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First-Ever Excavation of Nazi Death Camp Treblinka Reveals Horrors

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls and her team in TREBLINKA: HITLER’S KILLING MACHINE, premiering Saturday, March 29 at 8pm ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel follows their quest to finally uncover clues that reveal the brutal mechanics behind an operation designed to murder people on a mass scale. It is airing as part of “Women in Science,” Smithsonian Channel’s special month-long programming block celebrating Women’s History Month. - Photo: Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel - SmithsonianChannel_Treblinka_5951

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.”

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. [7 Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments]

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


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