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Greenlit: Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine, Smithsonian Channel / Ch5

Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine –  It’s one of the most notorious cold cases of World War II – 900,000 Jews transported by the Nazis to a camp in eastern Poland, never to be seen again. Rare documents and eyewitnesses claimed Treblinka was a death camp even more ruthlessly efficient than Auschwitz-Birkenau, but evidence was thin, because the Nazis destroyed all traces of the camp.  Holocaust deniers have even claimed that it was only a transit camp. Now, 70 years later, a forensic investigator and her team have gained unprecedented access to excavate the site for the first time.

This documentary follows their quest to finally uncover clues that reveal the brutal mechanics behind an operation designed to murder people on a mass scale.  Today, all that is visible where two camps once stood is the Treblinka Memorial and surrounding forest. No security fencing. No buildings. No gas chambers. Nothing to indicate that from 1942-43, the Nazis exterminated 900,000 people as part of Operation Reinhard, the official name for what is now known as the Holocaust. Now, thanks to work by British forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls and her team, the full story of Hitler’s killing machine can be told.

The finds are significant and chilling, even 70 years after the mass murder. Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls and her team discovered three previously unidentified mass graves at Treblinka 1, which some thought had only been a labor camp. They also pinpointed the location of a gas chamber and other physical structures at Treblinka 2, the main extermination camp. The team uncovered human remains, personal artifacts and pieces of tile with the Jewish star imprint which match eyewitness descriptions of a gas chamber that had been designed to look like a bathhouse. She also reinforces her suspicions that the death camp was even larger than previously thought.

Sturdy Colls leads a team of archaeologists from the United Kingdom and the Treblinka Museum on a six-year endeavor to answer questions that have persisted for seven decades. It is a monumental undertaking that requires permission from both Polish and Jewish authorities to gain unprecedented access to conduct an archaeological dig at the site. Until now, rabbinical law–which forbids disturbing human remains–has prevented any investigation of what lies beneath the topsoil. In the film, Sturdy Colls meets with the Chief Rabbi of Poland on precisely how to proceed.

In 1943, with Treblinka’s grisly mission accomplished, the Nazis tried to eradicate the evidence. To conceal their crimes, they destroyed all structures, leveled the earth, built it up on landfill, added a farmhouse, and installed a Ukrainian “farmer.” To pinpoint the most likely areas to excavate, Sturdy Colls deployed cutting-edge aerial photography called LIDAR, which creates a picture of the landscape with no foliage. She identified faint imprints in the ground that could be the original foundations of the camp.

The film follows the progress of the excavation and transports viewers back in time through archival and eyewitness accounts by the few who managed to survive the camp—some of whom have never before spoken publicly about what they saw and endured. One of them, Samuel Willenberg, was the sole survivor from a train of 6,000 people.

The excavation is only the beginning.  Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls will be returning to Poland to investigate Treblinka’s gas chambers further and to conduct excavations at other Nazi death camps.

Channel: Smithsonian Channel / Channel 5

Producer: Furneaux and Edgar / GroupM Entertainment

TX:  29th March 2014

Source: Smithsonian press release (via TV by the Numbers)


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