Auschwitz treasure: Judaica found from destroyed synagogue

oswiecim, poland | The town where Auschwitz was located has yielded a trove of Judaica.

During an excavation last month of the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue in Oswiecim, the town in southern Poland where Auschwitz was built, archeologists working from a Holocaust survivor’s memory unearthed a unique trove of Jewish ritual objects.

The objects, which had been buried since the Holocaust, include three bronze candelabra, a bronze menorah, 10 chandeliers and a ner tamid, or eternal lamp, that once hung before the synagogue ark. Tiles, marble plaques, charred wood and other material from the synagogue, which was burned to the ground in 1939 by invading Nazi forces, also were uncovered.

“We didn’t include a miracle in our operating budget, but now we have to deal with one,” said Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a prayer and study complex near the site of the notorious death camp.

The find represents all the interior moveable furnishings of the synagogue. “It’s amazing to have found something so complete,” Kuncewicz said. “It seems as if such a discovery never happened before.”

Before World War II, Oswiecim was a bustling town of 12,000 people, more than half of them Jews. Most local Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and only one of the town’s synagogues survived the war. Long used as a warehouse, it was restituted to Polish Jews in 1998 and then refurbished and reconsecrated as part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center complex, which opened in 2000. The center tells the story of prewar Jewish life here and elsewhere in Poland.

Funded by Polish and Israeli sources and filmed for Israeli television, the four-week excavation got under way at the end of May.

The only clue where to dig had been the account of an elderly Holocaust survivor who recalled seeing the synagogue caretaker bury two large boxes near the synagogue shortly after the Nazi invasion in September 1939.

Archeologists from the University of Torun first dug at two sites based on the recollection of the survivor, Yishayahu Yarot.

He was born in Oswiecim and moved to Israel after the war, where he became a shopkeeper in Ramat Hasharon. In 1998, when he was 90, Yarot had a chance encounter with a customer, Yariv Nornberg, a young Israeli just out of the army who was about to tour death camps in Poland. That led Yarot to recount his memory of synagogue officials burying two metal boxes.

He drew Nornberg a map showing where he thought the boxes were buried.

“He thought Torahs were buried, but no Torahs were found,” Kuncewicz said.

After archeologists found nothing at the original digging places, they began a general excavation of the synagogue foundations.

“They excavated several trenches,” Kuncewicz said. “The objects were found in the last place they were digging, just a few days before the end of the four-week excavation.”

He said the recovered objects appear to have been hidden under the floor of the synagogue, below a staircase.

“When you find remnants of Jewish life so close to where the Nazis committed their horrors, it’s extremely moving,” Israeli filmmaker Yahaly Gat, who filmed the search, told Ma’ariv newspaper.

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.