by Celeste Thorn,
Celeste Thorn is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University 
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Executive Summary

  • Memorialisation and education are two of the central purposes that preserved Holocaust sites serve.
  • In the contemporary period, archaeology has been used for a myriad of purposes at multiple sites in Europe, including gaining more extensive knowledge, aiding memorialisation, and in a limited sense, as part of criminal investigations such as Richard Wright’s work in Ukraine under the Australian War Crimes Act.
  • These policy tensions are fraught with complex ethical and religious considerations of remembrance and respect for Jewish traditions.
  • This piece explores the archaeology undertaken at four sites in Europe to examine the purposes and results to question the value that archaeology can offer and the constraints these investigations operate under.

Memorialisation and education are two of the central functions that underpin the purposes of preserved sites of traumatic history. Archaeologists Claudia Theune and Frederick Baker have argued that archaeological work at these sites is an act of memory, driven by the need to promote and preserve remembrance of the events and victims. Prominent Australian archaeologist Richard Wright believes that archaeology can perform several functions; remembrance, knowledge, and also the opportunity for justice. This is not always the case, however, in relation to sites of Holocaust atrocity. The magnitude of the crimes and the sheer number of perpetrators, combined with the length of time that has passed between the crimes and the contemporary archaeological investigations mean that opportunities for ‘justice’ in a legal sense are severely limited. That said, there is an ongoing need to expose perpetrator acts, and where possible, hold living perpetrators to account for their roles. Further entangling these policy tensions is the need to respect Jewish customs and be sensitive to theological beliefs surrounding the treatment of human remains. These competing policies come to the fore with an examination of four sites of traumatic history explored in this piece.

From a historian’s viewpoint, these archaeological investigations offer a unique opportunity to develop a more incisive understanding of the places and systems that were integral to the Nazi destruction of the European Jews. The discovery of seemingly lost artefacts and structures provide tangible remnants to aid not only remembrance but also education. This is of particular relevance at sites that were almost entirely destroyed by the perpetrators who aimed to obliterate all traces of their crimes such as the Operation Reinhard extermination camps in Poland: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. As a result, the historical record has been constructed almost exclusively from the limited survivor and perpetrator testimonies. On a surface level (or beneath the surface level), therefore, the advent of archaeological study promises great rewards to historical knowledge and understanding; something that would seemingly be welcomed by historians, survivors and descendants alike. Yet this is a highly controversial area due to the ethical and religious considerations that come into play at sites of Jewish suffering. Jewish Halacha Law dictates the rites of the deceased according to Judaism; that is, that any disturbance of the deceased is prohibited and seen as profane. In fact, simply removing material that covers the grave flouts this rule. The dead must remain at their original ‘resting place’- a jarring concept in light of the circumstances of the death of the victims of the Holocaust.

Belzec was the first of the Reinhard camps to be investigated in this manner. Archaeologist Andrzej Kola was brought in to level and clear the site for a new memorial to be constructed in 1997-99. As part of this process, Kola undertook invasive measures such as core drilling which resulted in an uproar over the violation of the sacred rituals of the deceased. Although Kola made significant headway in locating and pinpointed 33 mass graves and gaining an approximation of the number of victims within, this was overshadowed by the furore over this apparent violation. The site was concreted over and a new memorial and small museum built, considered as better ‘protection’ to the buried human remains.  In 2000-1, Kola also undertook similar archaeological measures at Sobibor. As a direct result of Kola’s work at Belzec and Sobibor, future archaeological work at Holocaust sites has been subject to strict protocols to ensure that the tenets of Halacha Law are upheld.

In 2010, archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls commenced an investigation at the site of Treblinka after being granted permission from the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich and the curator of the Treblinka museum, Edward Kopowka. This approval was conditional upon largely non-invasive measures being utilised to adhere to the Jewish burial rites, and actively avoiding any areas that were thought to contain mass graves. Schudrich dictated that any human remains found were to remain in situ and any digging at that spot ceased immediately. Further, any remains found at ground level must be reinterred under the guidance of Schudrich himself. Sturdy Colls stated the aims of the project were tied to driving better knowledge and understanding of the camp, particularly as there is comparatively less known about the camp and its workings due to there being few survivors and due to the attempted destruction of all camp buildings and documentation.  These recent investigations have yielded results that may provide a better understanding of the camp layout and processes, along with a number of personal artefacts and structural remains.

In contrast to the Belzec and Sobibor projects, the impetus for the work at Treblinka was not a planned redevelopment of the existing memorial. A full-scale, comprehensive investigation of the site of Treblinka is particularly difficult beyond the ethical and religious considerations. The scale of the existing memorial covers a significant portion of the site, with hundreds of large jagged stones surrounding the large obelisk that forms a permanent memorial. It is not financially feasible to investigate comprehensively, and further, this would raise a myriad of ethical concerns in itself. Through this non-invasive approach, numerous artefacts have been located and remnants of the gas chamber structure. Yet, as Sturdy Colls has noted, there are traces of human remains scattered at the site on ground level- a particularly problematic ethical concern and one that makes avoidance of disturbing the deceased extremely difficult. Even unobtrusive methods in these circumstances still nominally cause unrest: put simply, to investigate such sites to any degree of success involves an invasion of the sanctity of the victim’s final resting place being left in peace. Halacha Law is direct on this point: to disturb the dead is profane. How then can any ‘leeway’ be granted on this most sacred of beliefs? This creates a complex ethical dilemma, caught between a desire to extend knowledge and understanding while respecting the beliefs of the millions of victims.

