Auschwitz’s Jewish treasuresChance conversation leads to find and film


It all started when Yariv Nornberg went into a small shop to buy an Israeli flag.

The conversation that he had with Yishayahu Yarot, the proprietor of Kolbo Shalom in Ramat Hasharon, a town north of Tel Aviv, would lead Nornberg to Oswiecim, the Polish town that housed the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, and to a discovery of Judaica treasures hidden by Jews from the Nazi soldiers who had arrived in their town during their conquest of Poland more than 65 years ago.

The story of that find ‹ and how it came about ‹ is told in a documentary, Treasures of Auschwitz, that will be screened at the Library of Congress next week and elsewhere in the community this spring.

In 1998, Nornberg ‹ who is living in the District while he is a fellow at the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise ‹ was an officer in the Israel Defense Forces living in Ramat Hasharon. He had been chosen to be part of a delegation to visit Auschwitz to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the March of the Living ‹ an annual educational program that brings students to Poland to learn about the Holocaust.

When he explained that he needed the flag because he was going to Poland to visit Auschwitz, Yarot’s “face became white and he told me had been born in Oswiecim,” Nornberg, 32, recalls.

During the next two hours, the businessman recounted his life in Poland. He said that he had been a witness when Jews at the town’s main synagogue had taken Torah scrolls, put them in a case and buried them. He even supplied Nornberg with a map where he could find the buried treasure.

That chance encounter led to a six-year-long quest in which Nornberg, a Hebrew University student for part of the time, did research in various libraries, talked to Polish and Israeli officials, interviewed members of the Polish Jewish community and people who lived in Oswiecim during the war, and appealed to funding organizations for help, all in trying to find out about the period and arrange a dig.

Nornberg is not sure what inspired him to continue with this project for so many years. But he says he was captivated by what he sees as this story’s two symbolic meanings of Auschwitz.

“We were talking about Auschwitz, the symbol of the destruction of the Jewish people, and he [Yarot] is a living person who survived,” he explains. “He is telling me not a story of his survival but of the Torahs, of the symbol of Jewish life.

“It is the contradiction between Jewish destruction and Jewish life that I found fascinating.”

In 2000, the project received a boost when an independent Israeli filmmaker, Yahaly Gat, contacted Nornberg, saying he wanted to film the story.

“At first, I wasn’t willing to cooperate [with Gat] because I wanted to handle the project discreetly,” with as little publicity as possible, Nornberg says. His reluctance, Nornberg explains, stemmed from conversations with Yarot who feared that publicity might lead to the discovery of the Torah scrolls by non-Jews, who would sell them on the Judaica black market.

But Gat convinced him that this was a story that needed to be told.

In addition to the future documentary, Gat as a partner in the project had two positive effects. First, he helped finance the venture by contributing a portion of the money budgeted to make the film. (Other project funders were the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and private individuals.)

But, as important, was the change that filming had on interviewees. “Some people at first weren’t willing to cooperate, but with the cameras rolling, they often became much more cooperative,” Nornberg says.

Archaeologists excavated at the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue in Oswiecim in 2004. They did not find the Torah scrolls, but did discover buried in the ground candelabras, a bronze menorah, chandeliers and a ner tamid (eternal lamp) ‹ all from the synagogue.

The rescued pieces are in the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, which tells the story of prewar Jewish Poland.

Nornberg, whose family came from Poland, was pleased by the discovery. Yet, he thinks this tale has a downside as well.

At the dig, “I found myself surrounded by Polish archaeologists,” he says. “I worry that what we were doing was archaeology related to the Holocaust, and I am afraid that we have reached the point where the Holocaust is becoming archaeology.”

It reminded him that the last survivors would soon die, leaving no living witnesses.

“What will become of the legacy and the historical lessons that we should have learned” from the Shoah?

Treasures of Auschwitz will be shown on Feb. 28 at noon in the Mary Pickford Theater on the third floor of the Library’s James Madison Building, Library of Congress, in the District. Nornberg will take part in the discussion following the screening. The event is free and open to the public.

The film also will be shown at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda on April 15 at 7 p.m. There is no charge for the screening.

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