New structures on site invoke 'a mall or a country club'

With death of last Sobibor survivor, experts feud over site’s transformation

After passing of Sobibor revolt participant Semyon Rosenfeld on Monday, there will be no survivors to witness completion of the former Nazi death camp’s makeover next year

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)

In the center of the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, on ground where Jewish victims undressed before going to “the showers,” a museum and tourist center are slowly emerging. With the death this week of Sobibor’s last survivor, Semyon Rosenfeld, no participants from the camp’s 1943 revolt will be on-hand to witness the completion of the site’s long-in-coming transformation next spring.

Tucked into the woods near Poland’s borders with Ukraine and Belarus, Sobibor was one of three top-secret “Operation Reinhardt” death camps built by Germany in 1942. Nearly two million Jews were murdered in these camps, at which point Auschwitz-Birkenau became epicenter of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”

In October of 1943, Sobibor was the site of a large-scale prisoner revolt and escape. At the start of the uprising, revolt leaders lured the camp’s SS officers to several workshops in order to kill them in secret. With “the brains” of Sobibor taken out of action, hundreds of prisoners dodged gunfire and landmines to reach the forest. However, only several dozen of the escapees — including Rosenfeld — survived to see Germany’s defeat in 1945.

Following the escape, the Nazis destroyed Sobibor’s structures and planted over the grounds. In the following decades, Sobibor’s mass grave area was targeted by grave-robbers and unauthorized “archeologists” on numerous occasions, and the site was used to walk dogs and ride bikes.

Sobibor is the final Nazi death camp to be excavated and “paved over” by construction, an ongoing process that continues to roil the site’s long-time archeologists, Israel’s Yoram Haimi and Poland’s Wojtek Mazurek.

סמיון רוזנפלד, ניצול השואה והשורד האחרון מסוביבור, הלך לעולמו.סמיון רוזנפלד נולד בשנת 1922 בכפר קטן באוקראינה. הוא…

Posted by ‎Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‎ on Monday, June 3, 2019

From the perspective of Haimi, the structure rising in the camp’s center resembles “a mall or a country club,” and not an edifice befitting the place where two of his uncles were murdered in the Holocaust.

Specifically, Haimi had implored the site’s stewards to take a preservationist approach similar to that chosen by Auschwitz-Birkenau, where nearly one million Jews were murdered in gas chambers during the Holocaust. The fields of Birkenau are almost entirely devoid of post-war construction, allowing crematoria ruins and barrack foundations to speak for themselves.

Because Sobibor was dismantled and plowed over in 1943, few remains of the camp were left behind. With extensive construction now nearing completion, Haimi believes a different kind of erasure is taking place.

‘This is not the right thing to do’

“I don’t understand the design when there is a five-meter sewage ditch, right where victims undressed,” said Haimi, referring to pipes installed adjacent to the new museum. “Everything they are doing, they are destroying something,” said Haimi. “We don’t know how to stop it. My fight was for nothing,” he said.

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel earlier this year, Haimi expressed frustration with developments at Sobibor. Specifically, he believes the addition of ditches and pipes for the museum-visitor center have not only damaged camp remains, but will prevent future archeology from taking place.

Archeologists Wojtek Mazurek (left) and Yoram Haimi, excavators of Sobibor since 2007 (courtesy: Wojtek Mazurek)

“I understand the Poles want a nice visitor center, but this is not the right thing to do. Everything should be minimal,” said Haimi. “We still think they should leave the remains in place. We excavated, so you don’t need to destroy. Leave something for the next generation.”

Haimi’s criticism of plans for Sobibor is not limited to the museum-visitor center. The researcher said he was also opposed to covering the field of mass graves with a layer of permeable geotextile and white crushed marble, a project completed in 2017. According to Haimi, weeds are already poking through the covering and the marble fragments are graying.

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, in Poland, a sprawling mound of crushed granite was placed atop the mass graves area in recent years, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Having lost his battle to keep Sobibor’s grounds devoid of new construction, Haimi is now calling for the “disappearance” of a kilometer-long, semi-circular “memorial wall” going up around the mass graves. According to the archeologist, the Holocaust burial field actually continues beyond this boundary, into the forest, and the structure’s deep foundations could disturb the remains of Sobibor’s victims.

‘He hasn’t reported any irregularities’

For many years, the State Museum at Majdanek has overseen the grounds of Sobibor. The institution approved each round of salvage excavations undertaken by Haimi and Mazurek, and its leaders convene the international steering committee responsible for Sobibor’s transformation.

According to a spokesperson for the State Museum at Majdanek, every aspect of the construction taking place at Sobibor has been in line with plans approved by the committee. This includes the location for the museum-visitor center, a decision made by Yad Vashem chairperson Avner Shalev, said the spokesperson.

