Israeli Holocaust museum under fire for allegedly smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw

10 sets of tefillin that the Shem Olam Holocaust museum said were found in Warsaw, Poland. (Courtesy of Shem Olam Faith & the Holocaust Institute for Education, Documentation & Research)

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — The city of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of being involved in the smuggling out of Poland of Jewish prayer artifacts that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.

The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin, a religious object worn during morning prayers, found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, a spokeswoman, Karolina Gałecka, said in a statement. She said that meant that if Shem Olam’s is telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archeological items to report their discovery to authorities.

Multiple Polish Holocaust museums also decried Shem Olam’s reported acquisition. The Jewish Historical Institute, the Warsaw Ghetto Museum and the Polin Jewish museum is Warsaw made a joint statement expressing their “outrage” over Shem Olam’s alleged actions, which the directors of all three institutions said may have been the result of “illegal trade.”

Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper that reported about Shem Olam’s acquisition, said the museum “secretly contacted the construction workers” and worked with them to obscure the find from Polish authorities.

Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, declined to respond directly to the allegations. But he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “nobody else knows how [the find] got to us except for a few sentences in a newspaper that are trying to magnify this.” He also said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.