Poznań, 4 March 2005
Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim
Thank you for the letter which I received on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau. I was very moved to hear there are so many young people who are interested in issues surrounding the concentration camps and who want to do all they can to ensure such times are not repeated. That is why I have decided to write a few words.
Firstly, I would like to introduce myself. My surname: Stefania Bajer from the house ofGałęska, born 23rd June 1927 in Leszno Wielkopolskie. I am a political prisoner of the concentration camps: Ravensbrueck Nr 56384, Neuengamme Nr 6362- subcamp of Salzgitter-Bad and Bergen Belsen.
I lived in Warsaw from 1939 during wartime. The situation there was tense. Round ups of people off the streets, removal of people into forced labour in the Reich, shootings, arrests, terror – the Polish people began to rise up. Underground organizations began to form, illegal newspapers were published, and the Underground Army was spreading in the forests. My school friends and I wanted to do something against the occupiers. So in spring 1942, my two friends and I joined the illegal Scouting organization “Szare Szeregi.” From the autumn 1942 we were transferred to the underground organization of the AK (Home Army), where we began training as messenger girls (liaison officers). Shortly before the Warsaw Uprising, we swore our oath, pledging allegiance to the Army. During the Uprising, we were mobilized at the liaison office in the Warsaw-Ochota district at ul. Filtrowa 43. The insurgency in Ochota was bloodily and quickly put down by the Kaminski Brigade working under the orders of the SS. At the pacification of 11 September 1944, we received the order to evacuate the city with the civilians, because, as Insurgents, we would have been shot immediately. So via Zieleniak and the camp at Pruszkow, we ended up in the concentration camp Ravensbrueck.
You have almost certainly heard enough about the horrors of the camps. You have heard what a shock it was to have all personal items taken away, to lose your surname, to be given a number and be dressed in camp clothing.
Dear friends! You ask what enabled us to survive that difficult time. Our youth, (we were 17 years old then), our friendship, mutual help and support, hope that the war would soon be over. We tried to stick together as much as we could; instinctively feeling that doing so would make survival easier. Faith in God and His justice was also important.
I would like to tell you about one event.
In mid-September 1944, Germans in civilian clothing came to Ravensbrueck. Our block had to stand to roll call and, in groups of five, go up to a table where civilians were sitting with SS men. They looked at us, our arms and legs, just as on a slave market. I must say here that out of our three, I looked the most wretched. They would then write or not write our numbers on a list. We didn’t know what for. My friends’ numbers were written down but mine was not. Despairing that they would separate us, I overcame my fear and in my broken German addressed the German writing the list and asked for my number to be written on the list for I wanted to share the same fate as my friends. He looked at me, said nothing, but I saw that he wrote my number down. I have wondered more than once what motivated him to do so at that moment. I wanted to cry from happiness that we were not split up. As it turned out, about 300 women whose numbers had been written on the list were sent to Neuengamme – a sub camp of Salzgitter-Bad to work in an ammunition factory. We worked very hard there and in the beginning of April 1945, we were evacuated. They loaded us into open topped cattle wagons. The entire train was full of prisoners from various concentration camps. The train stopped at Celle station. During this time the train was bombed by Allied planes. As German historian M. Bertram says, there were ca. 4000 in the wagons of whom only ca. 1100 survived the bombing. SS men forced those survivors to walk three days, with no food or water, on side roads to KZ Bergen-Belsen. Whoever could no longer walk and was dragging behind was shot. I was already so weak and tired that I totally didn’t care anymore if they took my life or not. And here I must emphasise that thanks to my friends’ help, who (although they were also holding on by the skin of their teeth) encouraged me and held me up during the march, I made it. On the 15th April, we were liberated by the English.
Our friendship has lasted until now.
You ask how our life in freedom turned out. So, after the end of the war, I tried to delete that whole period in the camps from my memory. I did not speak or think about it. Sometimes I had nightmares. When I woke up though, I was glad that it was behind me. I was pleased that my children have a better, happy childhood without the memories of the cruelties of war.
It wasn’t until years later, when the same demons of Nazism, intolerance and antisemitism began to raise their ugly head that I realised that I must not be silent anymore. We must remind people of this as a warning, so that various revisionists and neo-Nazis know that there are still witnesses of that period in history and so that history is not repeated.
At the beginning of the third millennium when old Europe is uniting and borders are opening and when, thanks to modern forms of transport/ communication, distances are getting smaller, I would like to say to the young people:
Meet together to get to know one another better, talk to one another to understand one another better, learn how to respect others even if their appearance and way of thinking are different from yours, so that thanks to this, you will not have to go through the drama of our generation.
In the church in Niepokalanow, there is a plaque which was funded by survivors and dedicated to M.M Kolbe and all who were killed in the years 1939- 1945. Please allow me to finish with the words engraved on it:
Our shadows ask for memory, not for revenge
Our fate is to be a warning, not a legend, for you
If people are silent, the rocks will cry out.
Translated by Karen Forth