For 70 Years, A Mug In Auschwitz Held A Secret Treasure | KUOW News and Information

For 70 Years, A Mug In Auschwitz Held A Secret Treasure

May 20, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 4:55 pm

From the outside, it looked like any of the other mugs in the Auschwitz museum.

But on the inside, this one had a secret — faithfully kept for seven decades.

A false bottom concealed a gold necklace and a gold ring inlaid with stones.

The enameled mug was one of more than 12,000 pieces of kitchenware that Nazis stole from people sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland.

"The Germans incessantly lied to the Jews deported for extermination," Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, said in a statement. "They were told about resettlement, work and life in a different location."

But the Nazis would allow Jews to take only a small amount of luggage. It was a calculated move: If you were going to start a new life, and could only take a small bag, you'd fill it with your most precious possessions.

So when a victim arrived at Auschwitz, the Germans could be confident they'd be able to loot their luggage and find valuables.

Victims often tried to hide costly possessions from sight.

On one hand, Cywinski says, that's proof that Jewish families were well aware that their belongings would be looted during their deportation.

But it's also a heartbreaking reminder of how much people didn't know about the fate they faced at Auschwitz.

Every effort to hide valuables "shows that the Jewish families constantly had a ray of hope that these items will be required for their existence," Cywinski says.

"Despite the passage of more than 70 years since the liberation of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, there are still cases of accidental discovery of objects hidden by the victims," the museum statement read.

And that's what happened with the mug, which was being examined as part of routine work at the museum when the false bottom was discovered.

Beneath, there was a necklace coiled in a circle and wrapped in canvas, and a ring with some stones remaining in the setting.

"It was very well hidden, however, due to the passage of time, the materials underwent gradual degradation, and the second bottom separated from the mug," Hanna Kubik of the Memorial Collections said in the museum's statement.

The museum says that while every find is "carefully documented," it is often impossible to connect a personal item to the victim who owned it because of a a lack of identifying characteristics.

"The jewellery found in the mug will be stored in the Collections of the Museum in the form reflecting the manner in which it had been hidden by the owner, as a testimony to the fate of the Jews deported to the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp," the museum writes.

More than 1 million prisoners, mostly Jews, died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a story of hidden treasure uncovered after 70 years in the Auschwitz Museum which collects artifacts from the concentration camp used during World War II. Camila Domonoske wrote about this story for npr.org and joins us now. Camila, what was this item that was discovered after 70 years?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: So this was a mug that was a part of the collection of kitchenwares that they have at the Auschwitz Museum. And it was a very ordinary looking enamelled mug.

SHAPIRO: But it had a fake bottom.

DOMONOSKE: It had a fake bottom that no one knew about. So the bottom popped off. After decades and decades, it finally started to rust, and...

SHAPIRO: And underneath...

DOMONOSKE: A beautiful gold ring with stones inlaid and a space in the middle for another stone to possibly go there and a gold necklace that had been coiled up and wrapped in canvas.

SHAPIRO: We can assume that Jews did this to hide valuables. Do we know anything specific about who it might have belonged to?

DOMONOSKE: There is no evidence that they have found so far of a specific owner. And so for now, the plan at the museum is to preserve the mug with the treasures exactly how they had been concealed for seven decades.

SHAPIRO: Does this tell us anything larger about what happened at Auschwitz or how the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust happened?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, it actually does. The director of the Auschwitz Museum was really emphasizing the fact that Jews who were being led to Auschwitz and concentration camps were lied to, right? The Nazis told them we're going to settle you somewhere else. You're going to be starting a new life. We need you to pack, but you can't bring very much. And it was a complete ploy to get them to bring their most valuable items with them to the concentration camp.

And so what the fact that families would hide their valuables like this shows is that there was complete suspicion that this was a ploy to rob them. But there was also a hope that they were going somewhere where having their valuables would be useful.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks a lot.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.