Kola's "Building E" at Sobibór - Some Preliminary Observations

Published: 2009-05-27

In an article of mine published last year (2008), I made the following remark on the apparent lack of documentation on Polish archeologist Andrzej Kola's excavations at the former site of the alleged "pure extermination camp" Sobibór (http://codoh.com/library/document/648/):

«The most troublesome aspect of the 2001 excavation is the complete lack of publicly available documentation. Despite seven years having passed since the drills and diggings were reportedly made, not a single article, paper or scientific report has appeared on them, neither in English, Polish, or any other language. The only available source of information consists of the brief and even contradictory press reports published in November 2001».

As it turns out, however, I was wrong on this point. Kola did indeed write an article on his Sobibór excavation, if rather brief, already in 2001, though this escaped my database searches and other inquires. The article, entitled "Badania archeologiczne terenu byłego obozu zagłady Żydów w Sobiborze" was published in the journal Przeszłość i Pamięć. Biuletyn Rady Ochroni Pamięci Walk i Męczeństwa, Issue 4, 2001, pp. 115-122. I do not have access to a copy of this text, and neither is my knowledge of Polish - which is very much at a beginner's level, I am sorry to say - sufficient to tackle a scholarly article in that language.

Fortunately, there was recently published (in the journal Present Pasts, Vol. 1, 2009 pp. 10-39) an article entitled "Excavating Nazi Extermination Centres", written by Isaac Gilead, Yoram Haimi (one of the founders of the site www.undersobibor.org) and Wojciech Mazurek. The latter half of this article (pp. 23-37) is devoted to a "Summary of recent research at Sobibór" by which is meant the 2001 excavation by Kola as well as a a series of diggings in 2007 and a geophysical survey in 2008, carried out respectively by the authors of the article and a team led by Richard Freund of the University of Hartford. As some vital information on Kola's results can be gleaned from this article I have decided to make some preliminary observations relating to the archeological remains designated as "Building E" by A. Kola.

The article from Present Pasts can be read as a pdf-file here:


The Characteristics and Significance of "Building E"

The following is what Gilead, Haimi and Mazurek (hereafter: Gilead et al) has to say on "Building E" (p. 27):

«Building E is the largest and the most significant structural assemblage uncovered. It is about 60m long and is located in the south-west section of the area tested. It is interpreted as an undressing room where the clothes and belongings of the victims were processed (Kola, 2001: 121). We will discuss Building E further in the section below. For the moment, it is worth noting that in the current plans for future development of the site, this archaeological feature is interpreted as the gas chambers (Bem, 2006)»

"Bem, 2006" is a reference to an official English language pamphlet with a map of the present memorial, Masterplan Sobibór: ...a place to remember ...a place to learn, published by the Włodawa Museum.

Some pages later the authors' return to the issue of "Building E" (p. 33-34):

«As mentioned above, the most important structure discovered during the dig of Kola is Building E. Although Kola suggested that this structure was the undressing barrack (Kola, 2001), in later reconstructions it appears as the gas chamber. The Sobibór booklet (Bem, 2006) includes a map labelled ‘Sobibór Death Camp Memorial Map’. It consists of a combination of the present day structures and monuments of the site, with the suggested reconstruction as their background (Fig. 19). The ‘Memorial Map’ identifies the Sobibór gas chambers with Building E, which in Kola’s opinion served as undressing complex. Rutherford (2002), follows this map in placing the gas chambers in the same place, although the structure he reconstructs is different in shape. It is obvious that the location of the gas chambers is a complex issue that has to be solved, an important objective for future archaeological research at Sobibór» (emph. mine).

The "Rutherford map" referred to in this passage can be viewed at http://www.deathcamps.org/sobibor/pic/bmap21.jpg

On page 28 Gilead et al presents a "Plan of the 2000-2001 excavations at Sobibór" (Fig. 12), apparently drawn after a map of Kola's. Judging by this there were uncovered only a handful of building remains in "Lager III", which was the Totenlager or "death camp" section of the camp. Three of them, Buildings A, B and D, seems to be remnants of huts rather than houses. Building C does not appear, which means that the redrawing is only of a portion of the map. This is further confirmed by the fact that only the northern half of Building E is visible. Unless the not shown southern half differs drastically from the northern one, this reportedly 60 meter long structure has a width of maybe 5-7 meters, with outcropping sections at the northern corners.

Already here I will draw two important conclusions:

1) Gilead et al. admits that they have not been able to identify Building E as the alleged gas chamber building.

