Saturday, August 25, 2012

Archaeology and the Holocaust

Sobibór 2008: areas of mass graves in the open field around the
ash mound, as defined by deeper green hues in the vegetation
(courtesy of Paul Bauman, Worley Parsons).
(Gilead et al. 2010: Fig. 16)
 I've been wondering when someone would start doing archaeology on the Nazi death camps.  It seems that time has come.  A team of Israeli archaeologists has been working at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland since 2007.  There has actually been some investigatory work prior to then at Chelmno (1986) and  Belzec and at Sobibor in 19997-1999. Most of the work was prior to the actual camps being converted to memorials, in the process destroying the remains. 

The archaeologists, Yoram Haimi, Isaac Gilead, and Wojciech Mazurek have a more detailed article that is available on line, Excavating Nazi Extermination Centers, which is well worth reading. 

My first thought was the archaeology would be evidence against Holocaust denial, but the authors note that this is unrealistic.  The ephemeral and disturbed remains that archaeology will reveal are unlikely to persuade those who find the substantial remains of Auschwitz and Majdanek unconvincing. Given what we are starting to understand about denialism, I think they are right. 

Archaeology won’t rewrite the Holocaust, and it may not add much to the overall history.  We will certainly learn more about camp layouts and the locations of buildings, such as the gas chambers.  And we will learn something of the things that people took with them on their final journey.  These treasured personal items can tell new stories about the people who went into Sobibor.  To be in presence of items that participated in events like the Holocaust is extremely powerful. The past is no longer an abstraction, but a material reality.   It is not necessarily rational, but it is something we have all experienced, and is a large part of the appeal of archaeology.

The camps are under threat by looting. This shouldn’t surprise me, but it still does. The locals around the camps  have been working over the areas looking for valuables since the end of the war.  They cite an article from the Gazeta Wyborcza titled “Gold Rush in Treblinka.”  The link they gave no longer works, but this article, “The Treblinka Gold Rush”  (Gross 2012) covers the topic as well.  Metal detectorists had been digging at Sobibor a couple of days before the archaeologists got there. I despise looters, all archaeologists do, but this is something else. The Austrlian has another example of the looting of Nazi-era sites, in this case German graves for the Nazi memorabilia market.

Interestingly, another threat to these sites is heritage tourism and memorialization.  An enormous monument now covers the entire camp at Belzec.  Beautification at Chelmno also destroyed a substantial part of of the camp.
Pawlicka-Nowak (2004a: 15) describes the activities in the early 1960s in the mass graves area of Chełmno in the Rzuchów forest:
Bulldozers, deep plowing with forest plows, making the terrain more beautiful by planting bushes and trees, concrete roads, all this obliterated the traces of the centre’s operation still visible during those years.
On another note, the authors are working on a politically charged topic.  Looking at the comments where this article has been posted, and considering my own conversations about the article highlights the intertwining of present and past.  The conversations and comment threads slide  immediately into the policies of the modern state of Israel and questions of the archaeologists’ motivations in studying the Holocaust, as if studying the Holocaust is an argument for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Holocaust is a “useful history.” All histories are, that’s why we remember them. But we  need to balance what we want from a history with what actually happened—to accept that people, including those in the past, act for their own reasons, not ours. The past did not happen as a result of today’s political interests.  When we forget that, we are no better than David Barton.

There are only hints of controversy in the articles.  Orthodox Jews felt the use of a mechanical auger to identify mass graves was desecratory.  Another aspect is the feeling that the camps should not be interfered with or studied at all.  Commemoration of the Holocaust is fraught with conflicting claims and interpretations, and is a worthy topic of study in its own right (e.g., Dwork and van Pelt 1993; Linenthal 1995; Young 1989, 1993).

I remember being struck by Edward Linenthal’s (1995) account of Holocaust survivors being consulted about the Holocaust Museum being agitated by some of the practices of museum curation, such as assigning accession numbers.  If I remember correctly, the human hair was a particularly difficult topic.  I wonder how well the numbering and gridding and careful tracking of archaeology might be perceived.   I hope at some point it will be possible for the archaeologists to discuss the negotiations around their work. 
References cited
Dwork, Deborah, and Robert Jan van Pelt
1993    Reclaiming Auschwitz. In Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory, Geoffrey H. Hartman, editor, pp. 232–251. Oxford, Blackwell.

Gilead, Isaac, Yoram Haimi, and Wojciech Mazurek
2010     Excavating Nazi Extermination Centres. Present Pasts 1(0). Accessed 2012-08-25 13:15:24

Gross, Jan T.
2012     The Gruesome Story of Polish Peasants Hunting for Riches at Former Nazi Death Camps. Tablet Magazine. May 21.  Accessed 2012-08-22 17:52:17

Linenthal, Edward
1995    Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. New York, NY, Penguin Books.

Moody, Oliver
2012     Grave Robbers Loot Nazi Memorabilia. The Australian. August 20. Accessed 2012-08-21 17:29:24

Young, James E.
1989    The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument. Representations 26:69–106.

1993    The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

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