Archive for March, 2014

This is Treblinka. I was at the scene of the crime in the summer of 2013, only 70 years later.

I was only there for at the most a couple of hours. But, as my friend Alan, who was there with me and 23 other fellow educators, says,“Treblinka manifests the Absence of Presence, the Presence of Absence. What’s there is not there, what’s not there is there.”

And with a little quiet, you can feel it.

But nature is giving up her secrets. You can’t murder 900,000 plus human beings and expect to be able to hide it completely. Walk these authentic sites. With a trained eye you can see it. I recognized it immediately on the grounds of Auschwitz. I was confronted with it brutally at Majdanek.

Major discovery 20 yrs ago.

Major discovery 20 yrs ago.

I have excavated sites of battles and military occupation that nature has hidden, before. Professionally, scientifically, and systematically. And sometimes that is the only way to corroborate information.  But you don’t just walk around with a spade. It takes years. And you have to know what you are doing, with love and dignity and respect.

That is why I would love to be able to help out here. My students and I have have worked to rescue the evidence of the greatest crime in the history of the world in our collecting of oral histories and filling out gaps in the narrative. But sometimes you have to dig- literally.

First-Ever Excavation of Nazi Death Camp Treblinka Reveals Horrors
By Stephanie Pappas, Senior Writer | March 27, 2014 06:49pm ET

Archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls excavates at Treblinka. A documentary about the work airs on Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel. Credit:  Smithsonian Channel

Archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls excavates at Treblinka. A documentary about the work airs on Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel.
Credit: Smithsonian Channel

The first-ever archaeological excavations at the Nazi death camp Treblinka have revealed new mass graves, as well as the first physical evidence that this camp held gas chambers, where thousands of Jews died.
Presented in a new documentary, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” which will air Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel, the excavations reveal that the Nazis weren’t as adept at covering up their crimes as they believed when they razed the death camp in 1943. Brick walls and foundations from the gas chambers remain, as do massive amounts of human bone, including fragments now eroding out on the forested ground surface.