2) While Kola has interpreted "Building E" as an undressing barrack, the Włodawa Museum, which is responsible for the Sobibór Memorial, as well as B. Rutherford "identifies the Sobibór gas chambers with Building E". This can only mean that no other structure has been discovered which could possibly be interpreted as the gas chamber building.

The Alleged First Phase and Second Phase Gas Chamber Buildings at Sobibór

In the introduction to my article "The Alleged First Gas Chamber Building at Sobibór" (http://codoh.com/library/document/654/) I recount the official historiography on the Sobibór gas chambers as follows:

«It is alleged in regard to all three Aktion Reinhardt camps – Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka – that they each contained two buildings with homicidal gas chambers during their respective period of operation. [...] In the case of Sobibór an original smaller building was wholly or partially torn down in summer 1942 and a larger gas chamber building built on the same spot».

According to Jules Schelvis, one of the major experts on Sobibór, the new gas chambers were fully functional by October 1942 (Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, Berg/USHMM, Oxford/New York 2007, p. 104).

As there exists a consensus among the historians on this detail of the narrative we should assume that the search for the location of the "gas chambers" means identifying the remains of the alleged second gas chamber building (although there hypothetically might exist traces of the first structure contained within the remains of the later building). But what is the second gas chamber building supposed to have looked like? Let us first ask the historians.

The Alleged Second Gas Chamber Building according to the Historians

The foremost exterminationist scholar on the Aktion Reinhardt camps is without doubt the Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad. On page 123 of his classic work Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987) we read the following description of the second phase gas chambers at Sobibór:

«The last camp at which the new, larger gas chambers were installed was Sobibor. The three single-room gas chambers, with a killing capacity of a mere 600 people, could not cope with the tasks imposed on this camp. During the two-month lull in extermination activities in autumn of 1942, the old gas chambers were partially dismantled and the three additional gas chambers were built. [...] The new six-room gas chamber building had a corridor that ran through its center, and three rooms on either side. The entrance to each gas chamber was from the corridor. The three gas chambers were the same size as the existing one [sic], 4 x 4 meters. The killing capacity of the gas chambers was increased to nearly 1,300 people simultaneously».

Thus Arad has it that the original three gas chambers, which he claims was a "solid brick building with a concrete foundation" (p. 31), was expanded rather than completely demolished with a new building raised on top of it. From his description we can deduce that the (alleged) building measured approximately 12 x 9 meters.

Arad's statement is consistent with that of Adalbert Rückerl, who in his book NS-Vernichtungslager im Spiegel deutscher Strafprozesse (Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt 1977, p. 163) summarizes verdicts from trials against former members of the Sobibór camp staff.

Miriam Novitch, in the introduction to her anthology of Jewish eyewitness testimonies, Sobibor. Martyrdom and Revolt (Holocaust Library, New York 1980), writes:

«In order to build the new gas chambers, old houses[sic] were pulled down and new ones were erected, each 4 x 12 meters. Five rooms were prepared to hold 70 to 80 people. Thus, 400 victims could be put to death at the same time, if children were included» (p. 26).

Novitch does not describe the layout of the new building, and neither does she state her sources. If the five chambers described by her - differing drastically in size and capacity from those in Arad's description - were placed in a row with their short sides to each other the building would - theoretically, of course - correspond roughly to the identified surface area of "Building E".

Jules Schelvis prefer to quote various pieces of eyewitness testimony on the gas chambers. Below I will look at those as well as others.

Statements by Eyewitnesses

Unlike Bełżec and Treblinka there were, supposedly, no survivors from the Jewish Totenlager work commando at Sobibór. The prisoners working in the other parts of the camp were kept completely separated from the former. In addition to this wooded areas surrounded Lager III containing the alleged gas chambers, mass graves and pyres, making observations from the outside difficult or impossible. The historiographical (exterminationist) descriptions of the Totenlager and its features are therefore based on testimonies left by former camp staff years or even decades after the end of the war.

While the former SS-Unterscharführer Erwin Lambert, who supposedly constructed the second phase gas chambers at both Sobibór and Treblinka, does not offer any details on the size or other characteristics of the new gas chamber building (other than that it was larger than the previous structure: Schelvis, p. 104), the accused Franz Hödl, who allegedly operated the engine which exhaust gas was used as the killing agent, left the following testimony (Schelvis, p. 104):

«In Lager 3 a concrete building, 18 to 20 metres long with about 6 to 8 gas chambers, had been erected. The gas chamber had either 4 or 6 chambers on either side of the central corridor, three on the left, three on the right».

