|Yaron Svoray on the mountain called Diamond Hill.|
Usually – or at least in common mythology, because in truth most of us have limited knowledge in this area – adventurers are amoral. They are men, or occasionally women, who are driven by adrenaline, the rush of danger, the need to go higher or faster or farther away.
And then there are the people moved by mission, by a sense of justice. The do-gooders. They are usually better people, but most likely less interesting – or so the same common mythology suggests.
Yaron Svoray, 58, the Israeli son of Holocaust survivors, is driven by the very basic need to have good conquer evil. Toward that end, he has infiltrated a group of neo- Nazis by pretending to be one of them. He has worked to recover treasures that the Nazis looted, not to enrich himself – he has not – but to pry the destroyers away from their bloodstained prizes. He is now devoting himself as well to working with police across Europe to keep terror from overcoming the continent once again.
An intangible asset that Mr. Svoray has taken from his adventures are amazing stories. He has been telling some of them to students at the Academies at the Gerrard Berman Day School, and will talk more about his adventures with adults on Sunday, March 29. (See box for details.)
“I was born on a kibbutz,” Mr. Svoray said. “My father was from Germany, and my mother was from Romania. I grew up understanding that what happened to us 70 years ago cannot be allowed to happen again.
|Searching for looted Jewish treasures in Poland. Photos courtesy Yaron Svoray|
“When I joined the Israeli army as a paratrooper in the 1973 war, it dawned on me that we are actually doing what we should have been doing 70 years ago, fighting not for our lives but for a bigger cause.”
After his IDF service, Mr. Svoray joined the police, and soon became a detective. “And then one day I met a lovely woman, who said, ‘It’s me or the police,'” he said. So he left the force, and they moved to the United States, where he studied at Queens College. “Initially, that was great, but then I realized that I needed to work, after my first kid was born,” he said. That child was the first of three. “I did everything you could possibly think of – driving limousines, cleaning houses…” Just as his college studies provided him with a formal education, his work experience taught him a great deal about the outside world.
Mr. Svoray became a lecturer for UJA and Israel Bonds. He talked about international terrorism – a topic to which he has returned. “At the time, though, in the mid- to late-1980s, terrorism was something that Americans heard about, but it didn’t touch them.
“I talked about how terrorism was necessarily something exotic and far away. The danger is not only anti-Semitism, but the far right. That was proven to be right in Oklahoma City.”
He was restless, though. He knew there was something more he should be doing. “And at a lecture in Bangor, Maine, I met someone who had been an American GI during World War II, and had buried about 40 uncut diamonds in a hole he dug in a French hill. It’s a long story – but I decided to go and search for them, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll be rich,’ without thinking about the origins of these diamonds.
“I arrived in France – at the border with Germany – and began looking. I met the local historian, who was German, and we began talking.
“I learned that he was in the Waffen SS, which killed our people, and I began to think what to do about him. This was in the mid 1990s, and he was in his early to mid 60s, no older than that.” That meant that he would not have been old enough to have been an active Nazi. “So I shut up.” He did not mention that he was a Jew, let alone an Israeli, the son of survivors. “That’s how I met Herr Muller, the leader of the neo-Nazi skinheads in Frankfurt.
“None of them ever asked me where I am from,” he said. “When they are a hated minority” – and no, he said, not very many people outside their group love neo-Nazi skinheads – they love it whenever someone will talk to them.
“So I decided to let go of the whole diamond thing, and instead find out more about them.
“I went back to America, and made contact with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and with their help I decided to infiltrate this group, and put as many of them in jail as possible. So I lived under an assumed identity, undercover, with the German neo-Nazi movement.
“My wife was the only person in the world except for Wiesenthal who knew where I was,” he said. “She figured that the next time she’d hear about me would be when she would open the newspaper and read about it.”
Mr. Svoray’s undercover operation was successful. “I collected the information, I gathered the neo-Nazis, and I helped in capturing one of the last Nazi war criminals hiding in Argentina,” he said; that was Erich Priebke, who was convicted of war crimes in Italy in 1996. “I did it because I was able to convince the escaped Nazis that I was one of them.
