An astonishing story of human perseverance and courage dating back to the dark days of the Holocaust, was restored as a testament to the crimes committed by the Nazi regime.
In 1944, Marcel Nadjari; a Greek Jew who was forced to remove bodies from the Auschwitz gas chambers, buried a letter in a forest near the camp. The text was rediscovered in 1980, but it was virtually unreadable.
Using a new imaging technique, scientists have finally reconstructed the letter, and it’s providing harrowing new details of the Holocaust—and what it was like to work as a forced laborer in a Nazi extermination camp.
A restoration effort; headed by Russian-born historian Pavel Polian, has brought the handwritten text of a document buried by the Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner back to life.
The letter, enclosed in a thermos and wrapped in a leather binding, was buried by Nadjari in November 1944 just outside the extermination camp, where it lay buried for 36 years.
It was accidentally unearthed by a student in 1980, but most of the text was unreadable. The details of the restoration have just been published in German by the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ).
Nadjari, a Jew from Thessaloniki, had the misfortune of working as a member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando. These forced laborers had to perform the unthinkable, removing the bodies from the gas chambers, extracting teeth, shaving off their hair -which was processed into yarn-, delivering the bodies to the crematorium, and disposing the ashes into rivers.
Members of the Sonderkommando were frequently killed and replaced with new arrivals; out of the estimated 2,200 Jews assigned for this task, only a few hundred managed to survive the war.
“We all suffer things here that the human mind can not imagine,” Nadjari wrote in the letter. “Underneath a garden, there are two endless basement rooms: one is meant for undressing, the other is a death chamber. People enter naked and when it is filled with about 3,000 people, it is closed and they are gassed.”
The Greek inmate described how prisoners were packed “like sardines” as the Germans used whips to move people closer together before they sealed the doors and let in the gas.
“After half an hour, we would open the doors, and our work began,” Nadjari wrote. The prisoners’ job: delivering the corpses to the crematory ovens, where “a human being ends up as about 640 grams of ashes.”
Nadjari’s message is one of nine separate documents found buried at Auschwitz. The texts, written by a total of five members of the concentration camp’s “Sonderkommando” unit, “are the most central documents of the Holocaust,” according to Polian.
A student doing excavation work in 1980 in the forest near the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s crematory III unearthed the notes wrapped in the thermos.
Born in 1917, Marcel Nadjari was a Greek merchant from Thessaloniki. He was deported to Auschwitz in April 1944, and assigned a job with the “Sonderkommando.”
“If you read about the things we did, you’ll say, how could anyone do that, burn their fellow Jews?” he wrote. “That’s what I said at first, too, and thought many times.”
After the war, Nadjari returned to Greece. In 1951, he and his wife and son emigrated to the US, where he worked as a tailor. He died in New York in 1971, aged 54.
While he actually wrote his memoirs back in Greece, it seems the Auschwitz survivor never told anyone about the notes he buried deep in the soil near the crematory, where more than once, he was so devastated that he thought of joining the people in the gas chambers – but the prospect of revenge always held him back.
He is the only one of the five “Sonderkommando” authors who wrote openly about revenge, said Polian, arguing that sets Nadjari’s notes apart from the others.
“I am not sad that I will die,” Nadjari wrote, “but I am sad that I won’t be able to take revenge like I would like to.”
Now, 73 years later, his “revenge” will, in a sense, materialize: The German people and the whole world will know his harrowing tale.