Deciphering the letter
In 1980, a Polish forestry student was working in the forest around the ruins of Auschwitz- Birkenau’s crematorium III. 40 cm below the surface, they came across a thermos flask, sealed with plastic. Inside were thirteen scraps of paper, covered with writing that was so severely damaged by the damp that only 10% could be read. The undeciphered letter was placed in the Auschwitz Museum archive where it stayed until the museum agreed to allow Russian historian Pavel Polian to examine it.
Polian spoke of the letter’s degradation on the radio in 2013. Shortly afterward, Alexander Nikityaev, a young IT expert contacted him. Nikityaev spent 2013 using Adobe Photoshop’s digital imaging software to try and enhance the letter enough for it to be readable. After applying a number of colored filters, he managed to improve the faded writing, making it 90% legible. Nikityaev returned the letter to Polian, who found that unusually, it was written in Greek. Translation revealed the author to be Marcel Nadjari. In late 2017, Polian published the letter’s contents in the Munich Institute of Contemporary History’s quarterly magazine.
The letter began with an introduction written in German, Polish and French asking the finder to pass it on to the Greek embassy, from where Nadjari hoped it would be forwarded to his friend Dimitrios Stefanides. Then came the main narrative which was Nadjari’s account of ‘life’ in Auschwitz and the Nazi atrocities. “We all suffer things here that the human mind can not imagine,” Nadjari explained before describing in painful detail the crimes of his Nazi captors- and the Sonderkommando’s unwilling role in covering them up.
Nadjari’s account confirms the manner in which the Nazi’s murdered incoming Jews. ‘The crematorium is a big building with a wide chimney and 15 ovens,’ he explained ‘Under a garden, there are two enormous cellars. One is where people undress, and the other is the death chamber. People enter it naked and once about 3,000 are inside it is locked and they are gassed. After six or seven minutes of suffering, they die.’
The Nazis disguised the underground chamber as a shower block. ‘The gas canisters were always delivered in a German Red Cross vehicle with two SS men,’ Nadjari explained. “After they were all naked, they [the prisoners] went further into the death chamber, where the Germans had laid pipes on the ceiling to make them think they were preparing the bath, with whips in their hands, “ Then: “the Germans forced them to move closer and closer together, so that as many as possible could fit in, a true Sardinian death, then the doors were hermetically sealed.”
“After half an hour, we opened the doors, and our work began. We carried the corpses of these innocent women and children to the elevator, which brought them into the room with the ovens, and they put them in the furnaces, where they were burnt without the use of fuel, because of the fat they have.” Nadjari concludes this part of his letter by describing how each human being was reduced to “about 640 grams of ashes.”
However, the letter’s significance goes beyond confirming known facts.