Gas chamber discovery at Sobibor spurs calls to review museum project

After he uncovered the path that two of his uncles followed to the gas chambers at Sobibor, Yoram Haimi thought the complex he had worked years to unearth would be preserved for posterity.

So when Polish authorities announced in 2011 that they would build a museum and monument inside the former death camp, Haimi, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, went on the offensive, warning that his excavations of structures long thought to have been destroyed by the Nazis were in peril.

Polish officials dismissed his objections and advanced the project, which had been approved by the Sobibor Steering Committee, an international forum that includes representatives from leading Israeli and European Holocaust institutions.

Now two of those institutions, including Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and research institute and an influential member of the Sobibor committee, are calling for the $5 million plan to be re-evaluated following another Haimi find — in September, he uncovered the remains of Sobibor’s gas chambers.

“The recent discovery of the remains of the gas chamber at Sobibor have added a dimension to the project which requires further discussion,” Yad Vashem spokeswoman Marisa Danson told JTA on Monday.

Danson said the Polish government, following an appeal by her organization, agreed last fall on the need for “further discussions and new decisions” regarding the project.” She said the relevant issues will be addressed before work is resumed.

Tomasz Kranz, director of the State Museum at Majdanek and the person responsible for the Sobibor project, downplayed the significance of Yad Vashem’s reservations and said it only pertained to the gas chamber area.

“A new concept for the commemoration of the gas chambers is ready and will be the subject of debate,” Kranz told JTA in an email. “We are aware of the fact that the architectural project of the museum in Sobibor, especially the commemoration of the road leading to the gas chambers, does not appeal to everyone.”

Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev declined to comment.

In 2013, the Sobibor Steering Committee announced that it had selected a design by four Polish architects for a museum to be built at Sobibor, where some 250,000 Jews were murdered and which is now an open field with a large monument covering a mound of ash from the crematoria.

The plan envisioned a mile-long wall along the path, discovered by Haimi, by which the Nazis led Jews to the gas chambers. The path was cynically named the Himmelfahrsstrasse, or “road to heaven.”

The wall would arch around to encircle Sobibor’s mass graves and finally run between the mound of ash to an area where contractors are now preparing to build the museum and visitors center.

Haimi says the wall will “run dangerously close to the mass graves” and that the museum’s parking lot will be paved on top of a wooden ramp discovered by his team, which believes it was used to offload new arrivals at the camp.

But Kranz insists the wall will not destroy any archaeological evidence and that the parking lot will not cover the ramp. Kranz and Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich maintain the project is under the supervision of rabbis who are responsible for ensuring it conforms to religious laws that forbid disturbing graves.

Nevertheless, the new findings have prompted several calls for a re-examination of the project.

“The work needs to be stopped temporarily at least, so we can examine the new findings and what they mean,” Frank van der Elst, a historian and board member of the Netherlands-based Sobibor Foundation, told JTA.

The Sobibor Foundation itself, which is also represented on the steering committee, has “certain reservations about the current design and is discussing them with Polish officials with the aim of reaching a consensus solution,” the foundation’s chairman, Maarten Eddes, told JTA.

The Netherlands has provided approximately $2.26 million for the project, Eddes said, split between the government and the Dutch National Fund for Peace, Liberty and Veterans.

Supporters of the project say it will not only draw attention to the scale of Nazi crimes, but also limit access to the mass graves, which are buried under a field where locals now cycle and picnic on sunny days.

Unlike better-known death camps such as Majdanek and Auschwitz, which have proper museums that protect sensitive historical artifacts, Sobibor is easily accessible. Only a single guard watches over the machinery being used to prepare the ground for construction.

“The walls will protect the site from anyone wishing to enter but draw their attention to it as well,” said Andrzej Kadluczka, chairman of the jury that in 2013 selected the project’s design from a field of 63 entrants.

Piotr Zuchowski, a Polish deputy minister and chairman of the Sobibor committee, has told Polish media that archaeologists will supervise the construction work to prevent loss, but Haimi says he fears the work will nonetheless destroy findings waiting to be uncovered. Haimi cites his team’s 2013 discovery of a metal plate bearing the name of 13-year-old Annie Kapper of Amsterdam, one of approximately 40,000 Dutch Jews murdered at Sobibor.

