Echoes of the Holocaust in two TV specials

Documentary follows forensic archeologists excavating the site of the Treblinka death camp in an effort to reconstruct it.

Forensic archeologists excavate the site of the Treblinka death camp in an effort to reconstruct it. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Forensic archeologists excavate the site of the Treblinka death camp in an effort to reconstruct it.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LOS ANGELES – The mass killing of six million Jews ended nearly 69 years ago, but almost every month we discover a new aspect of the Holocaust, its aftermath, and its impact on future generations.
Witness, for example, two new television specials. One is Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine, which uncovers new scientific evidence on the existence and mechanism of the death camp.
The second, Sosúa: Make a Better World, is an offbeat teen musical recalling a barely remembered footnote to the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and Austria.
While Auschwitz has become shorthand for the Holocaust and a pilgrimage site for more than a million visitors each year, very few pay homage to the victims at the other death factory, Treblinka.
The reason is simple.
The complex, 65 miles northeast of Warsaw, consisted of Treblinka I, primarily a forced labor camp, and Treblinka II, the site of the killing machine, closed in 1943 after 24 months of operation.
During that timespan, its 10 gas chambers asphyxiated 900,000 men, women, and children. The grisly work done, the Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to erase every trace of the camp’s existence.
SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s men destroyed all structures, filled in and leveled the earth above, and even installed a Ukrainian “farmer” in a newly built farmhouse. Viewed from the ground and from the air, Treblinka appeared as peaceful farmland and forest, without barracks or gas chambers and marked later only be a stone monument.
Given the absence of visual evidence, Holocaust deniers around the world focused on Treblinka to claim that it was really a transit camp rather than a killing ground. Six years ago, a young British woman, Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archeologist from Staffordshire University, arrived determined to dig underneath the placid surface.
The documentary Treblinka follows the painstaking work of Colls and her small team, whose task was to pinpoint the most promising excavation sites. Through sophisticated aerial photography, which created a picture of the landscape without foliage, the team detected faint imprints on the ground that pointed to the original foundation of the camp.
Inch by inch, the team carefully dug two trenches, which yielded no evidence.
Finally, in a third trench, Colls found human bones, but, more importantly, broken tiles imprinted, incongruously, with the Star of David.
What was the significance of this strange discovery? Two of the few living Treblinka survivors testified that the Nazis disguised the front of gas chambers to resemble a mikvah, or ritual bathhouse, complete with tiles bearing the Star of David.
Colls at times breaks down at the horror of her discoveries, but the film’s emphasis is on the scientific approach she brings to the project. Indeed, the Smithsonian Channel is presenting Treblinka as part of its month-long Women in Science series.
There is one jarring note in the film’s attempt to hype Colls’s quest into a kind of detective thriller, breathlessly questioning, will she ever find the evidence? Sosúa: Making a Better World has bits of West Side Story, Jewish refugees in a strange land, and civic lessons on American diversity, all rolled together into one sweet film.
The location is Washington Heights, a neighborhood in the northern reaches of Manhattan. Its population consists mainly of Latino immigrants from the Dominican Republic and their descendants, but back in the early 1940s it was the destination of so many Jewish refugees from Germany an Austria that it was dubbed “Frankfurt-on-the- Hudson. “ The two ethnic groups live side-by-side but rarely interact.
The self-imposed separation bothered Vicki Neznansky, program director of the local “Y” (Young Men’s & Women’s Hebrew Association) community center, who looked for ways to bring the teenagers of both communities together.
From this seed sprang the idea of a full-fledged musical on a theme linking the histories of both communities.
Flash back to 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the international Evian Conference to find countries of refuge for the German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
After many high-flown declarations by leaders of 32 nations in attendance, 31, including the United States, regretted that they were unable to absorb any Jewish refugees.
The unlikely exception was the Dominican Republic, whose ruthless dictator, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, had just murdered 25,000 Haitians during the previous year.
Trujillo offered to admit up to 100,000 Jews to his Caribbean country and settle the former professors and businessmen in Sosúa, a former banana plantation abandoned by the United Fruit Company.
The dictator’s noble gesture was part of his plan to “whiten” his country’s population through hoped-for intermarriages between the native residents and the “white Jews.”
However, with the outbreak of World War II, only some 500-750 Jews made it to Sosúa, where, with the help of kibbutz experts from Palestine, they established thriving meat, butter, and cheese processing plants.
Taking the Dominican-Jewish link as the backbone of the musical, “Y” officials enlisted the talents of Broadway director and composer Liz Swados to put the show together.
With a cast of 20 youngsters between 12 – 17 and evenly divided between Dominican Latinos and Jews, the musical slowly took shape. In the process, the actors on both sides shared stories of racist slurs (mainly against the Latinos) and religious holidays (mainly Jewish).
In the process, barriers were broken and friendships were made, but fortunately filmmakers Peter Miller and Renee Silverman spare us any budding adolescent romances.
On opening night, as proud Latino and Jewish parents applaud enthusiastically, the show brings down the house.