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor in Poland, a museum-tourist center has been under construction since 2017 (courtesy: State Museum at Majdanek)

“All construction works have been carried out under archaeological supervision and in areas which had already been explored by archaeologists,” said Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Nowak in an exchange with The Times of Israel. She also noted the museum is in “permanent contact” with Mazurek.

“If there were any irregularities related to the erection of museum buildings, [Wojtek Mazurek] would notify us about them,” said Kowalczyk-Nowak. “Until now [Mazurek] hasn’t reported any irregularities, therefore we don’t know the source of information provided to you by Yoram Haimi. Technical infrastructure — such as sewage, electric power or heating systems — has been built in accordance with the project, made a few years ago,” said Kowalczyk-Nowak.

When asked if Haimi and Mazurek will be asked to excavate at Sobibor again, Kowalczyk-Nowak said the museum “has been permanently cooperating with Mr. Mazurek, therefore it is not true that he has been excluded from completion of the project, whereas Mr. Haimi conducted archaeological research on the commission of the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, not of the State Museum at Majdanek.”

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, small bone fragments from the mass graves rise up after the ground thaws each year, November 2014. As of 2017, this area has been covered by a tarp and tons of crushed white marble. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Kowalczyk-Nowak confirmed that “archeological research will be conducted in the area where no excavations have been made so far, that is along the location of the wall which will be built to mark the so-called ‘Road to Heaven’ leading to the gas chambers.” The spokesperson did not name Haimi or Mazurek as being commissioned to do the research, despite the pair having excavated and mapped the “Road to Heaven” several years ago.

‘A few meters from someone’s house’

When excavations began at Sobibor in 2007, there were no tensions on display between the Israeli-Polish archeologist team and the State Museum at Majdanek. The only ground broken was for large excavation squares, as construction plans were still in early stages.

The proposed memorial wall at Sobibor will circle the area of mass graves, including the prominent ‘ash mountain’ memorial (photo courtesy: Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation)

Season after season, Haimi and Mazurek unearthed a breathtaking array of artifacts that belonged to Sobibor’s victims, including the metal nameplates of several Dutch-Jewish children. The archeologists determined the location of barbed wire fences torn down in 1943, and they located the foundations of Sobibor’s gas chambers, long hidden under a layer of Soviet-era concrete.

Although Haimi regularly voiced sharp criticism of construction at Sobibor, the State Museum at Majdanek continued to invite his co-excavator, Mazurek, to return to the grounds for research. In part because of Haimi’s relationship with Yad Vashem, he has always joined Mazurek to co-lead the digs. Along the way, the Israeli archeologist continued to bemoan the steering committee’s decision to build inside Sobibor.

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, where more than 200,000 Jews were murdered during the Shoah, a family lives within the boundaries of the dismantled camp, September 30, 2017 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“Why is a visitor center [located] a few meters from someone’s house,” Haimi told The Times of Israel. “I don’t see why these three little houses were not bought and turned into [the museum-visitor center],” he said, referring to several small buildings — including a family’s home — that were situated inside the camp for decades.

‘We are always optimistic’

Archeologist Wojtek Mazurek comes from Wlodawa, the charming Polish town next to Sobibor. Whereas Yoram Haimi is connected to Sobibor because his relatives were murdered there, Mazurek’s ties to Sobibor began with the camp’s proximity to his childhood home.

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

In 2014, The Times of Israel visited Mazurek in Wlodawa. On a bench next to the archeologist’s pre-war house, Mazurek showed some of the artifacts pulled from the earth that year. The finds included a ceramic Mickey Mouse fragment, a gold wedding ring, and a 1927-made pendant with the Hebrew acronym for “Land of Israel.” There were many combs, buttons, earrings, and coins from several countries among the hundreds of artifacts.

Mazurek is not known for being as outspoken as Haimi, his friend and co-excavator since 2007. He did, however, tell The Times of Israel that he and Haimi “have not had good experiences cooperating with [the State Museum at] Majdanek.”

Despite tension in the relationship between the museum and the archeologists, Mazurek believes that he and Haimi should “continue our research” at Sobibor.

At the former Nazi death camp death camp Sobibor, archeologists uncovered the foundations of gas chambers in which more than 200,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, November 2014 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“In our opinion to do our job [with other archeologists] is not allowed because we made all the last 10 years of research. But we are always optimistic,” said Mazurek.

Among the tasks remaining at Sobibor, the archeologists hope to continue excavating an “escape tunnel” they discovered several seasons ago. Relatively untouched since the Holocaust is the so-called “ramp” area where Jews disembarked from the deportation trains, as well as the “forest camp” added late in Sobibor’s existence.

For his part, Haimi is not sure he will be invited to attend the opening of the museum next spring, much less be asked back to excavate. And with the passing this week of Sobibor’s last survivor, Semyon Rosenfeld, none of the courageous men and women who fled the camp 76 years ago will witness the latest transformation of Sobibor, graveyard to more than 200,000 Jewish victims.

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