While the archaeology was apparently undertaken as part of a process of promoting remembrance of the victims and allowing better memorialisation at the sites themselves, the success of the investigations have in fact halted construction of a formal memorial at Sobibor.  In 2007, Yad Vashem initiated a new archaeological study of the site headed by experienced archaeologist Isaac Gilead along with graduate student Yoram Haimi with the aim of determining the layout of the camp to facilitate a comparison between the three Reinhard sites and plans to develop a new memorial and visitor centre. Hundreds of personal artefacts and structural remains were located such as sections of the camp wire fences and, in September 2014, remnants of one of the gas chamber structures. In September 2015, memorialisation plans were suspended indefinitely based on the rationale that any memorial at the site would not only disturb human remains thereby contravening Halacha Law, but would also disturb the archaeological findings. This is a puzzling statement given that the original aim of the project was driven by a desire to adequately memorialise the victims. Based on the knowledge that human remains have been located on the surface of the site, and that there were multiple mass grave locations at Sobibor, the buried victims have already been disturbed, whether indirectly or not. By halting memorialisation to protect the archaeological work, it seemingly appears that this is of greater importance, which is difficult to reconcile with the policy aim to respect the victims through remembrance and observation of traditions.

The reaction to Kola’s work, and the subsequent truncated investigations is an interesting point, given that in 1990-1991, Australian archaeologist Richard Wright undertook extensive, invasive excavation of two mass graves containing Jewish victims in Ukraine as part of a criminal investigation initiated in South Australia by the Adelaide Special Investigations Unit (SIU). Working from eyewitness testimony, three men, living in Australia and granted citizenship, were under suspicion of participating in the mass murder of Jewish victims in Serniki after the Nazi occupation in 1942. In 1990, Wright’s investigation of the Serniki site confirmed the existence of the mass grave and estimated the number of victims at 550, noting that he and his team excavated to the point of two bodies deep but could not excavate further without causing significant damage. Although Wright did not exhume the bodies, this degree of excavation alone indicates a significant disturbance of human remains. In 1991 at the second Ukrainian site, in Ustinovka (not related to the evidence given regarding suspected Serniki perpetrators), Wright excavated and partially exhumed human remains of approximately 170 people, again a clear disturbance of Jewish deceased.

How then can the uproar over Kola’s dig at Belzec be understood? Given that Wright was sent by the SIU as part of an investigation under the Australian War Crimes Act, this is a possible explanation for the overriding of Halacha Law. The prospect of prosecuting a suspect who was alive provides an opportunity for justice, and as Wright has noted, the tangibility of human remains is a powerful asset to such a case. At Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, the impetus for investigation differed which would seem to be the crucial factor in this matter. At Ustinovka, the survivor who told authorities about the mass grave requested that post-excavation, the remains be reinterred at a local cemetery. It is not clear whether this is a common occurrence or request, however it is worth considering when evaluating the observance of Halacha Law in these investigations as it is indicative of the variations of adherence to the sacred burial rites. This example also brings to the fore difficult questions about who has the power and agency to decide whether to observe or disregard these sacred beliefs.

The personal artefacts and building remnants that have been recovered by archaeologists form another facet to this topic. Wright’s excavations of Serniki uncovered not only human remains, but also personal artefacts; some of which were sent to Australia as evidence for the criminal trial. Post-legal proceedings, it is not clear where any human remains were then sent, or whether they were re-interred. However, the bulk of the personal artefacts remained in Australia and currently form part of a special exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum dedicated to the educational benefits that archaeological study offers. Avril Alba notes the importance of tangible evidence in conjunction with survivor testimony and documentation to create a cohesive and approachable learning experience for students. In light of the stated aims of archaeological investigations and the push for greater awareness and education of lesser-known sites and acts of atrocity, displaying such findings in museums may indeed fulfil this goal but is not without other ethical considerations. In relation to the Serniki artefacts that are far removed from the site where they were uncovered, this raises questions about contextual understanding. These tangible items on display are charged with representing a much larger process of destruction and arguably are divested of a certain potency if they are removed from the site to demonstrate the broader context.

Sturdy Colls has argued that there is a ‘do not disturb’ mentality shrouding sites associated with the Holocaust. Despite the investigations explored in this piece, the limitations they operate under indicate the ongoing sensitivities surrounding Holocaust sites and memory. The balance between upholding the sacred beliefs while attempting to extend knowledge and understanding of the workings of sites such as Treblinka are indicative of the ongoing delicate and controversial nature of this area of study. The time elapsed since the Holocaust is a contributing factor to the contemporary boom of archaeology at Holocaust sites: survivors can help contextualise the findings, narrate and personalise the objects investing the inanimate with an individual memory. It is not unreasonable to ponder why survivors and descendants would not want any form of investigation that suggests the possibility of furthering historical knowledge, particularly in relation to sites such as the Reinhard camps that are generally lost in the spectre of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau. Any tangible evidence discovered could act as a symbol to bear witness to the existence of sites that the Nazis attempted to destroy.

Wright’s work at Serniki was far more invasive than any of the more recent digs, including that at Belzec, but was not subjected to similar criticisms perhaps due to the writ of the Australian War Crimes Act. Wright was able to make significant discoveries, by all accounts in a sensitive manner, but without the constricting boundaries that archaeologists such as Sturdy Colls, Gilead and Haimi must adhere to. The allowances made in observation of Halacha Law have assuaged ethical and religious concerns but at the expense of the possibility of a full investigation of sites of Holocaust atrocity.

Whether the passing of time lessens the immediacy and visceral nature of the Holocaust is debatable as there are few signs of this occurring 70 years on, unsurprisingly perhaps given the magnitude and scale of the atrocities perpetrated. Yet, if the motto is ‘never forget’ and this is what drives memorialisation and commemorative efforts, then it must be asked why any additional and new knowledge that can be gained would be curtailed.

Reading List

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Citation: Celeste Thorn, (Un)covered History: Policy Tensions of Archaeology at Holocaust Sites, Australian Policy and History. October 2015.


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