We recently caught up with group member and artist, Hannah Wilson who is at the centre of the Sobibor excavation dig. The groundbreaking research has led to the geographical identification of the Sobibor Gas Chambers that were previsouly unknown. Excavation of the area was always going to be a sensitive matter for the memories of those who perished and the families who waited for news of what would be discovered. The incredible results of the dig have surprised everyone and offer an insight into the crimes that were attempted to be covered up by the fleeing Nazis in 1943. Hannah explains how she got involved with the project and her views for future handling of rembrance sites.
ASG: So we understand you got involved with the Sobibor dig through the Weiss-Livnat International. How did that come about? Was there a selection process?
HW: Each week during the Weiss- Livnat Holocaust Studies Master’s program in Haifa, my cohort would be visited by a guest lecturer. During one of these sessions, we heard from Israeli archaeologist and historian Yoram Haimi regarding the work he and his team had been carrying out at the site of the Sobibor Death Camp. Initially tracing the steps of his own family history.Yoram and Polish archaeologist Wojciech Mazurek embarked upon an astounding seven year project that would map an accurate layout of the former camp, in an effort to set straight doubts or denial about the severity of what took place at Sobibor.
Yoram showed us countless artefacts, mass graves, and the true positioning of the ‘Road to Heaven’, where the prisoners would be marched naked to their death. Frankly, I was stunned. I had never experienced this type of research in Holocaust history before, and I felt determined to support their work in any way possible.
Through independent arrangements, Yoram and Wojtech welcomed me as their research student, and I arrived in Poland not knowing what to expect, or what exactly I might find during my time there.
ASG: I myself have discovered human remains in the sub soil at the Auschwitz Birkenau site, and even personal artefacts such as spectacles, hair brushes and medicine bottles. I have read in an article about you where you mention several personal belongings from the transports. In your experience, can you separate the emotion from finding physical human remains to personal items? Is it something that you find equally harrowing and what is the distinction of emotion?
HW: From the first day, it became clear that I would be working alongside the Polish labourers and farmers who were digging the earth, sifting through the soil and looking for artefacts. This was by no means an easy job, both physically and emotionally. I was working under the guidance of the Dutch archaeologist on site, Ivar Schute. He explained to me what sort of materials should be collected or disregarded, so I kept my eyes open in the hope to find something that would be worthy of archiving.
It was a complex feeling; hoping to find remains of a person who had perished here. At first I found this hard to deal with, but the team assured me that every time an artefact is found, we are in fact working towards preserving the memory of the Holocaust, for future generations to come.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to describe how it feels to find fragments of human bone, white from cremation, or the gold teeth that shined in my hands amongst the dirt. I guess there was a part of me that expected this, for I knew of the mass murders that had occurred at Sobibor.
What I could not prepare for was how it felt to find, for example, a piece of jewellery. Within hours of my arrival, we had discovered a Hebrew inscribed wedding band, a child’s elephant pendant and a pair of silver earrings. Not only are these the remains of a life lost, but they signify characteristics, taste and personality. A woman made a choice to wear, perhaps, her most treasured earrings, on the day she would be taken to the gas chambers at Sobibor.
This heart-wrenching thought is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
ASG: What became of the work you were involved with? How will it change the shape of the memorial grounds? And are you planning on returning.
HW: Coincidentally, my visit coincided with the most crucial discovery at Sobibor to date. Yoram and Wojciech, asserted with absolute certainty that we had uncovered the foundations of the gas chambers.
The existence of these had been hugely contended in Holocaust history, and at this moment, it dawned on me just how important this project is.
Yoram was contacted by the Israeli, Polish, Dutch and English press, and the site went into media frenzy. Up until this point, there had been a set of plans established by the steering committee at the Majdanek State Museum to build a wall around Sobibor, which would cross over the ‘Road to Heaven’ and a visitor centre across one of the other archaeological sites.
With the help of Holocaust institutions such as Yad Vashem, these plans have thankfully been revised in order to work around the team’s findings, and hopefully allow for more excavations at the site. Once this has been approved, I will make efforts to return to the site as soon as I can.
ASG: What was your opinions of Holocaust memorials sites before your work and have they changed since your work? For example, how do you view tourism as a part of the process of visitor interaction? In addition, do you think the increased levels of tourist activity at Auschwitz is positive? The comparable numbers in Sobibor are only a fraction.
HW: Having spent some time living in both Poland and Israel, I must admit that I am in two minds about the benefits and negative aspects of Holocaust Memorial sites, and what I would call ‘dark tourism’.
To be honest, it concerned me to see how the planning for a visitor attraction site at Sobibor was initially going to affect the archaeological findings there. I find it hard to understand why something that is raw and original would be built over or hidden. If we, as Holocaust historians, are working to prove deniers and sceptics wrong, then surely this only exacerbates the problem. Preservation should be a priority. For example, the day before I arrived, notorious Holocaust denier David Irving brought a group of Americans to Sobibor and led a tour of the site. Had he witnessed a preservation of the gas chamber remains, perhaps he would have one less thing to deem inaccurate. Generally, however,I believe that it is extremely important that people from all over the world have the option to visit sites dedicated to the memory and horrors of the Holocaust, in order to expand their understanding and education.
There are exemplary institutions dedicated to this in Poland and elsewhere, that aim to keep the memory of Jewish life in Poland alive. It is inevitable, given its reputation in history and modern culture that Auschwitz will remain the go-to place for Holocaust tourism. Increased awareness of this site is an essential part of Holocaust education, however, distance from the actual event has resulted in some disturbing practices by younger generations, such as ‘Auschwitz selfies’, and other disrespectful photographs. There is an unfortunate banality that comes with this level of tourism, and it does concern me in terms of how this might progress, or how best to overcome it.
ASG: Is this something you want to be involved with as a more permanent career?
HW: At the moment, I am finishing up my Master’s thesis which focuses around Holocaust survivor artworks from the post-war Cyprus Detainee camps, but I am now looking towards PhD options whereby I can explore the relationship between Cultural Holocaust memory and archaeology practices. I hope that this research will call for many returns to Poland, to Sobibor and elsewhere. I would love to continue working with Yoram and Wojciech, two very good friends and inspirational figures in Holocaust history.
Hannah Wilson was talking to the Auschwitz Study Group.