Haimi’s dig around the ramp led to the discovery of 15,000 objects belonging to victims.

“When you start bulldozing and pouring concrete, there is no way to save objects like that, which are littered all over and buried in the soil,” he said. “Construction also means we will never find the entrance to the Himmelfahrsstrasse.”

For those reasons, Haimi says, “building inside death camps is no longer done — not in Auschwitz, not anywhere.”

Jonny Daniels, the Israeli founder of the From the Depths commemoration group, said he recently appealed to the Conference of European Rabbis to ask that construction be halted to protect the dignity of the deceased.

But Schudrich maintains there is no Jewish ritual problem with the project because it is under rabbinic supervision. The issue of bone fragments found on the surface, the rabbi says, will be solved by covering them.

Dig uncovers gas chambers at Sobibor death camp

An archaeological dig at Sobibor has uncovered the Nazi death camp’s gas chambers.

The excavations in Poland have been going on since 2007, and thousands of inmates’ personal items have been found at the site. They include rings, pendants, earrings, jewelry, perfume bottles, medicine cases and food utensils, Yad Vashem said Wednesday.

The water well used at Sobibor’s Camp 1, in which an uprising by inmates took place, also was discovered. The well also contained the personal items of Jewish inmates.

David Silberklang, senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research and editor in chief of Yad Vashem Studies, called the discovery of the gas chambers “a very important finding in Holocaust research.”

“There were no survivors from among the Jews who worked in the area of the gas chambers. Therefore, these findings are all that is left of those murdered there, and they open a window onto the day-to-day suffering of these people,” he said in a statement.

“We will now be able to know more precisely what the process of murder was in the camp, and what the Jews went through until they were murdered. Additionally, finding the gas chambers and their capacity will enable us to estimate more precisely the number of people murdered in Sobibor.”

Archaeologist Yoram Haimi said the staff was “amazed at the size of the building and the well-preserved condition of the chamber walls.”

The Sobibor camp operated between April 1942 and October 1943, during which time some 250,000 Jews were murdered there. In the wake of the camp uprising on Oct. 14, 1943, the Germans decided to dismantle the camp, bulldozing it and leaving no signs that it was a former death camp.

Until now, researchers used survivor testimony for details about the camp.

Excavation on Jerusalem tunnel sparks fears of violence

Israeli officials fear the completion of an excavation project near the Temple Mount may spur violence by Palestinians.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday that it had completed the excavation of an ancient tunnel that runs from the City of David in eastern Jerusalem to near the Temple Mount.

Some Palestinians believe the project is an attempt to damage the Al Aksa Mosque; previous archeological projects in the area have led to rioting by Palestinians.

Uzi Dahari, the Israel Antiquities Authority ‘s deputy director, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that there was “no intention of igniting interreligious tensions.”

Travelers making pilgrimages to Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago used the road in the tunnel, according to the authority. It was discovered during excavations on a water channel used for drainage during the Second Temple period.

Work on the tunnel took seven years, including a year’s delay after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered work halted while it considered a petition by residents of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan who claimed the dig was damaging their homes. The stop-work order was lifted in September 2009.

The City of David archeological site is located in Silwan and is run by Elad, a settler organization that seeks to expand Jewish presence in all of Jerusalem.

No opening has been made on the tunnel near the Temple Mount, though one is planned, Haaretz reported. The tunnel does not run under the Temple Mount.

VIDEO: Archaeologists excavate 2100-year-old wall in Jerusalem

A 2,100-year-old section of the wall surrounding Jerusalem, dating from Hasmonean times, has been unearthed on Mount Zion, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The excavations have revealed part of the expanded southern city wall, from the Second Temple period, when ancient Jerusalem was at its largest.


No one cares about ravaging of Temple Mount

No one really cares.

But that puts me in an elite group: It includes two of Israel’s most prominent Jerusalem archaeologists (Gaby Barkay and Eilat Mazar) — and me. And a few religious or Zionist kooks. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Waqf goes on tearing up Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, where once the Jewish Temple stood. The week before last, they hit an ancient wall that might be the foundation of a wall from the Second Temple complex built by Herod the Great.

It’s an old/new story. For the past 35 years, the Muslim religious authority known as the Waqf, to which Israel has given custody of the Temple Mount, has been periodically digging it up — illegally. (That’s the Israel Supreme Court’s characterization.) Several years ago, for example, the Waqf used mechanical equipment to dig a huge hole for a wide stairway down to a greatly expanded underground mosque, dumping hundreds of tons of dirt from the mount into the adjacent Kidron Valley.

When Zachi Zweig, a graduate student of Barkay’s, started looking for antiquities in the Waqf dump, the Israel Antiquities Authority had Zweig arrested for digging without a permit. Since then, Barkay has obtained the permit and, with Zweig, they have engaged in a multiyear project sifting this archaeologically rich dump. They have found thousands of ancient artifacts going back 3,000 years, including a seal impression of a probable brother of someone mentioned in the Bible.

Now the Waqf wants to lay new telephone and electric lines on the mount. Under Israeli law, in an area that might contain antiquities, the trench must be excavated by professional archaeologists. (The same holds true for construction: Such areas must first be professionally excavated, most often by the Israel Antiquities Authority.)

The Waqf simply ignores this law, however. A few weeks ago, they began digging a utilities trench almost 5-feet deep, often going down to bedrock. Worse still, the workmen were using mechanical equipment — an anathema to any professional archaeologist in such a site.

It’s certainly all right for the Waqf to lay new telephone and electrical lines. But there would seem to be no reason why the trench could not first be excavated by professional archaeologists who dig by hand and with great care to document the context of all discoveries — no reason except the Waqf’s unwillingness to recognize Israeli law.

On July 18, 2007, I published an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Biblical Destruction,” protesting the Waqf excavation. It has had no effect. Since then, the excavation has been extensively expanded.

Observers have reported seeing numerous antiquities in the excavated dirt and in the trench, including mosaic tesserae, a quantity of pottery vessels (some of which had been freshly broken by the tractor scoop) and carefully carved and decorated building stones typical of the Second Temple period.

Last week, as I said earlier, the excavation hit part of an unusually wide wall that has now been destroyed. It could well have been part of the Temple complex.

Barkay and Mazar continue to protest vehemently and publicly. But they have mostly been met with silence.

The archaeological community as such has not raised its voice. Each archaeologist is concerned with his or her own dig, not someone else’s violation of the antiquities law. And why jeopardize a career by making trouble, when all the well-known political names and faces remain silent?

Yes, a few newspaper articles have appeared, but nothing serious. The Antiquities Authority has been queried on several occasions about this violation of Israel’s antiquities laws on Judaism’s holiest site, but the response has always been the same: “No comment.”

This thundering silence perhaps explains why the Israeli Embassy in Washington has not provided an account or explanation of this depredation on the Temple Mount. Why raise questions and create a problem when nobody really cares?

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and author of “Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — From Solomon to the Golden Dome” (Continuum, 2007).

Briefs: Palestinians riot near Jerusalem dig; Brandeis threatened with loss of donations

Palestinians Riot Around Jerusalem

Palestinians rioted at entry points to Jerusalem to protest a ban stemming from previous riots over an Old City dig. Police banned Palestinian males under age 50 from attending Friday prayer services at mosques on the Temple Mount, and extended a ban on Raed Salah, leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement. Police arrested 15 people in scuffles in and around the city. Worshipers have rioted in recent weeks to protest a construction project near the Temple Mount.

Israeli authorities say the renovation of a staircase leading to the Temple Mount does not threaten the integrity of the site, but Salah, who has frequently concocted imaginary Jewish plots against the Temple Mount to incite his public against Israel, has led protests at the site and scuffled with police officers. Last Friday, he called for a Muslim intifada to “save” the mosque from the Jews. The Israelis “want to build their Temple while our blood is on their clothing, on their doorposts, in their food and in their water,” Salah said.

Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter asked the attorney general to investigate whether Salah’s comments constitute incitement and sedition.

