Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insight into stories that appear in The New York Times. Here, the reporter Dan Bilefsky writes about the reporting he did for a Jan. 17 article about a pendant found near a Nazi extermination camp.
LONDON — When I woke up earlier this week and learned that a pendant linked to Anne Frank had been found at a Nazi extermination camp in eastern Poland, my heart raced.
Could it be that the pendant really belonged to Anne, the young girl whose diary captured the imagination of the world, mine included, and who had become a powerful symbol of the Holocaust? I recalled reading her diary as a 12 year-old and the enormous impact it had on me — the first real raw realization of man’s inhumanity to man, and perhaps of death itself.
These thoughts were swirling through my mind as I arrived at work on Tuesday, determined to try to tell the story of the mysterious triangular pendant, engraved with the words “mazel tov,” or “good luck” in Hebrew. After scanning the website of the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which announced the find over the weekend, I learned that the pendant had been discovered at the Sobibor extermination camp, more than 70 years after it had fallen through floorboards, just steps away from the gas chambers.
As I immersed myself in the case, it became clear that the pendant may, in fact, have belonged to Karoline Cohn, who was born in July 3, 1929 — less than a month after Anne’s birthday. That date was engraved on the pendant, along with the word, Frankfurt. But I needed to know more. How had the pendant been traced to Karoline? And what was the connection to Anne?
The mystery of the pendant had particular resonance, and would grab headlines around the world for one reason: It was nearly identical to one owned by Anne Frank.
I knew instinctively that the connection to Anne would generate interest, given the space she continues to occupy in global popular culture and our collective memory. Earlier this year, I had written a story about the discovery of an 8-line poem that Anne had written in a “friendship book” that had been acquired for $148,000 at an auction in the Netherlands. For that story, I had interviewed Jacqueline van Maarsen, 87, Anne’s best friend from her childhood in Amsterdam, who was selling the poem. She had told me that she was not surprised by the global fascination Anne had inspired, given the acute intelligence conveyed in her diary. Anne, she added, would have been delighted by all the attention.
On Tuesday, I called Yoram Haimi, the Israeli archaeologist based in Jerusalem who had excavated Sobibor and discovered the pendant. He explained that he had trawled through tens of thousands of names of deportees from Frankfurt on a Yad Vashem database, and had only found one name that matched the birthday — Karoline Cohn.
When he told me that Karoline may have dropped the pendant as she was walking to the gas chambers, I felt my stomach clench. I imagined the harrowing scene as if unspooling in a film. I knew immediately that would be the opening of my story. I have covered more than a few murders as a reporter for The New York Times, from the Srebrenica massacre in the Balkans to murder trials in Queens, and the discovery of evidence of a murder, more than seven decades after the crime, was hard to ignore.
Had Karoline known she was going to die and dropped the pendant as a small monument of her short life? Or had she accidentally dropped the pendant while she was undressing? Or was it someone else? And had she and Anne known each other? Had their parents bought identical pendants from the same Judaica shop in Frankfurt, no doubt long since gone?
As of now, these questions remained unanswered. But amid all the darkness of Sobibor, I can’t help thinking that the pendant did bring some good luck. Thanks to its discovery, we will never forget Karoline Cohn.