When the Nazis abandoned the extermination camp of Sobibor in eastern Poland in October 1943, they demolished buildings and burned documents in their efforts to conceal the extent of their war crimes. In 2007, archaeologists began excavating the camp’s ruins in preparation for a museum and memorial that will soon be built at the site. Since then, they have uncovered the gas chambers and crematoriums, along with thousands of personal objects belonging to Jews who were killed there. Recently, they uncovered a distinctive silver pendant they traced to a German Jewish girl named Karoline Cohn, whom the Nazis deported from her home in Frankfurt in 1941. Researchers are looking into possible links between Karoline and the famous Jewish diarist Anne Frank, who owned a pendant virtually identical to the one found at Sobibor.
Last fall, archaeologists excavating the Sobibor ruins uncovered the remains of a building where they believe prisoners undressed and had their heads shaved before being forced down the path to the gas chamber, the sadistically named Himmelfahrtsstrasse, or “road to heaven.” Only the bases of several pillars are left today, but as the scientists sifted through the soil on the ground where the building once stood, they found a great deal of jewelry and personal items. These objects likely dropped through the floorboards as the prisoners shed their clothes, and remained hidden for decades.
Among the items found beneath the former barracks were a woman’s watch, a Star of David necklace and a glass-covered metal charm etched with an image of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. Most intriguing of all, however, was a triangular silver pendant, inscribed with the words “Mazel Tov,” the traditional Jewish offer of congratulations; a date (July 3, 1929); and the name of a city (Frankfurt). On the reverse side, the pendant bore the Hebrew letter Hei, often used to signify the name of God, surrounded by three triangular Stars of David.
By searching the deportation database maintained by Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center), as well as lists of Jews who had been deported from Frankfurt, researchers were able to trace the pendant to Karoline Cohn.
Born on July 3, 1929, Cohn was deported from Frankfurt on November 11, 1941, when she was 12 years old, and sent with her family to the Jewish ghetto in Minsk (modern-day Belarus). Though some records claim she died in Minsk, the discovery of her pendant suggests she might have been among some 2,000 Jews deported from Minsk to Sobibor in September 1943, when the Nazis liquidated the ghetto.
Alternatively, if Karoline had already died by that point, her mother or another relative might have brought the pendant with her to the camp.
An estimated 200,000 to 250,000 people were killed at Sobibor between April 1942 and October 1943. The Nazis decided to close the camp in mid-October of that year, after 365 prisoners escaped in a successful uprising. Before abandoning it, however, they demolished all the buildings and burned documents in an attempt to conceal the evidence of their crimes. In 2014, archaeologists excavating the camp’s ruins found the foundations of the gas chambers beneath a cover of asphalt, as if the Nazis had tried to make it look like a road.
The discovery of Karoline Cohn’s pendant, which Yad Vashem announced earlier this month, has sparked a tantalizing mystery: The pendant is nearly identical to one that belonged to Anne Frank, whose poignant diary made her one of the most famous and enduring symbols of the Holocaust. Like Karoline, Frank was born in Frankfurt in 1929 (June 12, to be exact). Her pendant was exhibited in the 1980s and since then has been held in a safe in Basel, Switzerland, by a relative. “It’s exactly the same, but only with a different birth date,” Yoram Haimi, an archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Live Science. “One of the possibilities is that maybe Cohn and Frank were relatives.”
Haimi and his colleagues are investigating the possible link between the two girls. There is a Cohn branch of the Frank family tree, but it doesn’t appear to be the same Cohns as Karoline’s family. The researchers are looking for surviving relatives of Karoline Cohn who might be able to provide more information, and are already pursuing leads in New York and Jerusalem. Though no other similar pendants were previously known to exist, the New York Times reported last week that an 88-year-old Israeli Holocaust survivor who was born in Frankfurt came forth to say that she owned a pendant like Karoline’s, which she has kept for over eight decades.
Aside from any potential connection with Frank, the short life and untimely death of Karoline Cohn is well worth remembering on its own. As Haimi said in a statement released by Yad Vashem: “This pendant demonstrates once again the importance of archaeological research of former Nazi death camp sites. The moving story of Karoline Cohn is symbolic of the shared fate of the Jews murdered in the camp. It is important to tell the story, so that we never forget.”