Unique collection of historical documents collected by Władysław Rath at the Memorial Archives
The Auschwitz Memorial’s Archive has been enriched with a unique and extensive collection of documents associated with the Auschwitz camp and the history of World War II, including the ghettos and other concentration camps, created by the Holocaust survivor Władysław Rath and handed over to the Museum by his family. The entire collection contains 1893 documents and 29 photographs.
The vast majority of the documents relate to the extermination and persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich and territories occupied by Nazi Germany, the fate of people deported to concentration camps (including Auschwitz) and those confined in the ghettos. The collection also includes documents on prisoners who where held during World War II in forced labour camps and internment camps, as well as prisoners of war imprisoned by the Germans in oflag and stalag camps.
Władysław Rath was born on 20 March 1924. He spent his childhood in Cracow. At the outbreak of World War II, he was 15 years old. His entire family was tranferred to the Cracow ghetto. His father was deported to Auschwitz, where he died, and his mother was murdered in an unknown place. During his stay in the ghetto, Władysław Rath was forced, among others to take care of the dogs of Amon Göth, commandant of the concentration camp in Płaszów. Władysław and his sister, Dorota worked at the Oskar Schindler Enamel factory.
They both survived by being put onto the “Schindler List”, as a result of which they were transferred from Cracow to the factory in Brünnlitz where they stayed until the liberation. Dorota Rath was one of those who led Oskar Schindler to the American zone at the end of the war for fear that the Soviets might arrest him. After the war, Władysław Rath returned to Cracow, and in 1951 he moved to Vienna. He died in 1996.
‘My husband collected things his entire life. In the early 70’s of the XX century, he started to collect letters and documents related to the concentration camps. As someone who lived through those horrible times, he saw things that are in fact unimaginable. He started creating the collection ultimately consisting of various material testimonies,’ said Ewa Rath, widow of Władysław Rath currently living in Vienna.
‘I and my husband have always felt that such a collection should be handed over to a museum. I know there is the great Yad Vashem Museum in Israel, but I feel that this collection should return to where my husband's father lost his life, and which is a great symbol of the crimes of those times. Auschwitz -Birkenau is something special in the history of war and Nazism; it was a human killing machine,’ stressed Ewa Rath.
‘It is the biggest acquisition in decades, in the history of our Archive. They are very valuable documents showing both the history of the camps, and the ghettos from where entire families were sent to concentration camps. The extraordinary passion with which the Holocaust survivor, Władysław Rath amassed such an amazing collection of documents is awe-inspiring. The documents will be included in the Museum Archives and stored as a personal collection in his name. In this way, we wish to preserve not only the memory of numerous people mentioned in the documents, but also the enormous work of documenting the history of specific individuals and their families,’ said the director of the Auschwitz Museum, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński.
Among the examples of camp correspondence are 51 letters sent by prisoners of the German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp. These include camp correspondence of Eryk Pawliczek (camp no. 1085), who escaped from the camp on 21 April 1944, and a letter sent from Auschwitz by a prisoner of the first transport of Poles to Auschwitz of 14 June 1940, Edward Holzchaker (camp no. 629).
Particular importance is attached to four postcards sent from Auschwitz as part of the so-called “Briefaktion”. To calm the mood prevailing among the Jews living in the ghetto-city of Theresienstadt (Terezin) in the Czech and Moravian Protectorate, the KL Auschwitz authorities allowed the prisoners deported from Theresienstadt to send postcards with brief information that the senders are staying in a labor camp in Birkenau near Nowy Bieruń (Arbeitslager Birkenau bei Neu Bierun).
‘The postcards were backdated on the orders of the camp authorities, for which the SS justified the delay in dispatch as the need to subject the correspondence to censorship. By the time the postcards reached the recipients, the senders were already dead, killed in the gas chambers at Birkenau. The authors of the four cards are Mina Mandler, Klara Fried, Kamila Fischer and Otton Kohn. These documents constitute a very important addition to our archival collections, because so far, we only acquired copies of such cards courtesy of the Terezin Memorial Archive,’ said Dr. Wojciech Płosa, Head of the Auschwitz Museum Archives.
Władysław Rath’s collection also include several documents describing the extremely difficult daily life of the Jews during the German occupation. Some had the opportunity to inform their family or relatives living in neutral countries like Switzerland or Liechtenstein about their fate. Others, especially Jews from Germany and Austria, tried to obtain passports so they could emigrate. In the second half of the 30’s and early 40’s of the XX century, many Austrian and German Jews found shelter in Shanghai. It was possible because the Japanese authorities, which ruled China then, did not require any documents (including visas) from refugees. The materials handed over include, among others, postcards sent from Shanghai to families in Vienna by those who successfully arrived in Asia.
A vast majority of the documents concern the Litzmannstadt and Theresienstadt ghettos. The materials, in particular, correspondence by the resident Jews depict the reality of these ghettos, from which several transports of deportees were transferred to Auschwitz. ‘The most interesting documents are meal vouchers issued in the Łódz ghetto for Jews employed in local factories and workshops. An excellent illustration of everyday life in the Terezin ghettos are samples of banknotes that were put into circulation for the needs of the ghettos by the Nazi authorities,’ stressed Wojciech Płosa.
The documents handed over to the Auschwitz Memorial Archive mostly relate to the victims of German Nazis. Furthermore, there is also a military book of Amon Göth, born in Vienna, organizer and commandant of the camp in Płaszów, who was also responsible for overseeing the liquidation of the Cracow ghettos. Commandant Göth was known for his extreme cruelty towards prisoners. Not only did he subject them to torture, but also gave orders for them to be shot. There are descriptions of situations, when he shot at the prisoners from the balcony of his villa in Płaszów or from a passing car.
‘Inside the ghetto, my husband witnessed how Göth shot at people. He ordered them to carry beams, and my husband, then a 16-year-old boy who was shorter than the adult men also had to carry the beams. Since he was shorter than the others, once a bullet touched his head without causing any damages, but killing the person walking in front of him,’ Ewa Rath told.
In the opinion of director Piotr Cywiński, the transfer of such an unusual and unprecedented collection of historical documents may be an incentive for others who are still in possession of such priceless historical testimonies. ‘It is extremely important from the point of view of research on the history of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. We cannot allow the archives to remain dispersed, because the information contained therein is often the last information and symbolic footprints left by the victims,’ director Cywiński stressed.
The Museum is constantly asking for transfer of all kind of documents and objects related to the history and victims of KL Auschwitz. Every object may be of immense importance and should have its place in the Archives. Here, they will be protected, preserved, examined and exhibited.
On the eve of the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Museum’s director made a special appeal to the German and Austrian public to transfer documents, photos, personal letters, or any other materials related to the SS staff of Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz.