Excavating the gas chambers at Sobibor

Leiden archaeologist Ivar Schute recently discovered the foundations of the gas chambers at the Sobibor death camp.  'The Holocaust is pratically incomprehensible; this work makes it more tangible.' What did Schute learn from his study of archaeology? 

What was the motivation for this excavation at Sobibor?

Ivar Schute working on the site of the Sobibor camp

Ivar Schute working on the site of the Sobibor camp

‘A new museum and a symbolic footpath are planned on the spot whare the camp used to be. For a long time little or nothing of the camp was visible because following a major escape ini 1943, the Germans destroyed the camp and planted bombs to erase all traces of it. This excavation is an international project organised by Israel, Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia. These are the countries where most of the victims came from. In the Second World War almost 35,000 Dutch people were transported from Westerbork to Sobibor. After Auschwitz, this is the biggest mass grave containing Dutch victims.'

How did you get involved?

'I was asked because of my experience with the camps at Westerbork, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. I and three other archeologists are reconstructing the route that people took when they arrived here, from the train station to the gas chambers.'

The foundations of the gas chambers. Schute is reconstucting the route taken by victims arriving at the camp.

The foundations of the gas chambers. Schute is reconstucting the route taken by victims arriving at the camp.

How did you discover the foundations of the gas chambers?

‘We used drawings made by survivors who escaped, and we did some very careful digging. No mechanical diggers have been used, because there are so many human remains here. We have to make sure we disturb the graves as little as possible; the excavation is being monitored by a Rabbi.  Little by little we were able to reconstruct the camp because these death camps often had exactly the same layout. First we localised the barber's barracks and the so-called Heavenly Path (Himmelfahrtstrasse), that led to the place where the victims would be gassed. You know that the gas chambers must be at the end of that path. Once we removed the asphalt, we came across the foundations of the chambers.'

Who: Ivar Schute (1966)

Study programme: Archaeology (1984 – 1992, he was already working during his programme)

Member: Augustinus

Favourite spot in Leiden: 'I live in the Witte Rozenstraat. Number 57 is the house where physicist Paul Ehrenfest lived and where Albert Einstein was a frequent visitor. Just around the corner is ’t Kasteeltje, the detached house at Jan van Goyenkade 44, where Einsten's fellow student lived, and whom he always visited when he was in Leiden. These are fascinating places, although I've never been inside.'


What effect does this work have on you emotionally?

‘It's a very intense experience. While I'm involved in the excavation I can focus on the work, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't affect me. I spent two months doing the excavations, and even after I returned to the Netherlands, the images stayed with me. It helps to talk about it; you can give it a place. The Holocaust is almost incomprehensible, but this work makes it tangible. We found a lot of human remains and personal possessions, like spectacles and disches that belonged mainly to Dutch Jews. They believed right up to the every end that they were going to a working camp and so they took their precious possessions with them. That's such a difficult thing to think about.'  

How did you get involved in war archaeology?

Schute doing fieldwork, during his study period

Schute doing fieldwork, during his study period

‘From a very young age I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist; I was always hunting for pottery shards.  I graduated in prehistory, but after hearing the stories of my grandparents, I became interested in the Second World War. Until about ten years ago, archaeologists paid very little attention to this period, probably because it's relatively recent and because there are already so many sources. I and another archaeologist did our best to see that more attention was paid to the period. Excavations can generate a lot of new material. For many camps, all that's known is what they looked like, not where the gas chambers and mass graves were located. You can only find these things out by using archaeological methods.'   

What skills did you learn during your study that help you in your present work?

‘I had a very good field training, and even as a student was able to lead major excavations. We learned to ve very critical and careful: you only get one chance with an excavation. I learned from my former tutor Martin Verbruggen, an expert in physical geography, how important it is to view a location taking into account the development of the whole surrounding area. That gives you a better understanding of how the area came to be the way it is. It's not an approach that all archaeologists follow; many of them look no further than the edges of the drainage pits.'  

Wat is the best advice you have ever been given?

The prospectus for pre- and protohistory, with Schute on the cover.

The prospectus for pre- and protohistory, with Schute on the cover.

‘When I graduated, Professor Louwe Kooijmans said to me: “You need to go out into society.” What he meant was that I was too restless for academia. I went to work for the RAAP archaeology research agency, and I am still working there today. My work brings me into contact with lots of different people, from farmers to project developers, each of whom has very different interests. It's taught me to weigh up different options, as well as how to improvise and focus on problem-solving in the way I work. Kooijmans'advice was right!'

(18 December 2014)

Last Modified: 06-01-2015