Cover photo: The still-standing, run-down former Christian Dierig factory in Bielawa (in German: Langenbielau). Courtesy Marcin Szala, 2011. The concentration camp Langenbielau was located nearby.
Postal historians’ studies of postal communications during the Nazi regime in Europe do not answer the tragic questions that haunt us about the Holocaust. Holocaust-era philately does, however, offer insight into the personal, unique journeys of victims of the Nazi onslaught. Some of these unique stories come from women’s textile labor camps in western Poland, reflected in the content of postcards sent to the camps.
The invasion of Poland and Będzin
Jews began to settle in the city of Będzin in western Poland at the invitation of Polish nobility in the 13th century. Będzin, and the surrounding area known as Lesser Poland, were the origins of many of the postcards shown in this article. After the First World War, mining and manufacturing of cables, wire and fasteners were dominated by Jewish merchants.
German troops stormed into Poland, beginning World War II, on September 1, 1939. Twenty-six days later Warsaw had fallen. Within weeks after the Polish government surrendered to the Nazi invaders, Jews were subject to endless decrees, leading to total deprivation, ghettoization, forced labor, and finally, extermination. German troops occupied Będzin, along with Dąbrowa Górnicza (German: Dombrowa) and Sosnowiec (German: Sosnowitz), two of the towns in the highly industrialized and densely populated region known as Zagłębie Dąbrowskie. Persecution began with synagogues burned and the Jewish population forced into ghettos and obligated to wear armbands embroidered with a blue Star of David.
In October of 1940, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was tasked with the “aryanization” of Silesia in Poland and in the Sudetenland, formerly a region in Czechoslovakia. Both Polish and Jewish populations were to be removed. Men were taken for forced labor under inhuman conditions.
SS Brigadeführer Albrecht Schmelt, assigned to Breslau, was given the task of removing the Jewish population to labor camps. All Jewish forced labor was to be under his command in the so-called “Organization Schmelt.” Jewish Councils, or “Judenrat,” were established in the ghettos to provide direction and the needed labor. Every morning Jews would line up for their rations of bread from the Judenrat food commissary, but were often told “for Jews and dogs there is no bread available," according to post-war documentation.
The central Jewish council was established in Sosnowitz with Mojzesz (Moshe) Merin installed as leader of the Central Office of Jewish Councils, representing 45 Jewish ghettos containing more than 100,000 Jews. Merin reported to Schmelt, whose organization comprised 177 camps holding more than 50,000 Jews. The primary production of these camps were munitions and textiles. Merin, who did little to advocate on behalf of the Jews, was eventually deported in 1943 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was believed to have died.
The fabrication of the uniforms, parachutes, coats and other cloth items for Nazi troops were produced primarily in the camps in Lower Silesia. The Nazis went into the ghettos throughout Silesia, took Jewish women ages 18 to 28, and sent them to the camps to manufacture these items.
Postal communications in Poland
Every Judenrat that was established in Poland included a postal authority, as the Nazis wanted to maintain the outward appearance of normality to the world audience as they conducted their destructive campaign. The movement of mail both in and out of Poland was essential for this ruse. As told in the Holocaust memoir Sala's Gift, letters were delivered to the labor camps through the regular Reich Mail. Both Merin and Schmelt allowed this, considering it useful propaganda since a letter received outside of the camps from a loved one meant that the person was alive, and healthy.
Figure 1. A postal card with 15-pfennig Hindenburg head stamp with additional 30-pfennig Hindenburg stamp to pay the rate for a registration. The register label is No. 981b Będzin. The cancellation is a double-ring Bendsberg on September 28, 1941, to Lausanne, Switzerland. It is marked with a four-line text Ghetto censor mark on the left-hand side. A Nazi circular censor was applied in Frankfurt, indicated by the E marking at the bottom of the circle. The receiving cancel is October 1, 1941, in Lausanne.
Mail going through the system was censored by the ghetto postal clerks as well as by Nazi censors. Mail that passed the censors was hand stamped on the front and each town had a unique stamp (Figure 1).
