Archaeologists Find Escape Tunnel at Sobibor Death Camp

The team of archaeologists who discovered the tunnel at the camp in Poland is led by an Israeli whose relatives were killed there.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A series of historic archaeological findings were made in recent weeks at the Sobibor Nazi death camp in what was occupied Poland.

Archaeological excavations carried out at the site by Israeli and Polish researchers unearthed an escape tunnel, a crematorium, human skeletal remains, a substance that appears to be blood and the identification tag of a Jewish boy who was murdered in the camp. The findings shed new light on the camp, where around 250,000 Jews were killed between 1942 and 1943.

The excavations took place in an area called Camp III, where the gas chambers were located. Israeli archeologist Yoram Haimi, who works for the Israel Antiquities Authority and is related to two people killed at Sobibor, has been overseeing the excavations while working on his doctorate.

He told Haaretz on Friday, “The area we were excavating has been disturbed and plundered many times over the years since the war. It’s a mess containing human bones, human ash, glass, pieces of metal and a lot of waste.”

Haimi’s partner is Polish archaeologist Wojciech Mazurek. Their work is being supported by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, the Majdanek museum and the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation. The most important finding at Sobibor is the remains of the camp crematorium.

“We found the strip of land the bodies were burned on,” said Haimi. “The earth there is painted a reddish-brown color. My guess is that this is from the blood and fat of the victims, which seeped down to a depth of three meters. The area smells of carrion. It’s amazing and horrifying at the same time.”

On May 15, the team found the remnants of an escape tunnel that is thought to have been constructed by Jewish prisoners. It is the first and only evidence of the existence of such a tunnel in the camp. The tunnel is 1.6 meters deep and a meter wide; its length is not yet known. It was discovered in an area where a large shed and barbed-wire fences once stood, and the barbed wire is still buried in the earth.

“We found a snake-shaped tunnel in what was once the center of the shed, leading eastwards – out of the camp. We think that this was an escape tunnel dug by the prisoners,” says Haimi. “They started digging from the center of the shed we exposed. They lifted up the wooden boards and dug, maybe at night. They then scattered the dirt they dug up.”

It appears the tunnel may have collapsed, as it is covered with sand.

“If we expose it all, we may even find the remains of Jews who tried to escape and were buried alive,” says Haimi. “For us it’s very important – this is sensational news. It’s an amazing story that no one knew about until now. There are no survivors to tell us what happened there.”

Another finding was the small identification tag of an 8-year old Jewish boy named David Yaakov-Zack, which includes his address, date of birth and nickname, “Dedy.” A search of historic documents revealed he was sent to Sobibor from Holland on July 11 1943 with his niece, who is still alive and lives in Holland. Last year, another identification tag was found at the site, bearing the name of Lea Judith de la Penh, a girl from a Jewish Portuguese family that immigrated to Amsterdam. Penh was six when she was murdered at Sobibor. Her relatives live in Israel.

Over the past few weeks, researchers also found seven skeletons of people who had been shot in the head and thrown in a pit, with boots still on their feet. The Polish police opened an investigation, which revealed that the victims were between 65 and 80 years old at the time of their deaths. The bodies were removed from the pit and taken to a laboratory; attempts are underway to identify them.

Haimi believes they were Jews who were executed when the camp was destroyed.

“I think they are ‘sonderkommandos’ [‘work units of Nazi death camp prisoners’] who were brought here from Treblinka to destroy Sobibor. After it was destroyed, they were executed with a bullet to the head.”

But Haimi say it is also possible they were Poles who collaborated with the Germans and were later murdered by the Russians in revenge. A laboratory in the Polish city of Lublin is testing soil samples from the crematorium area to determine the exact nature of the substance Haimi suspects is Jewish blood and fat.

Over the past few years, excavations at the site have turned up many items that belonged to Holocaust victims, including house keys, luggage, coins, toothpaste, a Star of David, false teeth, pliers for pulling teeth, gold earrings, a girl’s ring, a watch, perfume bottles, a pin and remnants of a gas mask that was used when removing bodies from the gas chambers. Traces of structures have also been previously found, including a path leading to the gas chambers, an inner fence, poles that supported the structures and a mass grave.

Further excavations are planned at the site with the approval of the Polish chief rabbi, Rabbi Shudrich, including in two places where Jews are thought to be buried.

The camp was built in March 1942, along with the Treblinka and Belzec extermination camps. Two-hundred-thousand Jews, mainly from Poland, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia, were murdered there between April 1942 and October 1943. The camp was dismantled after the prisoner uprising of October 1943, during which half of the prisoners escaped. After it was dismantled, the Nazis razed it and tried to erase all traces of its existence. Nothing was left of the camp apart from the train tracks that led to it and the camp commander’s house.

The Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk was convicted in Germany in 2011 of serving as a guard in Sobibor and aiding in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. He was sentenced to a prison term, but died before he could serve it.

The Sobibor train station in Poland.Credit: Reuters

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