Archaeologists Make More Historic Finds at Site of Sobibor Gas Chambers

Jewelry that belonged to Jewish victims found, including pendant from pre-state Israel; site of gas chambers recently located.

At the archeological rescue excavations being carried out at the Polish site where the Sobibor extermination camp stood, a pendant from the land of Israel belonging to one of the Jewish prisoners at the camp was found recently. The pendant, from 1927, was discovered at the entrance to the building that held the gas chambers, which was also unearthed not long ago.

Historian Dr. David Silberklang, a Yad Vashem senior researcher accompanying the excavations, told Haaretz, “All of a sudden out of the ruins, from under the asphalt, come voices of Jews who are speaking to us … entire lives. Suddenly it is possible to bring to life a person, a Jew, of whom no trace remained.”

Also found recently in the excavations along with the pendant are earrings and rings, including a wedding ring with the inscription “You are hereby sanctified unto me” in Hebrew, along with perfume bottles.

To the question of how it is possible that the Nazis left these items whole after they liquidated the camp in 1943, Silberklang suggested, “Perhaps the Germans overlooked them. It’s also possible that the Jews who worked at getting rid of the bodies buried these items in the earth intentionally, so that later someone would find them. The fact that they are there gives us something of those Jews, of whom we have no trace.”

Israeli archeologist Yoram Haimi, who has been leading the excavations at the site for the past eight years, told Haaretz that some of the finds were discovered inside a structure that had served as a cistern that the Germans sealed off during the liquidation of the camp. “The excitement is great,” he says. “We have been fortunate in extracting hundreds of objects.”

Alongside the personal belongings of the prisoners at the camp, remains of the gas chambers, of which until now there had been none, were also found this month. “All the Jews who labored at the upper camp, Camp 3, where the gas chambers were, were murdered. There is no one who survived. Therefore, until now we only knew what was there in a general way, mainly from testimonies of survivors who escaped but hadn’t been in this part of the camp,” says Silberklang.

He said that after the Holocaust the Poles paved a road at the site and covered the gas chambers with asphalt. “They didn’t do this maliciously. Apparently they just didn’t know themselves where everything was located,” he explains.

The new finds will help Holocaust researchers deepen the understanding of how the camp operated and how the Jews imprisoned there were murdered. “Analysis of the finds in the field will enable us to answer basic questions – how many gas chambers were in the building, what their capacity was, how many people were put into the gas chambers and how many were murdered there, how they took the corpses out, where they brought them. Some of these questions are very shocking, of course, but they are important,” Silberklang said.

The Sobibor camp was established in March 1942 along with the Treblinka and Belzec extermination camps. Some 250,000 Jews, most of them from Poland, Holland and Slovakia, were murdered at the camp between April 1942 and Octoebr 1943. It was dismantled after the revolt that broke out there in October 1943, during he course of which half the prisoners escaped. After it was liquidated, the Nazis destroyed the camp down to its foundations and tried to make all evidence of its existence disappear.

The excavations at the site have been underway for eight years and were renewed a month ago. The team leading them includes Israeli archeologist Yoran Haimi, his Polish partner Wojciech Mazurek and Dutch researcher Ivar Schute, who are working in cooperation with the German-Polish Foundation and the Majdanek State Museum.

“I admit that as a historian, I didn’t think at first about the connection between the Holocaust and archaeology,” says Silberklang. “It didn’t occur to me to excavate in a mass grave.”