Forensic archeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls has been granted unprecedented access to excavate one of history’s greatest crime scenes: Hitler’s secret extermination camp in the Polish village of Treblinka.
It was in this camp during the years of 1942 and 1943, almost one-million Jews were killed. But strangely, for the past 70-years all evidence of this camp and its victims vanished. Ms. Sturdy Colis plans to reveal what Hitler and his henchmen were so desperate to hide.
The grisly results of this dig are revealed in “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” which is an hour-long show premiering Saturday on the Smithsonian Channel. But they’re revealed in a way that pays respect to the estimated 900,000 Jewish victims of that killing machine.
“The ethical dimension of the work that I do is really important to me,” Caroline Sturdy Colls told NBC News.
The difference at Treblinka, which is as infamous as Auschwitz and Dachau in the hell that was the Holocaust, is that there were no inmates liberated by allied troops, and no photos showing unused gas chambers. The Germans finished their work at Treblinka in 1943 and bulldozed the camp in an effort to cover their tracks. They went so far as to plant crops and build a farmhouse on the leveled ground.
The story detailing the horrors of Treblinka were brought to light by several eyewitnesses accounts and by captured guards. They revealed that one camp at Treblinka was primarily a forced-labor facility. Another camp was designed specifically for herding thousands of victims at a time into one side of a “bathhouse,” where they were gassed to death with carbon monoxide exhaust from tank engines. The bodies were taken out the other side for mass burial, and later cremation.
When the reign of terror ended, Treblinka became a memorial out of respect for the victims, therefore no excavation was allowed, even if it entailed an effort to get to the truth about these camps. That is until Sturdy Colls and her colleagues won approval from Polish authorities as well as Jewish religious leaders to conduct a limited dig.
“There are some questions that can only be answered by archaeology,” Sturdy Colls explained. “As we enter, unfortunately, an age without survivors, archaeology can provide much more new evidence.”
Using GPS and computerized maps, aerial photography and ground penetrating radar and laser-scanning technology, the archaeologists were able to narrow down their search areas.
“Without that technology, I never would have been able to do this work at Treblinka, because no one wanted excavations there,” Sturdy Colls said. “Nobody wanted the ground to be disturbed unnecessarily.”
During the digs, investigators found bones from previously unknown mass graves. Some of the bones showed evidence of cut marks, which Sturdy Colls said would be consistent with tales of victims being chopped up before burial.
This discovery was an emotional moment for the investigators and excavators, even though Sturdy Colls is accustomed to crime scene investigations and has seen so much in her career.
“What we were doing there was closing the lid again on that grave site. … It didn’t cross my mind that it would be me reinterring the remains,” she said.
Sturdy Colis expects the study to counter the lingering claims of Holocaust-deniers — and show that, despite its best efforts, Nazi Germany couldn’t erase the evidence of a monstrous human tragedy.
“They did a very good job of hiding it, but in actual fact, they didn’t ‘sterilize’ this landscape,” Sturdy Colls said. “They weren’t that efficient.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons