The Mayflower Pilgrims: The First Generation

2020 was to be a year of grand celebration and remembrance for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower on November 11, 1620. Sadly, COVID and the ill winds of political correctness and historical revisionism have put a damper on the commemoration and this incredible story.

The Pilgrims’ story and legacy deserve an accurate retelling. Some journalists have put a spin on this fascinating and complex story, unfairly depicting the Pilgrims as communists, intolerant and hypocritical religious zealots, or only as economic refugees. These portrayals are inaccurate, incomplete, and don’t consider the Pilgrims in the proper historical, religious, and cultural contexts.

Who Were the Pilgrims?

John Robinson’s Home in Scrooby where the Separatists held meetings.

The 102 men, women, and children we refer to as Pilgrims were three distinct groups of people who sailed on the Mayflower from England. Thirty-seven were Separatists from Leyden, Holland. The rest were “Strangers,” and either members of the Church of England, Puritans, or perhaps a few who didn’t identify with any religious group. Most of the Strangers were likely quite pious and participated in the Separatists’ religious and worship meetings.

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The Quern: A Woman’s Weapon during WWII

A simple quern, likely one passed down from her great grandmother, was probably a Polish village woman’s most treasured possession during the brutal years of the Second World War. A quern, or żarna in Polish, is a simple hand mill typically consisting of two circular stones for grinding wheat, rye and oats in flour.

To the Germans, this ordinary object was a threat to their complete control of the population through implementing food quotas. It was immediately outlawed during the first year of occupation, and the villagers had to turn over their querns that were then smashed and burned. To not comply and then later found with a quern resulted in immediate death by shooting or hanging. Even at risk of death, some women refused to hand over their precious quern. They instead hid their querns in the undergrowth of the wilderness forests and in specially dug pits.

Hand held Quern at Kolbuszowa Museum

My great grandmother, Jadwiga Bryk likely she was one of the few who successfully hid her quern from the nearby SS and played an important role for many people during the Second World War. Jadwiga was mentioned in the letters of Anna Grabiec as a kind person who brought food to the starving forced laborers at a German farm near her home not far from Camp Heidelager in occupied Poland. She also was the person who brought food to Ks Jan Kurek, a priest while he hid from the SS in the roof area of his empty church for six months. Jadwiga lived across the street from the church and knew of his impending arrest. This true story is told in my historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness.”

Jadwiga Bryk in front of her home in Niwiska, Poland
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The Young Partisans: A Time Travel Adventure in WWII Poland

 

Just Released: “The Young Partisans: A Time Travel Adventure in WWII World War Poland”

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With the world truly turned upside down due to coronavirus, our children need to learn from the past and see real-life examples of how others triumphed over adversity.  My newest historical novel, “The Young Partisans,” is especially relevant for the Polish American community and their children and grandchildren.

“The Young Partisans” is a story adapted from my historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII Poland.” Although written for middle grade and young adults, everyone will appreciate this intriguing adventure mixed with lessons about history and real people who not only survived the German occupation during WWII but demonstrated courage and resilience.

Things are about to get really weird for Colin and Elise when a lightning storm hits and the lights go black. They hear buzzing sounds and explosions from outside their home and then remember their mysterious candle from Poland called a gromnica. It came with specific instructions: only light it during a lightning storm or if someone is about to die.

Upon lighting the gromnica, Colin, Elise, and their two dogs are transported back in time to real events during WWII in Poland. Travel back with them to Camp Heidelager, a Nazi SS training camp, and discover how these time-traveling siblings meet some of their ancestors and are woven into the dramatic events of the Second World War. Can these kids help make a difference during this treacherous time in the face of adversity?”

I invite you to read this historical, time travel novel with your children. Consider how the real people of the tiny village of Niwiska in WWII Poland and Colin and Elise, fourth-generation Polish Americans from the present, rose to the challenge and risked their safety and well-being to save Poland for the benefit of their family and others.

https://amazon.com/dp/B08639SZD9

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World War II, a Novel, and an Old Journal

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The Niwiska Klub Records and War and Resistance in the Wilderness, a historical novel set in Niwiska,

“What’s this dusty old book on the shelf of your closet? Dan Corning said as he brought the book to his 95-year old mother-in-law. “What’s ‘The Niwiska Klub’?” Loretta Frye broke into a huge smile as she paged through her parents’ old book with its handwritten title. She then told Dan of how her parents and other Polish immigrants had organized the group to help out their home parish of St. Nicholas in Niwiska, Poland as WWII was on the horizon. “The Niwiska Klub” recorded the groups’ meeting notes, the tragic news about Niwiska, their fund-raising activities, and charitable donations from 1939- 1969 of the Chicagoans who came from this parish. Dan quickly realized this almost forgotten book written in Polish by hand was the only one of its kind in existence.

