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The Ground Bears Witness to a Genocide

A group of archeologists excavate fields at a death camp in Poland along with survivors, revealing final acts of defiance by Jews killed there.

November 20, 2005|Ryan Lucas | Associated Press Writer

LUBLIN, Poland — A child's ring. Twisted reading glasses. A few gold coins. Scraps of personal dignity were hurriedly buried in a last act of defiance to keep them from falling into Nazi hands.

Israeli archeologists, helped by survivors, are writing a new chapter in the terrible history of the Majdanek death camp, on the outskirts of Lublin in eastern Poland. They are excavating the grounds, long thought to be empty.

Their findings show how desperate Jews dug into the grassy ground with their bare hands to bury what personal possessions they had before they were slaughtered in the camp's gas chambers.

The objects aren't worth much financially, but "the value as a human story is immeasurable," said Yaron Svoray, an Israeli journalist who made his name infiltrating neo-Nazi groups a decade ago.

"This is where the testimony led us," said Matt Mazer, the American who organized the project and produced a documentary about the archeological dig. "We get to reconstruct a crime scene of one of the greatest crimes of humanity."

Barbed-wire fences surround open fields and the few barracks still standing at the camp. About 235,000 people died here, according to the camp museum. The crematorium's brick smokestack stands on a small hill. People occasionally cross the camp on their way to the adjacent Roman Catholic cemetery.

For two years, Svoray collected survivors' testimony and researched the site. He then teamed up with Mazer to form Historical Media Associates, and with financial backing from Americans came to the camp this fall to dig. Four Majdanek survivors now living in Australia accompanied them.

It turned out that Majdanek's Middle Field 2, which during the war had been a gently sloping stretch of grass, had stories to tell. In the spring of 1943, about 15,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto arrived in the camp, about 95 miles southeast of the capital. The camp administration couldn't process the sudden influx, so they were dumped in the fenced-in field to await "selection" -- separating out those who would be killed immediately from those who were to be worked to death, starved and beaten.

During their wait, the Jews would talk and hug each other.

"To their horror, on the far right side there is a gas chamber, and on the far left side there is a crematorium. It's rather obvious what is going to happen," Svoray said.

So they decided to dig "with their fingers or with a spoon or something else," Svoray said.

The team of amateur archeologists, led by Yoseph Palath, carved out a checkerboard grid on a small portion of the field, then started sifting through the soil.

They found the first item -- a semiprecious stone for a ring -- toward the end of the first day. By the end of the three-day dig, they had collected more than 50 items, which they turned over to the camp museum.

"The story became bigger than us once we actually proved that, in a field that everyone thinks they know everything about, there are still some hidden stories," Svoray said.

Mazer said he plans to return in the spring, but feels the dig has already made an important contribution to the camp's history and to the Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews died.

"It provides yet another way for us to try to understand," he said. "And somehow the objects and the story that the survivors told when linked to the objects gives us another perspective on the unknowable."

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