Evidence of an atrocity

  • Spring Mills man’s rare mail collection helped silence Holocaust doubters

High on a hilltop stood the sprawling Nazi concentration camp known as Buchenwald.

One day, in May 1942, a letter arrived. Most likely, the writer was Jewish, asking for a relative’s remains. Camp officials responded promptly. They scooped ashes from a huge pile below the camp into a parcel addressed to a Vienna cemetery. For their trouble, they charged 100 marks.

Such depraved cynicism is almost unbelievable — but Ken Lawrence, a Spring Mills philatelist and writer, had proof. The parcel waybill, one of only three known examples of its kind, survived World War II and time to become part of his unique Holocaust memorial.

For 30 years, Lawrence built an award-winning catalog of rare concentration camp mail and other postal material from the Nazi reign before selling the collection recently to the Spungen Family Foundation in Illinois. The 250 items, insured by the foundation for $1 million, recount the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, and others through the fragile testimonies of letters, envelopes, postcards, and documents.

“There’s a story on every page,” Lawrence said. “That’s why I want to write a book on it, now that I don’t have to be the custodian of the collection.”

  • A 1945 letter from a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp to his wife was surprisingly not destroyed by the guards.
  • A 1942 telegram to Josefa Wilezynski in Tarnow, Poland, reads: “Your husband died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.”
  • Josef Prag sent this letter to his brother, Franz Prag, in 1943.

The foundation will display the collection both online and, starting next year, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Ill. A national tour is also planned.

Already, schools and religious groups can view the collection on a two-disc DVD made in 2006 by The Philatelic Foundation, a nonprofit organization in New York.

“Other people have collected Holocaust mail,” said the foundation’s executive director, Steven Belasco. “What Ken put together is certainly one of the finest collections.”

Whenever someone peers at the faded handwriting of a lost soul at Auschwitz, or gazes at a scrap of Hebrew Scripture used by a German soldier to wrap a package, Lawrence’s mission will continue.

Now 65, the former civil rights activist started collecting to refute those who denied that the Holocaust happened. In classrooms, community centers and libraries, he countered their claims with frayed papers stamped with swastikas and Hitler’s likeness — tangible evidence of the horror.

“I could go in a school, and there’s a big difference between seeing a picture and holding the real thing,” he said.

Fighting for civil rights

Lawrence grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, a progressive, mixed enclave of a blue-collar, divided city.

“Chicago was an interesting place to grow up if you wanted to be aware of the social conflicts that have troubled this country from its inception,” he said.

His parents were conservative, but his grandmother had been a suffragist who once chained herself to the White House fence and published her prison journal in the Chicago newspapers. Lawrence took after her when he left college in 1959 after his freshman year to join the growing civil rights movement.

During the 1960s, he took part in sit-ins and other protests in the Chicago area, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the movement’s principal organizers. In 1971, he moved to Mississippi to join the staff of another civil rights group, the Southern Conference Educational Fund.

Traveling from Miami to El Paso as an organizer and reporter, he carried a pistol for protection.

“Things had quieted down by the time I got there — but not entirely,” he said. “Violence still erupted, and there were still dangerous places for a civil rights worker to go in Mississippi and Alabama.”

Someone once sabotaged his brakes, causing his van to run off the road. But a new threat emerged in the late 1970s. The United Racist Front, an alliance between the Klan and neo-Nazis, began waging a Holocaust denial campaign.

“By doing this, especially in a place like Mississippi, they gained an entry to the schools they never would have had in hoods and sheets,” Lawrence said.

It became clear to Lawrence that organizers faced a different Klan than the raging segregationists of the previous decade. For this war, they needed other ammunition.

And so, a dedicated stamp collector fought back in his own way.

“If we did not teach people what would happen if the (Klan) won,” Lawrence said, “we were not doing enough to counter their successes.”

Gathering evidence of horror

With little to spend, he enlisted the help of European friends to find material from estate sales, auctions and dealers.

His first acquisition was a 1943 letter from Eduard Pys, a 21-year-old Pole who was among the first arrivals at Auschwitz. From that, Lawrence eventually assembled a powerful sampling of the suffering the Nazis unleashed.

In 1941, Paul Oberlutner in Vienna received a form notice from the Sachsenhausen camp. It indicated that a letter he sent to a relative had been forwarded to the camp, but offered no other information.

“Presumably, this was the way the man found out his relative was a prisoner,” Lawrence said.

Camp censors usually lifted stamps to check for hidden messages, but they failed to catch Lorenz Janowski’s plea on his otherwise innocuous 1942 letter from Sachsenhausen. In tiny Polish print beneath the Hitler stamp, he begged for bread.

Inbound camp mail is extremely rare, because guards routinely destroyed letters after they were read. Lawrence’s collection contains several examples, including one in broken German to an inmate at Ravensbrueck, a women’s camp. “Are you healthy?” the correspondent writes. “Your mother’s heart is always very anxious about you.”

Another letter represents the only known wartime correspondence of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of the German Jews. He was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto but survived to settle in London and become a noted theologian.

Other rarities abound: a Jewish child’s travel papers, a tax document for shoes from the Warsaw ghetto, a summons to a Gestapo interrogation, a German teenager’s draft notice in the war’s final days. A doctor’s sketch in red ink depicts an inmate who killed himself on an electric fence rather than face another day in the notoriously brutal Mauthausen camp.

And there’s the Torah scroll in which German army Cpl. Paul Ehrenfreund wrapped a parcel to mail home from the Russian Front. It could be worth as much as half a million dollars for its singular reminder of Nazi barbarism.

“It’s so inhuman,” Lawrence said. “It just embodies the horror of Naziism.”

One member of the Singer family escaped from Berlin to Sweden. He wrote back to his brother, asking why he hadn’t yet left. Then he wrote again, saying he had obtained the necessary visa for him.

“Both of the last two letters were forwarded to Auschwitz, then returned to sender,” Lawrence said. “It came too late, the visa, and his brother was gassed.”

Having sold one collection, Lawrence is now starting another. Among his current items is a 1940 letter from Auschwitz, written by prisoner No. 112, Alexander Kolodriejczwk. His low number indicates he was one of the slave laborers who built the camp — and then died in it.

“I want the viewer of these to be shocked, overcome, to have a lump in their throat and a tear in their eye,” Lawrence said. “If this doesn’t create a deep, emotional response, I’ve failed.”

Source: Chris Rosenblum, Centre Daily Times