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HolocaustArchaeological excavations leveraged into precise camp model

In Poland, new Sobibor museum memorializes victims through unearthed belongings

Personal items discovered during pre-construction ‘rescue’ excavations recall lives of 180,000 Jews murdered at former Nazi death camp

  • The museum at Sobibor in Poland, where 180,000 Jews were murdered by the German Nazis during the Holocaust (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
    The museum at Sobibor in Poland, where 180,000 Jews were murdered by the German Nazis during the Holocaust (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
  • The museum at Sobibor in Poland, 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
    The museum at Sobibor in Poland, 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
  • The model of Sobibor as it appeared during the Holocaust, displayed at the museum inaugurated there in October, 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
    The model of Sobibor as it appeared during the Holocaust, displayed at the museum inaugurated there in October, 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
  • Museum at Sobibor in Poland, inaugurated in October 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)
    Museum at Sobibor in Poland, inaugurated in October 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)

After more than a decade of planning and construction, a new museum was recently inaugurated at Sobibor, the former German Nazi death camp in Poland.

One of three “Operation Reinhardt” death camps built in 1942, Sobibor was designed with gas chambers where 180,000 Jews were murdered. The camp is remembered for a successful prisoner uprising in October of 1943, through which dozens of Jews managed to escape and survive the war.

Calling the museum “a crowning achievement of an initiative started in 2008 by Poland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Israel,” spokesperson Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Nowak told The Times of Israel that the permanent exhibition, inaugurated in October, will “inform contemporary and future generations about the history of mass extermination at Sobibor.”

With 323-square meters of exhibition space, the Sobibor museum is larger than similar installations at Belzec and Treblinka, the other “Operation Reinhard” death camps. A total of more than 1,500,000 Jews were murdered at the three killing facilities by the end of 1943.

The Sobibor site, including the museum, is stewarded by the State Museum at Majdanek. Before construction started in 2017, select parts of the former camp grounds were excavated by archeologists. Three years ago, the field of mass graves was covered with geotextile and crushed marble.

The museum at Sobibor in Poland, 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)

Designed with jagged lines and wood-tones meant to evoke the camp’s railway ramp, the visitor center and museum was built where barracks once stood for prisoners to undress before going to “the showers,” a German euphemism for the gas chambers.

Inside the museum, 16 thematic areas explain the history of Sobibor and the Holocaust in occupied Poland. Horizontal windows offer panoramic views of the grounds, including the area where prisoners killed the camp’s SS officers at the start of the revolt.

The museum at Sobibor in Poland, where 180,000 Jews were murdered by the German Nazis during the Holocaust (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)

“The architecture and scenography of the exhibition help build the atmosphere, emphasize the content and the message. They help recreate the visual memory of the place,” said Kowalczyk-Nowak.

After being inaugurated in October, the museum was closed due to rising COVID-19 infections across Europe. Since then, museum educators have been conducting on-line classes for local students, said Kowalczyk-Nowak.

In May, the museum plans to host a seminar called “From Memory of Places to the Pedagogy of Remembrance.” Educators from Poland, Israel, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Germany will be introduced to the exhibition and ways to integrate content into their classrooms.

‘A parallel narrative’

A highlight of the museum is a detailed model of the former death camp. For decades, historians have debated the precise locations of specific features of Sobibor, including the gas chambers.

The model of Sobibor as it appeared during the Holocaust, displayed at the museum inaugurated there in October, 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)

“The model of the camp is another important element of the exhibition,” said Kowalczyk-Nowak. “It recreates the topography of the camp as faithfully as possible, giving a sense of tangible contact with the past.”

Camp features excavated only in recent years appear correctly on a Sobibor model for the first time. One of those features, called the “schlauch,” was a curved, fenced-in path between the undressing barracks and the gas chambers. Cynically nicknamed “The Road to Heaven” by the SS, remnants of the path were uncovered by archeologists Wojtek Mazurek and Yoram Haimi.

The heart of the museum is a display of 700 items, almost all of which were unearthed since 2000. The personal belongings of Sobibor’s victims are arranged in a tableau and lit from underneath.

A wedding ring with Hebrew inscription that belonged to a victim murdered at the Nazi-built death camp Sobibor, near Wlodawa, Poland, November 2014 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Artifacts on the 80-foot long table (25 meters) follow the journey between freedom and death, according to museum curators. They are clustered in groups to recall specific aspects of the victims’ lives.

At one end of the table are items associated with home, including keys and family nameplates. Close at hand are objects related to travel, including coins, a wallet, and a small purse.

The section devoted to toiletries and medicines includes products with well-known brand names, such as Nivea creams and Bayer aspirin. There are toothbrushes, a lipstick case coated in nickel, and lots of small pill bottles from all over Europe.

A metal plate bearing the name of 13-year-old Annie Kapper from Amsterdam was found at the Sobibor death camp in eastern Poland in 2013. (Courtesy of Yoram Haimi/JTA)

Some of the last belongings people parted with were related to their trades, such as large scissors used by tailors. Also unearthed at Sobibor were thimbles, watches, and writing implements. There is jewelry with Hebrew and Jewish symbols, including wedding rings and “Chai” emblems that once dangled from chains.

A few of the museum’s artifacts can be traced directly to their original owners. During excavations, several metal name tags that belonged to children were unearthed and — in one case — the Dutch-Jewish child’s relatives were located. Sobibor’s curators were even able to trace a plate to its owners because the object was marked, “The Hague 1888.”

Museum at Sobibor in Poland, inaugurated in October 2020 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)

“These objects create a parallel narrative that allows the viewer to confront the dualism of the Holocaust: its unimaginable mass scale and the individual experience of death,” said Kowalczyk-Nowak.

In total, the museum owns 11,000 artifacts related to Sobibor, including objects that belonged to German perpetrators and Ukrainian guards. There are also physical remnants of the camp itself, such as barbed wire and the post-war Sobibor train station sign.

The museum owns 11,000 artifacts related to Sobibor, including objects that belonged to German perpetrators and Ukrainian guards

During 2021 and 2022, a memorial wall will be built to mark the “schlauch.”  Additionally, the area where the revolt broke out will be paved, said Kowalczyk-Nowak.

Archeologists Wojtek Mazurek and Yoram Haimi at Sobibor in Poland (courtesy: Yoram Haimi)

Last year, archeologists Mazurek and Haimi expressed interest in returning to Sobibor to excavate an escape tunnel they started to uncover. The Polish-Israeli duo would also like to excavate the railway ramp, which — unlike the rest of the former camp — is not under the jurisdiction of the State Museum at Majdanek.

“We do not plan additional archaeological works on site,” said Kowalczyk-Nowak. “All the pre-construction archaeological excavations have already been finished. However, it cannot be excluded there will be some research conducted in the future,” said the spokesperson.

A master plan for the new ‘interior rearrangement’ taking place at Sobibor, released in 2017. The museum inaugurated in 2020 appears at the bottom left, while the foundations of the gas chambers and covered field of mass graves appear at the top right (Sobibor Memorial Foundation)
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