I was working late that night, as I often do, catching up with my paper work.
"Send some literature to Mr Lang", stated a laconic message on my note pad.
I picked up a leaflet and inserted it in one of those narrow brown envelopes when I realised that I had only one 33-cent stamp.
"Shit!", I said aloud, "It won't be enough, I need at least two stamps."
"Leave the envelope open" advised Ivan the cleaner, "And write on it 'Printed Matter Only' - it costs half the price."
Ivan was right, this system always existed.
They cost only one pfennig, they were narrow and long, and brown, and had an imprint on them that stated “Muster Ohne Wert” (Sample of no Value). You could buy them in any post amt (post office).
We didn't really have any opportunity to use those envelopes during the early years of the war. There was no one to write a normal letter to, let alone printed matter. It was only later that those envelopes became more useful and popular.
The most joyful and exciting event in any labour camp was to receive a food parcel from home. Till 1942 we were allowed to receive an occasional one, not too big and not too often. When you received one, you ran to your barracks and hid it from the evil and envious eyes of your fellow prisoners, seldom sharing it with anyone - you ate the food up quickly. There was nowhere to store it. To leave it anywhere would be too risky, some hungry hands would steal it in no time.
It was towards the end of 1942 when new regulations forbade receiving any food parcels. What a ad decree that was! It hit most of us, depriving us of that extra bit of food that saved many from starvation and it reduced contact with home to an occasional letter.
Yes, we were still allowed to send and receive letters. I think it was only once a week or twice a month.
Someone at home found out that according to the Deutcher-Poste regulations a letter constituted anything that was sent tin an envelope up to the size of a Muster Ohne Wert envelope (20 cm x 7 cm). As old Mr Newton discovered some time ago in one of the three laws, there is always a reaction to every action. The Jews at home used that loophole in the "No More Food Parcels" Regulations and started to mail mini-letter food parcels using the Muster Ohne Wert envelopes.
It was all within the letter of the law and as we all knew the German war machinery respected existing laws. So, consequently the Muster Ohne Wert envelopes quickly became the most popular lifesavers in those gloomy days.
Yes, it was true that you could only fit in it a couple of thin slices of bread, but still, a bit of extra bread once a week was a real lifesaver.
I was in Ludwigsdorf. I wasn't really starving in those days of early 1943. My girlfriend Rosie helped me out with a bit of this or that, almost daily. I could even sometimes exchange some extra food for a shirt or some other nice piece of clothing from the Hollandische Juden who just arrived from the west, well-dressed and well-preserved. So it wasn't the food content of the envelopes that made me so happy, it was just so nice to know that my mother had prepared that bit of bread only a day or so ago. She must have put a lot of thought in it and a lot of tears. I knew it, we all knew it.
So for me, it was more the value as bridge from home, rather than the value as food.
That bridge, that contact with home, was suddenly broken in July 1943. We all knew why. It was in July 1943 when Sosnowiec Ghetto was liquidated.
"Das Sosnowiec Ghetto' was "juden-rein geworden" (cleaned up from Jews), the old grey-haired German Wermacht guard told us secretly. We called him 'Weinachtsman' (Santa Claus). he looked like Santa Claus and was reasonably good to us.
Most of us were prepared for that news. Every ghetto was liquidated sooner or later. After all, the whole purpose of creating the ghetto in the first place was to have the Jews more concentrated and ready for the juden-rein Final Solution.
I can't honestly remember how I took that new situation of becoming an orphan. Maybe, just maybe, in some corner of my brain, there was still some spark of 'betuhen' (hope) that my parents and Ada were still alive. The chances were very remote but still....
Most of my older friends, however, took it very badly. They lost not only their parents like me, but their sons, daughters and grandchildren, too. For them the hope of the war ending soon, the hope that kept most of us prisoners sane, that hope was suddenly darkened by clouds of doubt.
"What's the point of survival if everyone else from the nearest is not there any more", they asked.
Weeks and weeks passed by, lager life with its daily dangers, problems and hard work, helped me and others to get used to the idea of not having anyone any more to come back to.
New transports of western Jews from France, Holland and Belgium were still arriving. By now, they were the only ones to receive some parcels from the west. In those days I was working in the factory, Fabrik Ludwigsdorf, and also in the lager compound. Rosie organised this for me. This way I could see her more often.
Once or twice a week I was allowed to go with the guard to the town's post office to collect the camp mail. This was a privilege indeed! Accompanied by an unarmed guard, I walked through the small streets of Ludwigsdorf. There were people around, old and young, children coming from school, hausfraus doing their shopping etc. Sometimes, we even stopped in the only pub in town where my guard would have a beer and the blonde barmadchen would bring "ein glass of lemonade fur den jungen burche" (young boy).
It was one of those "post office" days when, unloading the mail in the German guard room, I noticed a brown Muster Ohne Wert envelope. How unusual it was to see one these days I said to myself, however, not paying any special attention to it.
I was ready to leave the room when the guard segregating the mail shouted after me. "Come back, Gustav!", he said.
"This one is for you. It says here 'Gustav Josef Grajcar'", he said, handing it over to me.
I took it, looked at it and nearly died of excitement. I could never miss my father's handwriting. He was always good at drawing, he was talented in this field, like my young nephew Daniel. His handwriting was brilliant, the most calligraphic handwriting one could imagine.
I left the guard room and stood there trembling. A wave of hope blew over my heart. A parcel from my father, six months after the ghetto liquidation!
That means he is still alive, maybe he escaped, maybe he is hiding somewhere, maybe mother and Ada survived, too. How else could one explain the parcel, now, months and months later!
I was too scared to move, I was too scared to open it.
One of my friends, I can't remember who it was, stood next to me, took the envelope from my trembling hands, opened it, and turned away from me as if he was trying to hide something.
Like someone in war films trying to hide a war telegram which informed one's mother that her only son had died in action.
He bent his head down and handed over to me two pieces of dry bread, obviously a few months old, covered with mould. The stamp on the envelope had a date - 5th June, 1942 - one month before the ghetto liquidation.
Whoever it was who opened the 'parcel' for me, put his arm around me, his heartbroken fellow prisoner, and helped me to find the way to my barrack.
Have you ever seen that American movie praising the work of Western Union, how mail is always delivered, telling the story of a lost letter which eventually reaches its destination, many years later, causing so many problems, disappointment and complications to its recipient.
Thanks to the efficiency of the Deutche Post Amt I received my bitter parcel, which gave me a moment of happiness like a soap bubble of hope, a bubble that burst within seconds, taking away that hope forever.