The immigrants in Chicago knew of the dreadful situation facing their loved ones back in Niwiska, a small village in southeast Poland, by reading the Polish newspapers and the few letters that managed to get past the Germans and Russians during the decades of occupation. Although Poland had signed an agreement with England and France who promised to come to Poland’s defense if Hitler invaded, the savvy Poles of pre-WWII Chicago knew that Poland would be on its own if the threatened invasion occurred. In 1939, Poland had been a free country for only twenty years and wasn’t equipped to defend itself.

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Vestment sent to Niwiska from the author’s Polish grandparents after WWII. The Germans stole all the church’s belongings. It was shown to her when she visited in 2018. Continue reading

Caesarea Philippi: The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail

Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi before his final journey to Jerusalem, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. They had been together for almost three years and were followed by crowds wherever they went. Here, in this northeastern area of Israel not frequented by pious Jews, Jesus would have some private time to prepare his disciples for the inevitable.

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Jesus’ teaching in Caesarea Philippi would be the first time he spoke about his future church, and it seems curious why Jesus chose this pagan location for one of his most important lessons and revelations. Jesus, however, was a masterful, intentional teacher and storyteller. He must have selected this area for a powerful visual illustration of the disciples’ future challenges and responsibilities. In Old Testament times, Caesarea Philippi, then known as Banias, sat at the base of Mount Herman and was a pagan center of Baal worship. Eventually, the cult of Baal was replaced with the worship of Greek fertility gods and Caesar.

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At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples were standing in front of the largest rock formation in Israel with pagan statues and at least fourteen temples in the background. Without understanding the uniqueness of this visual context, a person reading Matthew 16:13 might imagine the setting to be what classical painters of religious stories created. We can’t be too upset with these Renaissance artists as they had no opportunity to travel to the real setting.

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Figure 1 Renaissance Painting of Jesus handing Peter the Keys to Heaven  at Caesarea Philippi

The Ancient History of Caesarea Philippi

The early Canaanites worshiped Baal at Banias, and people were thrown into the “Gates of Hell” to determine guilt for a crime. Ferocious waters gushed from a very large spring of this limestone cave. In ancient times, the water was fast-moving and would have propelled the bodies over the rocks, and death was guaranteed. The waters filled with human or animal corpses must have been a frightening sight.

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Figure 2 The Cave of Pan today

To the ancient Greeks who settled in this area, the cave at Caesarea Philippi was the gate to the underworld, where fertility gods dwelt during the winter and then returned to the earth each spring. The people also believed the cave held the “Gates to Hades.”

At the time of Jesus, the most important god in Caesarea Philippi was Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and the wild. Pan’s hindquarters, legs, and horns are like that of a goat while his upper body was of a man. The Greeks believed Pan was born in this cave, and he is often associated with music and fertility. Each spring, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in wicked deeds, including prostitution and sexual interaction between humans and goats to entice the return of Pan.

When the Romans conquered this territory, Herod the Great gave it to his son Philip who rebuilt the city, named it after himself, and added a Roman temple. During the early years of the Roman occupation, the local people continued to focus their worship on Pan and other Greek gods at the shrines and temples.

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Figure 4 Niches in the limestone where Greek Statues were placed are still seen today

The ruins of the temples still exist today, and visitors can see the inscription of dedication to Pan inside the largest niche. In ancient times, statues were placed by the Greeks in the large niches carved into the limestone of the massive cliff. Most prominent were the Temple of Pan and the Temple of the Dancing Goats.

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Figure 5 Temple of the Dancing Goats

Yes, there were dancing goats back then. A large market was a short distance from the temple area where goats were sold for sacrifice to Pan. An orchestra near the temple provided music, and worshipers would “dance” with the goats before leading them for sacrifice.

At the rear of a temple was the Cave of Pan. It was at the foot of a cliff where spring water flowed directly from the cave’s mouth. This fast-moving stream, the beginning of the Jordan River, was created by seventy-two springs originating in the bowels of the mountain. The waters were so deep that ancients were unable to plumb the depths and therefore considered it bottomless. Over the centuries, earthquakes have destroyed the cave, and modern engineering has diverted the waters, so we no longer see the furious torrents of water.

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Figure 6 Cave of Pan or the Gates of Hell/ Hades today

It was in this cave the worshipers threw their slaughtered goats into the powerful waters. The sacrifice was accepted by Pan if the goat sank. If the goat floated, it meant Pan had rejected their offering, and the worshipers were required to purchase another goat and try again. The goat’s bodies were retrieved and buried in the Sacred Temple of the Goats. The waters of the Cave of Pan were always colored red from the blood.

