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
To view the testimonies from the Rhodes, Greece Interview Project: click here
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
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
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
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
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
From a geophysical perspective, Bauman says, Sobibor
resembles a brownfield, an abandoned industrial site
examined for potential environmental hazards before
redevelopment â?" 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.
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
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