Wednesday, May 13, 2009

HOLOCAUST: The Mystery of Message in a Bottle Found at Auschwitz Solved

Wacław Sobczak, former Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Oświęcim Poland on May 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

A recently discovered hidden Auschwitz message has been hailed as a rare find and cause for hope.

A construction crew renovating a cellar of a building on the grounds of a vocational school in the Polish town of Oświęcim (called Auschwitz by the Nazis), discovered a bottle hidden in a concrete wall. Rolled up inside was a note, written in pencil on a scrap from a cement bag.

Dated Sept. 20, 1944, the note bears the names, camp numbers and hometowns of the seven prisoners — six Roman Catholics from Poland and one Jewish inmate from France. It says that all were between the ages of 18 and 20 and assigned to build an anti-aircraft bunker and food storage unit for camp commanders.

As a desperate attempt to preserve a small piece of themselves, the note hidden documenting the Auschwitz prisoners, was added on May 6 to the archives of the Polish state-run museum dedicated to the memory of the former Nazi death camp's victims.

Museum Director Piotr Cywiński hailed the document as a rare discovery and a cause for celebration, given that at least four of the prisoners are still living today.

As a last sign of life as he prepared to die, Wacław Sobczak hid a message in a bottle between the bricks of a wall in a building of the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp sixty-five years ago.  He and his fellow inmates never expected to survive the camp.


Sobczak, 85, was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 as a slave laborer.  He survived, and bears the ID number 145664 that the Nazis tattooed on his forearm.  "I put the bottle in the wall," recalled Sobczak.  "It was an attempt to leave a trace of our existence as we thought we were going to die.  It was very risky and we had to be very careful putting it in the wall. We wanted at least our names and numbers to be left behind."


Sobczak admitted that he could not remember who came up with idea to write the message.  "Someone found a bottle. I put it in the wall," he said.


Sobczak said in a brief speech at the handover ceremony that he was "happy and satisfied" to hear the bottle was found, even though it brought back sad memories of the suffering that he endured and witnessed during 18 months as an Auschwitz inmate.


After news of the bottle's discovery spread, a Swedish woman identified the man who wrote the list as her father, .Bronisław Jankowiak, Auschwitz ID number 121313.


Told about the discovery of the bottled message by relatives in Poland, Irene Jankowiak, 49, said she was stunned.  "I recognized the handwriting. It must be my father's handwriting," said Jankowiak.


"We have compared it to other things he has written, we have old letters and entries that he wrote in 1945 in a diary so I'm 100 percent sure actually," she said after seeing photos of the list in published in the local media.


Born in 1926 in Poznań, Bronislaw Jankowiak, a Catholic Pole who was sent to the camp in 1943, fled to Sweden in 1945 where he worked in a factory for typewriters and calculators and died in 1997.


"We had been taught how to be masons by engineers and master masons, primarily French Jews," said Auschwitz prisoner #151090 Karol Czekalski, 83, another of the Poles named on the list.


Czekalski from Lódz was arrested at the beginning of 1943, together with his brother Antoni. Germany accused them of involvement in conspiracy by association to their parents.  Their father's was murdered by the Gestapo while in custody; and their mother was interned in prison and the transported to Auschwitz, where she died two months later at the Birkenau camp.  In the Lódz Sterling Street prison, the brothers were separated – Antoni taken to Buchenwald, and Karol to Auschwitz.


"From the spring of 1944 some of the apprentices were deemed ready to work," he added. "They joined the 'Luftschutzbunkerbau' responsible for building anti-air raid bunkers."  "We were used for various jobs: plastering, laying tiles... finally we were chosen to construct this building. It took 8 or 15 days. I vaguely remember some faces. I am certain there was a Frenchman among us,"


The Frenchman on the list was Albert Veissid, now 84 and living at Allauch in southeastern France. At Auschwitz he stashed stolen marmalade for six Polish Christian prisoners. They shared spare cups of soup with him and wrote his name alongside theirs in a note in a bottle that was encased in a wall for 65 years.

“I’m so very, very surprised,” Veissid said. “A bit troubled, too.” He said the bottle’s recent discovery churned up memories he tried for decades to ignore.

"It's incredible. I remember everything from the camp, from A to Z. As I speak to you now, I can see the images before my eyes," he said.  "But this bottle business is an enigma. The biggest surprise of my life," said the former fairground worker, who was arrested by collaborationist French authorities in 1943 and deported to Poland the following year.


Veissid said that while it was a mystery to him how his name appeared on the list, he remembered meeting the six Poles in question while working as a builder at the camp.

"It's true I did them some favors. There was food supplied upstairs and they used to steal tubs of marmalade, which I would hide downstairs," he said.  "Maybe they wrote my name in the bottle as a way of thanking me."

Stanisław Dubla – #
130208, who died after the war is also on the list, while nothing is known of the fate of two more, Waldemar Białobrzeski – #157582 and Jan Jasik – #131491.


Nazi Germany systematically killed approximately 1.1 million people Jews, non-Jewish Poles, anti-Nazi resistance fighters from across Europe, Gypsies and others at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp located in the then Nazi-occupied southern Polish town.  They died in the camp’s gas chambers, or from starvation, disease and forced labor, between 1940 and its January 27, 1945 liberation by Soviet troops, three months before Nazi Germany was finally defeated by the Allies.

"This is a very clear sign of hope," Piotr Cywiński said. "These young people put the message in a bottle to leave a sign. But not only the bottle survived — some of them also survived. This is very moving."

Cywiński said most surviving documents from Auschwitz were produced by the Nazis.
  "We don't get many documents written by inmates. It's rare."   He also appealed to the wider public to hunt through their attics and basements to see if more such documents still exist.

SOURCE MATERIAL:  Gazeta Wyborcza Kraków, Stanislaw Waszak (AFP),  (AP)