Message in a Bottle.
Earlier this week a spokesman from the Auschwitz Museum announced a startling find – a 65 year old note written and hidden by seven camp inmates which had remained undiscovered until now. The note was only recently found by construction workers rennovating school buildings close to the site of the former camp.
The note, dated 9th September 1944, was short and simple. Scribbled in pencil, on a crumpled scrap of paper torn from a cement sack was a list containing the names, camp ID numbers and home towns of seven Auschwitz inmates, all aged between 18 and 20. According to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the full note reads:
“KL Auschwitz 20.IX.44 AA shelter for T.W.L crew. Built by prisoners: No 121313 Jankowiak Bronislaw from Poznan, 130208 Dubla Stanislaw from Laskowice, Tarnow district, 131491 Jasik Jan from Radom neighbourhood, 145664 Sobczak Waclaw from Konin neighbourhood, 151090 Czekalski Karol from Lodz, 157582 Bialobrzeski Waldemar from Ostro-leka, 12063 Veissid Albert from Lyon (France). All 18-20 years old.”
The authenticity of the note has been confirmed by the Auschwitz museum, and it will go on display in the next few weeks. It appears that the first man listed, Bronislaw Jankowiak, may have written the note as the handwriting has been matched to that found in other correspondance of his, including diaries and letters.
The seven inmates were part of a labour programme working offsite, reinforcing buildings located a few hundred metres from the camp site that were used for storage by the Nazis to protect them from air raid attacks. The bottle was found sealed inside a concrete wall in one of the buildings (now a school cellar).
Six of the names listed were Polish, just one of the men named – Jan Albert Vessid – was French. Mr. Vessid survived his time in Auschwitz, along with three other men mentioned in the note – the aforementioned Bronislaw Jankowiak, who subsequently moved to Sweden and died in 1997, Karol Czekalski and Waclaw Sobczak, both still resident in Poland. Today, Jan Albert Vessid, Karol Czekalski and Waclaw Sobczak are all in their mid to late eighties.
Mr. Vessid has been traced to his home in Marseilles and claimed to be ‘surprised and a little bit troubled’ by the find, telling reporters that he did not know anything about the message and could not remember the bottle, but confirming that he was the man mentioned on the paper.
“It is absolutely my name on the message and my registration number: 12063. I can’t forget that number because it’s on my arm. I’m surprised that these Poles put me in this bottle, I knew their faces, but didn’t remember the names.”
Mr Vessid remembers working with the Poles (who, he says, spoke simple French) to secure the buildings though, and also remembers a kind of mutual solidarity that developed: he would hide bread, marmalade and other stolen provisions for them during the day so that they could be retrieved later at night. In exchange, the Poles bought him soup. He believes that this solidarity may be the reason behind their inclusion of his name on their list, stating that:
“I imagine they did it out of recognition that by hiding (their supplies), I risked my life”.
Messages in bottles are generally associated with desperate, lost sailors, marooned on desert islands, isolated and cut off from the world aound them as they make a last desperate attempt to contact someone – anyone – to reveal their plight and document their existence in the hope of rescue. There is an obvious parallel with the experiences and fate of those imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War Two, where, if their attempt to communicate with the outside world had been discovered, the penalty would likely have been death for those named on the list. Museum spokesman Jarek Mensfelt described the authors of the note as ‘young people who were desperately trying to leave some trace of their existence behind them’. Sixty-five years later, their message has finally been revealed to the world.
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About the Author:
Dr Kelly Hignett is a historian and a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. Kelly’s interests primarily relate to communist and post-communist Eastern Europe.
Kelly’s research focuses on the historical analysis of crime and social deviance, particularly in the central and east European region and the former USSR; crime, deviance and underground movements/sub-cultures in communist regimes; the evolving relationship between state and society and experiences of ‘the everyday’ under communism. Her PhD research drew on a combination of archival research and oral testimony to explore the evolution of criminal networks in East Central Europe from the 1970s to the early post-communist period. Kelly has previously published articles in several peer-review journals and edited collections, contributed a series of shorter articles to publications including New Eastern Europe and Jane’s Intelligence Digest and presented numerous papers about her research internationally, in countries including the UK, USA, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Germany and Morocco.
More recently Kelly has been researching drug abuse and the development of domestic drug markets in late socialist east central Europe. Her next major research project will focus on political repression in communist-era Czechoslovakia.
In addition to continuing to develop her research into crime, deviance and dissent Kelly is also interested in the historical borderlands of Eastern Europe. From initial research into the historical development of crime and attempts to control crime in border regions, she has become increasingly interested in some of the broader historical, political and socio-economic aspects of life among communities who have historically existed on the margins of state control. She plans to develop her initial research into a broader comparative study of this area.
A Few Recent Publications:
K Hignett, ‘Spy Game Diplomacy’, New Eastern Europe, 3/IV (July-September 2012)
K Hignett, ‘Transnational Organised Crime and the Global Village’ in F Allum and S Gilmour (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Transnational Organized Crime, (November 2011):
K Hignett, ‘Crime in Communist and Post-Communist Eastern Europe’, Law, Crime & History, SOLON Online Journal, 1/1 (2011) @
K Hignett, ‘The Changing Face of Organised Crime in Post-Communist East Central Europe’ in Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 18/1, (April 2010), pp. 71-88
Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Organised Crime’, in M Galeotti (ed), Organised Crime in History (Routledge, 2009)
Major Current/Forthcoming Research Projects:
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