cremation sites at Sobibor depict the means through which SS officers used Jewish prisoners to erase evidence of the genocide.
Each object found represents a voice silenced by the Nazi factory of death
“The Nazis were clever about where they put their top-secret camps,” said Hochman. “Sobibor was in the middle of the forest. There were no documents, no identity lists, no tattoos, and almost no photos of the camp.”
Powerfully, “Deadly Deception at Sobibor” retrieves human stories behind what took place at Sobibor. Events at the death camp are relayed by unexpected eyewitnesses, including a local Polish farmer, Jan Manai, who as a teenager was forced by the Nazis to drive a wagon of Jews to the outskirts of the camp.
Although he never saw the interior of Sobibor, Manai testified that from several miles away, he could smell the daily stench of burning corpses, which he will never forget.
The film shows local Poles interacting with Sobibor today, including a school field trip to the site for Communion, where children pray next to the mass graves after learning about what took place from their priest. Local residents also participated in the excavation, sharing knowledge of Sobibor with researchers while sifting through tons of dirt.
‘The most sinister feeling I ever had’
The screening at the Denver Jewish Film Festival made Colorado state representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet recall her visit to Poland in the 1990s, where she could not shake thoughts about the earth beneath her feet.
“From the first time I visited Poland, I’ve wanted to dig in the earth,” Michaelson Jenet told The Times of Israel. “At Treblinka, in particular, because I know my ancestors are there,” she said.
From the first time I visited Poland, I’ve wanted to dig in the earth
As a 17-year-old, Michaelson Jenet participated in the second March of the Living, and she later directed the Holocaust Awareness Institute at the University of Denver. Her experiences eventually led the representative to co-sponsor mandatory Holocaust legislation in Colorado.
After attending the Denver premiere of “Deadly Deception at Sobibor,” Michaelson Jenet called the film “incredibly relevant for a number of reasons.” One of those reasons, she said, is that a growing number of people around the world are claiming the Holocaust did not happen.
“A few survivors drew maps of the camps, and those maps were used in the trials [of guards] as well as used in excavating the camp,” said Michaelson Jenet.
“To actually go into a forest, clear it out, and start digging to find the remnants of the gas chambers could be a possible turning point for people in their doubting of the Holocaust,” said Michaelson Jenet.
Like the representative’s experience in Poland, Hochman had a visceral connection to the earth and dense forest surrounding Sobibor. Having grown up along a dirt road in the woods of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, he saw the forest as his “imagination playground,” Hochman said.
In 2008, when Hochman visited Sobibor for the first time, he immediately realized the woods near Poland’s border with Belarus were far different from his hometown forest in Massachusetts.
“It was the most sinister feeling I ever had,” said Hochman, who came to document a geophysics survey taking place at Sobibor. “The survey showed that there was virtually no trace left by the Nazis,” he said.
The survey showed that there was virtually no trace left by the Nazis
For nearly 10 years, Hochman videotaped excavation findings by Haimi, Mazurek, and Schute in many areas of the former camp. Excavation work was coordinated with the approval of the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, to ensure respect was given for human remains.
Unlike a normal forest, said Hochman, the woods surrounding Sobibor were “filled with things that should not be found in a forest. The large number of artifacts pulled from the ground confirmed our worst expectations. There were dentures, bullets, keys, glasses, hairpins, and Judaic symbols,” he said.
In 2009, Hochman returned to Sobibor for an excavation season that took place between the forest and an asphalt square poured over the remains of gas chambers many decades ago.
“That was when I realized I wanted to be involved long-term in documenting this work, because you don’t know what you’ll find,” said Hochman, who filmed how archaeologists revealed the previously mismarked, winding “tube” path between the camp’s undressing barracks and the gas chambers, a fenced-in part of the killing facility cynically nicknamed “The Road to Heaven” in German.
In the assessment of Michaelson Jenet, the film’s archaeological findings are especially resonant for students. Specifically, the representative pointed to several delicate metal nametags excavated by Haimi and Mazurek, all that remain of Dutch Jewish children who once wore them.
“There were enough records to tie those children back to how they got to Sobibor,” said Michaelson Jenet. “That’s a tremendous find, devastating and tremendous,” she said of the evocative artifacts, some of which are on display in Sobibor’s museum, which opened in 2021.
From jewelry to cutlery and intimate personal hygiene products, 70,000 objects were pulled from the ground speaking to victims and perpetrators alike. Among objects brought to Sobibor by Jews from several European countries were doorpost plaques with street addresses, souvenirs from pre-state Israel, and children’s items with the likeness of Mickey Mouse.
The most disturbing finds, said Hochman, were birthdate pendants belonging to children, as referenced by Michaelson Jenet.
“Those nametags and other artifacts represent the voices that were silenced by this factory of death,” said Hochman.
‘Sobibor is the outcome of violent bigotry’
When excavations began at Sobibor in 2008, there was less chatter around the world regarding Holocaust denial, and there was less opportunity for people to spread lies and distortions on social media and cyberspace.
Since the digs at Sobibor wrapped, antisemitism in the US has not only spiked, but become mainstream on the internet and elsewhere. What was once unthinkable — reoccurring assaults on individual Jews and murderous attacks on synagogues and other Jewish sites — has become a regular occurrence.
“The very foundations of historical truth and democratic values, our belief in reason and progress, are under attack,” said Holocaust historian Avinoam Patt, a member of the Sobibor Documentation Project advisory board.
Deniers are well aware that time is on their side
Like Hochman, Patt believes “Deadly Deception at Sobibor” and the associated digital archive are powerful tools for students who’ve been exposed to misinformation and lies about the Holocaust.
“We live in a world where Holocaust and genocide denial and distortion are on the rise; deniers are well aware that time is on their side,” said Patt, who is the Judaic Studies director at the University of Connecticut.
“Projects like the Sobibor Documentation Project, established on the principles of developing empathy for the experiences of other humans and preserving memory and truth, can and must play a central role in protecting the values upon which our democratic civilization rests,” said Patt.
Patt first visited Sobibor in 2008 after learning his maternal great-grandparents — Zvi Hersh and Dvora Heiliczer — were likely murdered there. He observed early investigations firsthand and realized he was part of something unprecedented.
“Deadly Deception at Sobibor” demonstrates that as our world approaches a time when there will be an absence of survivors, scientific research tools can extend Holocaust memory work for decades to come, said Patt.
“This has been a remarkable effort to record all major features of this literally groundbreaking research, which to the best of my knowledge is unmatched by any known field research in Holocaust studies,” said Patt, who helped pass legislation that mandates Holocaust and genocide education in the state of Connecticut.
Importantly, said Hochman, audiences are viewing “Deadly Deception at Sobibor” at a time when truth and memory are under increasing assault, allowing people to claim “fake news” for whatever they do not agree with or like.
“Sobibor is the outcome of violent bigotry,” said the filmmaker.
“Today, we live in a highly divisive society, and the building blocks of intolerance are growing increasingly similar to what resulted in a place like Sobibor,” said Hochman.