Jesus Challenges His Disciples at Caesarea Philippi

The gospel in Matthew 16:13 provides the most detail of Jesus’ important teaching in this setting, rife with references to pagan symbols.

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus proposed two questions to his disciples. The first, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” could be easily answered by their observations as they traveled with Jesus. Herod promoted a rumor that Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist. Some people believe Jesus to be Elijah, whose return was anticipated as he would announce the coming Messiah. Some thought Jesus was Jeremiah because of their similar warnings.

Jesus’ second question is one we should all answer, and Peter’s response was perfect: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter wasn’t the first to declare this revelation.  The Gospel of John tells us the disciples knew Jesus was the Son of Man, the Messiah or Christ, and the Son of God when they began to follow him. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus wanted each disciple to fully understand His identity, not only God the Father’s.  For three years, the disciples had heard his teachings and witnessed his healing ministry, but Jesus wasn’t just a miracle worker and healer. He wanted to be certain these disciples understood his complete, divine nature and to know the sovereignty of his Father’s kingdom was available for everyone to experience for all time.

Now, imagine Jesus standing at a distance somewhere in front of this cliff with the pagan statues in the niches. He then said to Peter and his disciples, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

This day in Caesarea Philippi is when Jesus founded his church. His church would symbolically be built on the “rock” of Caesarea Philippi, one then filled with niches for pagan idols and where ungodly beliefs and values dominated. This huge rock’s destiny was like so many ancient tells in Israel: to be crushed and destroyed as rabble and where God’s kingdom would be built on its ruins.

Anyone familiar with this part of the ancient world knows earthquakes, wars, and other forms of destruction will surely decimate not only man-made buildings but also massive outcrops like in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus wasn’t suggesting a church building would be constructed on top of these pagan sites, but that his church was to be built stone by stone using people like Peter, the disciples, and you, and me. Jesus had given Simon Peter a new name, “Petros,” meaning a single stone. “Petra,” the term Jesus used for his future church, means a massive rock or formation; fixed, immovable, enduring.

In the ancient world, gates were defensive structures to keep the enemy out, but Jesus doesn’t want us cowering behind them. When he stated, “and the Gates of Hell will not prevail,” Jesus was suggesting those gates should be attacked. His followers were challenged to not hide from evil and would be commanded to storm the Gates of Hell, which would not hold up under the triumphant forces of Jesus’ church.

Then, Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Catholic theologians have historically believed this passage proves Peter was intended to be the head of the Christian church. But, if we look at the early church, it was both Peter and James who would lead the church then centered in Jerusalem.

Who exactly holds the keys to Heaven is a topic that is widely debated. Some people believe that Peter was given the keys, and that point of view can be supported as Jesus intended to use him in unique and miraculous ways. Peter was the first to use the keys of the kingdom when he delivered the first sermon after Pentecost that would electrify and grow this new church. Peter would break down the Kingdom’s barriers between Jews and Gentiles when he met with Cornelius. Jesus Christ’s church’s gate was now unlocked and would remain wide open for all who enter through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Others believe the keys were given to the disciples. This is supported by Matthew 18:18 when Jesus repeated his instructions, where he was clearly speaking to all of them. “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Still, other theologians point out there was more than one key as Jesus used the plural, “keys.” They emphasize that all believers hold the keys to the kingdom of Heaven as we believe, forgive, serve, trust, and pray.  Perhaps the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven were meant to set us free from bondage to grow Jesus’ church and bring glory to God.

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Figure 7 Caesarea Philippi in ancient times

After the visit to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus presented the disciples with another word of caution: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory” (Luke 9:26). He understood his followers would face ridicule and resistance as they tried to confront evil.

The disciples must have felt overwhelmed by Jesus’ challenge and teachings. He was now commissioning them to an enormous task: to attack evil and to build his church on the places that were most filled with moral corruption. His kingdom would grow and expand to glorify God.

Now, look at these photos again and imagine you are amongst the disciples on that day in Caesarea Philippi listening to Jesus’ message. Jesus isn’t talking to just those in church buildings and Christian schools; He is talking to each of us in our daily lives. Are you on defense or offense in the Kingdom of God?

In the Book of Job 36:2, Elihu says, “I have yet something to say on God’s behalf.” as he chastens Job’s three friends. Many people might think the privilege and responsibility to speak on God’s behalf only applies to clergy who are gifted in teaching or evangelism, but scripture reminds all believers we are not to hide our candle under a bushel but be “a city set on a hill.”

Even if we have a nervous temperament or a retiring disposition, we’re not to indulge our weaknesses and be useless to the church. Like Peter and John said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.” Don’t cower and hide because your fears of family disharmony or of appearing foolish or ill-equipped are greater than sharing what God has set on your heart.

