Following an Unlikely Tip, Auschwitz Dig Unearths a Trove of Lost Judaica

By Joshua Cohen

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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OSWIECIM, Poland — A crew of Polish archeologists searching for a buried treasure at the former site of the Great Synagogue here struck gold Monday when they discovered a trove of artifacts, including three synagogue menorahs, a Chanukah menorah, the eternal light and several synagogue chandeliers.

The diggers were acting on evidence — unearthed in an incredible tale of luck and suspense — that in 1939, the local Jewish community had buried Torahs and other holy books and various artifacts in metal cases below the synagogue floor, just before the building was blown up by the Nazis. The archeological excavation started at the beginning of June in the once-vibrant Jewish town of Oswiecim, known popularly by its German name, Auschwitz. The town is adjacent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.

“Around 11 in the morning, I got a call from the woman who is in charge of the archeological team, [who said], ‘There’s something sticking out of ground’ that resembles a menorah,” said Tomasz Kunezcwicz, the head of the Auschwitz Jewish Center. “We went there immediately, and they were uncovering it, layer by layer, and finally the collection of these artifacts was uncovered.”

Amazingly, Israeli director and producer Yahaly Gat, who has been filming a documentary about the search, captured the discovery on film. The project was financed by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and by private donors, and has the support of the Auschwitz Jewish Center and the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community, the nearest active Jewish community in Poland.

But little tops the story’s origin. The dig is the culmination of a six-year project that began in Israel with an innocent shopping excursion by an unassuming young man named Yariv Nornberg, a native of Ramat Hasharon.

In 1998, Nornberg, just out of the army, entered a small local store to purchase an Israeli flag for the upcoming Independence Day celebrations. The store was owned and operated by a 90-year-old man named Yishayahu Yarot, who told Nornberg that he had no flags in stock and asked him to come back in a week’s time. Nornberg explained to the man that he could not return the following week, because he was scheduled to fly to Europe to tour the concentration camps. According to Nornberg, Yarot then said, “I was born in Poland. I was born in Auschwitz….”

After two hours of talking, Yarot retreated to the rear of his store and returned with a piece of paper on which he proceeded to draw a map. According to Yarot, immediately prior to the Nazis occupying the town in the autumn of 1939 (most probably in early September), Yarot walked by the Great Synagogue — a large structure with the capacity to hold 2,000 people — and saw three men, among them the gabbai, or sexton, taking Torah scrolls and ornaments, placing them in two metal boxes and burying them in the ground. Yarot handed Nornberg the detailed map indicating the spot on which he thought the scrolls were buried

“You be a messenger,” Yarot commanded Nornberg, who until two hours before had been a complete stranger, “and find it.”

According to Nornberg’s filmed interview in Oswiecim on April 23, he spent years contacting other survivors in the hopes of corroborating Yarot’s claim and supplementing his provided map. Nornberg claims that a few survivors have backed up the story: According to one, a man named Shlomo Betar, the burial was a popular legend in the area ghetto of Sosnowiec and, perhaps more compellingly, Nornberg unearthed an entry in the local Jewish registry book housed in an archive in the city of Bialsko-Biala that read: “And on that day I told Salinger to get two large crates lined with clay and to assemble the Torah scrolls.”

Yarot soon sought help from Adam Druks, a trained archaeologist and the son of a former deputy mayor of the town. Druks led Nornberg to Kalman Lehrer, son of the gabbai of Oshpitzin, the man who supposedly was involved in burying the Torahs.

Lehrer did not remember if his father ever said anything about the buried Torahs, but he did have his own memory from the site. “[My father] sent me into the shul after the Nazis looted it,” said Lehrer, “and a moment after I left, the roof fell in.”

Which is how it came to be that on a grassy hill overlooking a valley leading to the two worst concentration camps of the Holocaust, the foundations of a synagogue lay exposed. As of early June, after a week of digging, the crew had exposed the tiled floor of the synagogue, the site of the ark and many, many bricks — in addition to a ceremonial washbasin, some charred prayer books, and some crumbling dedication and memorial plaques. In the first surprise discovery before Monday’s find, they excavated Nazi bunkers sunk into the corners of the foundations of the destroyed synagogue; inside one were a helmet and a gasmask. The crew is still searching for the Torahs.

According to Polish archeologists and historians involved with the project, Yarot’s map was an accurate remembering of the 600-square-meter site of the 19th-century Great Synagogue, a structure preserved only in a few photographs and illustrated postcards. Yarot marked a point near the southeast end of the site, an area now abutting a planned Gypsy Cultural Center, as the site of the treasure. The artifacts were not found in this location, or in metal cases.

“I am not usually optimistic,” said Nornberg, “but if there is a small chance [of finding the scrolls], then we have a moral obligation to try. The one remaining shul in Auschwitz has two Torahs, written in the United States and donated. But here we have an opportunity to find original scrolls belonging to this great, historic town, which once had a majority Jewish presence.”

None of the Polish archaeologists or historians involved had heard of the Torah burial prior to this project — and no mention of it is made in any Jewish records, except in the document that Nornberg cites in an English translation he’d obtained. Still, one archeologist was willing to make at least a cautious prediction.

“If in fact the Torahs were placed in a metal box or boxes sealed with clay or tar, there is a chance that they have survived intact,” said Dominika Sieminski. And even if they are not found, she added, the discoveries so far are themselves of enormous import.

“Though I am not sure the Torahs are here — they might have been dug up secretly before — the synagogue’s floor is a [considerable] find,” said Sieminski.

But whether or not the hidden Torahs are myth, the dig itself is a testament to the town’s enduring Jewish legacy that has long been overshadowed by its monstrous destruction.

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