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  • Writer's pictureJanset Nil

When Remembering Becomes Forgetful: Reflections on the symposium Excavating Sobibor

Written by: Janset Nil Genç


On March 14th, I attended NIOD’s symposium Excavating Sobibor: Holocaust Archaeology between Heritage, History and Memory in het Trippenhuis, Amsterdam, together with fellow board members of History Collective. The symposium aimed to promote the two books that resulted from a seventeen-year-long excavation project on the site of the former Sobibor extermination camp. Among the participants were members of the general public, archaeologists, and historians. In this brief blog post, I reflect on what I took away from the talks and why throughout the symposium I was deeply uncomfortable.


The symposium started with an introduction by dr. Erik Somers, the project leader, and was followed by talks from various historians, a preview of the documentary Deadly Deception at Sobibor, an interview with the archaeologists of the project, a brief speech by the government body sponsoring the project, and presentations on the Museum and Memorial in Sobibór and the recently opened National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam. The interdisciplinary approach of the symposium reflected the diverse set of actors involved in the project itself–not just archaeologists, historians, and curators, but also victims’ relatives and locals residing near the former campsite. Unfortunately, we did not hear much about the experiences of the latter. It would have been interesting to hear how victims’ relatives were included in the decision -making of the excavation and musealization processes. Does being in close proximity to a past event result in a different understanding of how that history should be memorialized? How did the project take into consideration the opinions and wishes of those closely affected by the Holocaust?


The speakers emphasized the role of archaeology in uncovering new evidence of the Holocaust. This new evidence, in turn, helps figuratively and literally fill some of the voids in narratives, historical imagination, museums, and archives. An interesting discussion on found objects was how they highlight plurality of narratives and experiences. According to speaker dr. Claudia Theune, there is an inherent expressiveness of material culture found in former Holocaust sites, each varying from one another and revealing the different experiences in different camps. In this regard, material culture is essential for making the nuances in historical narratives visible. Material culture, the chief curator of the National Holocaust Museum Annemiek Gringold says, gives insight into the hopes, dreams, fears, and intentions of the victims. Through material culture, statistics become stories, and we get a glimpse into the experiences of the individuals. Objects found in Sobibor serve to undo the dehumanization Jewish people faced in Nazi Germany.


My personal highlight of the event was dr. Barbara Hausmair’s speech. According to Hausmair, gaps (in museums or in historical narratives) can be a mode of engaging with the tragic past. I realized that it is not just the presence of evidence but also its lack that pushes people to confront the tragic past. Another insightful point in her talk was how objects can transform and gain new meanings throughout their life cycles. Using the example of the number tags used in camps (see Figure 1), she showed how an object that was meant to annihilate individuals or function as a way for the Nazis to identify bodies became a symbol of solidarity, resistance, and a form of self-expression in an economy of destruction. After Nazi Germany, per survivors’ testimonies, the tags became an object of commemoration and trauma, with some throwing it away, some passing it down to their children, and some keeping it to remind themselves of their survival.


Figure 1 Example of number tags found in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 

Source: Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen, Prisoner Numbers from the Sachsenhaut Concentration Camp, n.d., Online image, n.d., https://www.sachsenhausen-sbg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Gedenkstaetten/Sachsenhausen/Ausstellungen/Dauerausstellungen/Haeftlingskueche/DB_181_369_491_652_754_764.jpg


Unfortunately, for a symposium that was about recovering, restoring, and memorializing evidence of a genocide, there was a lot of forgetting, failing to acknowledge, and choosing to look away. There was no mention of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, Palestine. Worse, there was a mention of a “war” in Israel in the welcome speech and mention of the “events 7th of October” without the mention of the genocide by an Israeli speaker, who worked in the excavation site in hopes of finding an object belonging to his uncle, a victim of the Holocaust. I felt sad, angry, and disappointed at the language used to describe the ongoing events in Gaza, completely dismissing the historical context and power asymmetries. Why are they actively refusing to acknowledge the genocide in an event about another genocide? Is the speaker who worked at the excavation site not seeing the irony of living near a modern-day campsite? If, as a room full of historians, we cannot see the parallels between the past and the present, what is our function in society?


It is essential to understand that the Holocaust and the ongoing genocide in Gaza are not mutually exclusive. Recognizing one as a genocide does not invalidate the other. Now, I imagine some will find this criticism out of place–this is a day about the Holocaust, not about Gaza. I strongly disagree. There are several reasons why the symposium should have made an effort to acknowledge the genocide in Gaza—especially in a symposium about the Holocaust. Considering that the Jewish identity and the memory of Holocaust are being weaponized to commit crimes against humanity in Gaza, it is the historian’s duty to resist the dehistoricization of the Holocaust. It is ignorant for the curator of the National Holocaust Museum Amsterdam to say that the opening of the museum was a success in her speech and to disregard the countless human rights activists and Jewish people that protested over the attendance of the Israeli president to the opening of the museum (see Figure 2). It is disrespectful to the countless Jewish survivors who had said never again to fascism.


Figure 2 Protestors at the opening of the National Holocaust Museum Amsterdam

Source: Molly Quell, Some 2000 People Have Gathered on Waterlooplein in Amsterdam to Protest Israeli President Isaac Hertzog at the Opening of the Holocaust Museum., March 10, 2024, Online image, Twitter, March 10, 2024, https://twitter.com/MollyQuell/status/1766794533075841133


You cannot remember some tragedies and choose to forget others. In fact, when forgetting is intentional and selective, it becomes ignorance and hypocrisy. The responsibility of the historian to historicize extends to the present. 


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