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Auschwitz Renovations Unearth Prisoners’ Hidden Trove of Tools

Inmates stowed the items—including forks, knives and fragments of shoes—in a chimney flue

Found in Block 17, the cache includes scissors, shoemaker's tools and utensils. (Courtesy of Nationalfonds / Kaczmarczyk / Marszałek)
smithsonianmag.com

Workers conducting renovations ahead of the opening of a new exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum recently discovered a cache of hidden objects, including knives, forks, scissors, hooks, pieces of leather, shoemaker’s tools and shoe fragments, the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism announced last week.

Prisoners held at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp hid the trove in a chimney flue in Block 17, reports BBC News. Comprised of a cellar, ground floor, upper floor and attic, the barracks likely housed chimney sweeps and prisoners with specialized handicraft skills, according to the Jerusalem Post. Survivor testimony suggests that prisoners were forced to weave baskets in the block’s basement.

The Austrian foundation is uncertain why prisoners chose to hide these objects, but speculates in the statement that the tools may have been used to make and repair clothing, perform locksmithing duties, trade with other inmates, or perhaps even aid escape attempts. Planned further study by historians and conservators may shed additional light on the artifacts’ origins.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi death camp in operation during World War II. Between May 1940 and January 1945, 1.1 million people, the majority of whom were Jewish, were systematically murdered at the camp. In 1943 and 1944—the height of deportations—an average of 6,000 Jews were gassed at Auschwitz each day, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The National Fund is renovating Block 17 ahead of the opening of a new exhibition. (Courtesy of Nationalfonds / Kaczmarczyk / Marszałek)

Per a separate statement from the National Fund, renovation of the former Block 17 began last September. Before the foundation can launch its exhibition—tentatively titled “Far Removed: Austria and Auschwitz”—workers must install modern building utilities and demolish remnants of the controversial 1978 installation previously housed in the barracks. As the Fund notes, most restoration efforts have paused amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with a reduced group of workers focusing largely on “safety-related” measures.

Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945. This year, on the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, more than 200 survivors gathered at the site for a memorial ceremony, reported Kate Connolly for the Guardian at the time.

During the event, many Auschwitz survivors called on the world to preserve the history and lessons of the Holocaust—a powerful call to action at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and the United States, wrote Loveday Morris for the Washington Post in January.

“Auschwitz did not fall from the skies,” said 93-year-old survivor Marian Turski during the ceremony. “It was approaching until what happened here, behind me, did happen.”

Added Turski, “Do not be indifferent when you hear lies, historical lies. Do not be indifferent when you see the past is stretched to fit the current political needs. Do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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