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On the construction of a museum-memorial site in the area of the former German death camp in Sobibór

Between 2000 and 2017 archaeological research was conducted in the area of the former German Nazi death camp in Sobibór, whose main purpose was to reveal places with the ashes of the murdered and to recognize the topography of the camp.

Found and retrieved during excavations were numerous objects belonging to the people murdered in the facility. They are primarily their personal items – rings, watches, glasses, cigarette cases, lighters, toiletries, combs, hairpins, medicine packages, small household utensils, dishes, cutlery, keys, coins, as well as finds with unique tenor: identification tags with the names of children deported to the camp.

The State Museum at Majdanek, which since 2012 has been taking care of the grounds of the former death camp in Sobibór, has so far received over 34,000 relics from the archaeologists. Most of them are so-called mass artifacts (destroyed objects, small fragments of glass, ceramics, bricks, barbed wire, etc.). 6,000 items, however, are complete objects or ones with minor damages, which were entered in the inventory books as so-called separated artifacts. Over 4,000 of them have already undergone conservation procedures.

Archaeological works also revealed important findings regarding the camp buildings. The researchers managed, among other things, to determine the course of the path to the gas chambers (the so-called Schlauch). A discovery of great historical importance was the unveiling in September 2014 of the foundations of the gas chambers building, which the Germans had blown up in the autumn of 1943 during the liquidation of the camp.

The construction of the museum and the new spatial development of the memorial site in Sobibór is an international venture whose implementation is agreed within the Steering Committee. The same was established in 2008 and consists of representatives of four countries: Poland, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Israel. At the time, an agreement was signed (Memorandum of Understanding) regarding the project to create the Museum–Memorial Site on the grounds of the former German death camp in Sobibór.

In 2013, the State Museum at Majdanek organized and settled an international architectural competition for the design of the museum. The architectural concept of a Warsaw-based team – winners of the first prize of the competition – was selected for implementation (in accordance with the procedures provided for in the Public Procurement Law). The main element of the architectural concept prepared by the laureates is to erect a bright concrete wall running next to the former path along which the victims were driven to the gas chambers. The wall will also surround the glade with mass graves, or the former Lager III, where the gas chambers and burial pits were located – the latter were used from the end of 1942 also for burning the bodies of the murdered. The museum building will stand in the former economic and warehouse sector of the camp with a view of the place where the uprising broke out. In addition to the necessary office and technical infrastructure, it provides exhibition space with an area of ​​approximately 350 sq m and a small conference room.

The implementation of the project, financed by the Polish state, commenced in 2016. As part of the first stage, the glade with mass graves was secured with geogrid and a layer of white stones. Construction works also began. The shell of the museum building in which the permanent exhibition will be presented, as well as an economic building necessary for the proper functioning of the future museum institution were erected. In July 2018, the State Museum at Majdanek began the second stage of construction, which involves the finishing of the museum building along with technical infrastructure (parking lots, water and sewage connections, etc.) until August 2019. It will then be possible to proceed to the installation of the permanent exhibition, whose opening is planned in the spring of 2020.

The scenario of the exhibition was developed by a team of employees of the State Museum at Majdanek in the following composition: Krzysztof Banach, dr Tomasz Kranz and dr hab. Dariusz Libionka. The script received positive evaluation from scientific reviewers: prof. Stephan Lehnstaedt and prof. Andrzej Żbikowski. It was also discussed by an international group of experts representing the countries present in the Steering Committee.

The basic assumption of the exhibition is to include it in the context of an authentic crime scene. At present, four basic memory areas are visible in Sobibór: the unloading ramp; the path to the gas chambers; the place where the building with gas chambers stood (ruins of foundations); graves with ashes of the victims.

These areas, identified by archaeological and historical research, were integral elements of the "Aktion Reinhardt" death camp infrastructure. Currently, they are unique proofs of crime, as well as places/traces/symbols that allow us to present the mass extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany on the principle of pars pro toto.

According to the adopted concept, the aim of the exhibition is primarily to document the history of the camp. It describes how the facility functioned as a center of mass murder (organization of the extermination process). It presents the events in a broader historical perspective (the policy of persecution of Jews by the Third Reich in occupied Poland and in other countries from which the victims arrived) and in the context of individual fates. The exhibition is intended to facilitate orientation in the area. It contains basic information about particular sectors of the camp and key places/objects (explanation of the historical site).

Thanks to the information available in the catalog of the exhibition (several language versions, including Russian, are planned) as well as transmitted via mobile multimedia devices, visitors will be able to find in situ not only points marked on the grounds of the former camp, but also in other areas explored by the archaeologists (e.g. ruins of a tunnel through which the prisoners forced to empty gas chambers and burn bodies were planning to escape). This will create the possibility of "getting closer" to the place of events as well as to its visible and invisible remains.

Exhibits obtained during archaeological works will be in the center of the permanent exhibition. Nearly 100 of them are presented in the album titled "Recovered from the Ashes" issued on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the prisoners’ uprising at the German Nazi death camp in Sobibór. These objects, excavated from the earth after several decades, are tangible proofs of the crimes of the Holocaust. Above all, however, they are material and symbolic carriers of memory about Jewish children, women and men murdered in Sobibór in the years 1942–1943.

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