“The famous Sam Donaldson” – the longtime television news reporter – “who walked around with that terrible wig, he traveled to South America, and with local help we managed to get this war criminal who murdered Jews. He ended up in an Italian jail, and he died there.”
Mr. Svoray wrote a book about this experience, “In Hitler’s Shadow.” “It was a great success, so HBO comes to me and says, ‘We would like to make a movie based on the book.'” It did – it was called “The Infiltrator,” and starred Oliver Platt, “and by the way, we look nothing alike,” he said.
“It’s great. The movie is very fine. It does very well. So now I decided it’s time to look for the diamonds.”
Talking to Mr. Svoray is both enthralling and exhausting. It’s like following a trail with many branches. You can only take one at a time. All the others look entrancing, and reach out to you with little branch slivers of stories, but being human you can take only one at a time.
This is the way his story branched.
“With the aid of the History Channel, I go back to France, and eventually I recover these diamonds,” he said. “It’s very exciting. You can see it on my website.” (That’s www.yaronsvoray.com.)
“But then I realize – these diamonds cannot be touched. There is no doubt that they had belonged to Jews. They are a remembrance of what happened to us. So I organized a method in which all the proceeds from selling the diamonds end up with various nonprofit organizations around the world.
“It was given anonymously, and in small amounts. I did not want to give one organization all the money. I thought that 40 uncut diamonds would be millions, but it turned out to be a much smaller amount. The History Channel made a documentary about it, called “Blood From a Stone,” which became a book, and also did very well.
“And then I decided what I will do for the rest of my life.
“I will try to find every bit of stolen Nazi loot, and I will return it. I have had 11 expeditions, and I have been successful in nine of them.
“I found counterfeit money in a lake in Austria; it was eventually made into a movie, which I had nothing to do with,” he said. (That movie was “The Counterfeiters,” which won the best foreign film Oscar in 2014.)
“I heard that under the guns of the Nazis, Jews were forced to make counterfeit British pound notes at the end of the war,” he said. “They were dropped into a lake in Austria. I was interested. I heard that it was a huge tourist area, with many people coming there, and tourists even go out in glass-bottomed boats to look at the lake.
“I was thinking, wait, has anyone found those boxes?” No, it turned out, they hadn’t. So “I brought ’60 Minutes’ into the story, and we brought a minisub in, under very difficult conditions, and we pulled several boxes with those counterfeit bills from the lake.”
There was not much monetary value in those sodden fake pound notes, in those pre- eBay years, he said, but the find “went to a museum, and that’s where it is now.
“The value of the treasures – and I hate that word! – is that it is proof that it happened. You can’t ignore it. Can’t say it didn’t happen.”
Now, Mr. Svoray looks for treasures looted from Jews – treasure, that is, defined as things that were treasured by the people from whom it was stolen. He puts together teams – “Israelis, Germans, Poles, Americans. I usually do a lot of research, I do the homework, from interviews to archives to meeting old people, to meeting young people. At times it gets very dangerous, because I am well known by the neo-Nazis in Europe, so I always travel with four bodyguards. They are all German.
“I usually do the groundwork, and then the team arrives. We spend about 10 days to two weeks in the field.
“How do I find things? I think that I am a good detective. If you say that your grandmother buried 50 gold coins in a shtetl in Russia, and I say that the shtetl had 30 Jews and your grandfather was a milkman, and I so don’t think likely that she could have had 50 gold coins – it’s not that you are lying, but the story has been embellished. We will not spend a huge amount of time and money to find that the shtetl is now a parking lot.
“I don’t consider myself a historian, but I think that I am a great detective. I use my skills. My ear is attuned to things that other people don’t hear, much more along the lines of Sherlock Holmes than anyone else.” Remember, please, that he began as a police detective. “You have to develop that sense. A good criminal detective is someone who has seen a lot.”
Once you have that skill, and something jangles a nerve, something seems wrong, “you can sometimes even smell it,” he said.
“I research well-known stories, and I reverse engineer them.”
He told a story that happened just last year.