“For me, that was quite shocking,” said project leader Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archaeologist who normally works with police to find modern murder victims. “These artifacts are there, and these human remains are on the surface, and they’re not being recorded or recovered.” [Italics mine. This is what I saw.]
Treblinka’s horror
Of all the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich, Treblinka is one of the most mind-boggling. Historians estimate that about 900,000 Jews were murdered at this concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland over a mere 16 months.
The Nazis began deporting Jews, mostly from the ghettos of Warsaw and Radom, to Treblinka in July 1942. There were two camps. Treblinka I was a forced-labor camp where prisoners were made to manufacture gravel for the Nazi war effort. A little more than a mile (2 kilometers) away was Treblinka II, a horrendously efficient death camp.
Jews were sent to Treblinka II on trains, told they were simply going to a transit camp before being sent on to a new life in eastern Europe. The deception was elaborate: Nazis erected a fake train station in the remote spot, complete with false ticket-counter and clock.
“There was an orchestra set up near the reception area of the camp to play,” Colls told Live Science. “It was run by a famous composer at the time, Artur Gold.”Gold, a Jewish violinist from Warsaw, was kept alive at Treblinka both to entertain the Nazi guards and to run the orchestra. He died at the camp in 1943.
The Jewish deportees were split into two groups, one of men and the other of women and children, and ordered to undress for “delousing.” After handing over their valuables and documents, the victims were sent to the gas chambers, which were pumped full of exhaust from tank engines. Within about 20 minutes, some 5,000 people inside would be killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Corpses were initially buried in mass graves, but later in 1942 and 1943, Jewish slave laborers were forced to reopen the graves and cremate the bodies on enormous pyres.
Hidden atrocities
But because the Nazis razed Treblinka’s death camp in 1943, little physical evidence of this genocide remained. What was known about Treblinka came from Nazi confessions and the eyewitness descriptions of very few survivors, most of whom were never allowed near the gas chambers.
But as an archaeologist, Colls knew that “the landscape could never be sanitized in that way,” she said. She began assessing Treblinka as an archaeological site in 2007. Her emphasis was on using “non-invasive” archaeological methods, including geophysical surveys of the site and visual inspection.
“What we wanted to do at that stage was to assess what, if anything, survived below ground,” Colls said.
Since that time, Colls has also led a lidar survey of the wooded site. Lidar is a method that uses lasers to measure the distance between the ground and the airplane-borne instrument. By scanning the ground with lidar, archaeologists can detect depressions and mounds that might indicate manmade structures. Lidar allows researchers to virtually strip away the vegetation that might obscure these features on the ground.
“What that revealed was the presence of previously unknown mass graves,” Colls said.
The suspected mass grave sites were in Treblinka I, the labor camp. The story of the labor camp is less well-known than the story of the death camp, which is now marked by a memorial. But the labor camp was no less brutal, Colls said: Eyewitnesses report seeing men hacked to death alive, and beatings and murder were commonplace. The largest of the mass graves as revealed on lidar was 63 feet by 58 feet in size (19.2 by 17.6 meters).
Indeed, when the archaeology team began digging to confirm the lidar results, they uncovered shoes, ammunition, and bones — including bones with cut marks indicating that the victims had been stabbed or otherwise assaulted.
After digging three small test trenches to confirm each mass grave, Colls and her team reburied the remains. Jewish rabbinical law prohibits the disruption of a gravesite, so the aim was never to disinter the bodies. But placing the bones back in the grave was emotionally difficult, Colls said.
“I think it never actually crossed my mind that it would actually be me who would re-inter the remains,” she said. “I think sometimes the hardest thing to do was to actually re-inter the remains, and to backfill the trenches over the gas chamber, for example, because it felt like you were almost putting a lid on it.”
Finding the gas chamber
The gas chamber was the subject of the teams’ second dig. There were two sets of gas chambers built at Treblinka, the first with a capacity of about 600 people, the second able to hold about 5,000.
Colls and her team conducted four excavations at Treblinka II. The first two revealed a strange find — a fossilized shark tooth, and sand. Evidently, the Nazis dumped sand from a nearby quarry over the remains of the death camp to disguise them.
The second two trenches, however, revealed a brick wall and foundation. The gas chambers were the only brick buildings in the camp, Colls said. The excavations also revealed orange tiles that matched eyewitness descriptions of the floor of the killing chambers. Chillingly, each tile was stamped with a Star of David, likely part of the Nazi subterfuge that the building was a Jewish-style bathhouse.
“Treblinka had never been looked at since the period after the war,” Colls said. “And everybody had assumed that because the history books said it was destroyed, it was.”
The excavations prove otherwise, she said. Colls is now working on an exhibition of the findings to go on display at Treblinka, as well as a book about the work. There are plans to go back and dig at an execution site near the labor camp to confirm the presence of a mass grave, she said, and there may be more work near the gas chambers.
The hope, Colls said, is to bring the atrocities to light, understand them, and hopefully prevent future genocides. To that end, she says, she channels the emotion of uncovering victims’ remains to finding more answers.
“For me, it feels like the Holocaust happened yesterday,” she said.
“Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” premiers Saturday, March 29 at 8pm ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.

Read Full Post »

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

Matthew Rozell, 30th Infantry Veterans of WWII, Holocaust survivors at Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, March 2, 2012.

Have you ever been to a reunion of folks who have been annually meeting one another, every year, for nearly 70 years?

Where the main participants had their youths forged in the steel of battle, and come together annually to remind themselves of what it was all about?

I have been honored and privileged to attend six such reunions with the veterans of the 30th Infantry Division of World War II.

To sit with these men, and their wives and family members and hear their stories, and chuckle as they josh with each other, or to shed a tear at the memorial service for the ones who were lost, is an incredible experience.

What has made it even more profound, over the last few years, has been the inclusion of the Holocaust survivors that they saved, and their extended families who would not be here today, if not for their efforts, at these gatherings. And add a Medal of Honor recipient, one of the few surviving from World War II, for good measure.

Worthwhile? I had a 94 year old veteran grab me by the arm a couple years back, and he said to me, after listening to me and the survivors of the Holocaust speak, “Now I know what I fought for.”

This year, the reunion is unfolding as I write this in Savannah, Georgia, with the gracious hosts Carol Thompson and Jack Sullivan and his wife Stella, the children of one of the soldiers who served in the 118th Artillery.  Unfortunately I am snowed in up north, digging out under 18 inches. I’ve included my greetings to the gathering below as they meet on the 69th anniversary of the end of World War II. Next year is the 70th and I really hope that they meet again and that I can be there. As the letter indicates, they helped to send me to Europe this summer as well. Here is a PDF of what I saw.

