Historian accused of having tried to dig up Holocaust dead against Jewish wishes

Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls is accused of 'exploiting Jewish history' - but she insists the claims are 'entirely false'


A complaint has been made to Staffordshire University about a historian, accusing her of having tried to excavate the remains of Holocaust victims in way that contravenes Jewish law.

Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls has produced a documentary, Adolf’s Island, which focuses on Alderney, the Channel Island where it is estimated between 400 and 10,000 people died in camps during the Nazi occupation.

Marcus Roberts, director of Anglo-Jewish history group Jtrails, has accused Prof Sturdy Colls of “exploiting Jewish history”, having “broken agreements” set out on digging near the mass graves.

Mr Roberts said that he and liaisons from the Chief Rabbi's office had previously worked with Prof Sturdy Colls to help her conduct archaeological research at the Treblinka Death Camp in Poland and on Alderney in a manner which would respect Jewish law.

He said they had supported her attempts to gain access “to do non-intrusive research at both sites” on the understanding that she would not dig in either place.

Mr Roberts even wrote a letter backing her efforts because "the key aspect of her methodology is that it can provide very high quality of integrated information about the site which entails no penetration or disturbance of the ground surface, excepting resting the probes of the resistance meter on the ground".

But he said he was shocked to see a previous documentary by the professor that showed she had “dug the Gas Chamber at Treblinka and opened a mass grave, when the permission specifically said she was not to dig, full-stop".

He added that, when she was filming on Alderney, "we had to stop her digging the cemetery and then the Latrines at SS Lager Sylt, as we had information suggesting that Jewish remains were in the latrines.”

Mr Roberts, who is Jewish, said fears that Prof Sturdy Coll intended to dig on Alderney were deepened by an early leaked pitch for Adolf’s Island which said that Prof Sturdy Colls would negotiate with the States Council, the island's government, to excavate the site because "the evidence is too strong to ignore.”

This excavation, Mr Roberts said, was described in the pitch as “the emotional climax to the film”. It continued: “Any survivors who are discovered while researching the story will be invited to come to Alderney at this point should they wish, as will the Island States authorities’.”

Mr Roberts said Prof Sturdy Colls was proposing to act like “a ghoulish ring-master, to drag very elderly French survivors to the opened mass grave site... for what for her would have been the emotional reaction shot.”

"If the university is not content with this research, we would ask that they formally investigate the allegations made here, and publically disassociate and withdraw their support for Caroline in this sphere," he wrote in his complaint.

Promotional material for the documentary, which airs on on the paid-for Smithsonian Channel on Tuesday, says: “Shrouded in decades of silence amid attempts by local authorities to prevent examination and the search for missing victims of Nazi atrocities, the team must turn to state-of-the-art technology to get the answers they seek.

"After much discussion, compromise and stonewalling, their final discoveries, made in spite of vigorous protests by the Alderney government, are chilling.”

Mr Roberts said this was “not just sensational, it completely over-eggs the situation”, adding what took place on Alderney during the war was not secret.

He said a newspaper article from the day after the German surrender on Alderney contained "all the key points... about mass killings and mass graves on the island".

The Nazis evacuated the island after occupying it and brought thousands to work as slave labour in camps.

The British Government told the islanders "a particular narrative which very much minimised the deaths on the island", Mr Roberts said, and has never conceded the number of deaths could be higher than 389, the official figure.

Mr Roberts said the complaint was “fundamentally about the misuse of Jewish history".

“The Jewish community should have a fundamental say in how its history, particularly the history of the Holocaust, is used and investigated. For others to take it and exploit it and use it for purposes which the Jewish community would deeply disapprove of seems to be entirely wrong.”

In response, Prof Sturdy Colls told the JC the “core principle of her research” was “to respect the religious and commemorative significance of sites whilst examining their scientific and historic importance.”

She said her research centred on a “non-invasive approach, developed as part of my PhD research and implemented at more than 50 Holocaust sites around the world, which was specifically designed to respect Halacha at sites where Jewish people were killed and the other ethical issues involved at sites where human remains are present.”

This work, she said, had “been informed and supported by a number of Rabbis around the world, including the Chief Rabbi of Poland”, who she said had given her permission, along with the museum and conservation authorities, “to undertake excavations” at Treblinka.

“The Chief Rabbi of Poland appeared in my 2014 TV documentary where this work was shown and spoke in support of my work”, she added.

“I have spent many years building relationships with a number of Rabbinical authorities and Jewish communities and I would never betray the trust they placed in me by undertaking work without their permission.” 

She said any suggestion that she pursued any excavations without explicit permission from the Rabbinical authorities as “misinformed and totally incorrect".

“These claims regarding my attempts to dig without permission on Alderney are entirely false. Non-invasive methodology was proposed and employed precisely because of the ethical issues involved in the investigation of these sites.

"I would never undertake any work without permission and without conforming to the standards that govern my professional practice.

“My commitment remains to honouring the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution worldwide and to preventing their stories from being suppressed by those who seek to distort this history.”

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