#StolenMemory online exhibition
June 14, 2020, is the 80th anniversary of the first transport of Polish prisoners to the German Auschwitz concentration camp, and to mark the occasion, the Arolsen Archives are presenting a digital #StolenMemory exhibition for the first time ever, developed in partnership with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
The specially developed online exhibition describes the paths of persecution and the fates of 14 former prisoners of the German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz – many of them were in the first transport. It also shows which personal items are still being kept in the archive. But it also tells the stories of how some of the items have already been returned to the families concerned.
After the war, his mother, who had received the last sign of life in February 1943, searched for her son. Bolek, as family and friends called him, was only 17 years old and a boy scout.
However, the Red Cross searched for him unsuccessfully. So even his nieces did not know their uncle’s fate until the Arolsen Archives, thanks to the help of journalist Jowita Flankowska, returned the necklace with the silver cross and a wristwatch. The documents in Arolsen show that Bolesław Hermanowicz was transported from Auschwitz to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg only a few weeks after he had written the letter to his mother Antonia. His further fate is unknown.
The SS later deported him to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where he managed to write a letter to his mother in the fall of 1943. He survived the camp and returned to Poland after the war.
Wilhelm Tomasik’s grandson undertook a search in the Arolsen Archives online archive and found the documents and photos that had been taken from his grandfather at the time of his arrest. Thanks to this, these items could finally return to their rightful owners.
First Transport to Auschwitz
On June 14, 1940, the first transport of 728 Polish prisoners from the Tarnów prison reached the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp. The Germans had been terrorizing the population since the war started on September 1, 1939, and they tried to crush all resistance. The first prisoners therefore included soldiers, politicians, civil servants, teachers, doctors, and clergy, but also students and boy scouts. The SS registered the new arrivals by assigning them the numbers 31 to 758. They had to wear striped prisoner clothing and a red triangle identifying their prisoner category: “Political.”
He was assigned prisoner number 95 and classified as a political prisoner. The SS later transferred him to the Neuengamme concentration camp. His prisoner registration card from Neuengamme states that he was a salesman, and his secondary job was as a cook. Edward Golik probably did not survive Neuengamme.
His personal belongings provide some insight into his life before he was imprisoned: photos, one with a stamp from Rabka-Zdrój, and a border crossing pass issued by the German occupation authorities, signed in 1939 in Cracow. The destination indicated on the pass is Łódź, Poland.
His student ID shows that his father’s name was Wojciech. In June 1940, at the age of just 18, Ludwik Grąz was deported by the Nazis on the first transport to Auschwitz, where he was assigned prisoner number 82. Later he was imprisoned in the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, where his prisoner number was 17956.
Not much is known about the fate of Ludwik Grąz. He probably died in May 1945 in the Bay of Lübeck when ships were bombed, resulting in the death of over 6,000 concentration camp prisoners.
On June 14, 1940, the German occupiers deported him on the first transport to Auschwitz, where his prisoner number was 158. There are no documents that show when the SS transferred Edmund Pawliszyn to the Neuengamme concentration camp, his last known whereabouts.
One of the few pieces of additional information can be found in postwar documents in the Arolsen Archives: In 1948, Edmund Pawliszyn’s uncle, Stefan Olszaniecki, was searching for his missing nephew. His correspondence indicates that the young man had studied law before his arrest.
In 1962 the Arolsen Archives took over the “personal effects” of former prisoners of Neuengamme, including Edmund Pawliszyn’s wristwatch.
Mementoes of Nazi Victims
The SS took the prisoners’ personal belongings. These effects, as they were known, were recorded on index cards, stored in envelopes, and sent along with prisoners if they were transferred to another concentration camp. The personal property of Jews, Sinti and Roma people, Soviet prisoners of war, and prisoners of other nationalities who were murdered in the gas chambers, however, would be stolen and exploited immediately by the SS.
Some inmates from Auschwitz were sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg. Shortly before Neuengamme was liberated, the SS put all of the prisoners’ effects in a hiding place, where the British Army later found them. These belongings are now kept in the Arolsen Archives until they can be returned to the families.
