A Teenager, the Holocaust and a Pendant: How One Young Girl’s Rediscovered Jewelry Is Inspiring Others to ‘Never Forget’
Original train platforms where hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children disembarked from cattle cars before being herded to gas chambers. Ovens and other machinery of murder. The bracelets of children.
Historians affiliated with Yad Vashem have been making major breakthroughs in Holocaust research for decades – findings which should be of great interest to contemplative travelers with an interest in World War II, Jewish or Polish history and genealogical research.
One of the most startling discoveries came to light recently when an archaeologist spotted a pendant on the “Pathway to Heaven” – the trail trod by Jewish men, women and children en route to the gas chambers at Sobibór, the Nazi extermination camp near Wlodawa, Poland. Researchers believe this pendant, engraved with Hebrew letter “ה” (for God’s name), the words “Mazel Tov”, and three Stars of David, was owned by Karoline Cohn, a teenager from Frankfurt, Germany.
Also found during excavations were a glass-covered, metal locket inscribed with the “Shema” prayer and adorned with an image of Moses cradling the Ten Commandments, a Star of David necklace, a stone pendant, a ring, and woman’s watch.
Why Are the Sobibór Discoveries So Important?
“These recent findings from the excavations at Sobibór constitute an important contribution to the documentation and commemoration of the Holocaust, and help us to better understand what happened at Sobibór, both in terms of the camp’s function and also from the point of view of the victims,” explains Professor Havi Dreifuss, who heads Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland.
Built in Poland’s Lublin district, the Sobibór death camp was named after a neighboring village, began its operations in March 1942 as part of Aktion Reinhard (the Holocaust’s deadliest period) and became one of the most horrifically efficient facilities used by Nazis to exterminate Jews.
This sad success was largely attributable to SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, who began his reign of terror as camp commandant – a post he held until August of that same year when he was ordered to take over management of the Germans’ Treblinka death camp. Nicknamed “The White Death” for his whip and white uniform, Stangl not only oversaw Sobibór’s completion, but so refined the extermination techniques employed there that they were then implemented at other Nazi forced labor and death camps throughout the Nazi’s web of terror and depravity.
Under Stangl, Sobibór guards led roughly 100,000 Jewish men, women and children to their deaths. He then moved on to Treblinka, where he facilitated the murder of another 12,000 to 22,000 Jews per day, and was succeeded at Sobibór by Franz Reichleitner, whose own subordinates then ramped up their killing of several hundred thousand more until Sobibór’s closing following a prisoner uprising and escape on Oct. 14, 1943. Days later, after the camp’s surviving Jews were executed, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered that all traces of Sobibór be erased. The gas chambers were dismantled, the buildings destroyed, and trees were planted to camouflage the area.
But this dedicated team of archaeologists will not let the world forget.
At its peak of operations, Sobibór was a 1312-by-1969-foot rectangle, divided into administration, reception and extermination areas, and surrounded by a “barbed-wire fence, woven with tree branches” – a design “intended to hide from view what was inside,” according to Yad Vashem representatives. “Jews brought in by transport were taken directly to the reception area. The extermination area held: gas chambers, burial trenches, and housing for the Jewish prisoners who worked there. The gas chambers – built to look like shower rooms, could hold 160-180 people each, and were fueled by carbon monoxide gas.”
The vast majority of Jews brought to the camp were taken immediately to the “showers,” where the women and children were separated from the men. “The Nazis ordered the victims to remove their clothing and hand over their valuables…. They were beaten, screamed at, and warning shots were fired at them. About 450-550 Jews were forced into the chambers at a time. The gas chambers were sealed…. Poisonous gas was then piped in. Within 20-30 minutes, all those inside were dead.”
Members of the Sonderkommando – the roughly 1,000 Jewish men and women who were permitted to live because they had been deemed to be the strongest from each arriving train – then removed the gold teeth from each body and buried the dead. “The whole process, from arrival to burial, took only two or three hours. During that time, prisoners were forced to clean the railroad cars, after which the trains left and another 20 cars entered the camp.”
Cohn, the reported owner of the pendant, appears to have lost her life during Reichleitner’s tenure. According to archaeologists and historians at the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Joel Zissenwein, Director of Yad Vashem’s Deportations Database Project, the teenage Cohn was deported from Frankfurt to Minsk on Nov. 11, 1941; the pendant then reached Sobibór sometime between that time and Sept. 1943, when the camp received its last transports of victims – trains from the Jewish ghettos of Lida, Minsk and Vilna.
“While it is not known if Cohn survived the harsh conditions in the Minsk ghetto,” explains Zissenwein, “the pendant belonging to 14-year-old Karoline Cohn was taken, dropped [along the path to Sobibór’s gas chambers], and remained buried in the ground for over 70 years.”
And, of course, “It is important to tell the story, so that we never forget,” says Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Yoram Haimi. “The moving story of Karoline Cohn is symbolic of the shared fate of the Jews murdered in the camp.”
The find may also be important for another reason as well, say researchers. Cohn’s pendant “bears close resemblance to one owned by Anne Frank,” the teenage diary author who died in Nazi captivity following her discovery at her Amsterdam sanctuary. Researchers theorize that there may have been family ties between Frank and Cohn because both girls were born in Frankfurt and owned similar pendants. They are hoping relatives of either the Cohn or Frank families will contact them with information that can help them prove or disprove this theory.
More information about Karoline Cohn may be found in the Pages of Testimony completed for Richard Else Cohn and Karoline Cohn by Sophie Kollmann in April 1978. Relatives of the Cohn family or Sophie Kollmann or any member of the public who can assist with details are urged to contact Yoram Haimi via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You’re Interested in Visiting Sobibór:
- Plan before you go. The Sobibór Museum has been closed at times in recent years due to financial issues. Currently, it is considered to be part of the State Museum at Majdanek. While admission is free and individuals and groups are encouraged to visit this state museum and its branches at the former Nazi concentration camps of Bełżec, Majdanek and Sobibór, there are certain rules which must be followed:1.) Dress appropriately. Wear attire suitable for a memorial service or cemetery visit and comfortable shoes for walking; 2.) Do not bring children under the age of 14 to the museum or camp sites; 3.) Be respectful to staff, your fellow visitors and the memories of the men, women and children who suffered and died at the camp sites. Be quiet, turn your cell phone off, and follow any instructions given to you by the Museum’s guides, guards or exhibition staff; and 4.) Remember that the following are also prohibited at the museum and camp sites: alcohol and other intoxicants; animals (except guide dogs); eating; and smoking, using candles or starting other open fires. Please see the Museum’s website for hours and additional visitor guidelines.
- Lodging and Transportation: Several travelers who have visited multiple Holocaust sites suggest booking hotel rooms near intended destinations in Poland, and then driving by to the Holocaust museum or concentration camp sites on your itinerary. When visiting Sobibór, lodging at the Czar Polesia Hotel, which is located in Wlodawa – roughly 20 miles from the camp, comes highly recommended by these same travelers. Others who have booked rooms here describe it as a clean, well run, family business offering reasonably priced, comfortable lodging and inexpensive, but delicious homemade food.