Polish researchers have begun excavations at a recently discovered mass grave in Treblinka I, a Nazi forced-labor camp located a few miles south of the infamous death camp bearing the same name.
While the vast majority of the 900,000 people murdered in the camp known as Treblinka II were Jewish, prisoners who worked at the labor camp have long been thought to be non-Jewish Poles from the surrounding area. More current research shows that at varying times of the camp’s operation, a large number of Jews were held there. Yet percentages remain unknown.
Scholars and archaeologists from the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation (IPN), a Polish government body that focuses largely on World War II-era historical research, began planning excavation of the site this past spring. After conversations with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who voiced concerns over the need to handle remains of potentially Jewish victims in accordance with halachah, the project was postponed; it first began last week.
“We definitely raised an awareness that these bodies might be Jewish, and, if so, that we have to find a way for them to conduct their research in a manner that will respect Jewish tradition,” Rabbi Schudrich told Hamodia. “So far [IPN] have been very cooperative with our office and heeded our concerns.”
Since excavations began, a mashgiach representing the Chief Rabbi’s office has been onsite with IPN’s team. Rabbi Schudrich was hopeful that research would point to when the victims were killed, and that date could be matched to documents that would reveal the identities of prisoners sent to the camp at that time.
Initially, researchers used radar to scan the area and have now dug about two inches into the ground, revealing a significant number of scattered bones. Rabbi Schudrich said that based on his involvement with similar projects, remains found so close to the surface were most likely taken from another location and reburied after the Nazi period. He added that the unearthed remains will be gathered and reburied in a new grave.
As IPN digs deeper, they plan to photograph skeletal remains for research, but not remove them. IPN expressed a hope to identify victims and to alert surviving family members.
Treblinka I was opened in 1941 and operated until the approach of Soviet forces in 1944. One thousand to 2,000 inmates were held there at a time, forced to labor in its gravel mine and to perform other tasks, some to support the genocide carried out in Treblinka II. An estimated 20,000 people were interned there during its operation, nearly half of whom died there, many as a result of the camp’s inhumane conditions, and others who were killed by guards. Survivors reported that Treblinka’s commander, Theodor van Eupen, murdered many prisoners himself by shooting at them from a distance. He was killed by Polish partisans near the end of the war.
Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum told Hamodia that while it was known that there were mass graves in the area, excavations could still reveal additional information.
“Forensic evidence could yield more information about who shot these victims,” he said.
Dr. Berenbaum referenced excavations of other mass graves where the types of bullets found at the site revealed whether the murderers were SS, German soldiers, Ukrainian units, locals, or others who perpetrated Holocaust atrocities.
“It is likely that this will just confirm what we know, that the guards killed prisoners in Treblinka I as well, but I am always persuadable by evidence, and these projects often show that there is more to know even about sites that we have a good deal of information on.”