A typical haul after a day of metal detecting for Michael, who prefers not to be identified by his last name, usually consists of coins and some garbage. If it’s a good day, one or two of those coins might be silver.
Michael, who studies archeology at the University of Toronto, does his metal detecting in parks and schools around Toronto. In May, he was searching in a park at Dufferin Street and Finch Avenue West, and it was going slowly. He had only found one penny from the 1920s.
“Then I got a signal. It sounded like another penny, so I dug it up,” he said. “It was only two or three inches under the ground, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was something different.”
Michael had found a silver medallion with German writing on it, with one side date-stamped July 1946. On the coin’s other side were the names of Nazi-era concentration camps, a triangle and a six-digit number: 143425.
Michael posted a video of the discovery on his YouTube page, Diggin Canada.
“At that point, I knew I had something very interesting, something I never thought I’d find,” he said.
Subsequent online research revealed that what he found was a medallion that had belonged to Holocaust survivor Felix Opatowski, whose prisoner number in the camps, and tattooed on his arm, was 143425.
Michael eventually found a web page about Opatowski on the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program, which included a photograph of Opatowski’s former house on Purdon Drive, just south of the park where Michael had found the medallion. Opatowski had died in January 2017, so Michael asked the Azrieli Foundation to put him in touch with Opatowski’s family.
In early July, Esther Opatowski Berkel Kaufman, the eldest child of Felix Opatowski, got a call from Michael saying he had found her father’s medallion.
The medallion had been made by a doctor that Opatowski had met during the Holocaust. At a concentration camp in Melk, Austria, he had been carried to the doctor by his friends because his feet were so cracked and swollen that he couldn’t walk. At first, fearing what would happen if he stayed in the hospital, Opatowski declined the doctor’s offer of help, asking only for a salve to treat his feet.
Then the doctor said to him in Yiddish, “Don’t be afraid. I am a Jew.” Dr. Klaus, who spoke perfect German, was masquerading as a Catholic German so he could help others. Klaus and Opatowski met again at a displaced persons camp after the war, and Klaus made the medallion for Opatowski.
When Kaufman’s father had lost the medallion, her mother soon made another, which had English writing instead of German. But he had lost the original so long ago – at least 35 years previously – that Kaufman had almost forgotten about it.
Kaufman called her brother, Nathan, asking if he had their father’s medallion.
“Now, I know he doesn’t have it, because Michael has it, right? And he came back and said, ‘No, I have it,’ and he took a picture. I said, ‘Oh, you have the new one. Where’s the old one?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s been gone for years.’ And my other sister (Miriam), my other brother (Ami) agreed. Gone for years,” said Kaufman.
That was the medallion Michael had found. He subsequently returned it to the family and shared the details in another YouTube video.
Opatowski’s children took the original medallion and had it framed with a book their father had written, Gatehouse to Hell.
“We were very excited…. Because we’ve lost both of them and it wasn’t that long ago, it was just a piece of it coming back and it was nice,” said Kaufman. “It’s special for us and it’s special that someone not Jewish, young … (took) the care and the time to be that good of a person, asking for nothing. I thought he deserved a little bit of acknowledgment.”
For Michael, returning the medallion was enough.
“It’s always nice to return something like that. But something that has such historic and sentimental value to a family, especially considering the circumstances were the Holocaust, it just felt incredible to return a piece of history to a family,” he said.