Since 1947 the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum in Poland has been working to highlight the atrocities of the Holocaust. Standing on the site of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, the museum displays thousands of objects stolen from Jews. One of these items, a mug, has recently been found to carry a secret – more than 70 years after it was first exhibited by the museum.
The Auschwitz concentration camp was actually a chain of sites run by the Nazis throughout World War Two. The first element to be created was Auschwitz I, which initially housed Polish prisoners from 1940. Displayed on the gates of this camp was the phrase, “Arbeit macht frei,” which translates as, “Work sets you free.”
By 1941 the Nazis had escalated their anti-Semitic atrocities. In October of that year work began on a second camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, to hold the growing number of prisoners being brought to the facility. And it was around this point that the Nazis began to effect the Final Solution.
The Final Solution was the Nazi agenda to wipe out the world’s Jewish population. It was developed over the course of the first two years of World War Two, eventually morphing into the purposeful policy of exterminating every Jewish person possible. And it resulted in the murder of roughly two-thirds of Europe’s Jews.
Debate continues to this day as to what led the Nazis to pursue the Final Solution. It is broadly agreed, however, that a number of factors were at play, and that the decision wasn’t taken suddenly. Indeed, early on in the war the Nazis had intended to deport the Jews to other parts of the world, rather than to murder them outright.
By 1941 the first wave of mass killings had begun, with Einsatzgruppen death squads shooting civilians across Eastern Europe. And following this initial surge of murders, a more systematic approach was taken. During the Final Solution’s second stage, the Nazis transported their victims to specially constructed extermination camps.
With the Nazis now aiming to totally annihilate the Jews, Auschwitz II-Birkenau took on a new purpose as an extermination camp. In 1942 a gas chamber was installed at the site. And from here, several other new developments increased the camp’s capacity to murder its inmates.
In 1943 there was a vast escalation in killings at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. By the summer of that year, a total of four crematoriums were operating as gas chambers. And it was within these enclosures that the majority of victims at Auschwitz were murdered.
Due to measures taken by the Nazi government to encourage industry, a chemicals firm called IG Farben selected a location near Auschwitz to build a rubber manufacturing plant. Work on this plant started in 1941 and by 1942 it was housing inmates. At the time Auschwitz III, as the site came to be known, was the only such camp to be privately funded.
In addition to the three main camps at Auschwitz, a large number of smaller camps were operating. Indeed, there were in excess of 40 such facilities in the area, with a majority of these serving corporations. Industrial activities at these camps included chemical and arms manufacturing, as well as coal mining.
Approximately 1.3 million people were condemned to Auschwitz. Of these, around 1.1 million perished, most of whom were Jewish. Indeed, conditions were so inhumane at Auschwitz that even those who weren’t gassed often died of a variety other causes.
Gassing took place at Auschwitz until 1944. By November of that year, these activities were halted by the German high command, as Soviet troops began to drive across Poland. Now, the Nazis made an effort to destroy evidence of their murderous activities.
And so the crematoria at Auschwitz were demolished. Documents alluding to the activities within the camp were also destroyed. In addition, many buildings were burnt down and there was an attempt to remove evidence of mass graves.
In January 1945 Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, commanded that the concentration camps be emptied. The heads of the facilities were told to ensure that no living prisoner came into contact with Allied troops. And so, on January 17 a large number of inmates of Auschwitz were sent on a “death march.”
Close to 60,000 prisoners were forced to trudge in the direction of a Polish town called Wodzisław Śląski. The conditions were treacherous, and anyone who was unable to keep up was shot dead. It is thought that around 25 percent of the prisoners were executed during this death march.
A small number of prisoners had remained at Auschwitz, however, and on 27 January, 1945, the camp was liberated by the Red Army. Around 7,500 inmates were still in the camp, along with more than 600 dead bodies. The Soviets also discovered well over 100,000 articles of clothing.
The Soviets subsequently turned Auschwitz I into a German prisoner of war camp in June 1945. It continued to serve this purpose for two years. Then, the Soviet Union turned control of the camp over to Poland.
In July 1947 the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum was established on the site by the Polish government. Although human remains continued to be dug up there for more than ten years, exhibitions began to be put on at the facility during this time.
In 1959 it was decided that the countries who had lost citizens to Auschwitz would be allowed to host their own displays there. The resulting exhibitions have stood on the site from 1960. They continue to this day, in fact, and are subject to occasional revisions.
There are more than 150 intact buildings at the Auschwitz site, as well as the remnants of around 300 more. The museum seeks to maintain the integrity of these structures, as well as that of fencing and other significant indicators of what life was like within the camp. In this vein, the museum also aims to preserve thousands of artifacts.
There are around 110,000 shoes at the museum at Auschwitz, as well as a huge number of eyeglasses. It also houses letters written by inmates of the camp, as well as artworks created in the most perilous of circumstances. And there are thousands of kitchen items such as mugs, cups, pots and pans.
