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.

A Turkish Muslim perspective on Yom HaShoah

When people of reason and conscience look back on the subject of Shoah (otherwise known as the Holocaust) today, it is common to hear questions like: “How could a nation of philosophers, composers of classical music, technology, poets, in this seat of the Enlightenment itself, suddenly give vent to savagery not seen since the Dark Ages? How could such dreadful, inhumane impulses seize every apparatus of a nation and cause it to commit such atrocities?”

In looking at the subject of the Holocaust violence, we can see the obvious influence of pseudo-scientific thought as well as a reversion to a far darker philosophy in human history. Arguably, the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe run quite deep, and found their most lethal expression in the Shoah itself; when some six million innocent Jewish men, women and children were done to death on the edge of mass graves in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia or had their lives systematically snuffed out at factories of mass murder such as Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmo and Belzec, names that shall forever be remembered as grim testaments to hatred. While it is not my intention to go too in-depth on the roots of European anti-Semitism, it must be touched upon in order to illustrate how prejudice led to disdain, then to hatred, and finally to genocide.

Anti-Semitism in Europe has a long and tragic history. For many centuries, this dislike of the Jewish people of the Diaspora was confined to the religious and social sphere; indeed, it's all too easy to recall such events as the massacres of the First Crusade in 1096, the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the assorted pogroms in Russia and Ukraine; the list is long and horrific. This awful situation persisted as recently as 1959, when a reference to “… perfidious Jews” was finally dropped from the Good Friday Liturgy of the Catholic Church (it must be said here that the Roman Catholic Church has made enormous strides in its relations with the Jewish people, most notably beginning with Vatican II and the later efforts of Pope John Paul II; and let us not forget the many Catholics – and others – who risked, and in some cases, lost their lives to save innocent Jews from Nazi terror).

Until the 19th century, European anti-Semitism was largely confined to the religious sphere (and to a lesser extent, the socio-economic sphere as well). Then, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, it began to change in tone and style. Anti-Semitism became no longer a matter of theological difference, but rather a matter of biological differences. This was the introduction of so-called “scientific racism” through the introduction and application of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had gained widespread acceptance by the end of the Nineteenth Century. And with this, the argument among European anti-Semites changed from, “Let us convert the Jews” to “Let us rid ourselves of this infectious and invasive species” (May God forbid). Simply put, an openly exterminationist sentiment had arisen, based on pseudo-scientific reasoning. The Jewish people had gone from being “the Other” to being “the Subhuman”, “a bacillus”, “a virus”. Surely they are beyond this defamation.

Darwinism, and its false implication that human beings are mere animals, classified as “superior”, “inferior” or “non-human” is the basis for the pseudo-science of racism. When Hitler said, “Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes”, he was referring to the falsehood of Darwinist ideas. (Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism and Democracy, Random House, New York, 1972, p. 408-409) While certainly, there are differences between people, to suggest that a group of people is inherently superior to another, and therefore has a right or moral imperative to subjugate the other, is a grossly mistaken idea.

As a result of such pseudo-scientific fallacies and and neo-romanticist fantasies, six million Jews, innocent men, women and children over a vast swath of the European continent were dehumanized, corralled into ghettoes and exterminated by the conquering Nazis. According to their racial delusion, the Nazi herrenvolk would rule over a vast empire of slaves, with the conquered peoples being the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and with the Jewish people (not to mention anyone else who failed to measure up to the Nazis exacting Darwinian standards) having been eliminated from the face of the earth itself. The Nazis' crude interpretations of Darwinism – influenced by agricultural practices such as animal husbandry – and their outlandish views of history such as Ariosophy, are all too familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary education, and there is no need to comprehensively explain their overall ideology. There are indeed people alive in Israel today, and many other countries, who survived this darkest period of human history, who can easily attest to the horrors they witnessed and experienced.

As Muslims, we bear a special obligation to confront the anti-Semitism that has infected the Muslim world. We must not traffic in discredited ideas and unbecoming stereotypes or proclaim, as truth, notorious forgeries such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (it has been well known for almost a century now that this tract was a forgery by the Czarist Secret Police in order to justify pogroms in Russia). We must not subscribe to pseudo-scientific notions such as racism, nor allow ourselves to succumb to pseudo-historic nonsense such as Holocaust Denial. When it comes to anti-Semitism, we must confront it. We must educate against it. And most of all, we must repudiate it utterly.

We can also look to the recent past and remember how Turkish diplomats worked to save Jews from persecution and extermination during the Second World War. Although it is neither as emphasized or as well-known as the stories of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, it is a fact that Turkish diplomats provided official documents such as citizenship cards and passports to thousands of Jews. Just to give one example, the Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin -in order to save the Jews- gave the Nazis documents certifying that their property, houses and businesses, belonged to Turks. In this way, many lives were saved. Yet another example is that of the Turks who organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey. My intention in mentioning this is that Muslim Turks' attitude for centuries has demonstrated that Turks and Jews have continued to help each other in times of great crises and God willing, it will continue to be this way, no matter what happens.

