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Uncovering mass graves of Holocaust horrors at Nazi death camp
MURDERERS always leave a trace of their crimes. Yet for more than 60 years, the physical evidence of mass graves at a former Nazi concentration camp lay undiscovered.
Now Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archaeologist and Staffordshire University lecturer, has built up the first scientific picture of what lies beneath the ground at Treblinka in Poland.
It includes the remains of gas chambers, large pits, and 11 locations which are thought to have become the final resting place for countless victims of the Holocaust.
Caroline, aged 26, pictured below, said: "I had started to do research into cold cases, looking at how to use modern techniques to solve murder cases. Treblinka was the ultimate cold case."
Although witness accounts provided a harrowing human record of what went on there, the site itself had been razed to the ground by the Nazis when they wound down the camp in 1943.
By then, it had served its purpose as the ultimate experiment in extermination. More than 800,000 Jews perished at Treblinka in little more than a year.
"Throughout the war, they denied it was ever there," said Caroline. "They dismantled the buildings and planted trees. They then created a farmhouse and installed a Ukrainian farmer and his family there. It was a ruse. Ho ho
"My work was trying to question what 'destroyed' really means. You are always going to leave some kind of trace."
Caroline, who grew up in Blythe Bridge and now lives in Tean, began her research four years ago as part of her PhD at Birmingham University. She will be continuing the next phase of the field work this summer through Staffordshire University.
Some of her forensic investigation students in Stoke-on-Trent will also be involved. They will be testing out chemical techniques, which Caroline then hopes to use on site to provide further evidence of the graves.
Archaeologists had previously been unable to do research at Treblinka because Jewish law prevents disturbance of human remains. It wasn't until developments in technology, including satellite imagery, GPS and mapping software, that it became possible to investigate without excavation work.
Caroline spent three weeks doing intensive surveys at the site, supported by a team of archaeologists. It involved ground-penetrating radar and creating electric images of cross-sections of the ground. They also studied vegetation patterns for clues.
Caroline recalled: "We were looking for potential boundaries. We also found structural foundations, including the remains of what is believed to be the gas chambers.
"Some pits were 34 metres long.
"The biggest problem with geophysics is you can't distinguish human remains. You just find solid material.
"But we correlated the findings with witness accounts and also overlaid the data onto aerial photographs. That's how we worked out they were mass graves."
A memorial was built at Treblinka in the 1960s. Caroline discovered its boundaries don't accurately reflect the camp's layout, which was bigger than previously thought.
The only other record of underground structures at Treblinka was from a 1946 report into German crimes in Poland. But it said no graves had been found there.
Working on site, Caroline was struck by an eerie calm. Visitors travel through open countryside and pine forests to reach the isolated spot.
It may have taken decades for the mass graves to come to light, yet bone fragments and teeth wash up with the rain.
"Cremation doesn't completely reduce a body to ashes," said Caroline. "The most amazing finds were the artefacts. They included spoons, tins and cups lying on the surface."
Piecing together the evidence was an uncomfortable experience.
Caroline added: "There were times when I wanted to walk away. But I felt so strongly that it needed to be done. It should upset you."
In the early days of the death camp, bodies were thrown into the graves. These remains were later dug up by the Nazis and burnt. Their preferred method became the gas chambers and crematorium. Victims would follow a path nicknamed the "road to heaven".
Caroline said: "You can trace their journey through the camp by looking at the landscape.
"They arrived via a railway line. The Nazis tried to make out they were being taken east for work.
"Once on the platform, some were taken to an artificial field hospital. It was a burning pit used for people who weren't going to make it to the gas chambers."
As the killings became ever more systematic, it took just eight minutes from arriving at Treblinka to extermination.
Caroline stresses her research will never "explain" the Holocaust. But she added: "If it helps people get some closure and provides an education resource, it will have made a contribution."
She will be working with the Treblinka Museum on an exhibition. Ultimately, she hopes to create a detailed site map.
Outside of teaching and research, the former Blythe Bridge High student also acts as a consultant for police forces.
Caroline helped with the search for Keith Bennett, a victim of the Moors Murders. More recently, she recovered the body of a Gloucestershire woman murdered by her husband.