From the depths of Poland’s soil, Nazi victims reclaimed

Holocaust-memorializing organization finds a mass grave of 2,000 Jews, as it hurries to discover unmarked remains and repurposed gravestones before last eyewitnesses to crimes perish

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

An abandoned Jewish cemetery in the city of Tarnow, Poland, on April 29, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
An abandoned Jewish cemetery in the city of Tarnow, Poland, on April 29, 2014. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

As Jonny Daniels was paying his respects in his Polish ancestors’ Jewish cemetery three months ago, he was privy to a most gruesome sight.

Standing side by side with Poland’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Marek Sawicki in Dobrzyn nad Wisla, a small town on the Vistula River in central Poland, Daniels suddenly saw a bone, and then a ball and socket joint.

Daniels, the head of From the Depths, an organization dedicated to memorializing victims of the Holocaust, recalls exclaiming out loud, “I think that’s a human bone!”

Startled, unsure what to do, he called Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who advised Daniels to collect the remains for reburial in Warsaw. He began picking up the scattered bones and soon found a jaw bone and other human remains.

“There’s nothing more horrific than out of nowhere picking up teeth. It could literally have been my great-grandfather,” says London-born Daniels, who reburied the gathered remains that same day in a Warsaw Jewish cemetery.

The ghastly state of Poland’s decrepit Jewish graveyards is nothing new. But From the Depths, founded a year ago with a board including soccer coach Avram Grant, politician Dalia Itzik and Yad Vashem’s Shevach Weiss, with its new Matzeva Project has gained surprising results.

Jewish remains taken for reburial in Warsaw by head of From the Depths Jonny Daniels. (courtesy)
Jewish remains taken for reburial in Warsaw by head of From the Depths Jonny Daniels (left). (courtesy)

The recent initiative to reclaim Jewish gravestones which were repurposed for other use during the Nazi regime and ensuing Communist rule in Poland was successfully instituted in Warsaw, which this week announced it will return and preserve 1,000 tombstones.

Elsewhere in Poland, the project has led From the Depths to small towns hiding big crimes.

Sunday, August 17, in Wizajny, a village in northeastern Poland close to the Lithuanian border, a mass grave of some 2,000 Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust was discovered based on eyewitness testimony taken by one of From the Depths’ cadre of young Polish volunteers.

Using borrowed ground-penetrating radar equipment and a rough sketch taken from the elderly witness, the team was able to pinpoint the abandoned grave.

Daniels says his volunteers were in tears as they retold the witness’s testimony. The 2,000 Jews were lined up in front of a pit they had dug and shot in the back by the Nazis. One large, strong man, after being shot, didn’t immediately fall and instead looked the murderers in the eyes and said to them, “God will judge you.”

The townspeople told the Polish volunteers that blood seeped out of the hill for months afterwards.

For Daniels, his organization’s work is a race against time. As the elderly survivors and witnesses to Nazi horrors die, any hope of finding and marking graves perishes with them.

Volleyball field in Wizajny where gravemarkers were moved, but Jewish remains left underground. (courtesy From the Depths)
Volleyball field in Wizajny where gravemarkers were moved, but Jewish remains were left underground. (courtesy From the Depths)

On such sites as a new volleyball field, a garbage heap, a factory or a planned playground, Daniels hopes to restore gravestones — and respect — to locations throughout Poland. At the same time he is working to find and mark the graves of Nazi victims found in rural farmers’ backyards.

He tells the story of the Kowalski family, poor Polish farmers who courageously took in two Jewish girls and hid them in a bunker in their basement. Informed on by their neighbors, the Nazis came, rounded up the girls and the whole family aside from one absent son, and burnt them alive in their barn.

Daniels says he was the first Jew to return to that house, which is unchanged since the Holocaust. He was shown the bunker, left in the same condition as when the girls hid.

In the nearby cornfield is a patch where nothing will grow. This is where the burnt barn stood. Today From the Depths has erected a marker over the mass grave of their charred remains.

But sometimes it is less clear where the remains lie. Daniels tells of a father and son who were discovered at a farmer’s house. To give his son chance of escape, the father ran towards the Nazis while his son fled in the other direction. An eyewitness told From the Depths that he’d seen the father fall somewhere near a pear tree.

Using the ground-penetrating radar technology, the skeleton was found and another unmarked grave given a name.

“Whether it’s one person or thousands, we’re trying to deal with it,” said Daniels.

Since ground-penetrating radar equipment costs around $250,000 per device, the organization borrows the gear from various organizations, including archaeology departments at universities. It is also from these faculties that most of its volunteers arrive.

Head of From the Depths Jonny Daniels descends to the Kowalski family bunker where two Jewish girls were hidden during WWII before Nazi discovery. (courtesy)
Head of From the Depths Jonny Daniels descends to the Kowalski family bunker where two Jewish girls were hidden during WWII before Nazi discovery. (courtesy)

Provided with food, lodging and travel stipends, young students spread out in rural Poland and investigate what happened to the dead from the over 1,000 Jewish shtetls that once dotted the landscape.

The database from the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute gives the students an indication of a geographical area to search. When they arrive, the students’ first stop is always the local liquor store, both a gathering place and town depot of sorts in rural Poland.

Their next stop is the village gossip, someone who is known to speak freely and be in the know. Next, says Daniels, it’s wise to turn to the local junk dealer, who often has “kiddush cups or even a Torah scroll knocking around.”

In a Polish small town, says Daniels, residents will often tell the volunteers quietly who among their neighbors is likely to have grave markers. He recounts one case in which they were told, “We don’t have any gravestones, but I think the man in No. 7 does.”

When the team arrived at No. 7, the resident denied having any markers, but said “by the way” that he had a mass grave in the backyard. Twelve Jewish forced laborers were shot in front of a pit they had dug after the Nazis didn’t have any more use for them, said the resident.

The non-Jewish Polish student volunteers are the face of the organization in rural Poland and, unlike Daniels, have borne the brunt of latent anti-Semitism. Daniels tells of one student who was asked by her friends, “Why are you hanging around with those Jews?” He says one member of her friend group somewhat jokingly broke a beer bottle and said, “Let’s go get those Jews.”

However, the organization has begun partnership projects with several Polish universities and he is hopeful for more. In addition to the undergraduates, it is working with three graduate students who are writing their dissertations on the reclamation of the gravestones.

The potential for unearthing grave markers and mass graves is endless, says Daniels.

“The issue of mass graves can be solved. We can find almost all of them with experts and money to pay for them. But it will take time and work,” he says.

He is optimistic that with proper funding, From the Depths will be able to find them one by one, and emphasizes that the organization’s work is pressing with the approach of the long Polish winter creating impossible work conditions, and eyewitnesses’ ever-frail health.

“Especially in Poland, Belorussia, Ukraine, you throw a stone and you hit a site of Jewish interest. It’s more a matter of where to begin,” he says.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed