Excavation of Treblinka Reveals True Horrors

Archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls excavates at Treblinka. A documentary about the work airs on Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel.

For the first time ever, there have been archaeological excavations at the Nazi death camp, Treblinka. The excavation revealed undiscovered mass graves and it shows physical evidence that the camp had gas chambers where thousands of people were murdered.

In a new documentary, Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine aired on March 29th on the Smithsonian Channel. The excavations revealed that the Nazi’s weren’t as adept at covering their crimes as they believed. They razed the death camp in 1943. The only things that remain are brick walls and foundations from the gas chambers, also a large amount of human bones which include fragments which can be found in the forested surface.

Caroline Sturdy Colls, the forensic archeologist who normally worked with the police to find modern murder victims. Colls stated the artifacts that were being found were not being recorded or recovered.

Of all the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, Treblinka was one of the largest mysteries. Historians have estimated that nearly 900,000 Jews were murdered at the concentration camp in the Nazi-occupied Poland over a 16 month time period.

Jews who were sent to Treblinka II on trains were told they were going to a transit camp. From the camp they would be sent to Eastern Europe to begin a new life. The lies were quite elaborate. The Nazi’s constructed fake train stations complete with fake ticket counters and a clock.

Colls told Live Science she discovered there was an orchestra set up near the reception area. The orchestra was ran by a famous composer at the time, Artur Gold.

Gold was a Jewish violinist from Warsaw. He was kept alive at the camp to entertain the Nazi guards and to run the orchestra. He later died in 1943, still in the camp.

The Jewish deportees were split into two groups—men in one group and women and children in another. The people were ordered to undress for “delousing.” After they handed over their valuables and documents, the victims were sent to the gas chambers. The chambers were then filled with exhaust fumes from tank engines. Within 20 minutes, the gas would kill 5,000 people at a time. The deceased were initially buried mass graves but later they during 1942 and 1943, the Jewish slave laborers were forced to open the graves and burn the bodies on enormous pyres.

But, because the Nazi’s ravaged the death camp in 1943, there is very little physical evidence of the genocide that remained. What little was known about Treblinka came from Nazi confessions and the eyewitness descriptions of a very few survivors—most of whom were never allowed to go near the gas chambers.

As an archeologist, Colls knew the land could never be rid of the atrocities by fire. She began to assess Treblinka as an archaeological site in 2007. She emphasized the use of non-invasive archaeological methods, which include geophysical surveys around the site and visual inspection.

Since that time, Colls has also led a lidar survey of the site. Lidar is a method that uses lasers to measure the distance between the ground and the plane born instrument. By scanning the the ground with the lasers, archaeologists can detect depressions and mounds that would indicate manmade creations.

The sites of the suspected massive graves were believed to be in Treblinka I, the labor camp. The story behind the labor camp isn’t as well known as the death camp, which now has a memorial. The labor camp was no less brutal. Eyewitnesses report seeing a man being hacked to death. In the labor camp, daily beatings and murder were a commonplace. One of the largest mass graves was 63 feet by 58 feet in size.

When the archaeology team began digging to confirm the results from the lidar, they found shoes, ammunition and bones—bones with cut marks which indicated the victims had been assaulted or stabbed.

After the team dug three test trenches to confirm the mass grave, Colls and her team reburied the remains. According to Jewish rabbinical law prohibits the disruption of any gravesite. The aim was never to disinter the bodies. According to Colls, it was very difficult to put the bones back in the graves.

The gas chambers was the subject of the teams’ second dig. There were two different sets of gas chambers built in Treblinka. The first chamber was able to hold 500 people. The second, was able to hold 5,000.

Colls and her team conducted four excavations at Treblinka II. The first two digs revealed a strange discovery—a fossilized shark tooth and sand. Evidently, the Nazis would dump sand from a nearby quarry in graves to disguise the remains.

The second dig site revealed a brick wall and foundation. The chambers were the only brick buildings in the camp, Colls told SOTT.net. The digs also revealed orange tiles that matched eyewitness descriptions of the floor inside the gas chambers. It was unnerving that every tile was stamped with a Star of David—a ploy to disguise the chamber as a Jewish-style bathhouse.

The excavations suggest otherwise. Colls is now working on an exhibition of the findings to be displayed at Treblinka. She also plans to write a book detailing the findings.


Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE