Treblinka: searching for the Holocaust's hidden graves

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)

Guest: Caroline Sturdy Colls, forensic archaeologist and university lecturer

Recorded: 19/01/2012

Broadcast: 23/01/2012


Intro VO : Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.


Andy: Hello and welcome to the first Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast of 2012. Joining me by phone is Caroline Sturdy Colls who features in a fascinating Radio 4 documentary tonight at 8pm called The Hidden Graves of the Holocaust.    Hello Caroline.

Caroline: Hello Andy.

Andy:   So can you tell me a little bit about what you do and what the documentary’s about?

Caroline:  Of course.   I’m a forensic archaeologist and a university lecturer and I recently completed my PhD in the Application of Archaeological Techniques to Holocaust Landscapes and the documentary discusses a non-invasive survey carried out at Treblinka which was conducted as part of this research.

Andy:   Treblinka probably isn’t as well known by people in the same way that an extermination camp like Auschwitz is. What’s the story behind this particular camp?

Caroline: Well Treblinka is not as well known, as you’ve said, but this is despite the fact that 800,000 Jews are reported to have been murdered at the site, so it’s second only to Auschwitz in terms of the number of people killed there. It’s located about a hundred kilometres from Warsaw and it’s to the north east of Warsaw which is obviously in Poland. It was one of the ‘Aktion Reinhard’ camps set up by the Nazis which was aimed at the annihilation of the Jewish population across Europe and the camp itself comprises of two parts: the Treblinka labour camp, which is known as ‘Treblinka 1’, and then the Treblinka extermination camp, known as ‘Treblinka 2’, which was where my work was focused.

Andy:   How was Treblinka selected for closer forensic scrutiny?   What kick-started the project?   Why that camp?

Caroline: Well my research initially focused on the potential of the archaeological techniques to record holocaust landscapes in general and so what I wanted to do was to demonstrate that even a potentially large, supposedly semi-well known site of the holocaust, such as Treblinka, was still little understood in terms of physical evidence at the site. If you read the history books they mostly state that Treblinka was destroyed by the Nazis and this term has often been used to indicate that the landscape was sterilised. So really what I wanted to do was pinpoint the fact that if we don’t know a great deal about the physical remains of Treblinka, to demonstrate how little we potentially therefore know about some of the smaller sites listed across Europe.

Andy:   And I guess when people see that the site’s been cleansed and there’s nothing left physically, or not much left physically, they sort of automatically assume there’s nothing beneath the ground either.

Caroline: Absolutely.   Treblinka is very different from Auschwitz in terms of its appearance. The site now is a memorial park so it actually comes across as quite a serene landscape where people go to reflect and commemorate the dead. There are no standing buildings however at Treblinka so there’s very little sense of what the site was previously used for and obviously people tend to relate perhaps slightly more to the story and the history of a site and it perhaps enters public consciousness more when there are physical structures to see and where this isn’t the case, there is a tendency to believe that everything has been destroyed and of course the site has been re-landscaped for the memorial to be constructed and looks considerably different than it would have done when the Nazis abandoned it in August 1943.

Andy:   Jewish law actually forbids the disturbing of burial sites so given that you were unable to actually excavate, what technology have you used to investigate the site?

Caroline: I used a number of non-invasive techniques at Treblinka and what this means is, as you quite rightly pointed out, the ground wasn't disturbed due to Jewish burial law so the methods used didn’t involve any form of ground disturbance or excavation and this allowed us to investigate the historic and scientific potential of Treblinka but obviously it was very important that we recognised its religious and commemorative significance as well. So the techniques that were used, there was a process of archival research which involved looking at documentary records, revisiting historical data if you like, looking at known data and assessing it with an archaeological eye, so looking for information about the landscape. Then there was a process of looking for aerial photographs of the site, any ground based photography, accounts by the witnesses, plans that had been created, etc, to build up a database of information so that when I did do the survey all of that could be corroborated against my results.   So in the field this involved field walking, so assessing the landscape, topographic survey which used advanced GPS and total station surveying to demarcate features on a plan of the site allowed us to record micro-topographic change which may be indicative of buried features.   And also to assess the visibility of other features such as a number of artefacts that were actually identified in quite a remote part of the site.   Then moving on from that to look below the ground I used a number of geophysical techniques, so quite often mentioned is ground penetrating radar and this was one of the methods used but this was also corroborated with other methods that detect other physical properties in the soil.    So I also used resistance survey and an extension of that which allows 3D imaging of buried remains as well, to ensure that all of the properties of the buried remains could be characterised accurately.

Andy:   And what have you discovered?

Caroline: Well the survey results when corroborated with historical information have indicated that there are a number of surviving building foundations at Treblinka just below the surface and also a considerable amount of obviously structural debris which the Nazis would have been simply unable to have removed from the site, and this supports accounts written by post-war investigators which commented upon the visibility of artefactual remains, structural remains, at the camp.   We’ve also identified a number of pits at the site. Again, all these pits have been mapped and corroborated with witness plans and this is indicative of a number of probable graves at the site. It is recognised as part of the survey that the history of Treblinka didn’t end with its abandonment by the Nazis. Issues such as post-war looting and the construction of the memorial itself and a number of other forms of landscape change that have taken place at the site, you know, could confuse interpretation so it was essential that all of these were considered when the results from the geophysical survey in particular were being assessed.   So then all of this data was married up with historical information so we seem to have a situation here where it’s been commonly believed that all of the victims at Treblinka were cremated, they were destroyed without trace, however, the research has revealed a much more complex picture of the disposal patterns used by the Nazis.   Looking at it from an offender profiling perspective, so a slightly more forensic point of view, the Nazis worked on, as do most offenders, this principle of least effort where they would actually have a burial method that very much matched the nature of their victims or their locations within the camp and there are a number of photographs and physical evidence that we observed on the ground at Treblinka that demonstrates that these bodies were not reduced to ash, that some survive as mass graves in the truest sense and that also the ashes of the victims were redeposited into the pits that they were originally exhumed from upon Himmler’s order in 1943.   Also with the topographic survey we’ve demonstrated that the camp as it’s marked currently on the ground by the modern memorial was actually much larger, that the boundaries of the camp should have been 50 metres further north and this has a knock-on effect for a number of structures within the camp itself.   So we can examine it from a spatial point of view and look at all of these features in relation to each other and hopefully eventually start to build up a more detailed map of the camp as it existed during its operation.    

Andy:   So you’ve now presented your findings to the authorities responsible for the memorial at Treblinka. Does this conclude investigations at the Treblinka site or is it sort of an ongoing project?

Caroline:  It’s absolutely an ongoing project. The survey demonstrated that the site has got huge potential in terms of what we can learn from the application of archaeological method and very much was the tip of the iceberg in terms of being the first survey of what I hope will be many more to come.   I hope to return to the site later on this year and there will be subsequent seasons of fieldwork in coming years. As I mentioned, at the moment what we’ve got is a map of what survived at the camp as a result of my findings. However, in order to build up a map of the camp as it existed we need to do more work, we need to survey the site. Only a small proportion of the site has actually been surveyed so there’s huge potential to find out more about the history of this camp in the future.

Andy:   Well it’s certainly significant and groundbreaking work. I’m sure everyone listening will be very interested to learn about the results from your future work at the Treblinka site.     Caroline Sturdy Colls, thank you very much.

Caroline:  Thank you.

Andy:   The Hidden Graves of the Holocaust, presented by former BBC Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Charles will be on Radio 4 at 8pm tonight, Monday January 23rd, but if you’re listening to this podcast after the documentary’s already gone out, don’t worry it should be available on the BBC iPlayer for around seven days after broadcast.


Outro VO : This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: . On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.