Workers’ hidden letter to the future found in Antwerp church

Summary

A message in a matchbox records a hard life in occupied Antwerp, and gives advice for future crises

Salut mannen!

“Enjoy life while you can!” This is the message left for the future by workers repainting the ceiling of Sint-Jacobs’ Church in Antwerp during the German occupation in 1941.

Written on the back of two timesheets, the message is signed by John Janssen, Jul Gyselinck, Louis Chantraine and Jul Van Hemeldonck. It is dated 21 July 1941, more than a year after Antwerp was occupied by German forces.

The labourers put their message into a matchbox and tucked it into the lattice of an ornamental keystone, high up near the church’s ceiling. The matchbox was discovered during recent restoration work.

This is just what the four workers expected. “When it’s time for this ceiling to be repainted, we will no longer belong to this earth,” they wrote, before relating the hard conditions they were faced with.

We must tell our successors that we have not lived easy lives

“We must tell our successors that we have not lived easy lives. We’ve experienced two wars, one in 1914 and one in 1940, that has quite an impact, eh? We stand here working, dead with hunger, while they squeeze the last cent out of us for a little food.”

If ever another war should break out, they say, take this advice: “Make sure you stock your houses well, with rice, coffee, flour, tobacco, wheat, and grain, so you can feed yourself! Enjoy life while you can. Don’t wait to find another woman, and for those who are married, take care of your home! Cheers, lads!”

Pictures of the letter and its hiding place, along with a transcription of the text by staff at the Antwerp city archive, have been posted on social media.

Photo courtesy city of Antwerp