The Sobibor Documentation Project :

For more information on Deadly Deception at Sobibor, click here

Check out the latest press on The Sobibor Documentation Project:
San Diego Jewish World: October 6, 2014
Huffington Post: October 3, 2014
Spiegel Online International: September 26, 2014
Jerusalem Post: September 17, 2014
Times of Israel: September 17, 2014
YNetNews: September 17, 2014
Times of Israel: October, 14, 2013

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Reprinted from Connecticut Jewish Ledger, August 2008
WEST HARTFORD - The latest tool in the fight against Holocaust denial isn't a newly discovered trove of Nazi government documents or a cache of wartime photographs.

An international team of archeologists, historians, and geophysicists is using the technology of oil- and gas-exploration to locate the gas chamber at the Sobibor extermination camp, hastily buried by the Nazis after a prisoner uprising in 1943.

The archeological project was conceived and is led by Yoram Haimi, an archeologist with the Antiquities Authority of Israel and Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who became interested in the Sobibor site because two of his uncles had been killed there. After learning about the work with geophysical techniques on Israeli archeological sites conducted by Dr.. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, Haimi invited the world-renowned archeologist to join the Sobibor project.

Visiting the site for just one week in July, Freund and his used ground-penetrating radar and electro-magnetic technology to make some significant discoveries that will help create the most accurate post-war map of a site deliberately hidden from view by the Nazis.

Hiding the truth

In October 1943, the 300 Jews imprisoned at Sobibor staged an unprecedented uprising. Fifty of the 300 successfully escaped. To hide their defeat, the Nazis quickly dismantled or burned the camp structures, and the entire site was covered over with earth and newly planted trees. Later, the Polish government erected a small cement memorial to the 250,000 Jews exterminated at the camp, and posted plaques throughout the overlying forest marking where the various buildings were thought to have stood.

The local Poles knew where the camp had been, as did the 50 Sobibor survivors. After the war, a historical commission was organized to locate and document the various labor, concentration, and extermination camps.

But for some reason, with this camp, even though they knew where it was and there was a memorial placed there, no one tried to go back to uncover it," says Dr. Avinoam Patt, Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Greenberg Center who accompanied Freund to Sobibor, "There were also halachic issues around disturbing the site, since it is a mass grave, and bodies were burned and cremated there."

Reconstructing the past

Survivors recorded testimonies and drew maps of the camp from memory. The Sobibor excavation project uses these rudimentary, anecdotal resources as a starting point then corroborates the accounts with the most advanced geophysical technology.

You come into the forest and you see nothing but the cement memorial, says Freund. The idea is to figure out scientifically where everything was, because all we have is anecdotal information. Survivors of the rebellion all made maps and all the maps are different. That's part of the problem: When there are no more survivors around, Holocaust deniers use discrepancies between survivor accounts to say that the accounts are unreliable and flawed and not true.

Freund says the team located structures thought to be Sobibor's gas chamber and crematoria, as well as light-railway tracks used to bring the sick and infirm from the main railway line directly to the crematoria. In addition, the technology detected hundreds of personal artifacts, including a woman's curling iron, pieces of shoes, and hand-tools.

Canadian company steps in

Freund has been using the geophysical technology for a decade, and is one of a small number of archeologists throughout the world to take advantage of its precision and speed to map sub-surfaces. The technology is already well known in Israel, where Freund has worked with renowned Israeli archeologists on 20 sites, including Qumran, the Cave of Letters, and the Western Wall.

At Sobibor, the equipment was loaned by WorleyParsons International, one of the world's largest engineering and research firms specializing in energy resources. This is the fifth time the Canadian company has worked with Freund and waived its usual five-figure rental fees, charging only shipping and liability costs.