Matthew Rozell

February 14, 2014


Read Full Post »

12Years-a slave

The power of history speaks to us. In this post from November, I’m reminded of the force of narrative history and the twists and turns of the ever present “story behind the story”, that become so important to the story itself. In his Academy Award acceptance speech a few nights ago, director Steve McQueen acknowledged this when he thanked Dr. Sue Eakins, whom I noted, and wrote a short speech about, shortly after the film came out. It’s just an award, but maybe mainstream America will give a crap after all.

Heartening. Inspiring. What a twelve year old girl did with Twelve Years a Slave.

17 Nov. 2013

I have been thinking a lot lately about Solomon Northup and Twelve Years a Slave.

I always knew about him, as a kid I played and explored in the abandoned graveyard where his father is buried. He grew up on his family’s farm in Sandy Hill-today Hudson Falls- a couple stones throw’s away from my classroom, and roomed a few hundred feet in Fort Edward  from some of my greatest archaeological discoveries. All true. But until all the hype, can you believe that I had never read his book?

Fort Edward historian (and friend) Paul MCarty shows a damaged gravestone for Mintus Northup, father of Solomon Northup, who is buried in Fort Edward, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. The Northups lived in the Fort Edward area for many years. A new feature film portrays the freed slave's story from free man to slave and back to a free man. (Derek Pruitt - dpruitt@poststar.com)

Fort Edward historian (and friend) Paul MCarty shows a damaged gravestone for Mintus Northup, father of Solomon Northup, who is buried in Fort Edward, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. The Northups lived in the Fort Edward area for many years. A new feature film portrays the freed slave’s story from free man to slave and back to a free man. (Derek Pruitt – dpruitt@poststar.com)

So I searched it up, and discovered that it was a twelve year old girl in the 1920s who rediscovered this man and devoted the rest of her life to him, publishing a major work at age 88. It was her efforts that led to Solomon being re-discovered. I was so inspired that I wrote a speech on scholarship for our new National Honor Society members, borrowing heavily from her website.

My observations. Man’s capacity for evil never ceases to amaze….But also his capacity for goodness.

Read the book-his autobiography is just 99 cents. Get this version. For an additional 2 bucks Louis Gossett Jr will read it to you.

I saw the film 2 weeks after I completed the book. Overall thumbs up. No spoilers here, but the book has been verified. The film stays fairly true, though Henry Northup’s intense role in Solomon’s freedom maybe could have been spelled out clearer. Whether mainstream America gives crap is a fair question, but I’m fairly jacked up about it. Which means some students will be, too.


In the mid-1920s, a 12-year-old girl in central Louisiana reached upon the library shelf of a plantation home and discovered a dusty copy of the book that would determine her life’s path. The autobiography that the future historian Dr. Sue Eakin became fascinated with also reverberates with us today, thanks to her drive.
Most of you know by now the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in this area and who was kidnapped in 1841 and spent twelve years in captivity in the Deep South. When he was rescued, his supporters urged him to write his narrative to help reveals the horrors of slavery in the United States. The book was an immediate sensation, and along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, probably did much to hasten the coming of the American Civil War and the end of slavery. You may also know that Solomon’s father is buried in the Baker Cemetery in Hudson Falls. But did you know that his compelling narrative Twelve Years a Slave was essentially lost to history by the time of the early twentieth century, when it could not be located by libraries, stores or catalogs?

Sandy Hill. Today, Hudson Falls.

Sandy Hill. Today, Hudson Falls.

Growing up near the Louisiana plantation that Solomon was held at, Professor Eakin went on to write her master’s thesis about his story, and after decades of research, produced the first authenticated edition of the book in 1968. In 2007, at the age of 88, she completed her final definitive edition. Dr. Eakin also authored over a dozen other acclaimed history books and became an award-winning history professor, Hall of Fame journalist, civil rights leader and internationally recognized authority on antebellum plantation life.
After her passing at age 90 in 2009, her priceless historical archive was donated by her family to Louisiana State University. The Smithsonian Institute is creating a permanent exhibit featuring her Twelve Years a Slave research materials, and her family carries on her work.

In a sense, a twelve year old girl’s curiosity brought Twelve Years a Slave back to life, just as the American Civil Rights movement was dawning. May you too have the passion of the scholar, and cherish the importance of your vision and your work, and realize the impact that your actions may have on others.


Read Full Post »