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23.11.2018

Secret messages to Antonina Grygowa from Museum’s collections

Prisoners of stalags, oflags and the Majdanek camp and Lublin Castle referred to her as ‘Aunt Antonina’ or ‘Dear Mother,’ whereas for habitants of Lublin she was known as a patriotic and social activist, whose social activity was honoured by naming one of the streets of the city after her. Family of Antonina Grygowa, who has been mentioned above, donated to our Museum almost 200 secret messages sent to her by Polish prisoners of the Majdanek concentration camp. The collection of letters was given by Andrzej Putz – grandson of Antonina Grygowa – and his daughter Joanna Putz-Leszczyńska.

What strikes the eye is unusual form of this correspondence. Usually, a secret message is short information, written by hand with pencil, rarely with pen. Authors didn’t have a letter paper at their disposal. They wrote on paper obtained in various ways – sometimes it was unprinted edge of a newspaper, page from notebook, shred of wrapping paper, or cigarette paper. Everything depended on the position of prisoner in the camp and consequently – on the organization possibilities. Prisoners, who were working in camp offices, had, of course, an easy access to writing materials. People who received the packages, also found there paper and writing utensils.

Language of secret messages is usually frugal and it is used by authors to phrase the most important matters for them, mostly about health, describing their needs or providing the situation in the camp. However, there are exceptions to this rule, which indicate the epistolary craftsmanship of the authors of correspondence. The messages written by Dr. Henryk Wieliczański, a prisoner of the Majdanek concentration camp, can certainly serve as an example. What is characteristic for those messages is their extensive form, they are written even on A5 paper. The author used a fountain pen, what could be surprising despite the fact that he was working as a doctor in the camp hospital, where he was required to keep medical records. As an educated and tender person, he was describing the reality, which was surrounding him, with great insight. In his letters, he was confiding in Antonina Grygowa about his concerns about his loved ones, he was describing his feelings towards beloved wife and daughter, and he was acknowledging for her care in camp. It is possible to get to know a lot from this correspondence about the affairs in Majdanek, for example about deportations of new prisoners to the camp or about his coprisoners who were in an emergency.

In the letter from December 14, 1943, we can read:

‘Dear Mrs. Antonina! The day before yesterday more than 1000 sick people from Sachsenhausen (near to Berlin) came to us. These were mostly Germans, Russians, Croatans, etc. The number of Poles is minimal. These are almost all people suffered from tuberculosis. Yesterday a transport from Oświęcim came: 66 women and 100 men, Jews among them. (...) Yesterday I received a great package. I don't even thank you for your memory and commitment. Christmas is coming – sad and hard it will be, hearts full of anxiety, here - our hearts are concerned about you, and yours – we know – we know what happens in the hearts of our sisters and brothers. Everybody will be at the common Christmas table by his heart, ravens and crows will guard our separated bodies. But they will not separate us all. How sad it is to remember last year's holidays, let alone the coming ones.’

Worries about the family are visible also in the letter from January 8, 1944:

‘Dear Mrs Antonina! Yesterday I heard from eyewitness that my wife looks disastrously and doesn’t feel good. I lost my peace again, because my wife is everything to me, more than my child. I have always tried to give my wife everything, to remove any concerns she could have. I am losing my grip when I only think that my wife could lose her health. She is such frail and she started a daylong work on manual loom. I want her to be interested only in home and child.‘

Under the letter he signed himself as ‘devoted Zygmunt’. It was a pseudonym of Dr. Henryk Wieliczyński, which he used in the camp. This method was used also by the other prisoners who corresponded with Antonina Grygowa. Jan Klonowski signed himself as ‘Jaś’, Tadeusz Znyk – Tadek, Genowefa Tomaszewska – Gena, Hanna Protsowicka – Kuba. The idea was that, when the messages would be intercepted by camp staff, it would be not clear who the author was. Sending illegal letters had severe consequences for prisoners.

Beyond the messages, or to say properly – the letters, from Henryk Wieliczański, Antonina Grygowa received messages not much extensive at all, which contained in the most words of thanking for help and requests for taking care of particular persons. To illustrate how this correspondence looks like, we would use a quote from the message from Zofia Kr. [probably it was Zofia Krasińska – A. W.]:

‘Dear Mrs Ant! We sincerest thank Dear Madame for your eager and cordial help. I dare to refer to your care another person – she is 63 years old – lady Euzebia Witwicka from Lviv, very exhausted physically – for maintaining her health she needs medicines: glucose, Navitol and Opotanin (with a doctor’s prescription). During last weeks she hadn’t got any packets, we are taking care of her collectively, but our care is not that efficient in the case of medicines. We absolutely cannot handle it. (signed Zofia Kr.)’

The collection given to the Museum is of great value as a source of knowledge about the Majdanek concentration camp, about the conditions in which the prisoners were detained, but also about the prisoners themselves. It is important to point out that in the most they were from intelligentsia, who could shortly and precisely put their thoughts down on a paper. We learn about the addressee of the letters that she provided prisoners with sacrificial help, not only in material sense, but also lifted their spirits. Thanks to her they did not want to lose hope because they knew that someone was watching over them behind the wires. Donated messages complement the collection of letters to Antonina Grygowa, which was given to Museum many years ago. It is remarkable collection of testimonies, which provide readers with knowledge and emotions.

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