We might not have the opportunity to preach on the mountaintop, but praises of Jesus should be heard in our homes and during our ordinary daily lives. As Charles Surgeon once preached, “Our simple words will be refreshing to ourselves, cheering to the saints, useful to sinners, and honoring to our Savior.”

 

Scripture is taken from the New International Version (NIV)

Away in a Manger at Migdal Eder

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For years, I’ve imagined Jesus’ humble birth and the manger scene all wrong. Like most people who grew up with an heirloom nativity set, I envisioned Baby Jesus in a tattered wooden shack surrounded by Mary, Joseph, shepherd boys, the wise men, and all the requisite animals: lambs, camels, cows, etc.

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My version of the nativity story was colored by my modern, Americanized understanding of Jesus’ birth. I was told Mary and Joseph were forced to seek a room in Bethlehem, where they were repeatedly told there was no room for them. A grumpy but somewhat sympathetic innkeeper probably pointed at the shabby wooden stable behind his building and agreed to let the poor couple stay there. Then, an angel told the shepherds in the fields about the birth, and they joined up with the wise men to adore and honor the baby and deliver gifts.

The historically accurate story is not only more fascinating but fulfilled prophesy and places Jesus’ birth in the proper cultural context. Perhaps, God intended for there to be no room in the inn.  Maybe, He wanted His Son to be born in a stone manger in a very special place: Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock as the paschal lamb of God.

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A tower similar to what Migdal Eder might have looked like

Scripture tells us Caesar Augustus issued a royal decree for all his citizens to go to the town of their ancestors to be counted and taxed in a special census. Joseph, as a descendant of David, traveled with his very pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem. David, Joseph’s ancestor, was born in Bethlehem, where he served as a shepherd boy before meeting Goliath.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem had a population of about three hundred and was the area where Levitical shepherds raised lambs for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. These special shepherds were trained and tasked with the responsibility of discerning which lambs were suitable for sacrifice as only an unblemished lamb was acceptable.

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Keeping the young lambs safe and clean was not an easy task in this rocky area, so the chosen lambs were kept protected by wrapping them in strips of cloth known as swaddling cloth. The cloths kept the lamb warm and calm. Any blemish from a scrape or injury would require the lamb to be rejected and sent out with the other lambs and sheep who were just ordinary stock. A passage in the Mishnah also verifies the conclusion that the flocks of sheep were destined for Temple sacrifices.

As we reimagine that night over 2,000 years ago, envision the young couple arriving in the town of Bethlehem as Mary was about to give birth. Mary and Joseph likely didn’t go knocking on every door, and there were no hotels or inns as we know today. Relatives might have welcomed them in, or a stranger would have willingly offered them a room in their home for a price.

But there was a problem. Any Jew would have recognized Mary was about to give birth, and that meant blood would be shed, making their home ceremonially unclean. Mary and Joseph’s option was to accept the only accommodation available: a stable.

Caves and stones were the building materials of most structures back in ancient times. Jesus’ birthplace may have been a cave for the livestock with a person’s house built on top, but it is most likely Jesus was born at Migdal Eder or the Tower of the Flock.  This watchtower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts who stalked the flocks. It was also where they brought the ewes to deliver their lambs.

map of tower of teh flock

Migdal Eder was a tower on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and is mentioned in the Old Testament by the prophet Micah who foretold the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and He would come to “the tower of the flock.”

Micah 4:8 “And thou, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.”

In earlier ancient times, Migdal Eder was a military tower erected to view into the valley on the edge of Bethlehem to protect the city. This structure was first mentioned in Genesis 35:21, “And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”

After Jacob left Bethel, he came to Eder (the tower), and there Rachel delivered Benjamin and then died.  After burying Rachel, Jacob moved his flocks beyond the tower of Eder. This pinpoints the location as being near to present-day Bethlehem.

Jesus, the Messiah, was born as a sacrificial lamb in the same place where all other unspotted and unblemished lambs were born and then consecrated for sacrifice. John the Baptist grew up knowing the stories and prophesies of Jesus, his cousin. When he saw Jesus, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

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Stone manger

Scripture tells us Jesus was born in a manger, or stall or crib where animals are kept, like that of Migdal Eder. The manger was likely the stone feeding or watering trough for the lambs within the Tower of the Flocks. The swaddling cloths intended to protect the chosen sacrificial lambs hung on posts and were used on this holy night to cover and warm the baby Jesus.

The Levitical shepherds who watched over the lambs and sheep in the fields and hills near the Tower of Flocks would have been well acquainted with the prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah. They understood the signs the angels had given them. When the angel of the Lord came to them, they knew exactly where they would find the baby.

