Messasud Aknine, from Marseilles, France, was arrested in 1943 and deported to the Drancy internment camp outside Paris. The 73-year-old Jew’s fate was sealed. Before long he was sent to the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland, where the Nazi German invaders killed him in the gas chambers. In all likelihood, no one would have heard about him again were it not for a recent find, deep underground, of a chilling memento.
For several years now, Yoram Haimi of the Israel Antiquities Authority has been excavating at the Sobibor site with Polish colleague Wojtek Mazurek. Among the tens of thousands of items belonging to the camp’s prisoners that they have pulled from the earth, they recently found five ID tags. The Germans used the numbers etched on these dog tags to identify the prisoners, similar to the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jews at Auschwitz.
Through archival research, Haimi was able to identify several of the names behind the numbers, shedding light on a little-known chapter of the camp’s history: Hundreds of the Jews killed at Sobibor, about 160 miles east of Warsaw, came from North Africa. Aknine, born in Tangier, Morocco in 1870, was one of them.
Another victim, David Aknine, was born in 1900 in Tlemcen, Algeria. He too was killed at Sobibor in 1943. Such was also the fate of Shalom Levy from Boufarik, Algeria, whose ID tag was also unearthed by Haimi.
“I can’t understand why they bothered to make these tags for them if they sent them to the gas chambers right away,” Haimi says, marveling at the Nazis’ slavish devotion to bureaucratic order.
Observing that the tags were inscribed with the number 122, denoting the Compiegne internment camp in France, Haimi contacted the Holocaust museum in Paris, which searched its database for the names of people who were deported to Compiegne and from there to Drancy and on to Sobibor.
Haimi also examined Yad Vashem’s online database of transports, where, to his surprise, he found that the victim lists from the two March 1943 transports from France to Sobibor contained hundreds of typically North African surnames, many from Algeria. The names included Aferiat, Acoca, Albo, Amar, Amouyal, Amsalem, Arditi, Azoulay, Attias, Ben Kimon, Ben Dahan, Ben Hamou, Ben Lou Lou, Ben Zaken, Ben Touito, Lugassi, Moatti, Dahan, Hajaj, Mimram, Smadja, Tayeb, Teboul and Touito.
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Prof. Haim Saadon, an expert on Jews in Islamic lands, says that, based on the latest information, the number of Jews from North Africa who were sent to the Nazi camps via France tops 500. Hundreds more North African Jews were sent from Tunisia to Auschwitz and from Libya to Bergen-Belsen.
Haimi counted at least 400 Jews of North African descent in the lists of deportees from France to Sobibor alone. So do the history books have to be updated to show that the number of North African Jews deported to the Nazi camps was larger than previously thought?
“You have to be very careful with the figures,” Saadon says, while acknowledging that research on the subject remains incomplete and expressing hopes that more scholars will join in.
Many other interesting artifacts have been found at the Sobibor excavations and are expanding the modest knowledge we have of the camp. The list includes pins worn by members of the right-wing Jewish organizations Beitar and Brit Hehayal. After finding the pins, Haimi visited the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv, where he read the diary of historian Chaim Lazar, a Beitar partisan.
“He writes about the Beitar people who fought the Nazis at Sobibor and gives their names,” Haimi says, referring to the October 1943 revolt.
Five Beitar members from Piaski, Poland were deported to Sobibor via the Trawniki internment camp in October 1942. The recently unearthed pins may well have belonged to them. “Could they have been marched to the gas chambers in their Beitar uniforms? Maybe they thought that if they arrived at the camp in uniform, they would be treated more leniently?” Haimi wonders.
Sobibor was built in March 1942 along with the Treblinka and Belzec death camps. According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem, 250,000 Jews were killed at Sobibor before it ceased operations following the October 1943 revolt. Only a few dozen prisoners from the camp survived the Holocaust.
Excavations at the site began in 2007 as a private undertaking by Haimi, eager to dedicate his archaeological skills to researching 20th-century history. During the excavations he has noticed that over the decades, robbers have been digging there too, plundering property left behind by Jews.
Haimi gives the items he finds beneath the snow and cold ground to a museum at the camp that opened in October but has since closed due to the coronavirus. Its permanent collection includes items found by Haimi and Mazurek including perfume bottles, rings, necklaces, chains, eyeglasses, purses, jam jars, toothpaste tubes, keys, scissors, cigarette packets, wallets, hairpins and shoes.
All once belonged to Jews who were murdered at the camp. Some of the notable items include Hebrew writing, like a ring inscribed with harei at mekudeshet li (I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife), a pendant inscribed with “Palestina-Eretz Yisrael” and another with “Shema Yisrael.”
In recent years, Haimi has managed to locate relatives of some of the victims, including of Karolina Cohn from Frankfurt, whose pendant was found in the excavations. Haimi has also found “huge numbers of alcohol bottles” that apparently came from the Nazis and their helpers.
Haimi, 59, from Kibbutz Mefalsim in the south, is currently completing his doctorate at Tel Aviv University, focusing on the new findings from Sobibor.
He also has a personal connection to the site. Two cousins of his from his mother’s side were murdered at Sobibor in 1943: Jackie and Maurice Ben Zaken, who were born in Morocco. Maybe some of the items he’s pulling from the ground once belonged to them.