Reported by Natascha Mehler
(Summer 2011 SHA Newsletter 44)
The KL Stutthof Archaeological Resources Protection and Preservation Program(submitted by Antoni Paris): KL Stutthof, located in a secluded area of northern Poland, was at one time a major Nazi concentration camp. The camp was geographically positioned so as to be surrounded by water: the Vistula bay and river and the Baltic Sea. The camp was initially established as a civilian internment camp in 1939, and was later transformed into a labor education camp administered by the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei). In 1942 Stutthof was registered as a concentration camp. These concentration camps served as part of the Nazi extermination program. Spread throughout the occupied territory of Europe, they were sites of unspeakable horrors and the mass murder of the Jewish population, as well as people of other nationalities. Proof of these crimes can still be found in the archaeological record and the landscape of these sites, which include Oświęcim (Auschwitz), Bełźec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Stutthof.
The archaeological investigations carried out in 2010 were intended to examine the site of the KL Stutthof Camp and to assess possible damage by humans and nature. The second objective was to reconstruct the route of the camp death march and to trace the remains of associated evacuation camps and unmarked victim burials. In the early spring of 2010, three members of the team of investigators from the KL Stutthof Museum began the task of gathering documentary accounts for this project. A large portion of the original camp blueprints and documents was destroyed during the war. Consequently the researchers turned to historic aerial maps, pictures, and prisoners' historic drawings of the camp and surrounding structures in order to outline the boundaries of the camp and its infrastructure. Archaeological surveys and studies, as well as the documentary record, were also relied upon in the reconstruction of the 1945 camp evacuation.
A key element of the research on the camp was the taking of over 500 geo-referenced images. Converting these images into a type of aerial image file format made it possible to measure exact dimensions and distances around the camp, since they provide an accurate representation of the Earth's surface. Barracks, watchtowers, pathways, barbed wire fences, checkpoints, and other structures were located with precision. Comparing this new evidence with the historic record made it possible to point out significant changes to the site. A pedestrian survey had confirmed the theory that there were several large disturbed areas. An assessment of the northern part of the camp, which is located beyond museum borders and covered by mature trees, has revealed a looting problem. The ditches dug by looters in search of valuables and historic items (which were discarded as worthless) can be found throughout this area. These have severely impacted the archaeological context. The northern part of the camp and the adjacent DAV factories are clear examples of site destruction.
The situation in the western region of the camp, featuring the New Kitchen and the SS barracks, is similar. The property is owned by the municipality of Sztutowo, which does not seem to have any intention of preserving the site. In 2004, the Stutthof Museum fenced in the area using its own funds. Nevertheless, local scavengers have managed to overcome this barrier, and continue to destroy the New Kitchen building, tearing out windows, iron ceiling supports, copper electrical elements, and wooden frames. In addition, careless visitors often tread on foundations and vandalize the site by collecting souvenirs and carrying away historical material. Nonhuman forces have been responsible for damage to these sites as well. Animals such as foxes and mice burrow into the foundations of buildings to den, which eventually leads to water damage. Tree roots are also a problem, as their roots disturb archaeological contexts and extend into foundations. The pedestrian survey of the site carried out in the camp identified potential threats to areas of historical and archaeological importance, and defined areas of high priority which are in urgent need of protection. In addition to this, several important historical details came to light. During the archaeological reconnaissance, various inscriptions left by prisoners in the New Kitchen building were discovered and recorded. SS maintenance facilities and the main sewage shaft were also located during this time. The locations of these two features are a valuable resource for historians as they shed new light on the camp layout.
As mentioned earlier, the second part of the Stutthof investigations concerns the camp's evacuation, also known as the "Death Race" or "Death March," and the associated routes and sites. In January 1945, the Soviet offensive into the port cities of Gdansk and Gdynia began. The speed of that advance soon placed the KL Stutthof Concentration Camp dangerously close to the front line and an evacuation was ordered. On 26 January, the IXth column, consisting of 1600 female inmates of various nationalities, left the camp. They arrived at the Toliszczek evacuation camp in the early days of February. In July 2010, the site of a mass grave was located 1.3 km southwest from Toliszczek. The three mounds discovered were 5–7 m apart from each other, centrally located on a plot of 1.5 ha in an agricultural field and overgrown with trees and shrubs. The forest, which has covered that area since 1945, limited investigation to pedestrian survey and basic geophysical techniques, based on ground–penetrating radar and metal detector surveys. The shape and the size of the burials confirmed witness testimony about shallow graves covered with soil and stones.
The complexity of the research concerning the evacuation of KL Stutthof is well illustrated by the case of a political prisoner Jean Ashermann, Nr. 80 378. He was born in Warsaw to a Jewish family on 25 October 1898. Being both a Polish Army officer and a Jew he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. During the evacuation he was assigned to column VI, which consisted of 1500 inmates of different nationalities. The men were escorted out of the main camp by the SS and were led towards the evacuation camp in Rybno. They remained in this camp, quartered in four barracks along with the ill, without proper nutrition and medical attention, until the Red Army liberation. According to witness testimony, Jean Ashermann went missing shortly after the liberation of the camp by the Red Army. The disappearance of Jean Ashermann from his group of friends remains a mystery to this day. After the war, Jean Ashermann's family spent years searching for him. Only two possibilities could explain his disappearance:
However, the recent testimony of some local residents in the Rybno region has thrown new light on the fate of Jean Ashermann. As recollected by the Kepke family, a liberated prisoner who introduced himself as "Shermann," an officer of the Polish Army, stayed in the village. A few days after he left, his body was found on the forest path leading to the main road. He was buried near the site, along with his belongings. In October 2010 the unmarked burial was excavated. The archaeological data has been recorded through a site survey, digital photography, and artifact collection. Ultimately, several bone fragments were recovered, along with partially preserved leather shoes, a metallic bowl, a spoon, and fragments of a wooden box and the cardboard cover of document papers. Unfortunately, the papers which could potentially help identify the victim had undergone decomposition. As of now only DNA testing of the prisoner's remains and Jean Ashermann's daughter can confirm or deny that the remains are those of the long searched–for inmate of KL Stutthof, Jean Ashermann. In the event of the DNA results prove negative, the case will become another anonymous death of a KL Stutthof inmate–the victim of evacuation, liberated but never reaching home.
Antoni Paris M.A., RPA
KL Stutthof Program Archaeologist
Elzbieta Grot Ph.D.
KL Stutthof Museum Curator
Muzeum Stutthof; 82–110 Sztutowo ul. Muzealna email@example.com