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Finding a 60-year-old treasure
This is the incredible story of a collection of 178 family pictures, which were hidden in the walls of a house in Poland just before the Holocaust, only to be found some 60 years later and be returned to their rightful owners
A month ago, on the evening of his mother's death, Pini Beeri received a phone call from a stranger. "I have something that will interest you," said the stranger, who identified himself as Zvi Lander. "Can we meet?"

 

Beeri apologized that he could not, his mother was on her deathbed. Indeed, she died six hours later. Lander arrived at the house between the funeral and the shiva, and handed over an album of 178 previously unseen photographs: photos of the murdered family of Beeri and his sister, Riki Ariel.

 

  • The pictures appear in full in our special page, "Images of a Lost Community". Please let us know if you recognize any of the people in the photos

 

At home, their mother, Pearale Boden Berezowsky, had only one picture of her parents. Suddenly, Beeri and Ariel possessed pictures not
only of their grandparents, but their aunts and uncles (nine siblings, including their mother), with glimpses of Chelm – and the family's laundry business – in the background.

 

Beeri and Ariel invited their mother's surviving sister, Marisha Weikselfish, to identify the people in the photographs. She was deeply shocked to see the photos of her older brother, Shlomo Boden, the one who collected the photographs and who appears in most of them. For sixty five years there was no sign of him. Shlomo, she says, had informed the family about the photos, hidden in the chimney wall along with cash and the family silverware.

 

Who is Zvi Lander?

A year ago, Zvi Lander, a computer programmer from Israel, flew to the town of Chelm, in Poland, where his father was born and lived prior to the war.

 

There is a group of young Poles there who are attempting to preserve the Jewish tradition in the town and, in particular, revive the old synagogue and the adjoining Beit Midrash. Currently, there is a western-style bar called McKinsey's Saloon, in place of the synagogue. The group hopes to turn the pub into a museum in memory of the murdered Jewish community of the town.

 

Chelm's Jewish community was one of the oldest in Poland, with artifacts dating it as far back as the twelfth century. The Jewish cemetery, which dates back to the 1300’s, is also being rehabilitated, funded by survivors from Chelm.

 

While in the town, Lander attended an official meeting. A local history teacher introduced herself to him and handed him a CD with 178 photographs of many people, most of them young. The pictures were discovered hidden in a chimney wall in her home when it was torn down for renovations .It was obvious that the photographs belonged to a Jewish family and were taken before the war. Lander did not have a clue as to who they were, but took the photographs to Israel.

 

After months of searching for a clue as to the identity of the faces that were suddenly let out of the wall, Lander noticed, in one of the photographs, a sign that said Warsaw Laundry bearing the name of P. Boden. In the testimony archives at Yad Vashem, Lander found the name of Pearale Boden Berezowsky and, as mentioned, delivered the photos to her son on the day of her funeral.

 

"I was amazed," said Pini Beeri. In contrast to the traditional depiction of a religious, Polish Jewish community, the pictures show stylish men in sharp suits, next to beautiful girls and fancy cars, playing sports, picnicking, in the countryside on Shabbat or on the busy town streets.

 

Normal Jewish life

The pictures are another heartbreaking example of a thriving, vibrant Jewish community, later erased by the Nazis. One can peek into an entire world of young, normal Jewish life: bike rides, parties, romance and fun, strolls in the woods, ice skating and even fund raising for the Keren Kayemet Leisrael (Jewish National Fund). It is all there.

 

Most of the people in the photographs are unidentified, young, not members of the family. One of the prominent women in the pictures is a beautiful woman who appears to be Shlomo Boden’s girlfriend. Her name is probably Genia Gross or Genia Grossi. Is this name familiar to anyone?

 

Shlomo himself served in the elite Kosciusco Division of the Polish army. He was captured early in the war, but managed to flee the POW camp and return to his family in Chelm. Eventually, he arranged the family’s escape into the countryside, informing every family member of the photographs hidden in the chimney wall.

 

"We won the lottery," Marisha recalls. "There was a lottery and we participated.”

 

"But weren't you in the ghetto?" I ask.

 

"We were put on the outskirts of the ghetto, in an open area, so we wouldn't catch typhus…Our laundry was responsible for washing the German army uniforms," she explains.

 

It turns out the family had indeed won a lottery and they used the money to bribe Polish workers to find them refuge in the countryside. Marisha and Pearale, the two youngest sisters were hidden in a convent and left Poland shortly after the war.

 

Marisha, the older of the two, recalled the treasure in the chimney wall, but had totally forgotten about it during the horrible period of hiding. The rest of the family perished. No one came to reclaim the treasure. This, too, was the logic of the Holocaust: first annihilate the person and then take over their possessions, after you made sure no one will ever return to reclaim them. Marisha said soldiers from the Armia Kriova, the Polish underground aided in the massacre of the family.

 

The photographs survived, although most of the family did not. The silverware was most likely taken by the builders who tore down the wall.

 

But as far as Pini Beeri is concerned, he got the real treasure. "Silverware can be bought, but these photographs are priceless and irreplaceable."

 

Some of the Chelm Jews survived, helped by the town's proximity to the Russian border.

 

This has been translated from the story written by Nira Rousso in the Shiva Yamim magazine of Yedioth Aharonoth.

 

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