Monday, August 22, 2011

A Voice from the Past - Mr. Jankowski's Letter

A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to translate a letter from German into English. I always appreciate the chance to exercise my translation muscle so I accepted the task, but not without some anxiety as it was letter from a prisoner at Buchenwald concentration camp to his wife. I was concerned that I might not able able to do it justice, but felt it was important to give it a go.

It was shared with me by the letter's owner, someone who purchased it from a collector of such items with the request to translate, out of curiosity as to it's content. I have found this to be a remarkable opportunity to engage with history in a visceral and concrete way and I felt that sharing this (with the owner's permission) would be a good way to shed light for students of history and genealogy. Perhaps this person's remaining family members may even find it one day.

Here is the translation of the letter into English and my transcription of it in German below that, from Jankowski's handwriting in German. In this translation I have tried to convey the language of the letter as best I can in the hope that it is less of a transliteration and more a representation of a note to a family member.

Letter from Prisoner in Protective Custody, Leschek Jankowski
in Concentration Camp Weimar-Buchenwald
dated January 3, 1943

Dear Sofi and Zorinka,
I received your parcel with heartfelt thanks. It is hard to express my deepest appreciation and I can't describe how grateful I am.

In spite of this dear Zorinka, I ask you to please not send me any parcels.

I can understand your situation but you should not waste a single minute to send them to me, because it's really not important.

Tell Aunt and Uncle that I have also received their package and it's contents with deep appreciation.

Dear Zori! On the occasion of your birthday, I send you all my best and good wishes. I want you to stay healthy so that one day we will see each other again and then our longing for each other will be at an end. Our darling little daughter should remain the symbol of our deep love.

Happy New Year greetings to all my family and friends. I've received so many letters from you all, but as of now I have received no news from my brothers. Please also send me news of Heinrich and Forenski and send them my greetings. The next letter (I write) I will send to uncle and aunt.
Greetings, kisses and deepest longing, your dear Leschek
Here is my best attempt to transcribe his writing, some of the words I had a hard time deciphering the handwriting on. I've written it out as it appears to me, but the words may appear nonsensical to those who know German.

Lieber Sofi und Zorinka,
Sowohl euren brief wie das Pakete habe ich mit herzlichen dank erhalten. Es fallte mir schwere meine grossen Dankbarkeit mehligen aus danek nur zur verheilen, und wie wir geschmackt hat brauche ich wohl nicht zur schildern.

Trotzdem liebe Zorinka, bitte ich Dich nun sie aus keinerlei pakete zu schicken.

Ich kann mich in Eure Lage hineinstellen und Ihr sollt euch nicht von einigen Minute absparen um mir zu schicken denn es ist wirklich nicht notwendig.

Onkel und Tante teile bitte mit das ich ihre Pakete mit inhalt ebenfalls mit grösser dankbarkeit erhalten habe.

Liebe Zusier! Anlasslich deines Geburtstages wie auch des Neuen Jahres meine beste und besondere herzliche grüsse wunsche entgegen mögst Du mir recht lange gesund am Leben erhalten bleiben, auf das wir uns einst wiedersehen und unsere grosse Sehnsucht endlich gestillt werde.

Unser lieber Töchterchen möge weiter das Symbol unsere grossen Liebe bleiben. Herzliche Neujahrswünche sende ich auch meiner ganzen Familie und Bekannten. Soviel Briefe habe ich von Euch schon erhalten, aber bisher habe ich nichts von meinem Brüder keinen Nachrichten.

Bitte schreib mir auch etwas über Heinrich und Forenski die ich alle recht herzlich grüssen lassen. Den nächsten Brief werde ich weiter an Onkel und Tante richten. Verbleibt mir also alle recht herzlich gegrüßt und geküsst im grosser Sehnsucht nach Euch.
Deiner Liebe Leschek

This letter prompted some cursory research on my end to try to find more about Mr. Jankowski and the context of his situation. Perhaps with some deeper scholarship and a little luck, his fate might be learned.

Buchenwald was described as a work camp rather than designed purposefully for extermination and some people did survive it, though of course the harsh conditions and enforced labor took its toll on many. A segment of prisoners were indeed brutalized and experimented upon, but I would like to hope that Mr. Jankowski was not one of them.

The facts obvious right away are that he had a wife and young daughter, an aunt and uncle whom he was close and at least two brothers or possibly two friends/colleagues, which he mentions by name. His German seems to be that of a native speaker, but his Polish surname makes me think he could have been an ethnic Pole in Germany. Reichs prisoners were required by law to communicate with their families solely in German so this may have been a dictated letter - the hand-writing may not even been his. Minority rights for Poles in Germany were revoked by in February 1940 and their property was confiscated. Zorinka is a Czech female name, so perhaps his wife was from the Sudentenland. Jankowski is the 13th most popular surname in Poland.

As to his ethnic status, I am unaware if he was a Jew. In October 1942 all of Buchenwald's Jewish prisoners were deported to Auschwitz except for 204 essential workers, yet the chances of him being one of these is slim. Jankowski was a prisoner in "Protective Custody", a catch-all phrase used to incarcerate Jews as well as Social Democrats, Communists, Liberals, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, clergy who opposed the Nazis, members of national opposition movements, non-Germans in general after Germany began to occupy Europe, and any others whose behavior -- real or perceived -- could be interpreted as politically motivated opposition.

He doesn't mention Christmas, which would have been a few weeks prior to the letter being written. It's absence could indicate his religion as Jewish -- or not. Perhaps the New Year could have been reason enough for him to receive packages from family. It is unclear.

I think the best chance of learning more about him would be to access the records of Buchenwald since his Prisoner number 7073 and cellblock 38D, are both clearly listed on his letter. Perhaps other records would indicate his ethnicity.

The printed section on the stationary are instructions to the prisoner and recipient of the letter which I didn't spend the time translating since they didn't hold much information of interest to me. The last few sentences however stick in my mind: Der Tag der Entlassung kann noch nicht gegeben werden. Besuchen im Lager sind verboten. Umfragen sind zwecklos. Release dates cannot be given. Visits to the prison are forbidden. Requests are useless. Very Kafka-esque in it's finality.

The things that stood out for me in the content of the letter was that he indicated he'd gotten multiple letters and parcels from family members -- not something I would have expected for someone in a camp. I found his choice of words that their small daughter, who would stand as the "symbol" of their love, particularly tender and poignant. I wonder who Heinrich and Forenski were - they were clearly important enough to him to ask about. The letter had no envelope so I have no idea where it was sent to, that would have helped. I don't know the condition of the paper since it was scanned and sent to me as a PDF document.

I would like to hear from other people who might know anything of the details of this letter and it's historical context. If anyone has researched individual prisoners, I'd be interested in learning how you went about it. I don't want this man to be forgotten.

Image detail from a 1944 German postcard from the McMaster University digital collection of concentration camp correspondence.

At the intersection of art and new media, a place where the convergence emerges.