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In search of scrolls at Auschwitz

LOS ANGELES, June 9 (JTA) — “On that day, I told Zelinger to prepare two large cases and to coat them in cement and tar. I ordered him to collect all the Torah scrolls and silver religious objects — with the exception of two scrolls for praying — and bury them in a certain place in the ground.” — Eliezer Shenker, “The Book of Oshpitzin,” Yiddish for Auschwitz. Shenker didn’t want to bury the Great Synagogue’s religious objects, he writes in his 1977 account of his Polish town before the Holocaust, but what choice did he have? “From that moment, the Jews of the town saw me as head of the community,” he writes. It was 1939, and the Nazis already had began their rampages, cutting off men’s beards and sidecurls, and a town delegation, including the aforementioned Zelinger, promised Shenker their help. So he couldn’t refuse. What was buried in those two containers? Could it have survived 65 years, the decimation of the town, the deportation of 12,000 Jews, the burning of dozens of synagogues? This week, two Israelis may find out. On May 31, filmmaker Yahaly Gat will document Yariv Nornberg’s one-month excavation for the buried artifacts at Auschwitz, where Nornberg believes the crates were buried. They sat for an interview last month in Tel Aviv as they made final preparations for this month’s excavation effort. For Nornberg, an energetic and enthusiastic Swiss-born Israeli, the excavation has been six years in the making. Nornberg was just a 23-year-old Israel Defense Forces officer in 1988 when he hurried into his hometown supermarket to buy an Israeli flag. He was going to Poland on the March of the Living program with his grandparents and he wanted a symbol of his country. But the elderly shopkeeper, whom Nornberg had known for years, was all out, Nornberg recounts. The shopkeeper, Yeshayahu Yarod, said, “No, come back a few days later.” Nornberg said he couldn’t. “I’m going to Poland,” he said. Yarod got very emotional and asked if he was going to Auschwitz. “I was born in Auschwitz,” the shopkeeper told the soldier. “I was born in Auschwitz,” he kept saying. Nornberg was very confused, because he’d always assumed the man was an old-time pioneer, a soldier in all of Israel’s wars. But he realized that the man standing before him must have been born before the war. Then Yarod “told me that in a small town where he lived, on the eve of war, he was the witness to the gabbai burying the Torahs. He went to draw a map.” The old man, who was about the soldier’s age when he’d witnessed the burial, had kept it a secret throughout the war — when his family was deported, during stints at death camps and through immigration to Israel in 1950. The grocer never told, because he promised the gabbai, the synagogue caretaker, that he wouldn’t. But the secret was too great, and the sight of a soldier in uniform about to go to Auschwitz seemed to trigger the outpouring of the whole tale. The young man made a promise to the elder one that he would try to unearth the artifacts. “I feel that I have a moral obligation for Mr. Yarod, and a moral obligation for the Jewish heritage,” Nornberg said. “It’s not just Torah scrolls; for 700 years it was a typical Jewish town in Eastern Europe, and now it’s the place that all the world knows as hell. It’s the synonym of hell,” he said. What will they find there? When Nornberg made a promise to the survivor, he did not know it would take six years to get the requisite permission, support and funding. But along the way, he found other witnesses and confirmation of the story, including the “Book of Oshpitzim.” He also found survivors of the town, making this more the story of the town itself than a story of the buried treasure. That’s what drew Gat to the project. “Telling the story is the important thing,” Gat said. “Uncovering what happened to this community — we are documenting all the life that has gone by, next to the biggest graveyard of the Jewish people.” If they don’t find anything, Gat said, “I think it will be sad for everyone,” but “I think for the film it doesn’t matter. Life went on there and still goes on there.” But it’s a different story for Nornberg, who’s had some of his idealism and enthusiasm knocked out of him these last years as he tried to fulfill a promise. “I would be very disappointed,” Nornberg said, shaking his head, not willing to believe that with the old man’s maps, the witnesses, the money and the time he’s put in, his treasure wouldn’t be there. Nornberg likes to talk about “closing the circle,” finding resolution, which is why he wanted to go to Auschwitz in 1988 and why he so desperately wants to find the artifacts now. It’s also why he envisioned that the documentary would end with him delivering the buried Torahs to Yarod back in Ramat Hasharon. But the old man who set the story in motion died two months ago.