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First Israeli Holocaust Excavation (2008)

Although my chief Interest has always been the biblical period, I believe that archaeological methods can be useful in illuminating recent history as well, especially that of the Holocaust, which took place in Europe during the Second World War.

Yet I never heard of an archaeological expedition working at a concentration or death camp, let alone by an Israeli. Well now it is finally happening.

It all started in 2005 when Yoram Haimi, an archaeologist from the southern district of the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority), visited Yad Vashem to learn more about the fate of his uncles in the Holocaust. With the help of the librarian he found their names in Transport 53 from France to Poland. It was bound for Sobibor, so Haimidecided to visit the camp.

Sobibor was built in 1942 and was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, after gassing to death 250,000 Jews and 1000 Poles. Today Sobibor is mostly covered by a forest, with none of the buildings of the original camp in evidence. Only the railway tracks and memorials attest to its location and horrific past.  Being so, the plan of the camp and its operation is based only on eye-witness accounts and limited historical records. In 2001 first attempts to reveal parts of the camp were made by Professor AKulla form Poland. He located four mass grave sites and a building he believed to have been part of the gas chambers.

In October 2007 Haimi renewed the excavations at the edge of the building discovered by Professor Kulla. Although only six squares were opened, the find indicated the building was not part of the gas chamber complex but rather the “barbershop”, the place where the victims were shaved before being taken for gassing. The small artifacts found included razors, scissors and a stone for sharpening knives. Surprisingly they also comprised small glass perfume bottles originally made by a Dutch company named “Leerdam”. Haimi contacted them and tried to get information about the bottles but when the company understood where they were found, they stopped collaborating with the research.

The location of the “barber shop” fits well with a map drawn by Thomas Blatt, a survivor of Sobibor who worked there. From the “barber shop” the victims were taken along a narrow path demarcated by barbed wire (the Germans called it sarcastically “pipe to heaven”) which led to the gas chambers. Now that Haimi has located the “barber shop” he plans to follow the “pipe” in the hope of finding the gas chambers themselves.

He has created a website for this excavation – www.undersobibor.org . Its aim is to present his findings, and to recruit volunteers and funds for the continuation of the project. If my report will help in any way toward this goal, that would be my biggest reward.

Selected artifacts recovered in the recent excavations at Sobibor

Selected artifacts recovered in the recent excavations at Sobibor. Most of them indicate the area revealed was where the victims were shaved before being taken to the gas chambers.

Gates of Ancient Tiberias Open Again

Tiberias plays a significant role in the history of Western civilization. On July 4 1187, Salah ed-Din, leader of the Muslim forces in the Holy Land, won the Battle of “horns of Hattin” not far from Tiberias. A Crusader army was on its way to Tiberias to lift the Muslim siege on the city. Acknowledging his inferiority in close combat against the mounted knights in their armor, Salah ed-Din launched surprise attacks on the approaching enemy, and set the surrounding fields on fire. The day was especially hot, and the Crusaders, in full armor and lacking water for the past 48 hours, were in a weakened state – heavy and vulnerable.

At the end of the day 1200 knights were dead as well as thousands of infantry soldiers and archers.

The battle ended Crusader sovereignty in the Holy Land and in the long run marked the eastern border between Muslim and Christian territories throughout the world. The limited access for Christian merchants to the Far East would later inspire Columbus to try and get there by sailing west and discovering the continent of America. That means that America was discovered because of Tiberias!.

Tiberias itself was neglected after the days of the Crusaders. In the 18th and 19th centuries it also suffered from a number of earthquakes. Only in the 1960s and 1970s was the city developed into a regional center as well as a site of recreation and tourism. Recently the southern gates of Roman Tiberias were re-exposed as part of a plan to create an archaeological park in that area.

When visiting the site in March 2008 I was impressed to see the pace of the work there. Twice I was almost run over by a tractor while trying to take a picture of it clearing dumps. I wondered what the engineer to Herod Antipas would have thought of such a funny-looking yellow wagon, with no horses pulling it, working in the gate complex he designed. Apparently his building plan was so good, that although 2000 years have passed, a tractor could drive on the original pavement of the gate area without damaging it.

A tractor entering the ancient gate to clear dumps that have covered the gate complex since its first discovery

A tractor entering the ancient gate to clear dumps that have covered the gate complex since its first discovery. Note how the roman period tiled floor of the gate can still hold the weight of a tractor! Photo © Danny Herman

An illustration of the park planned at the site of the southern gates of Tiberias

An illustration of the park planned at the site of the southern gates of Tiberias. © Israel Antiquities Authority.