Here are three examples of cards written to labor camps that made uniforms and clothing for German soldiers. There were more than 20 of these camps throughout lesser Silesia. My research shows many of the recipients of the cards survived the war, which is probably why many of these cards exist. The messages all contain greetings and concern for the women in the camps, all written within censor guidelines.
The guidelines were as follows: The messages had to be legible; in German, not Yiddish or Hebrew; and the messages had to be neutral, with no complaints or negative comments.
One of the camps in Lower Silesia was Jeleniów (German: Gellenau), located by the village of Kinowo (German: Kienow) and probably built early in 1943. The camp, established in an old airplane factory, had approximately 1,500 women inmates, who worked for Christian Dierig. The Dierig company was founded in 1805 as a major German textile firm. During the war, Dierig used extensive forced labor for production. At one of the Dierig camp/factories, Bielawa (German: Langenbielau), all civilian employees had to sign an affidavit which read:
Re: Labor of Jewish prisoners who are marked with the Jewish star
We inform all of our workers that all private conversations with Jewish prisoners are forbidden.
It is also totally forbidden to hand over food, letters, and the like. In departments that have a second shift no food, letters, or other objects will be left unlocked at the location in order to prevent theft and to aver suspicion of helping them.
All violators of the directives shall be brought to trial.
Fritz Seidel, Director of the Christian Dierig plant
Figure 2. A postal card with a 6-pfennig Hitler stamp ground rate stamp. It is canceled with a double ring Dombrowa mark on May 5, 1943, and was sent by Mania Nusynowitz to Sara Dreksler in Gellenau labor camp. Notice that the card is addressed to Fruean Wohnlager (Housing units or camp) XXII Christen Dierig A/G.
Figure 2 shows a postal card sent from Mania Sara Nusynowitz to Sara Dreksler at camp Gellenau. Both young women are from the town of Dombrowa.
I am writing … to you and am impatiently awaiting your mail. Dear Sara, are you healthy? How is the work? Tell me everything, I am very curious. There is nothing new by me. I am working and am healthy, and I hope to hear the same from you. You don’t have to write everything now, when you come home I will tell you everything. Stay healthy, and many kisses from your not forgotten friend, and I hope to hear good news. Jakob sends greetings and kisses. Greetings to Bala and Rosie too.
Figure 3. Sara Dreksler (left) and Mania Nusynowitz.
Sara Dreksler survived the war, but Mania Nusynowitz was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 as listed in the Auschwitz records and did not survive. Most of the women who were sent to the textile labor camps survived the war because the camps were operational until liberation (Figure 3).
Born in Będzin on July 20, 1912, to David and Stefa Ehrlich, Bronislava Shaffel was married to Josef Schaffel at the time of the forced deportations. Early in 1943 she was sent to the Ober-Altstadt labor camp, part of the Organization Schmelt in Horni Stare Mesto, Czechoslovakia.
The factory of the J.A. Kluge Company employed more women prisoners than any other manufacturer. The inmates, all Jewish women primarily from Poland and Hungary, were housed in primitive wooden barracks in the Ober-Altstadt camp. They worked in the spinning mills to produce clothes and uniforms for Nazi soldiers. The camp was part of the Trautenau Ring (textile plants in Trautenau, also Trutnov, near the Czech-Polish border) the camps had mostly female guards. The ruthless Lagerführerin Else Hawlik commanded all of the Trautenau Ring labor camps.
Figure 4. A postal card with a 6-pfennig stamp and a Bendsberg cancel of June 20, 1942, with an image of the 13th century castle of Prince Boleslaw. Note the very rare entrance censor mark, "ZAL4," which is in lightface just below the circular date cancel.
