The Arty Semite

Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

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Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

They couldn’t make it completely disappear, but the absence of physical evidence allowed Holocaust deniers to maintain that Treblinka 2 was a transit, not death, camp.

Enter Dr. Sturdy Colls and her team. Working with the cooperation of the Treblinka Museum and Polish authorities, and with the blessing of the Chief Rabbi of Poland, they used 21st-century technology to find what the Nazis tried to obscure 70 years ago.

Nothing remained on the grounds except the museum and the forest planted by the Germans. Utilizing a system called lidar — an acronym for “light and radar” — they were able to see through the foliage and found faint imprints they thought might be the camp’s original foundation.

The team first set up several digs at Treblinka 1, the so-called work camp. In relatively short order they uncovered human remains that underscored the contention that Treblinka 1 was more than just a work camp. The team was visibly moved by their discoveries and it was heartwarming to see the reverence with which they treated the remains, which were subsequently reburied under the rabbi’s supervision.

It took a little longer to make discoveries in Treblinka 2, but eventually the team uncovered the location of a gas chamber as well as more body parts, personal effects and, most interesting, a Magen David on a tile. The last confirms eyewitness accounts that said the Nazis had designed the gas chamber to look as though it was a bath house, in order to suggest that this was merely a transit camp.

Sturdy Colls work is increasingly important as the number of survivors shrink and all that’s left are distant memories. This is a show worth watching.


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