Jan Ciesielski was playing bowls in Levin when a realisation made him pause ... it was the same date he was freed from a Nazi concentration camp. Initially, he declined to share his story of hell, but later decided that at 96, it was time he did. Paul Williams reports.
A game of bowls in Levin is as far removed from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as you can get. As he stepped up to bowl, Jan Ciesielski let slip that it was the anniversary of a day he could never forget.
That same day some 74 years earlier US soldiers and tanks took control of a concentration camp at Mauthausen and discovered some of the worst atrocities that human nature could inflict on itself.
It was the day the rest of his life could begin for Jan Ciesielski.
He was woken by a gunshot that morning of May 5, 1945. Mr Ceisielski said there were whispers the Americans were coming, but he daren't believe it. He had seen a plane dropping pamphlets overhead, but anyone caught reading them was killed.
Many prisoners were said to have died from the sheer joy of being liberated. Many died by eating food their emaciated bodies could no longer process, like meat. Mr Ciesielski was handed a box of chocolates by an American soldier.
"I couldn't speak English, but he gestured to his mouth, like that, you know, with his hand. He said are you hungry? I was so happy I forgot to say thank you," he said.
Luckily, he said, someone stopped him from eating the chocolate. It would have killed him. They were introduced to a type of porridge, which day by day had tiny pieces of meat added to it until they were well enough to accept food.
Red Cross parcels arrived containing supplies and cigarettes. He remembered lighting one, only to nearly fall over at his first puff.
"A Russian woman said to me have you been drinking and I said no, no, no, I have been smoking," he said.
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Those prisoners who were well enough began to turn on those who had corroborated with the Germans, or Kapos, who had been particularly brutal at camp, armed with batons and bars.
"A shot woke me up that morning. The man next to me was shot in the head and there was blood...they said he was in corroboration with the Germans," he said.
Kapos were often chosen from the criminals ranks to govern barracks and were as brutal as the Nazi officers that appointed them, he said.
"They would report anything. I was hit so hard...my face was so swollen I wanted to go to hospital but my teacher he said you don't want to go there. They will experiment on you," he said.
In camp those lucky enough to be fed had only known an acorn from a nearby oak tree for breakfast and a cup of coffee. Lunch was a soup made from potatoes, often rotten. Dinner was a piece of bread with one thin slice of salami made from horse, which he said was like a jelly.
"I survived because they needed to cook potatoes...I was so lucky," he said.
The potatoes were peeled by invalids, and as he was relatively stronger, he carried crates to the pressure cookers, working during the night.
He risked his life every day for a potato. A valve in the attic at the top of a big boiler where steam came out meant he was able to cook extra potatoes undetected, which he then shared with friends and invalids to give them extra strength.
"They were always hanging people for potatoes. It was terrible. Everyday there was somebody hanged. If you looked at somebody the wrong way they will hang you, or shoot you," he said.
A Russian prisoner begged him for his dinner and said he would swap it for a gold ring he had kept hidden. Mr Ciesielski flatly refused. One day he was so tired, he hid his dinner under his pillow.
When he woke the food was gone, but a gold ring was in its place. He still has the ring today.
Jan Ciesielski was born in Stanislawow in the south east of Poland in 1923, the eldest of four children with one sister and two brothers. He said his parents Clement and Maria worked hard to provide for their children.
"Compared to others we had a good life," he said, but their world changed in 1939 when Poland was invaded, first by Russia and then Germany. Young men were arrested and made to work in factories making provisions for the German army.
"They took away a lot of my friends," he said.
Jan had an uncle that was helping Polish people flee to Hungary through underground bunkers. He had already managed to move his aunty there, and was coming back for his daughter.
"I said to my mum I want to go. The Germans will arrest me if I stay. She said "no way". I went to my father and he started crying. He said "do what you like. I know the Germans will take you away from me".
That was the last he saw of his father, Clement Ciesielski.
He joined his uncle and cousin at a large college in Balatonboglar with other students, professors and teachers. When German forces invaded Hungary they were arrested, put in a Budapest prison, interrogated and tortured.
"They said 'what do you know...what do you know'?" he said.
"It was terrible. There were 30 of us in one cell. There was no toilet, just a drum. The stink was horrible," he said.
"We didn't know what was going to happen."
His head was shaved and the letter P on an upside down red triangle was sewn to his blue and grey stripped clothing. His wrist was tied with a wire tag showing a number that he still remembered - 102581.
Red triangles were given to those labelled as political prisoners. A horizontal bar across the top would indicate that a prisoner "needs watching". A black dot meant they were to be singled out for even more harsh treatment.
They were then herded onto a lorry, then a train going to a concentration camp at Mauthausen. They were marched from the railway station to the camp and he remembered the smell as he walked up a hill to the Mauthausen gates.
The first thing he remembered seeing was bodies hanging from the neck, a sight that was to become a regular occurrence.
Prisoners were told they had to shower before being fed, but many were instead gassed. Trucks arrived each day and he remembered seeing limbs dangling before bodies were put in a crematorium.
