Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine (a review)

A review of the Smithsonian channel's new video

Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine (Title Card)
Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine (Title Card). Smithsonian Channel

Charles Furneaux (executive producer) 2014. Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine. 46 minutes. Featuring archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls, Staffordshire University; aerial archaeologist Chris Going, GeoInformation Group; and historian Rob van der Laarse, University of Amsterdam. Produced by Furneaux & Edgar/Group M. and Smithsonian Networks in association with Channel 5 (UK). Initial air date: Saturday, March 29, 2014.

On March 29th, 2014, the Smithsonian channel will air a new documentary video on archaeological investigations at Treblinka, Poland. Treblinka was one of the death camps created by Adolph Hitler during the lead up to World War II as part of his "final solution", an attempt to lay the blame for Germany's failures as an economic, political and military power on the shoulders of repressed minorities, by killing 6 million men, women and children in the space of five years.

Hitler's Repugnant Legacy

He's become a cliche today, Adolph Hitler, chucked loosely into conversations commenting on modern despots: the nasty, small-time land-grabbers and miscellaneous sons-of-bitches that our planet engenders. What the Smithsonian Channel's new video, Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine reminds us is that every single modern or ancient maniacal despot is a sane, upright global citizen compared to the despicable monsters that Hitler and his band of cronies were.

Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine is a video describing the efforts of Staffordshire University forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls to find physical evidence for the historical, long-rumored atrocities at the death camp at Treblinka, Poland, where nearly a million people were slaughtered like...

well, honestly, they were slaughtered like no one on this planet has ever been slaughtered, mechanically, methodically, mercilessly. Pinochet was a pale wannabe by comparison. The only approximate death merchant to Hitler and his crew is Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.

Treblinka has become a point of contention among holocaust deniers, because the Nazis did such a great job of hiding the death factory. After their experiment was over and 900,000 people had been murdered, the Nazis tore down the gas chambers, took down the fences, cremated all the bodies and backfilled the foundations with sand. Then they planted a forest of trees. At the end of World War II, only a handful of photographs and a tiny number of survivors were alive to speak to the hell that was Treblinka.

But you know what? You can't hide the past from archaeology.

Unearthing the Monster

Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine follows Sturdy Colls into Poland, where she meets with a few, a very few survivors of the camp and collaborates (that word is even polluted now) with members of the Treblinka museum as well as aerial archaeologist Chris Going of the GeoInformation Group; and historian Rob van der Laarse at the University of Amsterdam.

Sturdy Colls and her team conduct aerial photography using LiDAR (light detection and ranging), a photographic technique that in effect strips away the lovely forest, revealing the contours, bumps, depressions and other landscape anomalies that any archaeologist recognizes as the remains of ancient foundations.

A Sacred Cemetery

One part of the film that was almost certainly recreated is the discussion that Sturdy Colls had with the rabbi from the Polish museum at Treblinka (the Muzeum Regionalne w Siedlcach). She asks, as do all modern archaeologists do today, what to do if she finds buried human remains. The answer, like so many of the answers we receive is, leave the buried remains in situ; any on the surface should be collected for reburial elsewhere. The unnamed rabbi expresses his faith that Sturdy-Colls will treat the site as it deserves to be treated: as a burial ground, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.

The remainder of the film includes test excavations at Treblinka 1, the so-called "labor camp", and those at Treblinka 2, the death camp so assiduously erased by the Nazis. Or so they thought. Artifacts from the test pits are quiet, personal but relentless evidence of the atrocities that occurred in this place.

A Couple of Caveats

I do have a couple of suggestions for the film-makers. You should really label your boffins. If an academic appears in a film, you should identify the person with a label, with their name and affiliation spelled out. Naming names supports your argument and gives viewers some searchable hook to find out more. My contact with the publisher readily provided me that information, which is why you have it here.

And secondly, and perhaps eccentrically, for me to complete a review, I really need to see it more than once, and typically I need to play and replay pieces of it several times. The first time is for overall impressions and to get the story line, the second time is to get a reasoned response, what were the images like, did the story line completely follow up on its promise, what was really well done. The screener I was given stopped working for me too soon, so you, dear reader, only get the impressionistic version of my viewing. It was quite an impression, as you can

Bottom Line

Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine is not for children; but it is something that all of us human adults need to look at, to understand the damaging whole, the monstrous blot that Hitler and his cabal inflicted on the planet and that 70 years later we still need to hear about and recover from.

The collection of artifacts that Sturdy-Colls and her team have found so far is irrefutable evidence that something hellish happened here, and as responsible citizens of the world we have to understand that and vow not to let it happen again.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.