Trove of Jewish artifacts discovered beneath a synagogue destroyed by Nazis during WWII

Inscriptions on religious artifacts could reveal the identities of Jewish people who donated the objects to the synagogue.
Inscriptions on religious artifacts could reveal the identities of Jewish people who donated the objects to the synagogue. (Image credit: Michał Wojenka)

A historic synagogue near Kraków, Poland, was mostly destroyed by Nazis during World War II, but a secret hoard of precious ritual objects that was hidden there remained undetected and undisturbed — until now. 

Recently, restorers at the Old Synagogue, an 18th-century temple in Wieliczka, Poland, unexpectedly found a cache of Jewish artifacts and other silver items in a large, wooden crate that had been concealed under the floor. They uncovered the crate while digging a hole to test the soundness of the building's foundation, the Jewish Chronicle reported.

The box — which measures about 3 feet high, 2 feet wide and 4 feet long (80 by 70 by 130 centimeters) — was crammed with around 350 objects, including a silver goblet with flowery designs, bronze vases inscribed with Hebrew writing and silver-plated candlesticks, according to the Chronicle.

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Also among the artifacts were two menorahs (nine-armed candelabras that are lit during Hanukkah), two rimonim (decorative ornaments that crown a Torah scroll) and an ornate silver plaque that hung at the front of a Torah, Polish news outlet Gazeta Wyborcza reported. On the plaque were raised images of lions on pillars holding a crown over the Ten Commandments, and an attached silver chain led to a yad, a ritual pointer used for reading the Torah. 

Time had rotted the wooden frame of the hidden box, but the objects inside, packed tightly together, were in good condition. Most of them are thought to date to the 19th century and would have been used in religious rituals, though there were some unusual exceptions: 18 badges from military caps of infantry officers in the Austro-Hungarian army. The badges bore the initials of Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled from 1848 until 1916, according to Gazeta Wyborcza.

Ritual objects were packed closely together in a wooden crate.

Ritual objects were packed closely together in a wooden crate. (Image credit: Michał Wojenka)

One possible explanation is that military caps were used to line the box and protect the ritual objects at the time when they were packed up and buried. But the fabric later rotted away, leaving only the badges behind, Michał Wojenka, a researcher with the Jagiellonian University Institute of Archaeology and leader of the investigation of the artifacts, told Gazeta Wyborcza.

When the box was hidden and who concealed it remain unknown. However, further investigation of the religious artifacts could reveal clues about individuals in Wieliczka's Jewish community, as ritual objects are often inscribed with the names of the people who donated them, according to the Chronicle. 

Approximately 1,135 Jews lived in Wieliczka according to records from the 1920s, but most of the community was deported and murdered during World War II, and few who survived returned to the city after the war ended, the Chronicle reported.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.