Personal Journey: Archaeologist meets more-recent past

Archaeologist Walt Tremer at a 10,000-year-old European site. One day, a Holocaust survivor came to the site. A fellow scientist who spoke German translated the man's tale, providing Tremer and the man a human moment that fate had brought.
Archaeologist Walt Tremer at a 10,000-year-old European site. One day, a Holocaust survivor came to the site. A fellow scientist who spoke German translated the man's tale, providing Tremer and the man a human moment that fate had brought. (WALT TREMER)

In Czechoslovakia at a dig, the scientist was approached by a wizened, tearful man.

Posted: August 24, 2014

The echoes of deep history were lying in the ground in front of me. As an archaeologist digging at a 10,000-year-old settlement on the outskirts of Bylany, Czechoslovakia, I held evidence of a long-gone culture gently and lovingly in my hands. A clay pot held by some young girl, a bronze pin worn by an ancient babushka, a rusted sickle blade swung by a calloused hand eons ago, they all spoke clearly to me. I had the wonderfully fortunate and fascinating opportunity to be a time traveler and to walk with the ancients.

It was lunch break at the site, and I was quietly resting, dirt-covered, on the front step of our tiny dining hall nestled in a small World War II compound. As I munched on my Russian black bread sandwich, I happened to look through the surrounding chain-link fence and saw a tiny, wizened old man slowly shuffling along the road toward our compound.

As I sat there, he slowly came up to the fence, and, clutching the wire, he began to cry loudly. Amid the sobs, it seemed I could hear the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner." What was this? Who was this wrinkled old man overcome by some kind of musical hysteria?

I walked over to him, and as I drew close, he seemed to become even more frantic and tried to reach through the wire mesh to touch me. Tears rolled down his face, the garbled tune of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" grew louder, the fractured words sounding like German to me.

What to do? I went into the little dining hall and returned with a fellow archaeologist who spoke German.

I stood by puzzled as the two began to talk, and slowly the little old man calmed down, but he still turned toward me and reached out.

Then, with the old man's tear-filled eyes transfixed upon mine, my friend explained:

During World War II, the Nazis had overrun this man's village, and he and his family found themselves in a concentration camp. Each night there, a list was posted with the names of those who were to be gassed the following morning. One night, the man and his family were on the list. During the long, horrifying wait until morning, there was a loud commotion outside. And in rapid, chaotic minutes, American troops had overrun the camp, and the prisoners were freed.

Now, years later, the little old man had heard there was an American at the archaeology site 20 miles from his village. That morning, he had walked the 20 miles to thank the American for his life and the lives of his family.

How can one measure the worth of a human life? We came together, we hugged, we touched, we cried, we shared the human moment that fate had brought us.

And then, slowly, this survivor of such human horror turned and slowly shuffled his way off down the road.

The echoes sometimes ring sharply down the halls of history. Sometimes, they dance happily, with the sounds of an ancient village life; other times, they cut sharply with the dark inhumanity of mankind.


Walt Tremer writes from the Pennsylvania suburbs.

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