For hundreds of years, Jews have known suffering, pain, and have never been at ease. Since the Diaspora, they have been expelled from almost every place they ever went for centuries. And now there are some who say they want the Jews to leave Israel also. The question arises, “Where are they supposed to go?” The Jews, the people of Israel, have the right to live in the Holy Land, in peace and security; indeed, it is so commanded by God Himself in the Qur'an: “And thereafter We said to the Children of Israel: 'Dwell securely in the Promised Land.'” (Surah Al-Isra, 104) Therefore, no one who professes submission to God and heeds the Word of God can oppose their existence in the Holy Land. And as Turks, as Muslims as much as we want the welfare of humanity, we want Jews to live in peace as well. We will always make our best efforts to ensure this goal. To do otherwise is to stand in defiance to the Will of God Himself.

The author is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. She can be reached on and

Germany ready to prosecute last living Nazis

Renewed efforts to prosecute the last living Nazi war criminals will be launched in Berlin this fall.

The conviction last spring of John Demjanjuk, 91, as an accessory to murder at the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland has paved the way for the reopening of hundreds of other cases, according to Efraim Zuroff, Jerusalem-based chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Zuroff met in August with German investigator Kurt Schrimm, head of the Ludwigsburg-based Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, to discuss the possibility of speeding up the investigations. He learned that Ludwigsburg
already was committed to doing that and they agreed that the center would cooperate with German government offices in the endeavor.

“My understanding was that in the wake of the [Demjanjuk] verdict, there was enormous potential for the prosecution of individuals who had served in the four ‘pure’ death camps—Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno—as well as in the Einsatzgruppen,” the mobile killing squads, Zuroff told JTA. “Previously the German prosecutors only brought cases in which they could find evidence of a specific crime with a specific victim, but in the wake of the Demjanjuk conviction, that no longer had to be the case.”

Given the apparent eagerness of German prosecutors to pursue the last evaders of justice, Zuroff is restarting “Operation Last Chance,” a last-ditch effort to track down Nazi war criminals wherever they may be. The project offers rewards for information on suspects. Zuroff told JTA that a cooperation was agreed upon in Ludwigsburg that has “paved the way for the launching of our new project in Berlin within the next two months.”

Though Demjanjuk is appealing his conviction, the verdict already has “created the possibility to prosecute perhaps as many as several dozen Holocaust perpetrators who served in the most lethal Nazi installations and units, and basically spent as much as two years carrying out mass murder on practically a daily basis,” Zuroff said.

“These were the persons who carried out the major bulk of the mass murder of European Jews during the Holocaust—practically half of the approximately 6 million Jewish victims.”

Sobibor museum closes due to lack of funds

The museum at the Nazi death camp Sobibor closed due to a lack of funding.

The museum in Poland on the grounds of the death camp announced Thursday that it closed because the regional government did not provide enough funding to keep it open, the German press agency dpa reported.

About 20,000 people a year visited Sobibor. Some 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were killed there during the Holocaust.

The museum this year received less than half of the $360,000 it requires to remain open, according to reports.

Sobibor guard John Demjanjuk was convicted last month of being an accessory to more than 28,000 deaths at the camp. 

“Holocaust survivors are aghast that the museum at Sobibor, the site of John Demjanjuk’s crimes, has closed because of insufficient funding by Polish state authorities,” Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement.

“The demands of history and our obligation to the education of future generations must be respected so that this solemn place remains open. Whatever the price of memory, the cost of forgetfulness is so much greater.”

John Demjanjuk found guilty of war crimes

A Munich court has found John Demjanjuk guilty of war crimes, and sentenced the 91-year-old former autoworker to five years in prison.

Thursday’s verdict came after 93 court days, including deeply affecting testimony from Dutch survivors and their kin, and monologues by Demjanjuk’s chief attorney, Ulrich Busch, who claimed his client was just as much a victim of Germany as any Jew.

Reacting to the early news, Jewish leaders expressed gratitude to the court.

“The most important thing is that he was tried and judged and for the last days of his life is confirmed as a perpetrator,” Stefan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told JTA in a telephone interview. “How long he is going to serve is secondary.”

“Even if there is going to be another appeal, as his attorney has warned, this court ruling now is a very important step in the direction of justice after more than 65 years of injustice,”  he added.

Demjanjuk, born in Ukraine, was charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews in Sobibor. He was present at nearly every court date, always in a wheelchair or hospital bed. He wore sunglasses, and said virtually nothing for the duration of the trial. In April 2010, Busch read aloud a statement in which Demjanjuk called the trial “torture,” relieved only by his care attendants.

