The remains of the Sobibór extermination camp. (photo from Israel Antiquities Authority via Ashernet)
In a recent discovery made at the site of former Nazi extermination camp Sobibór – where more than 250,000 Jews were killed – remains were uncovered in what is believed to be the location where victims undressed and their heads were shaved before being sent into the gas chambers. The findings were discovered by Polish archeologist Wojciech Mazurek and Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist Yoram Haimi with their Dutch associate, archeologist Ivar Schute.
The archeological excavations, underway since 2007, are underwritten by the steering committee for the international project to establish a new museum and memorial site in the former German Nazi extermination camp, in coordination with Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. The extermination camp was located near the village and railway station of Sobibór, in the eastern part of the Lublin district in Poland.
The remains of the building unearthed by the archeologists are located on the “Pathway to Heaven,” the path along which Jewish victims were forced to tread to the gas chambers. The personal items found in the foundations of the building probably fell through the floorboards and remained buried in the ground until they were discovered this past fall.
Among the personal items found in the area were a Star of David necklace, a woman’s watch and a metal charm covered in glass with an etching of the image of Moses holding the Ten Commandments; on the reverse side of the charm is the inscription of the essential Jewish prayer, Shema. Also found was a unique pendant, probably belonging to a child from Frankfurt who was born on July 3, 1929, which bears the words “mazal tov” written in Hebrew on one side and, on the other side, the Hebrew letter hey (God’s name), as well three Stars of David.
Leading experts at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, together with Haimi, revealed in an announcement on Jan. 15 that the pendant discovered in Sobibór bears close resemblance to one owned by Anne Frank, who was murdered in the Holocaust and is well known for the diary she wrote while in hiding in Amsterdam. Through the use of Yad Vashem’s online pan-European deportation database, Transports to Extinction, they were able to ascertain that the pendant might have belonged to a girl by the name of Karoline Cohn. Dr. Joel Zissenwein, director of the Deportations Database Project, found that Cohn, born on July 3, 1929, was deported from Frankfurt to Minsk on Nov. 11, 1941. While it is not known if Cohn survived the harsh conditions in the Minsk ghetto, her pendant reached Sobibór sometime between November 1941 and September 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated and the 2,000 Jewish prisoners interned there were deported to the death camp. There, along the path to the gas chambers of Sobibór, the pendant belonging to 14-year-old Cohn was taken, dropped and remained buried in the ground for more than 70 years.
Additional research reveals that, aside from similarities between the pendants, both Frank and Cohn were born in Frankfurt, suggesting a possible familial connection between them. Researchers are currently trying to locate relatives of the two families to further explore this avenue.
Over the past decade, the archeological excavations at Sobibór under the guidance of Yad Vashem have made several important discoveries, including the foundations of the gas chambers, the original train platform and a large number of personal artifacts belonging to victims. Among the unique items are metal discs attached to charm bracelets typically worn by children. Engraved on the discs was contact information in case the child went missing.
The most recent excavations have uncovered the remains of the building where victims undressed and their heads were shaved, as well as other areas bearing signs of the use of mechanical equipment to dismantle the camp. In one specific location are imprints left in the ground where trees were planted in order to conceal evidence of the camp.
Prof. Havi Dreifuss, head of the Centre for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, said, “These recent findings from the excavations at Sobibór constitute an important contribution to the documentation and commemoration of the Holocaust, and help us to better understand what happened at Sobibór, both in terms of the camp’s function and also from the point of view of the victims.”
According to Haimi, “The significance of the research and findings at Sobibór grows with every passing season of excavation. Every time we dig,” he said, “we reveal another part of the camp, find more personal items and expand our knowledge about the camp. In spite of attempts by the Nazis and their collaborators to erase traces of their crimes, as well as the effects of forestation and time, we enhance our understanding of the history previously known to us only through survivor testimonies. In this way, we ensure that the memory of the people killed there will never be forgotten.
“This pendant,” he continued, “demonstrates once again the importance of archeological research of former Nazi death camp sites. The moving story of Karoline Cohn is symbolic of the shared fate of the Jews murdered in the camp. It is important to tell the story, so that we never forget. I wish to thank my Polish partner Wojciech Mazurek and the researchers at Yad Vashem for their dedication to the project, as well as Tel Aviv University for supporting the project, and the Polish-German Foundation who made the excavations possible.”
Relatives of Karoline Cohn, or any member of the public who can assist with details regarding her family or Sophie Kollmann, who filled out Pages of Testimony in April 1978 for Richard Else Cohn and Karoline Cohn, are requested to contact Haimi via email [email protected].