Wednesday 27 January 2021

Israeli Institution Steals Artefacts For International Holocaust Remembrance Day

    Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 showing areas occupied  and position
           of known bunkers (source  Topography of terror)            

There have been a number of cases where Israeli institutions for some reason think themselves above the law and they can steal cultural property when and where it suits them. The examples of the Dead Sea scrolls, various Torah scrolls from Yemen and other countries, the Drohobyć wall paintings form a depressing pattern. Israel has left UNESCO and was never a state party of the 1970 Convention so considers itself above actually working with other states to protect the heritage. They appear to just want to grab what they can. Another example has appeared in the press this week. The news was reported in Israel Hayom under the misleading title "Hidden bunker discovered in Warsaw Ghetto" (article by Hanan Greenwood published on 25th Jan 2021) and it concerns Shem Olam. It begins:
A bunker containing 100-year-old phylacteries hidden from the Nazis in World War II has been discovered in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. In recent years, Polish authorities have begun to demolish buildings inside the Warsaw Ghetto to turn them into residential buildings in a process of urban renewal. Following one building's demolition, construction workers discovered an entrance to a bunker dug in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. One of the Polish construction workers on the site who entered the bunker to clear it out discovered 10 phylacteries that had been hidden behind books and other items. Hearing of the sensational discovery from their local contacts, European emissaries of the Shem Olam Faith and the Holocaust Institute for Education, Documentation, and Research secretly contacted the construction workers. Following lengthy negotiations and a commitment to keep the transaction secret from Polish authorities, the phylacteries were handed over to the emissaries. They recently arrived in Israel, where they were transferred to the institute for disinfection and conservation.

Items found in the bunker unearthed in the ruins of the 
Warsaw Ghetto (Shem Olam Faith and the Holocaust Institute

They were not "transferred", they were smuggled. Polish law clearly states what should happen to finds like this discovered in the course of redevelopment.
According to Shem Olam Director Rabbi Avraham Krieger, "The discovery of 10 phylacteries concentrated in one place testifies to the Jewish lifestyle they maintained in the ghetto. Despite the horrors and the cruel reality in which they lived, they continued to observe the customs and tradition they grew up with. He noted that "the amount of phylacteries points to the underground minyans [prayer quorums of 10 people] they succeeded in holding inside the bunker, underground and under the Nazis' noses. The phylacteries were hidden alongside weapons and hunting tools that served the Warsaw Ghetto rebels, which testifies to their importance in the eyes of the Jews."
Nice story. Is it true? Have not some crafty Polish guys not duped the Israelis with some invented Holocaust backstory? (remember the Youlus 'Save a Torah' scam?). I think this is all fake. As they say in collecting circles: "if it looks almost too good to be true, it probably is". We have an institution that focuses on certain aspects of Jewish life in central Europe, and the group of artefacts described above looks tailor-made just for them. I wonder how much they paid? But I think they were duped. 

The story is that during "urban renewal" an almost intact bunker was discovered ("

in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto"

) and its existence covered up,
that "one of the Polish construction workers on the site who entered the bunker to clear it out discovered 10 phylacteries that had been hidden behind books and other items" and "alongside weapons and hunting tools that served the Warsaw Ghetto rebels". Allegedly it was the "European emissaries of the Shem Olam Faith and the Holocaust Institute for Education, Documentation, and Research" that "secretly contacted the construction workers", no doubt offering them a lot of cash for... well, what? What happened to the books, other items, weapons and hunting tools (sic) allegedly also found here? Something for the Polish authorities to find out. 
Flattened remains of Warsaw ghetto 1944
                                     (Wikipedia, inverted)                       
First of all, the ghetto was self-ruled by the Judenrat, there were German soldiers posted at the gates in the ghetto wall, but German patrols kept out (the story was the area was isolated allegedly as typhus-infested). So any religious practices here were not "going on [defiantly] under the noses of the Nazis".

Secondly, the ghetto in April/May 1943 after the deportations of 1942 occupied a much smaller area than the one created in 1940 (see map above). 