Every prophesied detail came true before their eyes as these special shepherds found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. Like the lambs all around him, Jesus lived a sinless and spotless life. When His time had come, he became the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

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The scriptures, history, and setting all fit together. Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, at Migdal Eder, and then placed in the stone manger used only for the birth of sacrificial lambs. The significance of Jesus’ birth is that in God’s time, His son came exactly as the Father had promised. Surely as his past promises have been kept, so will God’s promises for the future.  That was the promise of Micah 4:8, and Galatians 4:4-5 provides believers comfort and assurance.

“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”

At Christmas time, we celebrate that Jesus is the shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25) who died for our sins and who redeems us to reign and rule with Him for eternity. The ruins of Migdal Eder may have been recently located, but scripture had already verified the authenticity of its existence. The historical details of Jesus’ birth add clarity and a sense of wonder and awe to the revised story. Indeed, this is very Good News!

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This article is based on research conducted by the author when she visited Bethlehem in December 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life in Polish Cities During the Second World War

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   In late September 1939, the deafening roar of war was replaced with ominous silence on the streets of Warsaw. The survivors emerged from their cellars and other hiding places and glanced upward, expecting the hail of bombs and shells to resume their terrible destruction. It was a terrifying scene of utter destruction and tragedy.

  Warsaw, like most Polish cities, had been cut off from the outside world since September 1. Rumors of surrender were whispered about, and the possibility was terrifying.  Soon, the dreadful truth was revealed, and many officers committed suicide when it was clear the people were bitter with the military and now former government.

Seige of Warsaw

German soldiers marched into Warsaw on September 30, 1939, and were soon in complete control. Immediately, work began on removing debris and barricades, extricating corpses from beneath the ruined buildings, and removing the hundreds of dead horses lying in the streets. Restoring transportation, power, gas, and water were the top priorities.

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Soup Kitchen in Warsaw

Food supply was the most immediate and difficult problem, and at first, army field kitchens were used to feed the population. While the presence of the Germans was depressing to the Poles, these two weeks before Himmler’s men took control was relatively peaceful. Continue reading

Village Life for Polish Christians During WWII

 

Americans who descend from Polish immigrants often have limited or no knowledge of their families who were left behind. Those of us who have found the parish, ancestors’ names, and dates are often missing the life stories of not only their ancestors but those of the families who did not immigrate. An understanding of their struggles helps us to comprehend the worries of our now deceased grandparents, especially when we learn what their families went through during the Second World War.

Most Polish Americans descend from the peasant class, and it is likely their families remained in the villages and small towns. Their wartime experience was vastly different than the Poles who lived in larger cities such as Warsaw and Krakow. Unfortunately, much of our information comes from romanticized movies and novels that place a compelling story over reality and facts.

During my research for my newly released historical novel, War and Resistance in the Wilderness, I visited Poland three times and interviewed numerous Polish priests and historians, and my relatives who still live in the villages. Their collective memory of WWII gave me insight into the Poles’ struggles, daily lives, and their efforts to provide food, shelter, and assistance to the persecuted Jewish population and compelling reasons why they couldn’t.

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Nazi Germans forcing Polish peasants from their homes for the expansion of Camp Heidelager in 1941.

The Polish people throughout the country suffered deliberate targeting by the Germans with almost every city, town, or village affected by random raids and massacres.  My relatives in the wilderness villages of Niwiska and Trzesn in southeastern Poland were at mass on Sunday, Sept 3rd, when German gunfire exploded around the peaceful church while planes dropped their bombs.

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War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII Poland- a new historical novel on Amazon!

WIW cover for publicity

War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII is a newly released historical memoir of Polish villagers who suffered under the German and Russian occupation during the Second World War. After three years of research and writing, it is now available on Amazon in print or e-book through this link:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1689779586

When the Germans invade their Polish village in September 1939 to build the largest SS training camp outside of Germany, Anna, Jozef, and Stacia must work as forced laborers serving the Reich. Then, in 1943, Hitler moves his top-secret V-2 missile research project into their wilderness area. With test missiles exploding over their homes, Anna, Jozef, Father Kurek, and other villagers become partisans for the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK.)

Just as it appears the Germans are losing, Stacia finds herself inside the cattle car of a train headed to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. The rest of the village bursts into chaos, and the priest who was working with the Home Army goes into hiding in the church’s roof for six months to avoid arrest.

The History of War and Resistance in the Wilderness

As an author, my desire was to tell the story of the Polish Christians who have been largely ignored in most books and movies about the Second World War. This novel will, therefore, be of great interest for those who descend from the courageous nation of Poland, and those who appreciate military history.

I was inspired to write this novel during my first visit to Niwiska, the village of my grandparents. My Polish cousins told me amazing stories that are unknown outside this area and took me to Blizna Historical Park, the site of the Nazi’s V-1 and V-2 missile launches. When I heard the story of how my great-grandmother Jadwiga brought food and supplies to the priest in Niwiska who was forced to hide in the church roof for six months to avoid arrest, I just knew this epic story needed to be told!