Brandeis Threatened With Loss of Donations

Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes called on donors to reconsider their support of Brandeis University. In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Brandeis student newspaper, The Justice, Pipes claimed that his planned appearance at the university had been put on hold pending approval from a new committee created to vet potential speakers on the Middle East.

The committee also reportedly is holding up an appearance by Norman Finkelstein, a noted critic of Israeli policy who has argued that the Jewish state exploits the Holocaust for political purposes. Evidence that pressure on the university may be intensifying came from a report Friday in the New York Jewish Week that “more than a handful” of major donors told Brandeis they would no longer contribute following a recent controversial visit by former President Carter, who discussed his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which is harshly critical of Israel. A Brandeis spokeswoman told the Jewish Week that she wasn’t aware of any communication from donors.

Hezbollah Seen Expanding Arsenal

Hezbollah aims to stockpile more weapons than it had before last year’s war with Israel, a top Israeli intelligence analyst said.

Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, chief of research in Israel’s Military Intelligence, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in a briefing Monday that the Lebanese terrorist group was smuggling in rockets to replace the thousands it lost fighting Israel during the summer war. Once it receives new shipments from neighboring Syria, Baidatz said, Hezbollah will have a larger rocket arsenal than it did before the war.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz interjected that this should not be a gauge of the threat posed to Israel by Hezbollah. Peretz noted that Hezbollah deprived of its border positions was in far less of a position to launch attacks.

Hezbollah admitted it has resumed stockpiling arms on Lebanon’s frontier with Israel.

“We can reveal that we have arms, and of all kinds,” Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said last Friday in a speech. “We move them covertly, and Israel does not know about it.”

Nasrallah said the smuggling would continue in defiance of Israel, foreign peacekeepers and the Lebanese army, which deployed in southern Lebanon as part of the U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended last year’s war.

“We are not a burden to the Lebanese army but rather a supporter of its mission,” Nasrallah said.

Iran Defies U.N. Demands

Iran signaled that it will not honor a demand by the United Nations to halt sensitive nuclear projects. The Foreign Ministry in Tehran announced Sunday that Iran has no intention of meeting a Feb. 21 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for suspending uranium enrichment. Under Security Council Resolution 1737, which was passed in late December, Iran was subjected to limited international sanctions that could be expanded if it defied the 60-day deadline on uranium enrichment, a key potential process for making nuclear bombs.

While China and Russia surprised other Security Council members by backing the original resolution, it was unclear whether they would support further sanctions given their robust trade ties with Tehran and public skepticism over whether the Iranians are seeking nuclear weapons.

Feinstein Reintroduces Cluster Bomb Bill

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein cited Israeli cluster bombs left behind in Lebanon in introducing legislation to restrict the sale of the devices.

“What gives rise, in part, to my bill are recent developments in Lebanon over alleged use of cluster bombs by Israel,” Feinstein, a Jewish Democrat who is seen as strongly pro-Israel, said last week in introducing the legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Israel dropped some 4 million bomblets in southern Lebanon during last summer’s war with Hezbollah, and 1 million failed to explode, she said.

“As Lebanese children and families have returned to their homes and begin to rebuild, they have been exposed to the danger of these unexploded bomblets lying in the rubble. Twenty-two people, including six children have been killed and 133, including 47 children, injured.”

Israel said it used the weapons in areas where civilians had already fled, and says the postwar casualty rate is due to U.S.-made bombs that have a high rate of delayed explosion.

Human-rights groups have noted that Hezbollah also used cluster bombs during the war, firing them directly into Israeli cities. Feinstein and Leahy introduced similar legislation immediately following the war, but it failed.

Jerusalem Opens Alcohol-Free Bar

An alcohol-free bar opened in Jerusalem with municipal funding. Lugar opened its doors in central Jerusalem on Monday with a teetotaling format geared toward minors.

The initiative was conceived by Mayor Uri Lupolianski following growing evidence that youths in Jerusalem, including many foreigners on study visits, were increasingly abusing lax controls on alcohol consumption in public places.

Lupolianski said he hoped other cities in Israel would emulate the Lugar pilot.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency