Holocaust history unearthed using new technology
Archeological explorations of Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The final sequence of events that took place within the resistance bunker beneath 18 Mila Street on the morning of May 8th, 1943, is not well known. This was where over 100 poorly armed resistance fighters are believed to have died after holding out bravely for over three weeks against Nazi SS troops, to thwart their attempts to remove all remaining Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. Although this act of defiance is widely regarded as the most symbolic act of resistance by the Jews during the Holocaust, we still don’t know how events unfolded during those last moments when SS Troops, having located the entrances to the bunker, ordered those inside to surrender. Some accounts suggest that a few of the fighters managed to survive the German siege by escaping through an unnoticed opening, but none of them are believed to have survived the war. An underground courier for the Jewish Fighting Organization, Vladka Meed, documented what she had heard from survivors after their escape, including that those left behind had chosen to take their own lives rather than die from the poisoned gas that the SS troops were pumping into the bunker. This second-hand account is the only evidence of what may have occurred during those final hours and, since the bunker was left as a tomb after the war, no one knows for sure what really happened.
Today, thousands of tourists come to the Mila 18 memorial at the site of the buried bunker to pay homage to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who died there, including the revered leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization, Mordechai Anielewicz. If you listen to the tour guides who come with groups from across the world, you’ll hear a variety of tales describing their understanding of what happened in the bunker, each narrative differing in notable ways. Some like to tell the tale of the resistance fighters, united in their code of honour, and committing suicide, rather than surrendering to the Germans or dying by poison. This story conveniently likens the events of Mila 18 to the Roman siege of the Jews at Masada, two thousand years before. Others will describe how extensive the bunker system was, spanning three city blocks, deep underground, and with six separate entrances into the bunker. Or how as many as 300 people lived in the bunker at one point. No one really knows the true story, because we rely on second hand accounts and dramatic fictionalizations of the story, including in Leon Uris’ classic novel, Mila 18. This is where good archaeological work can help to separate fact from fiction.
Our group of researchers from BGC Engineering, together with academics from Christopher Newport University, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, and Duquesne University, partnered with the Warsaw Ghetto Museum on this project in 2019. At the time the Warsaw Ghetto Museum was relatively new and had a mission to conserve and document what remained of the Warsaw Ghetto before it was further erased by new urban development. BGC’s involvement in this project was partially funded by our philanthropic program, BGC Squared.
In 2019 BGCers Chris Slater, Colin Miazga, Paul Bauman, and myself spent two intense days of geophysical surveying and had determined that the remains of the old Warsaw Ghetto buildings were likely still buried beneath the grassy field adjacent to the Mila 18 memorial site. We speculated that if the resistance bunker was as large as some had described it, that it likely extended beneath several properties between Mila Street and the historical Muranowska Street to the north. Because this part of Warsaw was largely obliterated by the Nazis during both the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the later general Warsaw Uprising in 1944, many of the old streets, including Muranowska Street, were wiped off the map and never reconstructed. It appeared though that much of the below-ground infrastructure remained, including the brick-lined sewer canals that extended under Mila and Muranowska Streets that were used by smugglers to ferry goods and people in and out of the ghetto.
We returned to Warsaw in 2021 to complete additional electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys. We also came prepared with a hand-held lidar system. With the cooperation of Warsaw’s municipal authorities, BGC Principal Geoscientist, Paul Bauman, was allowed to descend into the sewer canals to map and photograph them from below the maintenance access covers. This provided us a comprehensive data set that we used to create a 3D model of the site, and hypothesize how the resistance bunker, that at one time provided refuge for as many as 300 people, could ‘fit’ in the space between Mila and Muranowska Streets. Having probed the site from all angles, the only thing left to do was excavate.
Getting permission to excavate the site was not a simple task. Government authorities and the local Jewish community were reluctant to break with 80 years of tradition and allow the disturbance of what is a cultural heritage site of importance and a place where Jewish people were known to have lost their lives. Discussions with Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, took place. He sought assurances that traditional Jewish Halakha law would be respected and excavations would stop if any human remains were uncovered. Thanks to our Polish archaeological colleague, Jacek Konik, of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum and Vistula University, layers of Polish and Warsaw bureaucracy were worked through, and finally permits were in hand for an excavation of the grassy field next to Mila 18, where our geophysical data had indicated buried building foundations and potential voids.
Excavations got underway on June 6th, 2022, and machinery was brought in to remove the top layer of brick rubble. From there, everything had to be done by hand, painstakingly scraping away the layers of dirt to find and preserve artifacts contained within. Most of the volunteer diggers were archaeology students from the local Vistula University and some volunteers joined us from the surrounding neighbourhood, who just wanted to help out, buoyed by their own curiosity.
Just a few inches below the surface, brick walls were uncovered that defined several rooms of the 19th century buildings that would have housed some of the 400,000 Jews that were confined to the ghetto, and were later destroyed during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Between the numerous pauses to speak with government officials and local news media, we made some important finds, including a child’s shoe, a coin purse containing coins and a woman’s broach, and charred pages of prayer book with legible Hebrew lettering. The charred pages of the prayer book were a solemn reminder that the SS troops deliberately burned and dynamited the buildings in 1943 to counter the rooftop attacks that the resistance fighters were staging.
Archaeology is an incredibly destructive science and once a wall or an artefact is exposed, it may never look the same again. In most cases, once excavations are complete, they are filled in to protect the heritage site from unwanted vandalism. Traditional archaeology requires careful documentation of what is found using photographs and measuring dimensions of features using surveying equipment. At Mila 18, we had the opportunity to use LiDAR scanning technology available on the latest iPads and iPhones, combined with a new augmented reality (AR) tool called ‘Clirio View’, developed for geological site investigations. This new 3D scanning technology is truly revolutionary for archaeology work. In just a few seconds, you can capture a photo-textured 3D digital twin of an excavation, which provides high resolution details of all the subtle features exposed in a trench, and with the correct orthorectified dimensions. These scans can be displayed in AR mode, allowing any interested stakeholders with an internet connection to place themselves in the same 3D scene, no matter where they are in the world. It’s already possible for museums or heritage sites to share these AR 3D models so everyone can relive the experience.
We hope that the site will be secured as a place of important cultural heritage and that a makeshift cover will be placed over the workings so the excavations can continue indefinitely. At the very least, this site of momentous and harrowing events will be saved from future development keeping the possibility open that one day we will be able to find out what really happened during those last hours and days in the bunker, and to ensure that the history of the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is told accurately to future generations.
We’d like to acknowledge the work of Richard Freund a principal investigator for this project from Christopher Newport University who sadly passed of cancer this summer. Richard was a universally acclaimed Jewish scholar and biblical archeologist, rabbi, and University professor. We are privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him on such a meaningful project.