Bronislava received cards from her mother, Stefa Ehrlich, from Bendsberg. One of these, Figure 4, reads:
June 19, 1942
My precious dear Bronis! I haven’t written to you all week because I was concerned about the news that the epidemic has also made its way into the town where Aunt Zindzia Adler lives. Praise God, the calamity missed them and everyone is well. For now, thank God, we too are in good health. As long as it doesn’t come back it will be all right. That’s also why, my dear child, you didn’t get the package from Warthenau. Today, for now, I’ve sent you a pair of sandals and also a bathing suit. ... I think they’ll fit you. Do you have any good news, my child? Are you quite well? … Please write and tell me what you need and what you’re receiving from us. … What kind of cake do you like best? Starting this Monday Aunt Adela is working at this company where we live. I’m glad that we’re together. Otherwise, no special news. We’re all well. As always, father is away from home and that’s why he doesn’t write. I don’t have the patience to wait so long for his letter because [illegible] I’ve already written—it should go off now. My warmest greetings and lots of kisses from your dear mother.
Bronislava Schaffel survived the war, but her mother was sent to Auschwitz when the ghetto was liquidated.
The firm Deutsche Wollenwaren Manufaktur AG was established in February of 1942 in Grünberg (now Zielona Góra), northwest of Breslau (now Wroclaw). The camp originally started as part of Organization Schmelt and then was absorbed into a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen.
The camp, like most of these factories, manufactured textiles for the war effort. Most of the prisoners were women from East Silesia in Poland between the ages of 15 and 30. The workday was 12 to 14 hours long.
Figure 5. A postal card with a 6-pfennig stamp and a Dombrowa double ring canceled April 10, 1943. The card shows a rare circular undated ghetto censor and an A Z Nazi censor mark.
Fela Szeps was born in 1918 in Dąbrowa Górnicza and attended trade school in Sosnowitz after high school. She belonged to the Gardenia Society, a pioneering Zionist youth movement, and eventually became head of the Dabrowa Branch. In 1941, she was sent to Grünberg, where she received the letter shown in Figure 5.
My very dear Fräulein Szeps
Now my dear child I want to tell you where your dear brother is. I was in the community and got his address for you. He is in: Bunzlau, Silesia in a camp, in any case. Try to write to him there. I hope you get an answer from him. Frau Mandelbaum was supposed to send him a package food……I actually have a new address because we all have to live in one place and why, you already know. Life is definitely hard in general. It’s still the same, there’s no way out. You still have to live in hope for better things, and you also can’t lose courage. You are still so young, and the whole world will be open to you….. Only they promised to take care of that for me in Będzin ….... I’ll close my message with greetings: from your Frau Kalmowicz.
Figure 6. Fela Szeps.
Fela Szeps (Figure 6) died of starvation on May 9, 1945, the day after the camp was liberated, according to records of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I acquired the postal cards and photos shown in this article from the late Morris Rosen, a survivor of the Holocaust, collector, and close personal friend. The photos and stories are from people Morris knew personally, some of whom survived the war. This small representation of letters received by women in the textile labor camps, even with censorship, reveal the fear and anxiety of those under the Nazi regime.
Gutterman, Bella. Narrow Bridge To Life (New York: Bergmann Books, 2008)
Kirschner, Ann. Sala’s Gift, My Mother’s Holocaust Story (New York: Free Press, 2006)
Mitelman, Dr. Samuel and Manek Szpigielman. “Dabrowa Gornicza, 301/2577.” In Eyewitness Accounts of the Impoverishment, Enslavement, Murder of 100,000 Jewish citizens of Zaglembia, translated by Pawel B. Dorman.
Rosenblum, Szymon. “The Beginning of the Holocaust,” translated by Avi Stavsky. In The Book of Dąbrowa Górnicza and Its Destruction (Poland), edited by N. Barkan.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
Chadderton, Bruce. Descent into the Abyss (Northfield, OH: The Educational Fund, Society of Israel Philatelists, Inc., 2012). [HE6183 .H754 C43d 2012]
Gordon, Justin. Holocaust Postal History (Chicago, IL: Six Point Watermark, 2016). [HE6184 .P959 G662h 2016]
Weitz, Emil. A Glimpse into Jewish History Through Philately (New York, NY: Israel Coin Distributors Corporation, 1970). [HE6183 .J92 W436g 1970]
Lordahl, Erik. German Concentration Camps, 1933-1945 (Tarnasen, Norway: War and Philabooks Ltd. 2000). Volume 1 [IP69219], Volume 2, part 1 [IP69220], Volume 2, part.2 [IP69221]