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The Game of Death: The Defiance of Footballer Antoni Andrzej Łyko in Auschwitz

Antoni Andrzej Łyko was born on 27th May 1907 in Rakowice in a family of workers. He was a qualified lathe-operator. His biggest passion was football and from an early age he showed talent as a fast athlete, petite and clever when playing. His career started in 1930 when he began playing for Wisła Kraków. He played 108 games in total and scored 30 goals.

Antoni Łyko in his Auschwitz prisoner uniform
Antoni Łyko in his Auschwitz prisoner uniform
The pic was taken shortly upon his registration in the camp
and is the courtesy of the National Archives

His career was interrupted by the outbreak of the war. Antoni soon joined the resistance within the ranks of the Union for Armed Struggle. His group was working mainly in the waterworks in Cracow. In spring 1941 the Nazis attacked the multiple resistance organisations functioning in the city by arresting their members. Łyko was arrested and put in the Montelupich prison.

Antoni was deported to Auschwitz on 5th April 1941 with a transport of 933 political prisoners (536 came from Tarnów, and 397 from the Montelupich prison). His prisoner number was 11780. For three months he was assigned to the iron-works in the camp.

The prisoners soon began speaking about Antoni being a famous football player. He was taking part in the matches on the roll-call square in the main camp. Usually two teams would be created: one of them consisted of Polish prisoners, and the other of German.  This is how Czesław Sowul (Auschwitz prisoner 167) describes the football matches in Auschwitz:

The Poles were scared to play well most of the time and to score meant you could get beaten up by the kapos after the game. The kapos were looking for the players themselves and made them play though. The games were taking part on Sundays, in the perimeter of the camp, in between the blocks.1

Antoni had his last game in Auschwitz. He scored a brace against the German team, consisting of the criminals who were prisoner functionaries.

A drawing entitled 'A photo for the Album'
A drawing entitled 'A photo for the Album' showing
the execution taking place in one of the gravel pits
of Auschwitz. Drawing is by Jan Komski and is the
courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters' House

Czesław Sowul remembers:

Just before another game I was begging him to score at least two goals. I even promised him some cigarettes which were very difficult to get at the time. Łyko made my wish come true though. However, on the very next day – it was Monday – his prisoner number was read out during the morning roll-call. Antoni and another prisoner from Cracow were put on the list of people to be executed as hostages from the waterworks in Cracow.2

The prisoners who were the members of the Union for Armed Struggle in Cracow (in the places like waterworks, the gas plant, the electricity plant and the waterworks) were sentenced to be executed on 3rd July 1941. At least 80 of them were killed on that day. All of them were deported to Auschwitz with transports on 5th April, 8th May, 9th and 26th June 1941.

There were several intelligentsia from Cracow on the list - engineers, the administration workers and the officers. There were also many students. There were two football players in that group: Antoni Łyko and Witold Zieliński (15429) – the Cracovia player – and his younger brother Mieczysław (15437). Bolesław Czuchojowski, the former president of Cracow, was put on that list too, alongside Karol Korwat and prisoners put in the bunker of Block 13 (now Block 11) on 30th June 1941: Leon Jarosz (14600), Roman Popławski (16945), Tomasz Tomczyk (16277), Czesław Wilkowski (16000) and Józef Syguda. A couple of sick prisoners from Block 15 were also sentenced to be executed with that group. 

The prisoners were taken firstly to Block 13 (Block 11), and then to Effektenkammer (the clothing warehouses). Bronisław Cynkar (prisoner 183) testified:

They were brought to us from Block 13, they were given the worst kind of prisoner uniforms and then taken to the gravel pits to be executed. The gravel pit was located by Block 13. Their hands were tied with the barbed wire and they were aware they were going to be killed. I spoke to Łyko before the execution. He said he was sentenced to death because he was a member of the resistance in the waterworks of Cracow.3

In the evening the hostages were taken to the gravel pits, where they were to be executed.

In the early stage of Auschwiz’s existence, the executions were conducted in the gravel pits located outside the camp, so for example in the one by the Arbeit macht Frei gate, or the one by the building of the theatre (Theatergebäude). The first executions were taking place by the slaughterhouse - not only prisoners were killed there but also civilians and residents of Oświęcim.

Antoni Łyko is about to start a football game in September 1938
Antoni Łyko (on the left) is about to start a football
game in September 1938
The pic is the courtesy of Narodowe Archiwum
Cyfrowe

The execution of 3rd July 1941 by Theatergebäude was one of the biggest ones in history. Anybody who wanted to watch it was allowed to. Many of the SS officers came to watch with their wives and children. SS-Hauptsurmführer Karl Fritzsch was running the execution, and his wife and children were in the audience.

Kazimierz Hałgas, Auschwitz prisoner 5670, witnessed that execution:

Two SS companies were sitting around the gravel pits. They had various musical instruments, including accordions. They were playing and singing. The sentenced prisoners were standing in two rows from the direction of Wachstube and they were taken down to the gravel pits, in between the lines of the SS-men. The SS-men were beating them up, spitting on them and mocking them. 

Czesław Sowul remembers:

The hostages had to stand in the row of 18 people. Łyko was standing in the first row on the left. I will never forget it. The fire squad shot, and he rose twice. He refused to die. One of the SS officers had to shoot him in the head.5

Lagerfuhrer Fritzsch was drunk and he was threatening the prisoners assigned to transport the bodies of the executed people to crematorium. Finally he assigned another 15 SS-men to help the prisoners because – according to Czesław Sowul: 

The cart was so overloaded that we could not even move it.6

There are some death certificates of the executed prisoners. The reason of death was states as ‘resistance against the country authorities’ (Erschiessung wegen Widerstand gegen die Staaatsgewalt). It was very unique in the history of Auschwitz.

The bodies of executed prisoners – including Antoni Łyko’s – were transported to the crematorium in Auschwitz I and cremated there.

 

Article researched and written by Iga Bunalska 

 

References

1.The Auschwitz-Birkenau Archives, the Collection of the Testimonies, the testimony of the former prisoner Czesław Sowul, volume 75, page 16. Translated from Polish.

2. As above.

3. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Archives, the Collection of the Testimonies, the testimony of the former prisoner Bronisław Cynkar, volume 75, page 92.  Translated from Polish.

4. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Archives, the Collection of the Testimonies, the testimony of the former prisoner Kazimierz Hałgas, volume 95, page 246. Translated from Polish.

5. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Archives, the Collection of the Testimonies, the testimony of the former prisoner Czesław Sowul, volume 75, page 165.  Translated from Polish.

6. As above.