Thus according to Hödl the new structure contained either 12, 8 or 6 chambers! We note, however, that the layout and dimensions are completely incompatible with Novitch's description as well as the remains of "Building E".

Vassily Nikolaievitch Pankov, a Ukrainian former auxiliary who had served as a guard (Wachmann) in the camp from January 1 to March 27, 1943, stated during an interrogation held in Stalino, USSR, on October 18, 1950 :

«At the camp there were 6 not-large gas chambers, sized about 3 x 4 meters, and 50-70 and even up to 100 detainees were put into each chamber and then the doors would be hermetically closed and a diesel motor operated, from which the exhaust fumes would be piped into each chamber».


Another Ukrainian former guard, Ignat Terentyevich Danilchenko, who was at the camp from March 1943 onward, stated in an interrogation conducted on November 21, 1979:

«The naked people were driven along this passage to a large stone building which was called the "showers". Actually, this was a gas chamber where the arriving Jews were killed in six gas chambers (250 persons in each) by exhaust gasses from diesel engines which were located near the gas chamber».


Yet another Ukrainian, Mikhail Affanaseivitch Razgonayev who had served as a guard from May 1942 onward and who was interrogated in Dniepropetrowsk, USSR, on September 20, 1948, speaks of a "large stone building" containing four gas chambers placed on one side of a corridor, but it is not clear if he refers to the first or the second phase building; indeed, he appears unaware of the (supposed) construction of a new gas chamber building during his time of service at the camp (http://www.nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/camps/aktion.reinhard/ftp.py?camps/aktion.reinhard/sobibor/razgonayev.001).

As can be seen from above, there seems to exist a general consensus that the later building was a brick or concrete structure (with the possible exception of Lambert, who states that "Hackenholt ordered a big consignment of wood" for the "reconstruction" of the Sobibór gas chamber, cf. Arad, p. 123). When it comes to the number of gas chambers and the total size of the building, the statements vary considerably. This fact is also reflected in the disparate descriptions of the gas chambers made by historians and judges.

We may also note here that the identification of "Building E" with the (second phase) gas chamber building produces an interesting paradox within the Aktion Reinhardt "death camp" narrative. According to this Bełżec was the first camp to have its gas chambers torn down and replaced with a larger brick or concrete building, containing six gas chambers arranged three and three on either side of a corridor. Arad and other historians hold that Bełżec was an experiment camp where new solutions to problems in the alleged mass killing process were tested and, if successful, adopted at Sobibór and Treblinka (which according to Arad was the most perfected of the camps). Consequently the new gas chambers at those two camps were, according to Arad as well as the judges at the 1966 Hagen Sobibór trial, variants of the second gas chamber building at Bełżec. Furthermore, the construction of the three buildings was overseen by the same two people, namely Lorenz Hackenholt and Erwin Lambert (Hackenholt is supposed to have been the supervisor alone at Bełżec, while co-supervising with Lambert at Sobibór; Lambert then apparently oversaw the construction work at Treblinka on his own). In this context Novitch's assertion that the second building was of a different layout (as implied by the uneven number of gas chambers) appears more than a little strange. One must remember, however, that this narrative is merely based on selected pieces of "eyewitness" testimony mixed with a "common sense" approach to the alleged series of events (i.e. an increased number of deportees ought to have resulted in the enlargement of the gas chambers). Of course it is possible that there existed a building ín Sobibór Lager III which was replaced with another, larger one, but instead it might have been a bathhouse with shower rooms (as the "gas chambers" were allegedly camouflaged like), a building containing disinfection chambers, or a structure containing both facilities.

Kola's Statements to the Press regarding "Building E"

While the contents of Kola's Polish article from 2001 are not available to me, I have already mentioned in previous articles the statements made by Kola to the press at the time. In an article ("Polish researchers find mass graves at former Nazi death camp of Sobibor") written by Andrzej Stylinski for The Associated Press and published on November 23, 2001, we read:

«The research team began drilling around the site over the summer to determine where buildings and graves might have been located, Kola said. [...] The drillings provided the initial evidence of mass graves and traces of a long barrack. After further excavation at the building site, researchers uncovered 1,700 bullets in one of its corners, leading them to believe that prisoners were executed there, Kola said. Researchers also found various objects used by inmates or guards, including metal cups and spoons, watches and binoculars. Kola said the barrack, located about 70 yards from the mass graves, might have served as a gas chamber, but that further study was necessary» (emph. mine).


However, in an article which appeared in The Scotsman three days later, on November 26, Kola is reported as saying:

«We also found a hospital barracks [sic]. The people there were probably shot, as we found over 1,800 machine gun cartridges».


