Forensic and archaeological approaches to locating the remains of Holocaust victims
Caroline Sturdy Colls
It is estimated that around 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. However, compared to the overall number of missing persons, very few searches for the corpses of victims have been carried out. In fact, thousands of burials and deposition sites remain unlocated and unmarked and few of the burials found have been examined by specialists. Certainly, very few have been examined using techniques now commonly used in forensic investigation and archaeology in relation to other periods of history. This paper will address this paradox between the ever-present and physically illusive corpse in relation to the Holocaust. It will consider the circumstances and sensitivities that have impacted upon searches for the remains of Holocaust victims in the past, given the sites’ symbolic and scientific resources for victims and their descendants as well as archaeologists, and as such create sites of conflict between different religious and political authorities within a necro-economy. Ultimately it will argue that, providing the sensitivities surrounding the investigation of this period are accounted for, forensic and archaeological techniques can be utilised in the future to locate previously unmarked sites, characterise burial environments, analyse corpses and shed new light on practices of killing and body disposal.
The Nazi occupation of the small Channel Island of Alderney irreversibly altered the landscape and lives of both the contemporary population and the subsequent generations. The evacuation of the island’s 1,500 inhabitants in June 1940 paved the way for a period of occupation by the Germans that would last until May 1945. In 1941, Hitler issued an order to fortify the Channel Islands and make them an ‘impregnable fortress’; thus creating ‘Adolf Island’. This book seeks to collate and combine historical and archaeological data relating the occupation landscape in order to produce the definitive guide to the events that took place during this period. It addresses yet unanswered questions relating to the purpose of the occupation, the lives of the labourers, known and missing, and the post-war reaction to this legacy.
Drawing upon extensive archival research, this chapter considers the identities and demographic of the forced, slave and less-than-slave labourers sent to Alderney during the Nazi occupation. Refocusing the attention on individual and collective experiences, it demonstrates the various ways in which the nature of the work being undertaken, and the attitudes towards individuals and groups, affected the daily lives of the labourers, and how their treatment was influenced by the wider Nazi forced and slave labour programme implemented across Europe. The latter is especially important as whether the construction works on Alderney were undertaken for military/economic gain or as part of a wider strategy of persecution levied at minority groups remains one of the most contentious issues surrounding Alderney’s occupation.
This chapter evaluates the fortifications that the labourers, not from the perspective of their military significance, but rather in terms of their status as products of forced and slave labour, and their impact upon the sensory experiences. The chapter draws upon the results of walkover surveys, photogrammetry and mapping exercises in order to evaluate the various interactions between the labourers and the landscapes in which they worked. also discussed are other material traces interacted with, or generated by, the labourers and members of the German garrison – most notably marks (including graffiti) and objects – while also considering the role that these played in resistance and oppression. A later section focuses on the daily lives of the labourers within the camps and other internment sites in which they were housed. The chapter concludes with a discussion about the purpose of the labour programme on Alderney, reflecting on both its economic value and role in the persecution of so-called enemies of the Third Reich.
Two of the four main camps, Borkum and Helgoland, are examined in this chapter. The influx of labourers sent to Alderney during the occupation led to the need for accommodation to house them. When the British military arrived on Alderney in May 1945, they documented the presence of four main camps that the Germans had built for this purpose. Borkum, Helgoland, Sylt and Norderney – all named after German Frisian Islands – were constructed at the four corners of the island. These camps were erected near to major construction projects that commenced in mid–late 1942 and were governed by the OT (although Sylt and Norderney were later taken over by the SS). Borkum existed in the south-east corner of the island near Longy Bay and what would become several strategic strongpoints, while Helgoland was set back from a major coastal defence point in the north-west of the island near two major forts at which the labourers worked.
This chapter examines the historical and archaeological evidence relating to both the OT and SS periods of Norderney’s existence, in order to demonstrate how the living conditions of the inmates and the camp administration were impacted over time. As discussed, of all the camps on Alderney, Norderney provides the best example of how the natural environment was used to ensure that control was maintained over the inmates; hence, a detailed analysis of the topography of this camp is provided as a gateway through which the experiences of the labourers can be further analysed.
This chapter provides an evaluation of unnamed and smaller camps as well as prisons. By focusing on the architecture and spatiality of internment throughout, it considers both the uniqueness of Alderney’s camp system and its place within the wider Nazi camp system in Europe. Following historical research by a comprehensive programme of archaeological investigations across Alderney, comparisons were made between maps, aerial images, the MI19 documentation and physical remains observed during walkover surveys within a Geographic Information System (GIS), contributing towards our understanding of the extent and nature of the camps and internment sites. This process was particularly important as few witness testimonies exist that describe the sites in more detail. This chapter presents the findings of these investigations and concludes with a discussion of the unique and normative aspects of the Alderney camp system.
This chapter considers the somewhat controversial topic of death and burial on Alderney and focuses on one of the main questions posed in our study: how many people died on the island, who are they and where are they buried? Although a system for registering deaths appeared to be in place, this chapter considers how this ‘system’ operated in practice. With the aid of death certificates, burial registries and other documentation, it goes on to reveal the stories of those who died on Alderney, while simultaneously demonstrating demographic trends that can further define the nature of mass violence. This chapter first considers the official registration procedures that were meant to be carried out after a death occurred and then compares these to the actual ways in which fatalities were recorded. In doing so, new evidence is presented which highlights the chaotic and deceptive nature of the death certification practices and sheds further light on the nature of interpersonal violence against the forced, slave and less-than-slave labourers. Resulting from this analysis and for the first time, the chapter also provides comprehensive information about victims whose details are recorded in surviving documentation.
This chapter provides new evidence regarding the burial procedures employed on Alderney, offering new perspectives on known interment sites and identified possible unmarked, clandestine graves, by comparing the officially sanctioned burial procedures with the reality of body disposal practices on Alderney. It discusses the disorganised disposal of bodies, both within the official cemeteries and at other sites beyond their boundaries.
This chapter focuses on these final phases of Alderney’s occupation history in order to assess the effect that these events had on people and the landscape. The experiences of the forced, slave and less-than-slave labourers after June 1944 are considered, drawing on testimonies, post-war records relating to displaced persons and repatriation, and landscape analysis. In the years since liberation, there has been much speculation about what the world knew about the crimes perpetrated on Alderney. Hence, the nature of investigations carried out during the occupation and in its aftermath is discussed in order to assess how these inquiries influenced the presentation and perceptions of the labourers in the years since. The chapter includes a review of the post-liberation investigations, evaluating what the British government knew about the events on Alderney during the occupation and how they utilised this information over time. It also assesses how and why certain aspects of the occupation have been forgotten or remembered and, crucially, it documents what happened to the forced, slave and less-than-slave labourers who survived after liberation, many of whom went on to suffer further internment and persecution.