Nazi Death Camp Yields Its Secrets

The unique story of the archaeological excavation of a World War II extermination camp is revealed to the public.

October 14, 1943 is a date that is not well known in the annals of World War II. Yet it marks a remarkable event that reflected a moment of triumph in the story of thousands of human victims who went helplessly to their deaths at the hands of their Nazi captors inside the Sobibór extermination camp in eastern Poland. It was the day when 500 Jewish prisoners executed a rebellion and successful escape. 

Israeli archaeologist Yoram Haimi made excavation and investigation of this site a personal journey — he had two uncles who died there during the War. Working with Dr. Philip Reeder, Dean of Duquesne University’s Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, he had the site surveyed, mapped, and then excavated over a period of 5 years beginning in 2007. Using technology and conventional archaeological excavation and recording techniques, an archaeological team uncovered evidence of structures and artifacts of victims, including those of children, in their original locations along the traces of walkways and buildings used to exterminate nearly 250,000 Jews during the camp’s operation from April 1942 to October, 1943.

It was not the first time anyone had attempted to excavate the site. In 2001, a group of Polish researchers, archaeologists, and historians began investigating the site, but very little of its material remains had been found. Following the revolt in 1943, the Nazis had effectively liquidated the site by removing most of its traces by demolishing the structures, covering it with soil, planting trees and disguising it as a farm. It took modern techniques of detection, including ground-penetrating radar, and work by a joint Polish-Israeli team with actual fieldwork carried out by a team of Polish archaeologists led by Wojciech Mazurek, to recover substantial numbers of artifacts along with significant evidence of the camp’s features and structures.  

By August 2012, the team of workers had recovered numerous artifacts interpreted to be the last possessions of some prisoners. In addition to evidence of structures and other features on the camp area landscape, artifacts included teeth, bone shards, jewelry, keys and coins that gave clues to identifying the victims. “The most important of these was an aluminum identification tag belonging to a six-year old girl, Lea Judith De La Penha of Amsterdam,” writes Haimi in a recent preliminary report, “who arrived from the Westerbork Camp in Holland together with her parents, on a transport that left on July 6, 1943 and arrived to Sobibór on July 9, 1943. The child’s mother was Judith de Abraham Rodrigues Parreira, b. 1903 and her father was David de Hartog Juda De La Penha, b. 1909. The De La Penha family belonged to a community of ‘Portuguese Jews’ who arrived from Spain and Portugal to Holland approximately one hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492……Following the German invasion, the situation for Dutch Jews became critical and in July 1942, the first transports of Jews to Poland began.”

Arguably the most important discovery was, however, the traces of the postholes that marked the path of what the Nazis called the Himmelfahrstrasse, or “Road to Heaven”, the path along which the prisoners were marched naked to the gas chambers.

Sobibór is distinguished from other similar camps throughout Nazi occupied Europe in that approximately 500 Jewish camp workers organized a revolt that was carried out on October 14, 1943, leading to the successful escape of 300 Jews. Of the others, dozens were killed in the mine fields around the camp and still others were hunted down in the succeeding days.

A documentary honoring the 70th anniversary of the rebellion will be screened at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh on the evening of November 11, 2013. The film will be followed by speakers Philip Reeder and Yoram Haimi, who will relate the details of the excavation project at Sobibor. It is free to the public. More information is detailed below.


When:  Monday, Nov. 11, from 7 to 10 p.m.

7 p.m., Reeder address      

7:20 p.m., Film screening and questions-and-answer session with Haimi

8:30 p.m., Haimi lecture, Archaeology of the Holocaust: Excavations at Sobibor

9:30 p.m., reception and informational discussions

Where: Power Center, Duquesne University, Forbes Avenue at Chatham Square, Pittsburgh

Admission:  Free and open to the public

Sponsored by: The Nathan J. and Helen Goldrich Foundation, Duquesne University and its Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences


Contacts: Rose Ravasio, 412.396.6051/cell 412.818.0234

Karen Ferrick-Roman, 412.396.1154/cell 412.736.1877


Cover Photo, Top Left: I.D. tag of Lea Judith De La Penha. Courtesy Yoram Haimi 


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