One of the few traces of the young man can be found in the camp’s medical treatment book. The last entry relating to him is from November 12, 1943. He was probably taken on a transport to Neuengamme concentration camp between August 25 and 27, 1944.
Only one of Zygmunt Slęzak’s personal effects made it through the war and was discovered by British soldiers: a pocket watch. The word “Foreign” can be found on the watch face. This was a mark often used in Great Britain for goods imported from abroad. On the back of the watch the letters Z and S are engraved, Zygmunt Slęzak’s initials.
After the liberation, US soldiers and former prisoners were able to secure many of the camp’s files, which are now stored in the Arolsen Archives.
Several documents relating to Franz Gil have been preserved, including a registry office card which indicates that he was a laborer. The records show his tragic odyssey from one concentration camp to the next: from Dachau to Auschwitz, and then back and forth between Neuengamme and Dachau for forced labor. These transports took place often, and they were deadly for the prisoners. The last known document about him comes from Neuengamme in September 1942. It says he had contracted tuberculosis.
There he attended primary school and the “No. 868 Stanisława Kostki” secondary school for boys. His student ID and school reports provide an insight into this period. He also carried two photos of his father, Czesław, a police commissioner.
When Waldemar Rowiński was 17, the SS deported him as a political prisoner on the first transport to Auschwitz. He was transferred to the Neuengamme concentration camp on March 12, 1943. On May 3, 1945, he died when the Cap Arcona sank in the Bay of Lübeck. Waldemar Rowiński was buried in Neustadt.
The German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp
In spring 1940, the German Nazis established the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp on the grounds of a former Polish barracks in Oświęcim, a city located in an area annexed by the German Reich. The town had good transport links and was located not far from the border with the General Government, another German-occupied zone. Initially, the people brought to the camp were mainly Polish: the first transport arrived from Tarnów on June 14, 1940, with 728 people. The conditions for prisoners in the camp were appalling, and mortality rates were high from the start.
After Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in autumn 1941, deportations of Soviet prisoners of war began. Along with Polish political prisoners, they were the victims of the first attempts to carry out killings using Zyklon B gas in September 1941.
At the same time, the camp leadership began constructing a gigantic complex. The prisoners were forced to build Auschwitz II-Birkenau – a camp for around 100,000 people that included gas chambers and crematoria.
The German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp
From spring 1942 onwards, Auschwitz was not just a concentration camp but also operated as a death camp. By the end of 1944, more than a million people, most of them Jewish, had been murdered in the gas chambers.
At the other end of the town, a large chemical plant, the Buna-Werke, was built by the company IG-Farben alongside another part of the camp complex: Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Tens of thousands died during the construction and as a result of forced labour, starvation, disease, appalling hygiene conditions, abuse or deliberate murder.
Ultimately, the SS controlled an area of 40 km², the so-called "Auschwitz concentration camp zone of interest", with the camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau as well as Auschwitz III-Monowitz and almost 50 sub-camps. In less than five years, at least 1.1 million of the 1.3 million prisoners in Auschwitz were murdered. These were mostly Jews, who were deported to Auschwitz from all over Europe by the SS, but the number also includes Sinti and Roma, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and people of other nationalities and minorities.
He was registered there as a political prisoner on June 20, 1940, and was assigned the number 866. The SS later sent him to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where he was given the prisoner number 18425.
Mieczysław Borowiec died in May 1945 in the bombing of the Cap Arcona and was buried in Sierksdorf near the Bay of Lübeck. The last possessions he had with him when he was arrested have been preserved. They include a case with his initials. His pen is marked with “KL Auschwitz.” The SS had taken these objects from him and sent them to Neuengamme when he was transferred.
His prisoner number at Auschwitz was E-1552, which indicates that the Nazis classified him as an “Erziehungshäftling” (re-education prisoner). Mieczysław Bąkowski was released again in May 1942, but in October he was held in the Hamburg “Untersuchungshaftanstalt” (remand center) for five months.
All that is known about his fate after this is that he was deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp. The few personal items that Mieczysław Bąkowski had with him when he was arrested included a post office savings book and a ring with a blue stone.