“Everyone knew that there was a box of gold in a small lake in Germany, next to a concentration camp called RavensbrÃ¼ck. Everyone in the region knew that at the end of the war, the Germans dropped large boxes into the lake. I asked, and they all thought that someone had picked the box out of the lake.” Given what he knew, he believed that the gold was likely to have been put in the lake, but he didn’t believe the detail-less story that it had been removed. Neither did the people who told it to him – “so then I wanted to dive, but the Germans said no. I had to use my savvy to get permission.”
He did get the okay, and “we started diving, using sonar. We found nothing, but I thought that there had to be something there. On our third try, I brought sonar experts who work at finding oil in the Arabian gulf.
“About the middle of last year, we located three large shapes. They were the shapes of coffins, buried on the floor of the lake.” They were stuck in mud. He tried to pull them out, “but it turned out to be very complex mud.
“It took very expensive equipment,” he said. “And everybody knew about it, but nobody took it out.”
The need that undergirds all his work is to make clear that the Holocaust happened, that the Shoah was real, that the deniers are not only evil but wrong. “The value is in the find,” he said. “If there is to be any value, it has to do good.
“I found a cache of coins inside Majdanek,” another concentration camp in Poland, he said. “It was given to a local museum, so that it can show them, to prove that it” – the Shoah – “happened.
“In a Polish town called Lodz, I was looking at a story about an escaped war criminal. I met someone who says ‘I don’t know, but I know the family has a green car.’ And then two years later, I hear someone else say, ‘I don’t know, but the family has a green car. So when I start looking for him, I will look at car auctions, and things like that.” He will search for the end of the thread that begins with a green car.
One of the finds that was the most important to him, Mr. Svoray said “was a gold ring that I found inside Majdanek. Inside, it said ‘Ada 1938.’
“It is clear to me that that gold ring probably was worth half a cent, but it is a bigger treasure than anything else. This woman was standing in front of the gas chamber, and she probably said ‘I don’t want to lose everything, so I will hide it.’
“It is so moving. It is so incredible. But the inherent value is nothing.”
That ring, too, is in the museum at Majdanek.
One of Mr. Svoray’s regrets is that his parents did not live long enough to learn what he had made of his life. “My father was born in Berlin,” he said. “My grandfather fought in World War I, and he was a patriot. He won a medal from the Kaiser.”
That’s why “he escaped when the rest of the family went up in smoke.
“What I inherited from my parents was more than stories,” he continued. “It was doing the right thing.”
His exploits “have nothing to do with heroism or adventure,” Mr. Svoray said. “It is something else.
“There are three things we have to learn. First, we all reach a certain point in our lives when we have to do things that are bigger than us. You have to have a cause.
“I am proud of myself for my ability to take myself out of the comforts of the world and do the right thing.
“The second thing is that you cannot let the bad guys win. You can say, ‘Yaron, why do you do think that? It’s because as a Jew and as the son of Holocaust survivors and as a man, I cannot let this be forgotten. And not letting it be forgotten means doing something about it.
“The third thing is that we all have some inherent sense, some signs and signals. Trust them. I always trust what my stomach tells me. I feel it and I go with my instincts. It is always about thinking outside the box.
“Go with your initial feelings, and they will lead you to the right place.”
There is one more lesson Mr. Svoray wants to impart, and it is becoming increasingly urgent, he said.
“This isn’t just for Jews. This is universal.
“9/11 really happened. ISIS cuts people’s heads off. Neo-Nazis are rising throughout Europe. Our humanity must come through. We cannot let these people win.
“Evil does happen today. It happened in France. My message is not as a Jew, but as a man living in today’s world. We have to do something. I want people to leave my lecture saying ‘Wow. There is something we can do.'”
|Who: Spy and treasure hunter Yaron Svoray
What: Will talk about his adventures discovering Jewish treasures stolen by the Nazis, and his concerns about terrorism today
When: On Sunday, March 29, at 4:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, 475 Grove Street, Ridgewood
Why: To benefit the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School
How much: Tickets are $36 for adults, $25 for students. Please register in advance, at gerrardbermands.ejoinme.org/yaron; tickets may be available at the door as well.
For more information: (201) 337-1111, ext. 208.