Professor awarded medal of honour for Holocaust investigations

A leading archaeologist from Staffordshire University has been honoured for her ongoing work to uncover crimes of the Holocaust

Professor Sturdy Colls being presented with her award by Dr Edward Kopówka

Professor Sturdy Colls was presented with the award by Director of the Treblinka Museum Dr Edward Kopówka [credit Treblinka Museum]

I am deeply honoured to receive this medal from the Treblinka Museum. I remain committed to uncovering the evidence that the Nazis tried to hide at the camps and to trying to uncover the stories of the people they tried to erase.

Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls, Centre of Archaeology Director

Centre of Archaeology Director, Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls, has been awarded a medal of honour for her contribution to investigating the crimes perpetrated at Treblinka in Poland.

During a ceremony held on the 4 August 2022, Professor Sturdy Colls was presented with the award “Distinguished Service for the Treblinka Museum” (“Zasłużony dla Muzeum Treblinka”) by Dr Edward Kopówka, the Director of the Treblinka Museum who thanked for her extensive efforts to honour the victims who were murdered in the camps and to educate future generations.

In presenting her with the award, Dr Kopówka said: “The Medal is an expression of our gratitude for her commitment and help in achieving the statutory goals of the Treblinka Museum.”

The medal is only the second one to be awarded by the Treblinka Museum, the first having been awarded to Ada Willenberg on the 2 August who received the award jointly with her late husband Samuel, a survivor of the extermination camp, for their efforts in Holocaust education.

Sturdy Colls, Professor of Conflict Archaeology and Genocide Investigation, said: “I am deeply honoured to receive this medal from the Treblinka Museum. I remain committed to uncovering the evidence that the Nazis tried to hide at the camps and to trying to uncover the stories of the people they tried to erase.”

She added: “I would like to thank my incredible team at the Centre of Archaeology and all of the colleagues and friends around the world who have helped me carry out this work over more than a decade.”

Professor Sturdy Colls was presented with the Treblinka Museum medal of honour [credit Treblinka Museum]

Professor Sturdy Colls was presented with her medal in the presence of 94 year-old Holocaust survivor Ike Alterman, who had returned to Poland for only the second time since World War II to say a prayer (Kaddish) for his mother, brother and sister who were murdered in the extermination camp in October 1942. Having met Ike in Windermere in the Lake District - during a project which sought to locate the chalets that child Holocaust survivors including Ike lived in when they came to the UK as refugees on 14 August 1945 - Professor Sturdy Colls offered to accompany him and his friends and family on their visit to Treblinka.

During the visit, Mr Alterman lit candles at the memorial stones for Ozarów, the town where was born, and Ostrowiec, the town where he lived with his parents and siblings before the Nazis deported the entire Jewish population in October 1942.

Professor Sturdy Colls reflected: “Ike is an absolute inspiration. As a survivor of Blizyn, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald camps and a death march, he suffered unimaginable horrors during the Holocaust. And prior to this, he watched his mother, brother and sister be marched away to an extermination camp. Yet he has such a positive outlook on life, such spirit, and he has the courage to share his story with others. I would like to dedicate my award to him and his family.”

Holocaust survivor Ike Alterma with Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls and Dr Edward Kopówka [credit Treblinka Museum]

Since 2010, Professor Sturdy Colls has carried out archaeological investigations and historical research regarding the Nazi-German labour and extermination camps that existed at Treblinka between 1941-1944 as part of the Finding Treblinka project. At the extermination camp, her research located the traces of the gas chambers in which the Nazis murdered more than 800,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Jews. She also recorded the locations of mass graves, the camp boundaries and several structures using non-invasive methods, ensuring that the landscape was investigated in a way that respected Jewish law (Halacha). At the labour camp, her work led to the first accurate map of the camp and the identification of several unmarked mass graves at a nearby execution site.

In 2015, Professor Sturdy Colls installed a new permanent exhibition at the Treblinka Museum, co-curated with Michael Branthwaite, an Associate Professor of Fine Art at Staffordshire University. She has published extensively about Treblinka and has regularly presented her work at public events, international conferences and educational workshops in order to ensure that the crimes perpetrated at Treblinka are not forgotten. Her work has also featured in several television documentaries, including “Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp” on Channel 5, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” on Smithsonian and, most recently, “My Family, the Holocaust and Me” on BBC1. It will also feature in the new museum at Treblinka which is set to be built next year.

The discoveries made during the archaeological investigations that Professor Sturdy Colls have also featured in several important publications and exhibitions produced by others. A rose brooch found near the gas chambers features in the book "The Third Reich in 100 Objects" by Roger Moorhouse who, Dr Kopówka pointed out “considered it a symbol of World War II important enough to describe it among objects such as Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" or the gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.” Additionally, one of the tiles that lined the floor of the “old gas chambers”, also discovered during archaeological investigations in 2013, has recently appeared in the Imperial War Museum’s new £30.7 million Holocaust Galleries.

In his award speech, Dr Kopówka also highlighted how Professor Sturdy Colls’ work has inspired a whole generation of archaeologists, geographers and historians in Poland to undertake their own research at the camps and at other Holocaust sites.

Professor Sturdy Colls is currently working on a major new monograph about Treblinka which should be published in 2023.

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