The many letters of Anna Grabiec, a young woman from Niwiska who became an AK partisan and the Ravensbrück records of her sister Stanislawa helped me to further personalize the novel. Anna and Stacia’s children also provided numerous stories and details, although they were surprised by some of my research from translated histories. As we all know, sometimes survivors of war just want to forget and don’t tell their children many details.

My research also surprised me.  I had decided to put my great uncle Jozef in the story because he was the correct age to be an AK soldier, and he lived right across from the church in Niwiska. When I told his daughter (my cousin Maria) of this creative liberty, she said, “My father Jozef WAS an AK partisan!”  My premonition was very correct!

I returned to Niwiska in 2018, and three local Polish priests, Polish historians, and eyewitnesses to the German and Russian occupations granted me interviews. I toured WWII museums in Blizna, Pustkow, Rzeszow, Krakow, and Gdansk and had hundreds of documents and histories translated. The result is a novel filled with real peoples’ stories conveyed as accurately as possible.

Most of you probably don’t know the story of the damaged American B-24 bomber that landed on the Russian airstrip in Niwiska in December 1944. I traveled to Virginia to meet the daughter of the pilot, Edward List. His amazing story of Anna’s lost letter begins the novel, and the complete story of the American crew’s adventures in Niwiska is near the end of the novel. Edward List and his crew found hidden letters addressed to America in their outhouse, and one of them was Anna’s letter. It was undeliverable, and he kept it in his briefcase for forty-five years. I almost titled the novel “A War, A Letter, and an Outhouse.”

The famous story of Operation Wildhorn III is an integral part of Poland’s history and is told from the point of view of the Home Army who captured the first intact V-2 missile and transferred it to the British allies by plane on a beet field in rural Poland. Most histories of this military operation are usually told from the British point of view, but they tend to omit all the details on the ground by the Polish Home Army that produced real success.

Another important story in the novel is of Monsignor Antoni Dunajecki’s role as a rescuer of a Jewish man. As a result of my research, the priest’s application to be designated as “Righteous Among the Nations” is currently being processed by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust organization in Israel. My research indicates this one rescue was not an isolated incident, and Monsignor Dunajecki and many others richly deserve this posthumous award.

The book’s cover is an authentic picture of a V-2 missile launch from Blizna, just a few miles from Kolbuszowa. I pondered what these villagers had to endure with several hundred missiles being launched over their homes during the war.

PRAISE FOR War and Resistance in the Wilderness

“As a combination of memoir and historical fiction, War and Resistance in the Wilderness pays homage to the victims and heroes of World War II and promotes knowledge about important forgotten events from the area of Niwiska in the years 1939-1945. This book helps to better understand how cruel the German occupation was in Poland.”

−Fr. Antoni Wiech, historian and author of The History of Niwiska Parish in the Years 1918-1945

“War and Resistance in the Wilderness, based on real events, places, and people, is the story of villagers trapped in the pressure cooker of Nazi-occupied Poland.

Donna Gawell fleshes out the complexities of interpersonal relationships with a savvy understanding of Polish mores. The verity of the circumstances is enriched through an entertaining storyline that builds empathy and suspense comparable to the insecurity experienced by all villagers.

She brings to life clashing viewpoints and dangerous choices. Thorough research ferments into a unique work that informs, entertains, and lights up the audacity and courage of Polish people, including the many who joined the AK.

This is a significant contribution to the resistance genre and a riveting read.”

−Talia Moser, daughter of Captain Edward List, the American pilot in the story

“Based on real people, real events and a real place, War and Resistance in the Wilderness, gives us a picture of what life was like for the inhabitants of one tiny village during the darkness of the occupation of Poland by the Nazis. All too often we read of that time globally, in broad terms, but here we see the war brought home to their back yard, impacting real people on a day to day basis and through the long years of that war.

Though the author’s prose, I could vividly see the countryside of Poland, experience a way of life torn asunder and the very realities of war.”

 ̶ Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945, Polish Customs and Traditions, and other titles of Polish interest.

“It is often said that the past is another planet. This could not be truer of the lifeworld created by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1945. It is often taken for granted that places such as Bełżec, Treblinka, Sobibór, and Chełmno were once ordinary and obscure Polish villages with a history and life of their own that took on world-historical significance after the war. It was in the Polish countryside, behind the fog of war, that the Germans established the infamous Nazi machinery of death and destruction etched into popular understanding today.

