LUBLIN, Poland — A child's ring. Twisted reading glasses. A few gold coins: scraps of personal dignity, hurriedly buried in a last act of defiance to keep them from falling into Nazi hands.
Israeli archaeologists helped by survivors are writing a new chapter in the terrible history of the German death camp at Majdanek, Poland, by excavating grounds long thought to be empty.
Their findings show how the doomed Jews furiously dug into the grassy ground with their hands to bury what personal possessions they had with them before they were murdered 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 some 10 years ago.
"This is where the testimony led us," said Matt Mazer, the American who organized the project and produced a documentary film about it. "We get to reconstruct a crime scene of one of the greatest crimes of humanity."
Barbed-wire fences now surround empty fields and the few barracks still standing at the camp. Here some 235,000 people died, 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, unaware of what the ground still holds.
For two years, Svoray collected survivor testimony and researched the site. He then teamed up with Mazer to form Historical Media Associates, and with private financial backing from America 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 in 1943 had been a gently sloping stretch of grass, still had stories to tell. In the spring of 1943, around 15,000 Jews from the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto arrived in the camp on the outskirts of the eastern Polish city of Lublin. The camp administration couldn't process the sudden influx, so they were dumped in the fenced-in field to await "selection" — separation of those to be immediately killed from those to be starved, beaten and worked to death.
Family members and friends talked and hugged during their brief respite.
"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 in a telephone interview from his home in Caesaria, Israel.
And so they dug, "with their fingers or with a spoon or something else," Svoray said.
The team of amateur archaeologists, led by an Israeli, 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 over 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 more generally the Holocaust, during which some 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."