Anthony Klein was a soldier in the independent Polish Army (Anders’ Army) during World War II, stationed in the Middle East. During the war, however, he suffered a leg injury and was unable to fulfill his duties.
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Instead, he began wandering around the region. During his travels, he gathered ancient coins and other archaeological artifacts. These items became the core of a large archeological collection amassed by Polish soldiers in the Middle East. Most of the collection was “rediscovered” two years ago and is now on display in Poland.
The Anders Army was the independent Polish force that remained loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in London after Poland was overrun by the Nazis.
In 1943 and 1944, thousands of Polish soldiers were stationed in the Middle East to prepare for a possible Nazi invasion. Many soldiers collected artifacts during this period, mostly coins but also clay lamps, figurines, glass vessels and even clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions.
Some of these finds were excavated by the soldiers themselves. Evidence of this can be seen in the Polish Cave at Tel Maresha, in Beit Guvrin National Park in central Israel, where a soldier evidently carved the Polish army emblem on a wall.
Other parts of the collection were purchased at antiquities markets as souvenirs from the Holy Land.
In 1944, however, the soldiers were sent to North Africa and from there to Italy to battle the Nazis. Their commanders forbade them to take the artifacts with them and made them deposit the collection for safekeeping in a cellar between the third and fourth stations of the Via Dolorosa, in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The site, which belongs to the Armenian Church, had been rented during this period as a chapel for the Polish soldiers. The collection remained there until the 1990s, when the Armenians delivered it to the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv.
After the collection was rediscovered in the embassy basement two years ago, the Polish government decided to rescue the items and their story.
“For the Poles it was very important to exhibit materials connected to the Anders Army, as an expression of national pride connected to that army,” explains Haim Gitler, the chief curator of archaeology at the Israel Museum.
The approval of the Israel Antiquities Authority was required to bring the collection to Poland. Gitler, Eitan Klein of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and Donald Zvi Ariel, the authority’s coin expert, carefully examined the artifacts and allowed most of them to leave the country.
The earliest date from the second century B.C.E., during the biblical period, the latest from the early 20th century, and they come from all over the region, from Iran to Egypt.
Of all of the thousands of items in the collection, the Poles had to relinquish just three — two tablets with cuneiform inscriptions and a piece of a fresco from the Roman period. Under international conventions to which Israel is a signatory, such items cannot be moved from one country to another.
The collection was recently exhibited in a museum near Lodz, and two weeks ago, Klein, Ariel and Gitler traveled to Warsaw where they received citations for their contribution to preserving Polish heritage.