Unearthing the Holocaust
An Archaeologist’s Search for Buried Traces
A personal account of over ten years of pioneering archaeological work at some of the Holocaust’s most horrifying sites
It is only within the last two decades that archaeologists have started working on the camps of World War Two. Indeed, for many, archaeology and the atrocities of the Holocaust are not a logical combination, though excavations are now bringing important new information to light in locations with few survivors or records. As Holocaust archaeologist Ivar Schute writes, archaeology offers us an invaluable perspective in a time where Holocaust denial continues to grow: ‘If the Nazis attempted to erase their traces, then they certainly didn’t think like archaeologists.’
In this ‘book of astonishment’, Schute recollects the last ten years of his research, which has taken him to some of the most horrific sites in the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Poland. After excavating at Treblinka, he joined the international team of archaeologists that uncovered the foundations of eight gas chambers at camp Sobibor, the largest Holocaust dig site to date. And with more than 40,000 Nazi camps across Europe, an overwhelming network of mostly forgotten labour and transit sites that enveloped the death camps, there remains much research to be done, and much we can still learn.
The work itself is complex and controversial. Schute details the tensions and struggles with media outlets, local governments, treasure hunters and holocaust deniers. There is the emotional toll of unearthing individual lives in everyday objects, such as tea strainers, a child’s name plate, a wedding ring – more often than not the objects that accompanied their owners moments before their murder. He details painstaking attempts to track down the next of kin, and the incalculable value these last objects take on for family members. For Schute, it is the disarming power of these buried objects that can best keep the memory of that history alive, especially for new generations with new questions and new demands. In that way archaeology can also help us commemorate loss, even work through the injustices of the past. Unresolved dilemmas and paradoxes do however remain: To whom do the artifacts belong? And then what exactly to do with them? How best to respect the dead?
Unearthing the Holocaust is a thoughtful and moving read, as well as a convincing argument for archaeology’s unique ability to uncover what historians have thus far been unable to reconstruct. Because when we begin to look at ‘empty’ landscapes with an archaeologist’s eye, we become aware of the unfathomable archive right beneath our feet.