The minus 20 degree winter meant many didn't last long after arriving. Some were given cold showers and told to stand outside for hours. If they stood too close to the wall they would ice over.
Mr Ciesielski's barrack was nearby the camp crematorium, not too far from the kennels. He could smell what was going on, as bodies were doused in grease to make them burn faster, and it smelt worse in heavy weather.
When he first arrived in camp almost a year earlier, the already barbaric conditions were deteriorating. The number of deaths were increasing dramatically as mass evacuations of other camps put pressure on Mauthausen.
Methods of murder varied from the gas chamber, a shooting wall, random shooting, starvation, medical experimentation, hanging, mauling by dogs, random beatings and myriad diseases that accounted for a great many deaths.
Any prisoner forced to work in the granite quarry didn't last long, carrying heavy slabs up 186 rocky steps back to the camp, watched on by dogs and Nazi soldiers who would shoot any that looked to be labouring in their tasks, he said.
The Nazis attempted to keep records of deaths, often recorded as "accidental". Incredibly, a Jewish man tasked with keeping records was able to hide copies of his daily tally of some of the recorded deaths.
In the days following its liberation, the true extent of horror at Mauthausen became clear and impossible attempts were made at a death count, which Mr Ceisielski believed was in the hundreds of thousands, as many more died in days and months following liberation.
He said mass graves were dug to hide bodies that couldn't fit in the crematorium.
One US soldier wrote, on arriving at Mauthausen:
"At once nauseating and fascinating, these vestiges of Nazi terror made the ordinary American almost doubt what he saw with his own eyes. Harder to doubt was what he smelt with his own nose."
"It is really the smell that makes a visit to a death camp stark reality. The smell and the stink of the dead and the dying, the smell and stink of the starving."
"Yes, it is the smell, the odour of the death camp that makes it burn in the nostrils and memory. I will always smell Mauthausen."
The soldier said what he found at Mauthausen ranked the camp as the worst of its kind.
"Here were 16,000 political prisoners representing every country in Europe all reduced to living skeletons and ridden with disease," he said.
For three days after the US soldiers took control of Mauthausen prisoners carried out acts of retribution against Kapos and Nazi officers at camp, some kicking them with the very wooden shoes they were made to wear.
The US soldiers had not anticipated the reaction of people, freed from torment and suffering, seeking retribution against their former persecutors.
Mr Ciesielski said after three days all acts of revenge were stopped by the US army, who had begun arresting Nazis to face trial.
"They let the people do what they want, but after three days they said no more," he said. He said despite how he felt, he couldn't participate in violence himself.
"I'm not sorry, but I couldn't do this," he said.
Two months later, when he was finally well enough, he made his way to Italy, then England, where he got a job washing potatoes and dishes at a restaurant.
A chance meeting with an English Navy captain had him join the Merchant Navy and in 1952 he applied for New Zealand citizenship, and was accepted. When his ship docked in Wellington, he didn't go back onboard.
He worked on the waterfront in Wellington for 33 years. On retirement he made jewellery for markets, pieces he had handcrafted himself.
He said he loved working. He had trained as a cabinet maker before war broke out, and on retirement took lessons in Wellington until arthritis set in.
"I was the oldest student," he said.
He eventually moved from Wellington to Levin because it was warmer, he said. He kept busy playing sport. He still had a driver licence, although he wasn't allowed to drive at night.
He returned to Poland once, in 1962. He was greeted at the train station by his mother and his brother and sisters. His father had died of pneumonia shortly before the end of the war.
"I hardly recognised them. They hardly recognised me. It was very emotional. We couldn't stop crying," he said.
Like many prisoners who survived death camps, he still struggles with anxiety and his own company. He had an opportunity to revisit Mauthausen in 1962, but couldn't go.
"Even now I have tension. The doctor said you have to learn to control it," he said.
He likes to keep himself busy and it helped to be around people, hence the indoor bowls, although often has to explain to his opponent that he's a man. Written on the board is Jan, when his name is pronounced "yarn".
"I think they are expecting to be playing a woman," he said.
"I am very happy to come to New Zealand. It's a good country, good climate, good people. People are helpful."
Mr Ceisielski is often quizzed on the secret to staying well.
"People say, why do you live so long? You have to push yourself to do these things sometimes. I might be tired, but I make myself go," he said.
"Exercise. People should exercise more."
He couldn't believe there was still war in the world. He remembered his father had said after World War I there would be no more fighting, and he felt the same at the end of World War II.
"It is greed. Greed and religion," he said.
"Extremism is no good. Everybody should integrate with everybody. There is one God.
"But I think sooner or later they will destroy the world. But what can you do?"
To ask him what it was like at Mauthausen was to arrive at an impasse. He was being asked to remember what he had spent his life trying to forget.
"I hate talking about it," he said.
Mr Ciesielski produced a book titled Mauthausen - The History of a Death Camp , published in 1971, that gave detailed account of the history of Mauthausen. The book's contents saved him from having to express in detail every basic horror of his ordeal.
"I don't hate Germans. I don't bear any grudges...but I can't forget about it. But I don't hate anybody. I don't want to hate anybody," he said.