Hidden beneath a one-sentence love letter on a 1943 postcard from Poland, a message in invisible ink makes an urgent request for supplies: flare pistols for nighttime escapes, a camera, invisible ink.
In fragmented sentences that read like a horrific poem, the writer makes a wrenching cry for help, vividly describing a Nazi death camp with words like “killing by gas” and “agonizing hell.”
The message, which researchers think may have been written by an inmate or escapee from Auschwitz or another camp in occupied Poland, provides a glimpse into the desperate effort to resist the Nazi Holocaust from the very edge of the abyss.
Although many questions about the postcard remain unanswered, it “adds to our knowledge on the activities and modes of communication of the resistance movements,” said Yehuda Bauer, director of Yad Vashem’s International Center of Holocaust Studies.
The visible message on the postcard, approved by a stamp from a wartime censor, is written in scrawling black script to Jacob Rosenblum of Bucharest.
“My darling, I remember you with love,” it says in German. The postcard is dated Aug. 20, 1943, and signed by a Lola Bergman of Krakow, where the card was mailed.
The hidden message beneath - now visible in faded rust-colored letters that change from cramped script to block print - is also written in German and signed simply “Otto.”
“Death camp, the rest deceit,” it says. “From the night of the witch hunt: hunger, starvation, dog food, oat porridge, a dog’s life, an epidemic, torture, torture chamber, degradation, disrespect, violence, incitement, terror, fright, killing by gas, execution … murder, incinerator, agonizing hell.
“The newspaper arrived … K is fulfilling his mission,” it adds cryptically. “We will do what we have to.”
The last paragraph of the message requests “Signal pistols, camera, invisible ink. Urgent.”
It ends: “The time has come, the kettle is boiling.”
The postcard is from the collection of Theodore Feldman, a Holocaust survivor who died five years ago. Feldman believed the hidden text described the horrors of the Auschwitz death camp.
Feldman’s daughter donated the collection to Yad Vashem, where archivist Shaul Greenstein began studying the postcard two months ago.
“This is unique,” Greenstein said Thursday. “We have a lot of postcards from this period, but not one which was written in invisible ink.”
Bauer, writing in the fall issue of the Yad Vashem magazine, said such documents are very rare, “as they were meant to be destroyed upon receipt.
“This card contains what appears to be an eyewitness account of a concentration camp from the inside,” he said. “In addition, it proves that there were people on the outside who knew a great deal about the life of those incarcerated.”
Greenstein has not been able to identify “Otto.” But because of the request for supplies, Greenstein believes he worked for an underground organization - either from inside or outside a Nazi camp.
“Otto” could have been a member of the Otto Haas Organization, an Austrian socialist group that opposed Hitler and the Third Reich, he said.
Another possible author is Otto Kusel, a German prisoner at Auschwitz who was classified as a criminal - giving him more rights than the Jewish inmates, Greenstein said. Kusel worked with the Polish underground movement in Warsaw, which had a base in Romania.
Greenstein said he believes the flare pistols could have been used for signaling in nighttime escapes from Nazi camps. Despite the immense power of the Nazi machine, Jews in the camps did make efforts to resist. At Auschwitz in 1944, inmates set fire to the crematorium and killed several guards before escaping.
However, Greenstein said it was more likely that Otto’s message came from a prisoner in a less restrictive camp - or from an escapee. Another possibility, he said, is that it was written by someone on the outside, based on information smuggled out of a camp.
“Everything is possible,” he said. “We have more questions than answers, unfortunately.”
Among the unanswered questions is the identity of the card’s receiver, Jacob Rosenblum. It is also unclear how the card ended up with Feldman.
Greenstein said a Jewish woman from Krakow named Lola Bergman was deported to the Plaszow death camp in March 1943, transferred to Auschwitz, and finally liberated from Bergen-Belsen. Greenstein does not know what happened to her after her liberation.
Bergman may not have been the author of the postcard at all, Greenstein said. An underground organization may have used her name as a cover.