Secret hoard hidden by Auschwitz prisoners found in chimney during renovation work
A secret stash of knives, forks, scissors, tools, pieces of leather and parts of shoes hidden by prisoners under a chimney has been found at Auschwitz.
The unusual hoard was discovered on April 21 in the former main camp Auschwitz I during work in block 17, which was used to house prisoners who worked outside the camp.
News of the find was reported a few days ago by Austria's National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, which is funding the renovation work in the block in order to host a new Austrian exhibition that will open next year.
As part of the renovation work, which started in September 2019, workers were removing additions made to the building in 1978 in order to restore it to its state during the war.
When the workers stripped away post-war masonry they were astonished to find knives, forks, hooks, scissors, pieces of leather, cobbler's tools and parts of shoes obviously hidden by prisoners of the German-operated camp.
Massed piles of spoons, forks and other personal items that visitors see when they tour the exhibitions have become an icon of the world’s largest recorded mass murder.
However, those objects were confiscated from Jews when they arrived at Auschwitz II Birkenau, after which the majority were murdered in the gas chambers while a small proportion were registered as prisoners.
The items found under the chimney in block 17 are different in that were used and had value for prisoners when they were in the camp.
They would have provided them with a small advantage; an edge that in the camp conditions carefully calibrated by the Germans to extract maximum work for minimum input may have saved or extended lives.
Why the prisoners would hide the items and what exactly they were used for remains uncertain.
However, a press release from the Austrian fund suggested that the objects may have been gathered as an escape kit or served as a kind of black-market currency.
“These utensils, kept out of sight of the SS guards, were perhaps used by shoemakers, or to prepare an escape or simply to be able to eat,” fund secretary general Hannah Lessing said.
The fund’s structural consultant Johannes Hofmeister said that items may have been hidden in the chimney as the block was used to house chimney sweeps as well as other manual workers.
Survivor testimonies show that there were workshops in the basement of the block where, for example, baskets were woven.
The fund commissioned the renovation and restoration works in the block at the former concentration camp in Poland in preparation for an exhibition, which is due to open next year.
The items were likely hidden in the chimney because block 17, one of 22 pre-war brick barrack buildings, was used to house manual workers.
“It's no coincidence that the chimney was used as a hiding place in the building, because chimney sweeps and craftsmen were imprisoned there. The testimonies of the survivors show that there were, for example, workshops where baskets were woven in the basement”, the chief builder from the Austrian foundation said.
The items have been carefully recovered, documented and handed over to the museum's conservation department, which will preserve and analyse them.
Auschwitz I was a concentration camp set up by Germany in May 1940 in a former Polish army barracks to imprison initially Polish political prisoners. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned in the camp, most of them Poles. The camp was equipped with a gas chamber and three crematoria.
By August 1944, it held about 16,000 prisoners, roughly 10,000 Jews, 4,000 Poles, and 3,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups.
Auschwitz II Birkenau was opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942, and served as a concentration camp and at the same time as a death camp.
Around 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. The vast majority were Jews who were murdered in gas chambers.
74,000 Poles died or were murdered in the Auschwitz complex, as well as approximately 21,000 Roma and Sinti and also Soviet POWs and prisoners of other nationalities.