Six decades on, death camp survivors retrieve precious items buried to defy the Nazis

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The Independent Online

As they sat in a sloping field at the Majdanek death camp in spring 1943, waiting to be selected for work or extermination, the Polish Jews - survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising - took part in one final act of defiance.

Using their bare hands, they dug deep into the soil and buried their most precious possessions: watches, wedding rings, gold coins, items of sentimental value. "We knew it was the end of the line," said Adam Frydman, who was transported to Majdanek at the age of 20 with his father and brother. "We could see the chimney burning, and we could smell the burning flesh. We thought, 'If we're going to die, why should we give our things to the Germans?'"

An estimated 170,000 people died at Majdanek: Russian prisoners of war and Polish dissidents as well as Jews. For 62 years the empty field at the camp, on the outskirts of Lublin, lay undisturbed. Only those who survived the horrors of Majdanek knew about the memories concealed beneath the earth.

Last month Mr Frydman returned to Poland from Melbourne, where he has lived since the end of the war. He stood in the field and looked around carefully, orienting himself. Then he pointed. The team of Israeli archaeologists began to dig. They found a semi-precious stone. One by one, the objects hidden by men and women who knew they were about to die yielded themselves up.

The dig was organised by Yaron Svoray, an Israeli journalist who learnt about the buried treasures while interviewing Holocaust survivors in Melbourne. Mr Svoray teamed up with a New York film producer, Matt Mazer, and took four former Majdanek residents back to the camp.

Mr Mazer believes that the items they uncovered - relics from the blackest chapter in human history - provide fresh insight into the human spirit. The actions of the deportees were "a story of redemption", he said. "It was an act of defiance, an act of hope, a gesture towards the future.

"They had survived the uprising. They knew about resistance and desperation. They certainly knew what the Nazi regime intended for them personally. Their dignity had been stolen from them, so had their families and their rights. For more than three-quarters of them, the outcome was to be death, delivered without mercy.

"They hid the last things they had, so that they might be remembered, and our tremendous good fortune was to find those objects and bring them out of darkness and death, into sunshine and life."

Among the four Australian survivors was Tessa Jacobs, 82, who buried a matchbox full of diamonds that a jeweller thrust into her pocket as they left Warsaw. The archaeologists did not find the diamonds. But by the end of a three-day dig, they had unearthed more than 50 items, including watches, wedding rings, a gold bracelet, a child's ring, American Eagle gold coins, gold-framed reading glasses and a miniature Catholic medallion - all found four to 15 inches beneath the surface. The valuables have been lodged with the state museum at Majdanek, which cooperated on the project. The field will be excavated more widely next spring.

Mr Frydman, 82, was among 15,000 Jews transported from Warsaw in 1943 after the uprising was put down. The camp could not cope with the large influx, so they were dumped in the field for hours, sometimes days, to await selection.

He spent seven weeks at Majdanek and believes he survived only because, thanks to his technical training, he was sent elsewhere to work in a munitions factory. The camp, he said, was "a horror place" where few people lived longer than three months. Of 12 family members sent there, only he and his sister survived.

"We were 300 to 350 people to one barracks, with very little food - one large spoon of soup a day, plus 200g of bread and a cup of black ersatz coffee, just enough to keep you alive," he said. "We worked from 6am till 6pm, but it was work with no purpose. We carried stones on a little truck, then carried them back. All the time you were afraid for your life." Standing in the field last month, Mr Frydman could recall precisely where his family had sat. "I'm an older man, but my memory is still vivid," he said.

For the film-makers, who used a British crew and production manager, the project was about re-creating a crime scene, complete with witnesses, testimony and evidence. For the four Holocaust survivors, it was about telling a story. "People like us will be gone soon," said Mr Frydman. "We don't have much time left."