BRZEZINKA, Poland (AFP) — When the war ended, returning, destitute residents had nothing, so they scavenged what they could from the camp that the Nazis had built where their village once stood.
In doing so, tens of thousands of items from Auschwitz-Birkenau — from a roller used by prisoners to build roads, to plates from a SS dining hall — escaped destruction, and now, more than 70 years later a group of Poles dedicated to preserving history, are rescuing these artifacts from oblivion.
Several members of the group, called the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau (FPMP), are sifting through a small wooden cabin located near the barbed wire fence surrounding the former Nazi German death camp.
“This metal container must have been a washbasin for the camp’s inmates,” explains 43-year-old Dag Kopijasz, a diving instructor who devotes himself to local history in his free time.
“There’s also a stool, hangers, an ammunition box and dishes.”
There are also dishes embossed with two lightening bolts, the insignia of the SS, the notorious armed wing of the Nazi party.
“These here are plates from a set of dishes from the SS dining hall,” he says.
“The SS dining hall wasn’t far from here, and behind us, 200 meters (650 feet) away, there was the Birkenau camp.”
One million European Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland in 1940 and which became Europe’s biggest death camp.
More than 100,000 others including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also died there.
In order to build the camp, the Nazis cleared all the residents out of the village of Birkenau and razed most of its houses.
“When the previous residents returned after the war, they had absolutely nothing so they took items they found at the site,” Kopijasz adds.
Three years ago, Kopijasz set up the Foundation of Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose goal is to collect items related to the death camp and save them from oblivion.
“No one was interested even though there are still tons of objects at homes in the region… Often people don’t know what to do with them,” he says.
Such was the case with 55-year-old Zbigniew Gierlicki, who agreed to hand over the cabin to the foundation after his parents died.
“From what I was told, it seems my grandfather built it out of planks from a dismantled camp barracks. There was a ton of stuff — German uniforms, soap, army stretchers — but it’s all lost now,” he told AFP.
“My grandparents took it all from the camp, like everyone else here. At the time we had nothing, not even building material,” Gierlicki says.
“But my grandmother never used these plates. Ever.”
Inside the hut, the number C652 can be seen through the peeling white paint, suggesting the planks were scavenged from what was once the camp’s clinic, Kopijasz says.
Andrzej Kacorzyk, a historian and deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, is not surprised that so many objects are still being found.
“You mustn’t forget that some 100,000 men — inmates, the SS — lived here, so there was an enormous amount of all sorts of goods, which still resurface today,” he told AFP.
Efforts to preserve the site and objects found there began two years after the end of the war when Poland set up the museum in the southern city of Oswiecim.
“We’re delighted that history buffs also manage to find items,” Kacorzyk adds. “What’s most important is for these items to be preserved.”
Once empty, the cabin will be dismantled, plank-by-plank, and taken to a warehouse belonging to the foundation, which has already dismantled 15 others and filled up three small exhibition halls with the objects found.
At the foundation’s headquarters in the nearby village of Budy-Brzeszcze, visitors can see a wide range of artifacts.
Among the items on display is a large concrete roller used by inmates to pave roads which had been used for years by a nearby football club to level its pitch.
There is also a porcelain Mickey Mouse figurine that once belonged to a child killed at the camp, as well as a tiny wooden clog charm which was hidden between bricks in an attic where prisoners once slept.
“We don’t know who made it or to whom it was given,” says Kopijasz.
“We’ll probably never know.”