The story of War and Resistance in the Wilderness unfolds in the village of Niwiska, which found itself in the midst of an enormous Nazi German military complex known as “Heidelager” supported by an elaborate camp system, labeled a “city in the woods” by locals. Under German occupation, the center of gravity in the region shifted to a concentration camp equipped with a crematorium in Pustków and a launch site for Hitler’s Wunderwaffe in Blizna. All three villages – Niwiska, Pustków, and Blizna – became part of a new local constellation of German power that shaped the everyday life of all of its inhabitants. In this planet born of the German occupation, the skies at times rained down mysterious metal objects – or human ashes.

Even as the Holocaust was a tragedy of Biblical proportions, its course on the local level was intertwined with the struggles of non-Jews caught up with their own life-and-death drama. Based on a clever reconstruction of historical events and documents, the book conveys a sense of the tragedy experienced by its chosen protagonists. In doing so, it restores a measure of dignity to the ‘little people’ inhabiting provincial Poland, who faced unprecedented moral dilemmas and whose lives were forever changed by the war.”

 ̶ Tomasz Frydel, University of Toronto and Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

 

 

America’s Space Program Has Its Beginnings in a Little Village in Poland

 

Blizna and Niwiska, two wilderness villages in Poland, share a prominent place in America’s history of space travel. It was there the German’s top-secret V-1 and V-2 rockets were launched for experimental and training purposes during WWII from 1943 to the summer of 1944. The research and knowledge acquired from the V-1 and V-2 missile program that ended in Blizna would lead to the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the first spy satellite and the “small step” taken by astronaut Neil Armstrong.

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V-2 missile crashing during WWII

The post-WWII space race between the Soviet Union and the United States had its origins in these remote villages because of what their scientists had learned about rocket engineering. During the war, much of this information was smuggled to the Allies due to the amazing dedication of the local foresters and AK or Armia Krajowa. The Russians pushed out the Germans in August 1944 and were desperate to retrieve missile fragments and information the Nazis had left behind.

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Fragments of missile assembly area in Blizna

The story begins in the years preceding WWII. Wernher von Braun, a preeminent scientist of Germany’s pre-war rocket development program and later the post-war director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was inspired in the 1930s by a science fiction movie “Woman in the Moon.” What had been conceived as a creative and ambitious vision of von Braun and his peers for space travel was turned into a sinister weapon of mass destruction by the Nazis. Von Braun worked at the Peenemunde and Blizna test sites and personally visited the missile impact areas to troubleshoot any problems discovered during trials.

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von Braun with German officers in Blizna

The development of the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 missile was originally housed in Peenemunde on the Baltic coast in Germany until the Allies destroyed much of the facility in August 1943. While the scientists’ housing was the first target, the British unfortunately also destroyed the nearby concentration camp. Some of the prisoners who perished were the ones who first alerted the British to the existence of Hitler’s top-secret weapon’s program.

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The research and testing program for the V-1 and V-2 missiles was then moved to the secluded area near Blizna in the fall of 1943. The adjacent villages of Niwiska and Pustkow had been previously evacuated to house an SS military base in the early years of the war and had been well developed by the time of the missile program’s move to Blizna. Himmler himself recommended the move to this area.

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The new location in Blizna was desirable as it was outside the range of the Allied bombers. Most of the villagers had already been evacuated to live in nearby villages. Other villagers who were forced to serve the Nazi’s goals lived in facilities within the boundaries of Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany while they worked in construction, farming, carpentry, and as maids, cooks, and servants.

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Polish Slave Laborers in a German Ammunition Factory

Two hundred of the slave laborers came from the concentration camp in nearby Pustkow. They were used to build the new infrastructure starting with concrete roads and then a narrow-gauge railway to link to the station at Kochanowka. Barracks, bunkers, buildings and specialized equipment for the firing of the rockets were needed. During WWII 15,000 people died in the Pustkow Concentration Camp.

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Polish Slave Laborers working for the Germans

Efforts were made to disguise the launching sites as much as possible. The Nazis built an artificial village, hoping the area would appear inhabited when the Allies took aerial photos. Cottages and barns made of plywood, lines hung with clothes and bedsheets, and plaster statues of people and animals were created to enhance the deception.

The site in Blizna was of high strategic importance and attracted personal visits from the most high-ranking Nazi officers: Heinrich Himmler, Hans Hammler, and Gottlob Berger. Adolf Hitler visited in the spring of 1944.

Heinrich Himmler visits

Himmler’s visit to Blizna

The missile testing ground at Blizna, commanded by Dr. Walter Dornberger, was soon identified by the Polish resistance movement thanks to reports from local farmers and foresters. The AK field agents managed to obtain pieces of the fired rockets by arriving on the scene before German patrols. The Germans were aware of the AK, but the AK was always watching the Germans.