Stefan Suderowicz was one of the first 728 political prisoners from Tarnów who were deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis on June 14, 1940. He was later imprisoned in the Neuengamme concentration camp, where his prisoner number was 17923. Documents show that he was assigned to an electricians’ work detail. He probably died on May 3, 1945, when ships carrying concentration camp prisoners were bombed in the Bay of Lübeck.
The young man’s personal belongings reveal nothing about his life prior to his arrest. The only item held by the Arolsen Archives is his wristwatch.
The sinking of the "Cap Arcona" and the "Thielbek"
In the last days of the Second World War, one of the worst shipping disasters ever to occur took place in the Bay of Lübeck. On May 3, 1945, British bombers sank the "Cap Arcona" and the "Thielbek" because the ships were thought to be carrying German troops. About 6400 concentration camp prisoners died as a result of this terrible mistake, because the SS had driven thousands of prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp onto the ships as they lay at anchor in the Bay of Lübeck and was holding them captive on board.
In order to cover up their crimes and prevent any concentration camp prisoners from falling into the hands of the liberators alive, the SS cleared hundreds of concentration camps throughout the Reich as the Allies approached. The exhausted prisoners were driven on death marches from camp to camp during the last weeks of the war.
The sinking of the "Cap Arcona" and the "Thielbek"
Crammed together on the completely overloaded ships, the prisoners had no access to drinking water, food, or adequate sanitary facilities. When Royal Air Force bombers attacked the "Cap Arcona" and the “Thielbek,” both ships were badly hit, and they capsized. There were no lifeboats for the prisoners; the SS had destroyed all means of escape. Despite being emaciated and weakened by the conditions they had endured in the concentration camps, many people jumped into the cold Baltic Sea and tried to swim ashore. Meanwhile, guards on the ships and on land opened fire on them as they fought for their lives. Of more than 7000 prisoners on board the two ships, only about 600 survived. Some of the personal effects kept at the Arolsen Archives belonged to Polish prisoners who died in the bombing of these ships.
Just one day later, the metalworker was sent to Neuengamme concentration camp. He probably spent nearly three years there, until the camp was cleared. One of the last traces of Sylvin Szabrański is an entry in the list of the Neuengamme camp hospital from April 4, 1944. There are indications that he died in the Bay of Lübeck.
The last personal possession he had with him when he was arrested was a wristwatch with a brown leather strap.
In that year alone, more than 11,000 prisoners were sent to this camp south of Hamburg. Neuengamme was established in 1938 as a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen, and the SS forced the prisoners there to work in a brick factory. From 1940, the prisoners had to transform the site into an independent concentration camp, with barracks, watchtowers and fencing they built themselves.
Very little is known about the fate of Emil Baczyk. The Arolsen Archives currently hold a fountain pen that was the only personal item he had with him. He probably did not survive Neuengamme.
On October 7, 1940, the SS deported him from Tarnów to Auschwitz, where he was registered with the prisoner number 5912. From March 1943 he was a prisoner in Neuengamme concentration camp. His prisoner registration card says that he was a medic, and in the concentration camp he worked as a nurse.
The SS cleared Neuengamme shortly before the end of the war and sent the remaining prisoners to the Bay of Lübeck, where they were forced to board the Cap Arcona, Athen and Thielbek. Stanisław Król was one of the more than 6,000 concentration camp prisoners who died in the bombing of these ships on May 3, 1945.
Join the Campaign!
In the Arolsen Archives, there are nearly 2,700 “effects” from concentration camps: jewelry, family photos, and everyday items such as combs or powder compacts. Often they were the last remaining belongings of the victims of Nazi persecution, the things they had with them at the time of their arrest by the National Socialists. They belonged to people from more than 30 countries – many of them from Poland and the former Soviet Union.
In 2016, the Archives launched a campaign to return these stolen memories to as many families as possible. The exhibition tells what it means to people to hold these mementoes in their hands – and shows objects whose rightful owners the Arolsen Archives have yet to find.
Please join the community and help us return the mementoes stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. Time is of the essence. Visit our online archive to see photos of the personal belongings and the names of victims of Nazi persecution. You can use the information there to conduct research and share important clues with us.