MIEDZNA, Poland — In a small cemetery in the Polish village of Kszonzenice in 2004, fledgling guide and former secret service agent Yaki Gantz’s two worlds collided when he found a mass grave with 45 anonymous numbers written on a gravestone.
After a short investigation he discovered that following a nearby mass murder in 1945, the local priest had gathered the 45 unidentified bodies and copied the numbers he found on their arms, which were carved on the gravestone.
Gantz turned to Yad Vashem and in a joint effort they were able to identity 19 of the Jewish victims buried in the mass grave.
Since then, Gantz has taken on the mission of uncovering more mass graves of Jews, mostly those who did not survive the death marches in the final days of the Holocaust, and were buried by local citizens in Christian cemeteries.
After more than a hundred trips to Poland, Gantz admits each journey becomes more difficult for him.
“In every journey you discover more and more new details and the question of how it all happened only intensifies,” he says.
Gantz, 64, was born in Rehovot, Israel. Most of his adult life was spent working for the Israeli secret service, but shortly after his retirement, he decided to become a certified travel guide.
Gantz specializes in groups travelling to Poland, initially youth groups, but currently retirees. Pensioners from the IDF and the Mossad, employees of several banks and other companies were part of recent groups Gantz has guided.
Most of these groups are aiding Gantz on his mission to recognize these unidentified Jews and properly memorialize their final resting places.
And beginning with his initial 2004 discovery, the cooperation of the local Polish authorities has eased the bureaucratic hurdles he would otherwise face.
“After short negotiations with the local authorities I convinced them to let me put a new gravestone with the names of the Jewish victims. I told my friends from the Shabak [Shin Bet domestic Israeli intelligence service] about it and they agreed to help me to fund the project,” says Gantz.
“In May 2008, during one of the trips I guided, a group of Shabak agents stood in the middle of the Catholic cemetery and unveiled a monument with a Star of David and the names of the Jewish victims which I discovered with the help of Naama Galil from the Yad Vashem Institute,” says Gantz.
Not long after, Gantz found a new mass grave in the cemetery of the small town of Swierklany Dolne, where he found a gravestone with 10 numbers and a big cross.
When he started to explore with Yad Vashem who the victims behind those numbers were, he was stunned. One of the victims was a Catholic Pole while the nine others were Jews.
Gantz says that he managed to locate some of the victims’ relatives, and when he informed them of the grave, many of them were shocked: For 70 years they had believed their family members were murdered and burned in the death camps.
For 70 years relatives had believed their family members were murdered and burned in the death camps
“One of the victims in the grave was Helena Pachifichi, who came from a very famous Italian-Jewish family who are currently leaders of the Jewish community in Rome. She was captured in Florence during World War II and transferred to Auschwitz. In 1945 she was forced to go on a death march, which she did not survive. Another victim was Roza Koblinski, who has relatives in Israel who were also shocked to hear that she was not murdered at Auschwitz,” says Gantz.
For over 60 years a cross stood on the grave, and no one suspected nine Jewish women were buried there. A group from the Israeli airports authority agreed to sponsor a new gravestone.
The next ceremony took place in June 2011 in the city of Mszana. Gantz, with a delegation of Mossad retirees, placed a new gravestone on a mass grave of Jews who had died near the city during a death march. The mayor of the city was very supportive and published a brochure in three languages – Polish, Hebrew and English — telling the story of the mass grave and the new gravestone.
A year later, Gantz embarked upon another such challenge.
“We didn’t have numbers, but we had a letter sent by a German officer to Auschwitz with names of the victims who were buried in a mass grave in the small city Brzeszcze. Together with a colleague, Gil Faran, we started to research. We gathered all the information on the victims and, with the sponsorship of Bezeq, we erected a monument with all the details of the victims which are buried there,” says Gantz.
This past July, another ceremony was sponsored by the Bezeq phone company in the village of Miedzna. Gantz and Faran had found documents written by German officers in the Auschwitz archives detailing the 42 victims who were buried in the Catholic cemetery there — 29 women, the rest children.
Gantz, the local mayor, rabbi and priest, local citizens, and Eran Guron, executive vice president of Bezeq, attended the ceremony and unveiled the monument, depicting a Star of David and a cross side-by-side.
Gantz promises he will not cease his search for mass graves. It is his way of thanking the Polish citizens who buried the victims of the death marches regardless of their religion, he says.
“It is amazing to see how many people helped the Jews then, and how many people want to help me now,” says Gantz.