Maintaining the Auschwitz site itself, as well as these smaller everyday items, is vital to preserving the memory of what life was like on the camps. Bearing this in mind, the site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1979. To this day, millions visit Auschwitz to try to get a sense of what life was like for its inmates.
The conditions at Auschwitz were unthinkably inhumane. Prisoners slept in overcrowded quarters, which during the Polish winter would become bitterly cold. Sanitation was poor at the camp, and as a result many prisoners contracted diseases. And on top of these physical indignities, inmates were also stripped of all possessions.
According to the head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum, Dr. Piotr Cywiński, the Germans purposely tricked incoming inmates into bringing their belongings. “They allowed the victims [to] take with them [a] little luggage,” he told the museum’s website. “In this way, the Germans were confident that in the luggage… they would find the last valuables of the deported families.”
Then, of course, when the prisoners arrived by train to Auschwitz, they were forced to abandon their possessions. The majority were executed straight away, but those selected for entry to the camp were forced to surrender their clothes and have their hair shaved off. Then, they were given uncomfortable wooden shoes and stripy pajamas and sent to trudge into the camp.
Meanwhile, the abandoned items were picked up by fellow inmates referred to as the Kanada Kommando. The objects were taken to a warehouse known as Kanada, where they would be sorted before being sent to Germany. The warehouse was so-called because Canada had been considered a prosperous place in the eyes of Polish Jews prior the war.
Many of the people sent to Auschwitz anticipated that their belongings would be confiscated upon their arrival at the camp, however. As a result, some of them sought to conceal their most valued items within larger objects. And this, it seems, is what occurred in the case of the mug displayed at the Auschwitz Museum.
In 2016 it was reported that a mug had been discovered to conceal a necklace and a golden ring. When the item was first exhibited, it had been lined with a false bottom that hid the jewels. As the decades passed, however, this bottom disintegrated.
“It turned out that one of the mugs has a double bottom,” Hanna Kubik, who works at the Auschwitz museum, told the BBC in May 2016. “It was very well hidden. However, due to the passage of time, the materials underwent gradual degradation, and the second bottom separated from the mug.”
After they were found, the jewels were subject to close examination. And experts revealed that both items carried traces of gold. It’s thought that they were created somewhere in Poland sometime around 1930.
Though it took a particularly long time, the fact that these items were discovered hidden in the mug isn’t altogether surprising. Indeed, according to many survivors of the Holocaust, such concealment was actually a normal practice. And Dr. Cywiński suggests that this demonstrates that some victims were aware, to a degree at least, of what awaited them upon arrival at the camps.
“The hiding of valuable items… proves, on the one hand, [an] awareness of the victims as to the [thieving] nature of the deportation,” Dr. Cywiński stated. “But on the other hand, it shows that the Jewish families constantly had a ray of hope that these items will be required for their existence.”
Though the jewels hidden within the mug were an interesting find, they were far from the only recent discoveries at Auschwitz. Indeed, in June 2016 it was reported that artifacts had been uncovered in cardboard boxes that had previously been concealed from sight. And the number of objects found lay somewhere in the region of 16,000.
The items were uncovered after archaeological investigations took place at the site of one of the camp’s crematoria. Among the finds were jewels, keys and a watch. As the museum reported after the find, the objects would likely have been the final possessions of people condemned to executions within the gas chambers.
“I had considered the discovery of such a huge collection… after nearly half a century as unlikely as finding the treasure of the lost Galleon,” Dr. Cywiński said after the find. “This is an unexpected, totally unique day in the… history of our museum.”
All the items held at the Auschwitz museum are meticulously recorded. This is important, as they offer evidence of specific people who were once held captive in the camp. Even so, the rightful owners of the objects generally remain unknown, as there are few clues as to their identities.
In the case of the jewels discovered in the mug, it’s unlikely that the owner will ever be identified. And so today, the ring and necklace remain on display at the Auschwitz Museum. Indeed, they’re still held within the mug, as a reflection of the circumstances in which they were placed there.
The Auschwitz Museum recognizes the importance of authenticity in demonstrating the horrors of the Holocaust. And as one survivor, Henry Meyer, once suggested, it’s extremely important not to forget this genocide. “If we do not talk about it, if we do not remember, then the world will never know,” Meyer once said, as quoted by holocaustandhumanity.org.
A 2017 report from the Auschwitz Museum reflected Meyer’s sentiments. Referencing a seeming return of anti-Semitic sentiments, the report urged that “the values that stand in counterpoint to the tragic experience of the Auschwitz victims – that is, peace, freedom, fundamental human rights, democracy, reciprocity and respect – remain legible and recognized as development signposts for our societies.”
Throughout 2017 around 2.1 million people visited Auschwitz. This was a slight increase on 2016, and a significant rise compared to the earlier years of the 2000s. Hopefully, this is an encouraging sign that society today, in spite of its challenges, recognizes the need to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust.