Archaeologists Uncover Remnants of Sobibor Gas Chambers

Archaeologists reveal remnants of Jewish inmates at Nazi death camp where John Demjanjuk served as a guard.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi  talking to young people from Israel's Dror School about his findings at the site of the former German Nazi death camp of Sobibor, in eastern Poland, on Aug. 21, 2012
Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi talking to young people from Israel's Dror School about his findings at the site of the former German Nazi death camp of Sobibor, in eastern Poland, on Aug. 21, 2012Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The remains of the gas chambers, jewelry and personal items belonging to Jewish prisoners have been found over the past few weeks during salvage excavations at the site of the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland.

“We have finally found the building that apparently served as the gas chambers,” said Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi, who has been coordinating excavations at the site for the past eight years. “We uncovered four chambers. Apparently there were eight. We are in the midst of the excavations and we’re now digging up the second part of the structure.”

According to Haimi, “This is the first time that we’ve found remains of the walls and cells of a building on this site, where nothing was left except forest and a concrete monument.”

Near the gas chambers Haimi and his Polish partner, archaeologist Wojciech Mazurek, found jewelry that belonged to the Jewish inmates. “We found earrings, gold wedding rings and a ring with the inscription, ‘with this ring you are consecrated to me,’ in Hebrew letters. We also found a large Magen David and a coin dated 1927 from Palestine,” he said. They also found perfume and medicine bottles.

Some of the artifacts were found in a well that was part of Camp No. 1 at the site. “The Germans plugged the well during the camp’s demolition, but luckily we were able to pull hundreds of items out of there,” Haimi said. “We’re very excited. We haven’t even had a chance to clean them.”

This new round of excavations that began last month is aimed at saving Holocaust-era artifacts before a new visitors center is built on the site. Over the past year Haimi has uncovered the remains of the crematorium and what remains of a tunnel through which prisoners tried to escape from the camp.

Dr. David Silberklang, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, said the discovery of the location of the gas chambers is “a most important finding in the study of the Holocaust.

“These findings are all that is left of those who were murdered,” Silberklang explained. “A small window has been opened to their daily suffering. This is the first time that we will be able to better understand what the murder process in the camp was, and what the Jews went through until they were murdered.”

Determining the precise size of the gas chambers will help researchers understand what their capacity was and could lead to a reevaluation of how many were murdered in the camp.

Sobibor was established in March 1942, along with the death camps at Treblinka and Belzec. Some 250,000 Jews, mostly from Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia, were murdered at Sobibor between April 1942 and October 1943.

The camp was shut down after the rebellion at the camp in October 1943, during which half of the prisoners escaped. The Nazis then razed it to the ground and planted over it, trying to eliminate evidence of its existence. Aside from the railroad track that led to the camp and the house in which the commander lived, no trace remained.

John Demjanjuk was convicted by a German court in 2011 for serving as a guard at Sobibor and being an accessory to the murder of thousands of Jews. He was sentenced to prison but died before he could serve his sentence.

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