ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.
Now this week’s content has addressed the theme of life and death in the Nazi camp system. Of course, as we’ve seen in previous weeks on 70 Voices, the extermination, concentration and slave labour camps were only one of the means by which the Nazis and their collaborators carried out the Holocaust alongside mass shootings, starvation in ghettos, and so on. Nonetheless, the camps claimed the largest number of victims of the Holocaust and are central to so much of our understanding of it. So this week’s podcast is a bit of a departure from our normal format. I spent a day this week at Auschwitz-Birkenau with Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls, Associate Professor of Forensic Archaeology and Genocide Investigation at the University of Staffordshire. The interview you’re about to hear was recorded on our coach journey from Auschwitz back to Kraków after a very cold and wet day. I hope that you’ll find that the unique context and subject matter of this interview outweighs the audio challenges of recording an interview on an iPad on a coach driving through the rain.
I suspect that when most people think of archaeology they tend to think of much earlier periods of history. So I was eager to learn from Caroline about how she got in to her line of work, investigating Nazi concentration and death camps and about why archaeology is so important to the study of the Holocaust.
AM: I am sat here on the bus joined by Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls from the University of Staffordshire who has just joined us on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project. Caroline, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
CAROLINE STURDY COLLS: Thank you for having me.
AM: So, for our listeners who aren’t familiar with the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, it is a course run by the Holocaust Educational Trust for 16-18 year old students from the United Kingdom and it’s based around today’s one day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and occasionally we have interesting folks join us as guests and that’s the capacity that you’ve come on today’s visit. At the very end of the day, we walked down the railway lines at Auschwitz-Birkenau and we finished the day reading an extract to the students from Zalman Gradowski who was a member of the Sonderkommando who wrote in a diary that he buried underground before he took part in the Sonderkommando revolt. Listeners to this podcast and people who’ve been following along with the app and the website for the past seven weeks might remember that Zalman Gradowksi was actually the very first reading that we put on 70 Voices and if you don’t remember it, you can go back in the app and refresh your memory now. You said something to me that was very interesting after you heard that Zalman Gradowski reading which is about how you got into the field of research that you got involved into. Do you want to just tell me a little bit about that?
CSC: Absolutely. Well, I’m an archaeologist by training so when I was at university I specialised in forensic archaeology and worked a lot with the police, particularly on cold case reviews – these are long term unsolved cases where missing people and their remains have not been found. I have always had a very longstanding interest in the Holocaust: when I was at school it was something that really captured my attention and I could never understand why there hadn’t been large scale searches. As an archaeologist, I’ve revisited this idea and that was very much cemented by the fact that the first book, in fact, that I picked up when I started to try and explore the idea of a kind of sub-discipline, if you like, of Holocaust archaeology was Zalman Gradowski’s Sonderkommando testimony where he said I’ve buried this amongst the ashes where people will certainly search for the traces of the millions of men who were murdered and it was that certainty, and knowing that in fact that hadn’t happened, that really struck a chord with me as an archaeologist and kind of prompted me to ask the question well actually, what can I do about it, at that point 60 odd years later with the skills that I had?
AM: And so what did you do with that? It’s led you to some pretty interesting places, hasn’t it?
CSC: It has. In sort of very, I guess boring terms, it kind of led me to initially kind of searching round to see what had been done, in terms of the searches that had taken place after the war and, of course, there were searches that took place at some sites and there were legal and medical teams that went out to look for the bodies of victims, but in actual fact, when you think about the number of people who died during the Holocaust, the number of searches is actually very little. And then I started to think more about, well, what have archaeologists done, because for me it’s natural that archaeologists would get involved in that process: not because the Holocaust is something that happened a really long time ago or because it was something that can be confined to the annals of history, but actually because archaeologists are specialists in understanding landscapes and specialists in searching and I think they’re also specialists in understanding people. So, as I say, it’s kind of a natural thing for me that we would get involved but actually what I discovered was that not many archaeologists had actually investigated Holocaust sites at all and those that had had often received a lot of hostility towards their work, particularly when they were searching for the remains of victims. So I sort of started doing this digging around, in the metaphorical sense, as to why this might be the case and I suddenly realised that actually the sensitivities that still surround the Holocaust: the ethical issues, particularly the religious issues in terms of the treatment of deceased people and their remains, and the kind of different influences, I guess, that politics and different social circumstances have on people’s resolve to want to search for the human remains of victims. I very quickly realised that actually it was all of those reasons that had led to the fact that there hadn’t been that many searches in the past before and that archaeologists couldn’t just simply walk in and start a project at any Holocaust site without facing these kinds of challenges. So, essentially, then I decided that I had to come up with a methodology that accounted for these sensitivities.
