Workers demolishing the wall of a building outside the Nazis’ Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp last week found a message in a bottle written by prisoners 65 years ago. The message hints at what happened to six Christians and one Jew whose cooperation helped them survive the Nazis. The Jewish survivor, Albert Veissid, tells the full story.
The names of seven prisoners – mostly Polish Christians, though one was French and one was Jewish – are still legible on the note. Their Nazi-imprinted camp numbers, hometowns, and the fact that they were “all between 18 and 20 years of age” can also be read. The message was written in pencil and is dated September 9, 1944.
The bottle was buried in a concrete wall that prisoners had been compelled to reinforce. The wall was in a building used as a warehouse by the Nazis and more recently by a school, located a few hundred meters from the actual camp. An Auschwitz museum spokesman said the authors of the note "were young people who were trying to leave some trace of their existence behind them.”
Author Died in 1997
In the days following the news of the discovery, information has been learned about some of the seven men. The author was Bronislaw Jankowiak, a Catholic Pole who was sent to the camp in 1943. He fled to Sweden in 1945, where he died in 1997. His handwriting was recognized by a friend and by his daughter, Irene Jankowiak of Sweden.
She told the AFP news service she was “stunned” when she found out her father's name was on the list, and that he had spoken very little about his time in the camp. "The clock stops at that moment and history came back to me and my family. [We] started wondering who he was and why he didn't tell us about it," Irene said.
Another prisoner listed on the note, Karol Czekalski, now 83, still lives in his hometown of Lodz in central Poland, according to Auschwitz-Birkenau museum officials, and Polish website Onet.pl reported that another of those named, Waclaw Sobczak, 84, is living in Wrabczyn in western Poland.
Telling the Story Behind the Note
But possibly the most interesting name on the list, and the one who sheds the most light on its background, is that of Albert Veissid, 84, a Jew who lives in Marseille, France.
Veissid stashed stolen marmalade for his six fellow prisoners in an Auschwitz bunker, and in exchange, the Christians gave the Jew their extra soup – and included his name on their list. Veissid told an Associated Press reporter that he never knew about the list of names in the bottle. "I'm so very, very surprised," he said. “A bit troubled, too.”
Veissid, a retired mason and clarinet player, told AP that he was born in Turkey, arrived in France as an infant, and was picked up at age 18 by the Gestapo. He was then sent to a string of prisons and camps before landing at Drancy, a transit camp northeast of Paris from where 76,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps; only about 3,000 returned.
Currently the site of a memorial to the deported Jews, Drancy was in the news just three weeks ago when it was vandalized and painted with swastikas in an anti-Semitic incident.
"I'm surprised that these Poles put me in this bottle," Veissid said. "I knew their faces, but didn't remember the names." The Christian Poles worked on building sites while Veissid worked beneath them, securing a bunker. They would steal marmalade and other provisions during the day, give them to him for safekeeping, and come at night to retrieve them, he said.
In exchange, they brought him some of their left-over soup. "They brought it to me,” Veissid recounted, “and there was still so much that I gave it to others. I imagine they [included me on their list] out of recognition that by hiding [their supplies], I risked my life.”
The Death March
In April 1945, seven months after the list was written and hidden, the Nazis sensed impending defeat and forced Veissid and many others to walk without food for nearly three weeks to another camp. Many survivors have described these ‘death marches’ as even worse than the preceding years of torture. "If the war had lasted one more week, I wouldn't be here," Veissid said.
When the war ended, he was taken by the Americans to Nuremberg, from where he took a train to France, beginning his life as a “survivor of the Holocaust.”At least 1.1 million people, 90% of whom were Jews, were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945.