Ancient Treasure Now Family's Holocaust Talisman

AOL News 12 April 2010
By Dana Chivvis

A recent New York state court case has brought to light the remarkable journey of an ancient gold tablet from the sands of Iraq to a safe-deposit box in Long Island.

The 3,200-year-old artifact, which fits easily into the palm of a hand, disappeared from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin during World War II and reappeared among the possessions of a Brooklyn liquor store owner several years later. Originally, the tablet was made to tell the story of the construction of an Assyrian temple in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. But during its 20th century travels, it has also come to represent the story of one Jewish family's suffering in the Holocaust.

On March 30, Judge John B. Riordan of the Surrogate's Court of the state of New York ruled that the artifact -- which is worth an estimated $10 million -- will remain in the possession of the Flamenbaum family. It marked the end of a case that began in 2006, when Vorderasiatisches Museum officials claimed the tablet was rightfully theirs, though it was listed in the estate of Riven Flamenbaum, who left it to his children when he died in 2003.

The tablet had been a part of the museum's collection before World War II. As the war approached, the museum packed up its artifacts and put them in storage. When inventory was taken in 1945, the tablet was no longer there.

Riven Flamenbaum was a Polish Jew who was sent to Nazi slave-labor camps and eventually was transferred to Auschwitz. When he was freed at the end of the war, he went to the American-run Pocking-Waldstadt Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. There he met and married his wife, another Auschwitz survivor; around the same time, he bartered for the tablet, which he brought with him to New York in 1949. He worked as a delivery boy at a Brooklyn liquor store, which he eventually bought and ran until he retired.

Growing up in Brooklyn, the Flamenbaum children were surrounded by reminders of their parents' suffering during the Holocaust. Both their mother, Dora, and their father, Riven, had the number five tattooed on their left forearms, extending from just below the elbow to just above the wrist, a crude identifier forced on them at Auschwitz. The children had no grandparents, no aunts or uncles, no cousins -- all were murdered by the Nazis. Their father's hands and feet were permanently cold.

And then there was the gold tablet, which Riven would show his children while recounting the horrors he had experienced.

"He stated that it was all he had left from 'that bitter time,' and he wished to hand it down to his children and future generations to serve as a reminder of the brutality and decimation of his family at the hands of the Nazis," Hannah Flamenbaum wrote in an e-mail to AOL News.

For Riven's children, the tablet now holds the stories of how his relatives were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and never heard from again. It tells of his time in the Nazi labor camp, the brutal work he was forced into, the beatings he and his fellow prisoners endured, the times that Jews were shot point-blank for no reason at all. They worked through bitter winters without proper clothing or food, leading to Riven's permanently numbed hands and feet.

"He stated that he slept on a wooden rack with three or four other inmates, and there were several hundred men in the room, living in crowded and filthy conditions," Hannah wrote. "Those who were lucky enough to have them slept with their shoes on for fear that if they took them off they would be stolen. Those who had no shoes wrapped their feet in rags and paper."

The tale of the tablet itself stretches back centuries before it reached Riven Flamenbaum's hands. It was created in the late 13th century B.C. in Assyria's capital, Ashur, which lies halfway between Mosul and Baghdad and is now called Qual'at Serouat. The tablet describes the history and construction of the Ishta Temple, built for a goddess, and originally was set into the temple's foundation as a sort of time capsule for a future king, according to Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology at Yale University.

"These were made for special occasions," Frahm said. "These were made to commemorate the temple."

The tablet was excavated in 1913 by a German archaeologist and sent to the Iraqi port city of Basra, where it was put on a ship to Germany. The outbreak of World War I diverted the ship to Portugal instead, where it remained until 1926. The tablet finally went on display in Germany in 1934 -- but only for five years, before the next war sent it back into storage.

In making his ruling, Judge Riordan said that because the Vorderasiatisches Museum didn't report the tablet as stolen or take any steps to recover it until 2006, the artifact should remain part of the Flamenbaum estate. The museum can decide to appeal, but for the time being, the ancient gold artifact will stay at its most recent home, in New York.
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