AM: It’s fascinating. We often on this podcast look at topics from a historical perspective; one of our regular commentators who listeners will remember is my colleague from the Holocaust Educational Trust, Martin Winstone, who has quite a remarkable and encyclopaedic historical knowledge. I was really struck today walking around Auschwitz with you by how much archaeology is involved in our understanding of a camp like Auschwitz, and the Holocaust more broadly. I’m certainly no archaeologist and I’ve never really thought of any of my knowledge having been based on archaeology but I was seeing things through a certain lens through conversations with you today and I was quite struck by how much of what we know and understand about the Holocaust really is informed by that type of discovery. I liked how you said a minute ago ‘digging up metaphorically’ because it really is a combination of digging up metaphorically and digging up physically, in actuality as well.
The theme of this week’s 70 Voices extracts on the website and on the app has been camps and so I’m really interested to hear about what you have learned from different camps that you have researched. So we’ve obviously just left Auschwitz and that’s a very well documented camp, I suppose, but there are many other concentration camps, labour camps, death camps, that less is popularly known about and you’ve actually had a chance to look in to some of them?
CSC: Yeah, and actually one of the things that really struck me listening to Rabbi Shaw’s talk at the end of the day today, where he was reflecting on what Auschwitz means and how it’s almost – I think it’s fair to say – become an icon for the Holocaust, and what we actually have to remember is the individual stories, and I think that’s so important because what we have to remember is that, just like the stories we’ve heard today are a few of many, Auschwitz was one of what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum now know as to be over 20,000 camps. That’s a number that’s incredibly difficult to comprehend, but taking that right down to micro-scale, the work that I’ve been doing, for example, at Treblinka extermination and labour camps in Poland and in a concentration camp [Sajmište] in the centre of Belgrade in Serbia, and at the other end of the spectrum in the much smaller but I think by no means less intense and brutal camps on the island of Alderney in the UK Channel Islands, is that all these sites have many things in common. And that is that, ultimately, the level of suffering that people experienced: there’s different kinds of suffering, different kinds of camps, but ultimately the fate of many was the same in many of these places it’s just that the Nazis carried out that persecution in a different way. Very much, the physicality of the camps influenced people’s experiences, so an archaeologist I’m not looking at buildings and material evidence as physical things, or at least only physical things: I’m looking at them as the places where people lived, where they worked, where they died and what that actually means about their experiences. I think there’s also that diversity of the Holocaust that often gets lost, that sometimes we forget that everywhere wasn’t the same as Auschwitz. I think sometimes, though, people try and put things in a kind of hierarchy where they say, well this site wasn’t as big so maybe it wasn’t as bad, and I just don’t think it’s actually as clear cut as that.
AM: What are some of the unique findings, the interesting things, that you’ve uncovered through your research?
CSC: I think the first thing that strikes me about every site that I’ve worked at, particularly as a lot of my work is non-invasive, so actually I don’t dig – in fact sometimes I haven’t dug at all – but certainly at others I haven’t dug for many years, I’ve actually carried out survey work and I’ve done an intensive walk over survey, I’ve done intensive archival research and maybe just looked at it in a slightly different way, perhaps, than historians. I’ve done topographic surveys and geophysical surveys which look below the ground and see what’s buried there but actually a very striking finding, even if you include the excavations, for me are the ones where they’re on the surface. So for example, at Treblinka extermination camp which is second to Auschwitz in terms of the number of people killed, every time I go there I find remains of the camp on the surface, objects, items that actually no one ever went to look for, and that’s one of the things that actually strikes me about the work that I do, that we think we know everything about these places but actually, when we go back and look at historical records, we realise that actually they weren’t investigated in a lot of detail. And so that’s why, for example, in 2013, 70 years after Treblinka had actually closed, we found remains of the gas chambers for the first time. In a way, yes it was a scientific inquiry and it was a historical enquiry, but actually it was just the impetus to go and look and the recognition of the fact that this evidence would be found, that the Nazis weren’t these sort of inhuman beings that were able to somehow eradicate all traces of their crimes which I think is a myth that’s often put around in the context of Holocaust discussions. But actually, yes they did do a pretty good guide of hiding their crimes but certainly for me as an archaeologist, I know that that evidence would survive. And going there and finding personal objects that belonged to people that were often smuggled into the camp, they for me are the tiny acts of resistance in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. Those kinds of stories really resonate with me and that’s why I think archaeology is particularly powerful in that it can find and uncover stories behind these items that we find.
