About this project
This ongoing research project aims to use innovative forensic archaeological techniques to investigate the former Nazi extermination and labour camps at Treblinka. Over the last twelve years, the team have devised new methodologies that account for the ethical and religious sensitivities, successfully located mass graves, gas chambers and other buildings, curated new exhibitions, and identified new archival evidence and witness testimonies.
Described as the most ‘perfected’ of the Nazi Operation Reinhard death camps, Treblinka (now situated in Poland) became the massacre site of over 800,000 European Jews, Poles, gypsies and political prisoners during the Holocaust. Located 108km from Warsaw, in the north-east portion of the General Government, this remote, previously unassuming area of forest adjacent to the River Bug housed an extermination centre (Treblinka II), comprising a complex of gas chambers, barracks, mass graves and, later, cremation pyres. At its peak, Treblinka II was capable of ‘processing’ between 10,000-12,000 people each day.
However, despite Treblinka’s significance in the implementation of the Final Solution, Operation Reinhard and the history of the Holocaust as a whole, knowledge of the site’s former function has faded from general public consciousness. Few attempts were made after the war to assess the physical evidence relating to the camps and it has long been argued that the Nazis successfully destroyed all traces of the extermination camp when they abandoned it in 1943.
The limited information at the site concerning its layout is indicative of how little is understood about its extent, whilst the somewhat abstract symbolic memorial alludes little to its former function. The history of Treblinka I, the penal labour camp site, has often been overlooked given the extent of the extermination that occurred further north. On the basis that it was deemed impossible that the landscape of Treblinka had been sterilized of all traces of the Nazi’s actions, an ongoing programme of archaeological research was instigated in order to identify, record and interpret surviving physical evidence.
Through the application of a variety of interdisciplinary methods, we have sought to reveal new insights into the nature and extent of the camps. The methodology used to record the physical remains includes desk-based research, site identification and recording, as well as detailed investigation involving GPS surveys, topographical mapping, non-intrusive geophysical surveys (using ground penetrating radar) and other techniques.
- Interviews with survivors and witnesses have been undertaken and a large body of archival material has been collated.
- Through integrated field survey and the correlation of aerial images and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data, the current marked camp boundary has been shown to be incorrectly located. Thus, the camp appears to have been considerably larger than previously thought and this has implications for the existence of features relating to the Living Camp part of the site (part of which is currently located in a forested area outside of the marked camp boundary).
- Non-invasive geophysical survey has allowed the location of a number of mass graves and cremation pits to be determined in the extermination camp. These areas were then avoided during more invasive work so as to comply with Jewish Halacha Law. These graves will hopefully be marked in the future.
- Targeted topographic and geophysical survey across the site has helped to identify the locations of key structures and features associated with the operation of the camp including the Lazarett, railway platform (which was substantially larger than the symbolic platform that is present), the Tyrolean Guard Tower, waste pits, and the camp entrance.
- Targeted excavations were carried out in 2013 in order to confirm the nature of some of the structures identified in the geophysical survey results. Deep sand and rubble deposits were identified in specific areas of the site. This material appears to have been levelled across the former death camp area, likely in an attempt by the Nazis to hide their crimes. Earlier evidence was identified beneath these deposits, including in situ structural remains.
- An apparent structure measuring 22 x 15m was identified in the Ground Penetrating Radar survey, undertaken in 2010. Targeted excavation in the middle of this area in 2013 confirmed that this structure was the Old Gas Chamber building. The discovery of tiles, sections of wall and other building furnishings proved that this building was modelled on a bathhouse. The tiles found were manufactured by Dziewulski i Lange.
- Further evidence of a structure was identified in the geophysical survey results, across an area measuring 44 x 20m.
- An important assemblage of artefacts has been recovered from the test pit excavations and walkover survey. These artefacts include personal effects, building materials, tiles, domestic utensils, and military artefacts. The finds are currently under specialist analysis and conservation, and represent an important assemblage that will enhance our understanding of the site.
- Geophysical survey and targeted test pits at Treblinka II have demonstrated the complexity of the buried environment and the considerable disturbance that was present across the entire site.
- Cremated and non-cremated human remains were located on the surface of the extermination camp area and also during the excavations. These remains were scattered remains, not buried in mass graves. All of these remains were reinterred by a representative from the Office of the Chief Rabbi of Poland.