Calgary- based WorleyParsons geophysicists, Paul Bauman and Brad Hansen, used several imaging techniques to plot a plan view of the site: Magnetic mapping to identify iron and steel objects like small-gauge railroad tracks, barbed wire and fencing, rebar, shovels, nails, and cooking utensils; conductivity mapping to find buried, non-metal materials like concrete, clay, and wood; conductivity metal mapping to find larger iron, steel, copper, and zinc objects; radar to create cross-sectional images of the site and detect areas of soil disturbance, caused by the presence of a trench or ash layer; and aerial photography to create a base map of the site and detect old trails and possible mass-burial grounds.

Many companies like WorleyParsons are willing to do socially beneficial projects like Sobibor, says Bauman, who has worked with Freund on archeological sites in Israel. It's meaningful, interesting work, highly motivating for the people who get the opportunity to participate. It's a societally worthwhile project to do, given the events that the team was trying to unearth more information on.

From a geophysical perspective, Bauman says, Sobibor resembles a brownfield, an abandoned industrial site examined for potential environmental hazards before redevelopment ?" rather than a 3,000-year-old archeological dig like Yavneh, in Israel. There is only one layer to probe, versus 20, and objects are much easier to locate. The biggest difficulty for the geophysicists, Bauman says, is that Sobibor is now heavily forested.

To get an idea of what Freund was looking for, Bauman read the memoir of a Sobibor survivor and watched Escape from Sobibor. He studied survivors' maps and data from team archeologist Yoram Haimi's 2007 excavation at the site.

Looking ahead

The team also included Sarah Rutman, a University of Hartford Judaic Studies major, and Polish translator Zofia Zinserling. Findings from the summer investigation have been plotted on a digital map by Dr. Philip Reeder, a geographer at the University of South Florida.

The new map will be used by Haimi to plan follow-up excavations. Haimi is working with Yad VaShem in Israel and Marek Bem, director of the Museum of the Former Nazi Extermination Camp in Sobibor. He did a preliminary dig last year, and hopes to bring groups of Israeli teens to the site to help with the excavation work.

Now we can know exactly how to get in, where to get in, what's there or if there's nothing there, says Freund. "Archeologists can spend years spinning their wheels, because they start in a corner and there's nothing there, and they dig down and there's nothing there. So this technology is really a godsend for archeology."

The Sobibor project is unique, says team historian Avi Patt, in its synthesis of archeology and history of the Holocaust. "There are very few cases of a place where you can do this kind of archeology," he says. "A camp has been buried, concealed from sight, and tried to be hidden, and you have to do a kind of detective work to find out where it was, because they were deliberately trying to conceal its existence."

The Legacy of Sobibor

In addition to its technological importance to the field of archeology, the project has obvious historical significance, says Patt, who lost two great-grandparents at Sobibor. "From the Jewish side of things, the revolt, which is amazing, is a history that has to be told. We have this myth of Jews going like sheep to the slaughter, and we know that that's obviously not true: We know of cases of resistance. We know that Jews not only staged armed resistance, but they tried to sanctify life in many other ways - unarmed resistance, passive resistance, the refusing to give in."

The Sobibor revolt was unprecedented, Patt says, because the prisoners succeeded in shutting down the camp.

Just as important, Patt says, is the project's attempts to reveal what the Nazis literally covered up. "There are Holocaust deniers who say, 'Survivors are making it up. There never was a camp there, who knows if there was an extermination center? These are fantastic, made-up stories.' And that feeds right into what the Nazis were trying to do," Patt says. "Being on the site and seeing how successful they were at covering up the crime, makes it that much more important to do this work. Part of my motivation is to say, 65 years later, 'No, you're not going to get away with hiding this from history.'"

U.S. and Polish media will help inform the world of the project. In addition to an American TV documentary film crew, writers from "Reader's Digest" and Polish newspaper "Dziennik" visited the site, and team members were interviewed by Polish Television and Warsaw radio station Kol Poland.

"In a very short time, we're going to be without any survivors," says Freund. "It's important to create a scientific method to investigate survivor accounts, because Holocaust denial is growing."

Team members will present their findings at a Sobibor conference on Sunday, Oct. 26, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the University of Hartford's Wilde Auditorium. For more information, visit www. contact the