AM: You mentioned your work in Treblinka, you mentioned your work on Alderney in the Channel Islands. And the Channel Islands, for many people, won’t have been a strand of the history of the Holocaust that they’ll have been familiar with. You’ve also been doing work in Serbia as well; tell me about that.
CSC: It’s been geographically diverse, the projects I’ve undertaken, but I surveyed a concentration camp in the centre of Belgrade which was initially, well it was twofold: it was used to exterminate the Jewish population in and around Belgrade and from elsewhere in Serbia, and then it was also used to intern Serbian political prisoners as well, so it had different phases to its use, but that side is actually incredibly interesting. Essentially many of the buildings survived and have been reused over time so the site’s been, and still remains in parts, a very thriving artists’ community. People live in these buildings, some legally, some illegally, some have become workshops and mechanics’ yards. Our project was actually called the’ Living Death Camps Project’ which I did with the team from Goldsmiths College forensic architecture group, and we were actually looking at this site as a place which has had a life very much since the Holocaust in terms of its physicality. So we actually did a laser scanning survey above the ground to record the buildings that still survive and we did a ground penetrating radar survey to look at what survived below the ground, and then we also captured stories of current residents to try and understand how these buildings had been used and how yes, they were incredibly brutal places in many cases, but for a variety of different reasons they had a life afterwards. And they also had a life before, because actually the camp was known as the old fairground ['Stare Sajmište' in Serbian] and it was actually the heart of Serbian trade prior to the war, and actually the Nazis co-opted it because it was such a well-built set of structures. So I’m very interested in looking at a real breadth of the history of these places; not just that they are Holocaust sites but actually that they have a much more diverse history.
AM: Today we’ve been on an educational visit to Auschwitz and I’m wondering from your perspective, what in the research that you conducted do you wish would make its way into the next generation of textbooks that isn’t likely to already be there? Is there something that you wish young people, teachers, knew more about and talked more about?
CSC: I think some of the kind of issues around individual identities, and how we can kind of individualise people even if maybe we can’t find individual names or identify individual bodies: for example, what can individual objects still tell us about basic human instincts that are often exhibited like resistance and defiance at Holocaust sites and how that can be sort of then used to reflect on our own opinions on issues of modern relevance today? But I think, more than anything else, is that recognition that there are new techniques that are emerging: archaeology is not all about excavation, there are lots of other techniques, we don’t have to disturb the ground, we can look at these sites in a really ethical and respectful way, and that we don’t know everything about the Holocaust. And actually one of the things is that 70 years after people question well surely we know everything already; actually I would argue that we hardly know anything at all, and these new methods actually offer the opportunity to kind of reinvigorate studies of the Holocaust.
AM: I think that’s such a fascinating point that we tend to pigeon-hole the topic of the Holocaust and anything related to it into history because it happened in the past, and because we think of things that are in the category of history as being finished, you can draw a line under it and say ‘there, it happened, we know about it now’. But really I think it’s so important what you just said: that with the Holocaust, there’s so much scholarship that’s emerging, what you’re describing – a whole new area of research into it that hasn’t really been engaged with very much in the past. And, of course, even when we do talk about history, there’s whole areas of the world where archives are only now just becoming available and there is still so much to learn. And when we talk about the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust, which is something that the Holocaust Educational Trust speaks about a lot, we don’t really have to stretch very far, do we, to talk about the contemporary relevance, you know it’s right there in front of us, there’s still so much that we still need to learn about it.
CSC: Yeah, definitely
AM: Now listeners who might want to learn more about your work, I know one thing they could try to find is a television series that was made about your work in Treblinka that was aired in the UK on Channel 5, and also in other countries as well.
CSC: It was yeah: there was a Channel 5 version and a Smithsonian version. ‘Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp’ was the original title, so that can be found online, I’m not sure whether it’s still available to live stream online at the moment but possibly it will get rerun again in the future. There was also a BBC Radio 4 documentary that’s available online as well that we recorded about the non-invasive aspect of the project so that predates the excavation.
AM: Excellent, so we can definitely recommend to people to go check those out to learn more about your work. Now thank you very much to our listeners for sticking with this podcast. I suspect there’s a bit more background noise than we’ve had in other episodes; windscreen wipers and packets of crisps and things like that, but it’s worth just saying that it’s a very rainy February night here in Poland and I think this is a very unique opportunity to chat with Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls on the route back from Auschwitz, which is unlike things that we’ve done before but I think hopefully you’ve appreciated being a part of this quite special moment. Caroline, thank you very much for being willing to do this, and we will see you all next week on our next edition of the 70 Voices podcast. Thank you.
Read more by Caroline Sturdy Colls: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holocaust-Archaeologies-Approaches-Future-Directions/dp/3319106406