They saved each others’ lives in war-time Germany when they were teenagers. Then Witold Rygiel and Janusz Francki lost each other for 65 years.
In the winter of 2010, Francki was visiting in Warsaw and happened to mention Rygiel to someone who remembered where Rygiel previously had a medical practice in Arizona. Rygiel had retired to Vernon in 1989 but kept in touch with the doctor who took over his practice. Francki wrote to Arizona, the letter was forwarded and the men immediately renewed their friendship with e-mails and phone calls between Vernon and Buenos Aires where Franki had settled.
“We had been trying to find out each other for years and we did not think it was even possible after so long,” said Rygiel.
Both had been members of the Polish Underground Army in Warsaw. They did not meet until they were bunkmates in Neuengamme concentration camp in April, 1943. Francki was 16, Rygiel was 15 and had already survived more than a year in Auschwitz against all odds. Nov. 7 was the 70th anniversary of the start of his imprisonment.
“He was an outgoing boy with lots of ideas. He wanted to be an engineer. We would watch as the Allies bombed Hamburg, which was 24 kilometres away, observing the unbelievable beautiful and horrible nightly bombardment. The city was destroyed and we were put to work to recover the corpses,” said Rygiel.
“We were sharing a tough life. We were treated like animals and would sometimes return to the block covered in blood but we helped each other as much as we could. We became close friends and that helped us through that time we had no idea would ever end. We believed it would be over but it would be a long time away.”
Francki liked to draw and made some of his haunting sketches of the camp.
“Everything was so strange and full of things that were hard for us to understand. We were really just children. Our hopes were not very realistic. When you are hungry, you dream about food. I would dream about a bowl of hot steaming potatoes,” said Rygiel.
The reality was a diet of rotten, boiled cabbage and bread which looked and tasted like clay. The boys, who weighed only about 80 pounds each, wore striped pants and shirts and wooden shoes. Some of the prisoners were so desperate that they committed suicide by grasping bare electrical wire.
Rygiel and Francki also worked in an ammunition factory where they made intricate clockwork timers for bombs. The days started at 6 a.m. or earlier with a gathering of prisoners in the courtyard where everyone had to be accounted for, then off to work for 14 to 16 hours, seven days a week. By April, 1945, Allied forces were advancing across Northern Europe and the Nazis had decided to try to destroy all evidence of concentration camps. The 14,000 prisoners in Neuengamme were force marched to Lubeck. Only 7,000 survived. Although they did not know it at the time, the prisoners were going to be put on ships to be sunk by submarines on the night of May 4.
“On the third of May, the British planes came and did the job for them,” said Rygiel, who was with Francki on the Thielbeck, a freighter, with about 2,600 other prisoners, mostly Poles. The others were on the Cap Arcona, a former luxury liner. In a never-explained action, the British planes, flying low enough to see the white flags and the prisoners’ striped clothing, bombed the two ships, sinking them both quickly.
“We were terrified, the German guard dogs were so afraid. We had about 15 minutes in which we took off our clothes and jumped into the water and swam away from the ship. It was ice cold. We were able to find a wooden plank to hang onto and we would take turns resting on it. We encouraged each other and I believe that is what kept us alive. We would even try to laugh to keep warm.”
Somehow, they made it to shore where the British were now in control. They were separated and taken to hospitals in different camps, barely alive. By the time they could think about looking for each other, there was no way to get any information.
When they got in touch again, Rygiel found out that Francki had been taken to England and was reunited with his father, a high-ranking officer in the Polish Army who had escaped to England. Rygiel went to a Red Cross Camp in Sweden where he received the treatment he needed to help to restore his health, physically and psychologically. He continued his schooling and went back to Poland to find his parents had also survived a concentration camp. He went on to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, coming to Canada in 1963 where he met his wife, Wanda.
Francki went to Argentina, where he became an electrical engineer, married and had two daughters. Francki is featured in a documentary made for TV Argentina about his war memories.
“He speaks Spanish now, see how he talks with his hands, but we speak Polish together. I am trying to find the young boy whom I remember in him,” said Rygiel, watching the old war still photos and film, smiling sometimes at his old friend talking.
“It was a great, joyful but somewhat strange feeling to find your closest friend after life-long time. The long-forgotten memories are slowly coming back, but it is very hard, I’m sure, for both of us to recognize in our present features the preserved-in-memory features of those teen-aged boys from the past. Nevertheless, we both keep a very reciprocal connection and hope to meet one day again.”