The two statements more than likely refer to the same building remains. Notwithstanding the difference of 100 bullets, it is highly improbable that found two buildings with the same amount of bullets inside them. In the AP piece the barrack is referred to as being located "about 70 yards [= 64 meters] from the mass graves". A look at the aforementioned (redrawn) map of Kola's excavations shows "Building E" to be located approximately 50 meters from the closest mass grave. Therefore we might assume "Building E" to be identical with the "barrack" referred to in the two news items.

This would mean that Kola in turn has believed this "Building E" to be the remains of a "gas chamber" (possibly) where prisoners were also shot(!), a "hospital barrack", and an undressing barrack (according to the summary of Gilead et al)! The various objects found at the site ("metal cups and spoons, watches and binoculars") may not be evidence against the building having been used as a gas chamber (as they might have ended up there when the camp was liquidated and leveled), but they are rather curious. Stranger still is the large number of bullets found "in one of its corners". How did they end up inside a gas chamber, or an undressing barrack for that matter? Did the Germans shoot the gassing victims, just to be on the sure side? The official narrative on the other hand has it that sick and impaired deportees were brought either to a pit (the so-called "Lazarett") at to the old chapel near the main railroad (this was the practice during the first phase according to some sources), or with a narrow gauge train directly to one of the grave pits in Lager III (this during the second phase), and shot there.

We may also note that the 2008 excavation team reports having found, "in the area bordering the west of Kola’s Building E" (p. 27), among various mundane objects, "larger jars, some (...) produced in the Netherlands, [which] could contain disinfectants" (p. 30). This might possibly refer to a substance which was applied to deportees in the course of a bath and delousing process at a transit camp (in German Durchgangslager, abbreviated DuLag). The witness Galina K., a former inmate in a transit camp in Germany through which Russian and other forced laborers (so-called Ostarbeitern) were sluiced, has testified:

«Wir hatten folgende Aufgaben: die Kranken und Toten aus den angekommenen Zügen zu tragen, die Haare mit der Rasiermaschine zu schneiden, Kopfhaare bei den Männern, wenn aber Frauen [Läuse] hatten, auch bei den Frauen, die Haare unter den Achseln und unter der Taille. Wir schmierten Köpfe, Achselhöhlen, Genitalien mit einer chemischen Lösung ein. [...] nach 20 Minuten bekam man Seife, die wie Paste aussah, dann ging es zur Dusche. Nach jeder Gruppe machten wir sauber».

(Janet Anschutz, Irmtraud Heike, "Medizinische Versorgung von Zwangsarbeitern in Hannover: Forschung und Zeitzeugenberichte zum Gesundheitswesen", in: Günter Siedbürger, Andreas Frewer, Zwangsarbeit und Gesundheitswesen im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Einsatz und Versorgung in Norddeutschland, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, Zürich, New York 2006, p. 52).

My translation:

«We had the following tasks: carrying the sick and dead from the arriving trains, cutting of the hair with electric razors, the scalp hair of the men, but also that of the women if they had [lice], the hair below the shoulders and that below the waist. We smeared heads, armpits and genitalia with a chemical solution [...] after 20 minutes they were given soaps, which looked like paste, and then they went to the showers. After each group we cleaned up».

Did the deportees to the Aktion Reinhardt camps in fact go through a similar procedure? In future articles I hope to provide more information on the known transit camps.

Statements by the 2007-2008 Excavation Team Members

As will be seen in this paragraph, statements made by the members of the 2007-2008 excavation team contradict each other regarding the identity of "Building E". In the present article, as I have already noted, Gilead et al makes it clear that "the location of the gas chambers is a complex issue" which remains to be solved. In other words they do not conclude "Building E" to have been the alleged gas chambers. On p. 27 we read:

«In October 2007, acting on the assumption that we knew roughly where the gas chamber was located, we decided to dig first in the area bordering the west of Kola’s Building E. We worked in 5 x 5m squares which correspond to Kola’s grid, screened all the sediments we dug and used soft hair brushes to clean the surfaces we exposed. The sediment we excavated was sand, heavily mixed with ashes and burnt materials and artefacts. It was approximately 10cm deep and overlaid deep layers of sterile sand. The nature and the extension of the archaeological deposit and the types of artefacts embedded in it indicate that the part of Sobibór we excavated is neither the gas chamber nor the undressing barrack» (emph. mine).

