Sixty-five years ago Waclaw Sobczak hid a message in a bottle between the bricks of a wall in a building of the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, a last sign of life as he prepared to die. “I put the bottle in the wall,” Sobczak, 84, who survived Auschwitz but still bears the ID number – 145664 – the Nazis tattooed on his forearm, told AFP via telephone from his home in Wrabczyn, western Poland.“It was an attempt to leave a trace of our existence as we thought we were going to die,” said Sobczak, sent to Auschwitz in 1943 as a slave labourer.
The note in the bottle written September 20, 1944 included Sobczak’s name and Auschwitz ID number along with those of five other fellow Poles and one Frenchman, all Auschwitz slaves at the time aged 18 to 20.
It was found in April by chance by workers demolishing a wall in what is now a school, but was part of the death camp during World War II.
Since, it has emerged that three of the men on the list are still alive.
“We were taught how to be masons by engineers and master masons, primarily French Jews,” said Karol Czekalski, 83, another of the Poles named on the list, which was formally handed over to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in southern Poland, this month.
“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,” Sobczak recalled, but admitted he cannot remember who came up with idea to write the message.
“Someone found a bottle. I put it in the wall,” he said.
The Frenchman on the list was Albert Veissid, now a sprightly 84 and living at Allauch in southeastern France.
“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 told AFP after the bottle surfaced.
“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 favours. 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.”
After news of the bottle’s discovery spread, a Swedish woman identified the man who wrote the list – Bronislaw Jankowiak, Auschwitz ID number 121213 – as her father.
Told about the discovery of the bottled message by relatives in Poland, Irene Jankowiak, 49, said she was stunned.
“I recognised the handwriting. It must be my father’s handwriting,” Jankowiak told AFP by telephone from her home in Uppsala, north of Stockholm.
“We have compared it to other things he has written, we have old letters and things 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 Poznan, 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 in Aatvidaberg, in southern Sweden, and died in 1997.
“I think it made him suffer, he wanted to forget it. We asked our parents to write, to leave testimony, but they never wanted to,” Irene’s sister Margareta told AFP.
Nazi Germany systematically killed more than one million people, mostly European Jews, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp located in the then Nazi-occupied southern Polish town of Oswiecim between 1940 and 1945.
Among the camp’s other victims were tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, and anti-Nazi resistance fighters from across Europe.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945, three months before Nazi Germany was finally defeated by the Allies.
The infamous site was part of German dictator Adolf Hitler’s plan of genocide against European Jews, six million of whom perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.