A Greek-Jewish Holocaust survivor’s letter buried in Auschwitz and revealing an astonishing story of human perseverance and courage was restored as a testament to the crimes committed by the Nazi regime.
In 1944, Marcel Nadjari, a Greek Jew who was forced to remove bodies from the Auschwitz gas chambers, buried a letter in a forest near the camp. The text was incredibly rediscovered in 1980, but it was virtually unreadable after years of exposure to the elements.
Using a new imaging technique, scientists reconstructed the letter in 2017; it provides harrowing details of the Holocaust — and what it was like to work as a forced laborer in a Nazi extermination camp.
The amazing restoration effort, headed by Russian-born historian Pavel Polian, has brought the handwritten text of a document buried by the Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner back to life.
Greek-Jewish survivor details horrific conditions in Auschwitz during the Holocaust
The letter, enclosed in a thermos and wrapped in a leather covering, was buried by Nadjari in November 1944 just outside the extermination camp, where it lay undiscovered for 36 years.
It was accidentally unearthed by a student in 1980, but most of the text was unreadable. The details of the restoration have just been published in German by the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ).
Nadjari, a Greek Jew from Thessaloniki, had the misfortune of working as a member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau “Sonderkommando.”
These forced laborers had to perform the unthinkable, removing the bodies from the gas chambers, extracting teeth, and even shaving off their hair (which was processed into yarn), then delivering the bodies to the crematorium, and disposing of the ashes in rivers.
Members of the Sonderkommando were frequently killed and replaced with new arrivals. Out of the estimated 2,200 Jewish prisoners assigned to this task, only a few hundred managed to survive the war.
In 1944, two Sonderkommando units failed in an uprising against the Nazis.
“We all suffer things here that the human mind cannot imagine,” Nadjari wrote in the letter.
“Underneath a garden, there are two endless basement rooms: one is meant for undressing, the other is a death chamber. People enter naked and when it is filled with about 3,000 people, it is closed and they are gassed.”
The Greek inmate described how prisoners were packed “like sardines” as the Germans used whips to move people closer together before they sealed the doors and let in the gas.
“After half an hour, we would open the doors, and our work began,” Nadjari wrote. The prisoners’ job: delivering the corpses to the crematory ovens, where “a human being ends up as about 640 grams of ashes.”
Nadjari’s message is one of nine separate documents found buried at Auschwitz. The texts, written by a total of five members of the concentration camp’s Sonderkommando unit, “are the most central documents of the Holocaust,” according to Polian.
Nadjari returned to Greece, then went to the US after WWII
A student doing excavation work in 1980 in the forest near the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s crematory III unearthed the notes wrapped in the thermos.
Born in 1917, Marcel Nadjari was a Greek merchant from Thessaloniki. He was deported to Auschwitz in April of 1944, and assigned a job with the Sonderkommando.
“If you read about the things we did, you’ll say, how could anyone do that, burn their fellow Jews?” he wrote. “That’s what I said at first, too, and thought many times.” Prisoners in the Sonderkommando were forced on threat of death to do what they did, and the psychological effects of their torture were immense.
While he actually wrote a memoir back in Greece, it seems the Auschwitz survivor never told anyone about the notes he had buried deep in the soil near the crematorium, where more than once, he was in such despair that he thought of joining the people in the gas chambers – but the prospect of revenge always held him back.
He is the only one of the five “Sonderkommando” authors who wrote openly about revenge, Polian noted, arguing it is this that sets Nadjari’s notes apart from the others.
“I am not sad that I will die,” Nadjari wrote, “but I am sad that I won’t be able to take revenge like I would like to.”