This implies that the team set out believing that "Building E" was identical with the alleged gas chambers, but did not manage to uncover any material supporting a positive identification. However, on the abovementioned website set up by members of the Sobibor Archaeological Project (http://www.undersobibor.org/project.html) we read:

«In 2001 Polish archaeologists under the direction of Andrzej Kola carried out an excavation at the camp in Sobibor. The magnometric survey was carried out at the site in order to create a plan of the camp. Excavations revealed seven concentrations of mass graves and the structure that functioned as a gas chamber».

Thus on their website team members state that Kola did find the gas chamber building, despite the fact that in 2001 Kola variously interpreted it as an undressing barrack and a hospital barrack, and that they themselves in their new article from 2009 admits that the problem of the location of the gas chambers remains to be solved.

In a brief 2008 article from a Hartford University campus newspaper we read (http://www.hartford.edu/unotes_html/Articles.asp?MainID=4581&Category=1):

«This summer, a team led by Richard Freund, director of the University’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, mapped the surface of the camp using electromagnetics, magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar equipment. The team detected the floor of what is thought to be the camp’s gas chambers».

An article from the Jewish Ledger reproduced at the University of Hartford website (http://www.hartford.edu/greenberg/events/sobibor.asp) reports Freund, who as mentioned carried out the geophysical survey in 2008, as making a statement to the same effect

«Freund says the team located structures thought to be Sobibor's gas chamber and crematoria [sic], as well as light-railway tracks used to bring the sick and infirm from the main railway line directly to the crematoria».

But why then the reluctance to identify "Building E" as the gas chambers? Could it be that Kola called it a "barrack", because, like the "Building G" at Bełżec half-heartedly suggested as the second phase gas chamber building at that camp, we are dealing with the remains of a wooden building, not a brick or concrete one, which size moreover does not match the descriptions of the eyewitnesses? We are indeed eager to to learn what Kola, as well as Haimi, Freund et al has to say about this structure.


As seen from above, the archeologists at Sobibór has quite a few "problems" left to "solve", first and foremost the identification of Kola's "Building E". Apparently there are no other candidates for the alleged gas chamber building, meaning that they are stuck with this building remain. While in the present article the new archeological team, like Kola's before it, hesitate to identify "Building E" with the gas chambers, they are apparently tempted to follow the policy of the Włodawa Museum, since there are no alternatives but to conclude that no homicidal gas chambers existed at the site - which would of course be unforgivable, even punishable. To what lengths are they ready to go in order to present a positive identification?

This situation needless to say reminds of the 1997-1998 Bełżec excavations. In his report on that undertaking, Kola made a seriously flawed attempt to identify the second phase gas chambers, which according to eyewitnesses was a concrete structure with a total surface area of at least 120 square meters, with a wooden building (the aforementioned "Building G") measuring 52.5 square meters. As for the first phase gas chamber building, Kola tried to identify it with a "Building D" but in effect abandoned this idea. Bełżec expert Robin O'Neil, who was also involved in the project, tactfully admitted: "We found no trace of the gassing barracks dating from either the first or second phase of the camp’s construction". This failure has been analyzed in detail by revisionist Carlo Mattogno (Bełżec in Propaganda, testimonies, Archeological Research, and History, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2004, pp. 92-96). As seen at their website (http://www.undersobibor.org/project.html) the Sobibor Archaeological Project is fully aware of Mattogno's study:

«A comprehensive study of the Belzec concentration camp in Poland where extermination pits were uncovered has been published by Prof. Andrzej Kola (Kola 2000). This study was cited by Carolo[sic] Mattogno (2004) in an attempt to reach the opposite conclusion, i.e., that the Belzec camp was not an extermination camp but rather only an interment[sic] camp».

We may note here that the author(s) (deliberately?) misrepresent Mattogno's hypothesis regarding the nature of the camp. A transit camp is rather the opposite of an internment camp. On the same webpage we also read:

«The work will constitute a basis for countering the claims of Holocaust deniers».

Thus the future identification of remains proving the existence of the alleged gas chambers is taken more or less for granted, and a conclusion to the contrary would be incompatible with the purpose of the project!

Until the contents of Kola's 2001 article becomes available to us - and an actual report on the 2007-2008 excavations and surveys is published - we can mostly only speculate and make conjectures. It is apparent, however, that Gilead et al, while having only one possible candidate ("Building E"), are hesitant to identify it with the alleged gas chamber building. We might thus assume, for the time being, that, as at Bełżec, the archeologists have failed to locate the remains of any homicidal gas chambers.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Kola's "Building E" at Sobibór - Some Preliminary Observations
Published: 2009-05-27
First posted on CODOH: May 27, 2009, 3:17 a.m.
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