Survivor Thomas Blatt, one of the rare escapees from Sobibor, told JTA during the trial that “All the guards [at Sobibor] were murderers… it is enough to prove he was there.”

Demjanjuk immigrated to the United States after World War II. He lived in suburban Cleveland from 1952.  His later years were spent fighting accusations of involvement in wartime crimes against humanity: he was accused in the early 1980s of being a guard at the Treblinka death camp, but was released from jail in Israel after seven years when another Ukrainian was identified as the guard in question.

The U.S. Justice Department later reported that Demjanjuk was suspected of having been a guard at Sobibor and was liable for deportation because his U.S. citizenship had been granted based on false information. His citizenship was revoked in 2002 and deportation was approved in 2005. He was deported in March 2009.

Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA he was pleased with the verdict against Demjanjuk,  but disappointed that a German court in Ingolstadt decided Wednesday not to extradite another accused war criminal to Holland.

A spokesperson for the court said that 88-year-old Klaas Carel Faber, convicted more than 60 years ago by a Dutch court of complicity in 22 wartime murders, would not be extradited because Faber’s consent as a German citizen was required, and he refused, according to the Associated Press.

“This decision is absolutely outrageous,” Zuroff said in an interview from Jerusalem. “It makes my blood boil.”

Kramer noted that, of 150,000 war crimes investigations in post-war West Germany, only 6,500 resulted in trials.

Death Camp Uprising

In the history of the Holocaust, the Sobibor death camp in Eastern Poland has remained something of a footnote, a place where 260,000 Jews were murdered, as opposed to at least 1.1 million in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having operated for just 18 months and closed long before the Allied victory in May 1945, Sobibor, like its victims, disappeared almost without a trace.

But Sobibor was also where Jews organized the only successful uprising in any Nazi death camp, a revolt that enabled some 365 prisoners to escape. It is this heroism that has inspired the French director Claude Lanzmann to make "Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.," a 95-minute documentary built around a firsthand account of the uprising by Yehuda Lerner, one of the prisoners who killed Gestapo guards.

"We knew if we didn’t act, we’d be taken, like all the Jews before us, and killed," Lerner, who was born in Warsaw and now lives in Israel, noted quietly. "So it was simple reality that forced us to act like this. For me, it was a great honor to be chosen as one of the men who would kill the Germans."

"Sobibor," opening Sept. 21 at Laemmle Theatres, is, in a sense, a footnote to "Shoah," Lanzmann’s masterful 1985 documentary consisting of interviews with Holocaust survivors. The Lerner interview was even shot in 1979 during the filming of "Shoah," but the director decided not to use it in the first film, which was nine and a half hours long.

"Rebellion was not the theme of ‘Shoah,’" Lanzmann, 75, who himself joined the French Resistance as a teenager, explained in an interview at his home in Montparnasse. "I also saw that Yehuda Lerner was a story unto himself and could not be reduced to a passing moment. I regretted leaving him out. I had no choice."

In 2000, Lanzmann finally worked out how to use the Lerner material. To film additional scenes, he also traveled to what is now Belarus, where Lerner was first deported, and again to Sobibor, which he had visited while making "Shoah."

With Lerner speaking in Hebrew and an interpreter translating into French (the film will have English subtitles in the United States), "Sobibor" starts with Lerner recounting how in July 1942, when he was just 16, he was rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and deported to a labor camp beside an airport in Belarus.

After escaping eight times from a variety of Nazi work camps over six months, Lerner wound up in the Jewish ghetto of Minsk, the Belarus capital.

In early September 1943, 1,200 prisoners, as well as many more from the ghetto, were placed on a train heading west to Sobibor.

Lerner’s good fortune was that many fellow members of his work force were experienced Red Army soldiers who, led by one Alexander Petchersky, soon decided to organize a rebellion.

The operation was to begin on Oct. 14, 1943, at 4 p.m., with Germans scheduled to enter the huts at five-minute intervals. "We knew the Germans were punctual," Lerner said. "We only succeeded because Germans are punctual. If they hadn’t been punctual that day, everything would have failed."

Lerner and another prisoner were assigned to the tailors’ hut. When the first German entered, they cracked his skull with an ax smuggled in from the carpenter’s hut, then hid his body. Five minutes later, a second German officer arrived and he, too, was killed. Twelve Germans were slain. After seizing weapons, the rebellion escalated.

Lerner described escaping through the camp’s fence and hearing shots fired by Ukrainian guards and mines exploding in the surrounding fields.

"It starts to rain," he recalled. "Not heavy rain, just drops. It was winter in Poland. In October at 5 p.m., it is already dark. I ran into the forest and at that point, I think, maybe the emotion of everything that had happened, the exhaustion, the night, my legs could no longer carry me, and I collapsed. I fell, and I fell asleep."

At that point, Lanzmann ended the interview. “The rest is an adventure of freedom,” he commented.