Thirdly, during and after the Ghetto uprising (and even before the 1944 Warsaw Uprising) almost the entire area of the ghetto was completely demolished, and clearance of the rubble was ongoing in 1944 (using prison camp labour). The whole area is an archaeological site. 

Fourthly, almost the entire area was fully rebuilt on a new plan in the 1950s and 1960s in a huge showpiece redevelopment on the innovative new ideas for urban planning instituted in this period by some very significant architects of the period. It still looks very nice. 

So, actually it is not true that "in recent years, Polish authorities have begun to demolish buildings inside the Warsaw Ghetto to turn them into residential buildings in a process of urban renewal". That's just nonsense, as is the notion that until a few years ago the very centre of the modern city of Warsaw was occupied by the "ruins of the Warsaw ghetto". This sounds to me to veil an accusation that the [demonised] Poles "are not looking after Jewish heritage" (thus justifying the theft of these artefacts). The area in the very city centre was renewed sixty years ago and remains in good condition, and already covered in residential buildings. It is an area I am very familiar with, until the lockdown passed through it daily on my way to work, and the Institute of Archaeology is just on its southern edge. About the only new building going on there was the construction of the Polin museum a decade ago (and I refuse to believe that the discovery of an almost intact Jewish bunker during construction there went unnoticed).

Another factor is this sounds awfully like that old trope of "the Bedouin exploring a cave" beloved of archaeology of the region of Israel/Palestine. 

What we are asked to believe is that the phylacteries pictured, just a bit grubby and musty, were buried for over seventy years in damp Warsaw soil and now only need  a bit of "disinfection and conservation". This is explained away by stating this was an open space with other objects preserved under a standing building (the one that was allegedly being demolished). Excerpt there were very few standing buildings in the area of the 1943 ghetto. Virtually none in fact. In 1945, this was a field of rubble, on which the rain and snow fell, and my feeling is these items would have rotted away. The Ringelbaum archive only survived because it was sealed in metal containers. Also weapons were very scarce in the Ghetto uprising, why were they left "hidden" in this abandoned bunker? No mention is made of human remains being discovered. And why - if this bunker could be so easily entered - were they not found by the work parties clearing the ruins in 1944?  

I think somebody's pulling a fast one. The question is, whether it was the Polish (now more likely Ukrainian or Belarussian) laborer working on a building site or not? My feeling (having encountered quite a few of them) is that actually realising the identity of these items and in particular the significance for the potential purchasers of a group of ten items might be stretching it a bit far for most of them. Also, I have a problem imagining the situation, they find stuff, the emissaries get to hear and go through some process to get the money for them, begin protracted negotiations... Keeping a yawning open bunker in the middle of an active building site secret from workmates is rather difficult. My feeling is the workman/workmen would have got rid of the objects as quickly as possible, not hung onto them (we've recently had a lot of highly-publicised arrests for just such a crime - and now it's a five year prison sentence). What happened to the weapons? If they were in as good condition as the paper and cloth we see in the photos, they would be worth quite a bit (and totally illegal in Polish law for anyone to have without the required permits). Has a "hidden bunker" not known to researchers of the ghetto been "discovered", or is this story an invention of a bunch of guys trying to market some old items they found on a fleamarket? 

Personally, I think the buyers should be asking their "European emissaries" (presumably people much better fitted to understanding the significance of this group of objects) a few more searching questions. Names, dates, how they came to "hear of" this find (from whom, and why). Until they get proper answers, I think they should consider asking for their money back.   

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day:
Shem Olam announced it had the phylacteries in an announcement ahead of a conference it is set to hold to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The virtual conference, which will be open to the public, will include panels on the memory of the Holocaust from an international perspective and will be attended by politicians, spiritual leaders, rabbis, and historians from around the world.
.. who, I would say, should devote some of their time asking Shem Olam about their behaviour and smuggling activities, and how they see the way forward. Or they could just boycot the meeting in protest.


No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.