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Polish Underground Fighters (Armia Krajowa- AK)

The AK Home Army partisans were actively involved in the sabotage of the missiles originally built at the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp. A group from the Polish underground had infiltrated the crew and sabotaged the construction. Once the flawed rockets were placed on their launching pads, they did not follow the programs and commands of the microcomputers. The rockets would lift off but then fall back either directly on the spot or would fly off course.  The saboteurs had either cut the wires or slackened the fuel conduits.

Learning of this sabotage, Von Braun intervened and decided the rockets should be dismantled at Mittelbau- Dora before transport and then reassembled in Blizna. This was done in the assembly hall close to the barracks near the road to Blizna.

Many local rangers or foresters from Blizna and Niwiska were also agents of the Home Army. Forest Inspector Stachowski was the leader of this close-knit group. The Germans suspected the foresters, but the amount of wood they supplied was an incredibly valuable service and resource for the Nazis. The foresters had access to virtually every location in the local heavily forested territories, and their contributions to uncovering V-weapons secrets were immense.

Fragments of rockets were readily found by the foresters and partisans, and most were covertly transported to the Allies for decoding.  Sometimes, local farmers repurposed the high-grade metal into shovels and tools. The punishment for possessing one of these fragments was immediate death.

These heroic acts of sabotage came at a high price: the Nazis killed an average of 300 workers working on the missile production every day through starvation or accidents.

The story of von Braun and his men is fascinating. As the war was ending, they sought out the Americans, and von Braun’s brother brokered an agreement with the US government to immigrate to America. This elite group of scientists could have chosen to work with England or the Soviet Union, so it was in America’s best interests to offer them asylum. 

So, it can be said that Blizna and Niwiska had a prominent role in America’s space program. Out of the ashes of Nazi-occupied Europe, a group of German scientists decided to cut a deal with the Americans. Their German rocketry expertise was combined with the efforts of independent wartime scientists in California. With Werner von Braun, they carried the keys to the Space Age to America.

Assembly of a V-2 warhead before launching

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A Model of a V-2 at the Blizna Historical Park

Please look for the soon to be released historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness” that tells the story of the brave partisans from this area of Poland.

 

Blizna Historical Park and Museum

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Hidden in the bucolic forests in southeastern Poland sits an important part of WWII history: Blizna Historical Park. When it was built in 1943, Blizna was already part of SS Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Visitors can now tour a small museum and remnants of the launching platforms and bunkers in the nearby woods. 

Reconstruction of the observation trench to watch launches at BLizna

After the bombing raid on Peenemunde on August 17, 1943, the German Strategic Command decided to decentralize and divided the research and building of its V-2 missiles among three different geographical centers. The assembly plants were transferred to underground factories in the massive hollowed out cave complex in the Harz Mountains.  Development and design were moved to offices in Ebensee, Austria.  The main missile testing and training were transferred to Blizna which was perfectly situated outside the range of Allied bombers. Bliza became the main test launching site for the V-1 and V-2 missiles.

Missle on launcher

Construction at Blizna was accomplished through the work of slave laborers from the Pustkow Concentration Camp and local forced labors. The local Poles had been removed from their homes and farms and had no other options. 

During WWII, 15,000 people died in the Pustkow Concentration Camp: 7,500 Jews, 2,500 Poles, and 5,000 Soviet captives. The next article will detail Pustkow.

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Bunker at nearby Pustkow Concentration Camppolish-slave-labor

Polish forced laborers working for the Reich

New infrastructure, starting with concrete roads and a narrow gauge railway, was needed for the transfer of these massive weapons. The workers also built barracks, bunkers, and the specialized equipment necessary for the operation and firing of the missiles.

Blizna, within Camp Heidelager, was the perfect covert wilderness setting, but it was supplemented by a mysterious fake village. The Germans built uninhabited wooden houses and barns, hung laundry on clotheslines, and placed statues of farm animals to create the impression of a peaceful village. This village was likely built because the Allies were taking aerial photos, and a village would give the impression innocent people would be killed if they dropped bombs near Blizna. The Polish Home Army (also known as the AK or Armia Krawoja) was the first to notice this setting.

The Germans started to remove the Polish population living in the area immediately after the September 1939 invasion. The residents of Blizna were moved on December 17, 1940, and most of the surrounding villagers were evacuated shortly after that.  The Poles were forced to abandon their homes, leaving behind most of the moveable property for the perpetrators to loot. Most homes were torched, but a few were moved to be used for workers homes in an adjoining camp area. The brick buildings, like manor houses, schools, and churches were left untouched to serve the needs of the invaders.

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On the outskirts of Camp Heidelager, the Reich created huge German farms managed by the SS using the local forced laborers. Everyone over the age of fourteen was required to work to serve the needs of the occupiers. The Nazi’s long-term goal was to colonize Poland with German citizens and to totally eliminate Poles from existence. (see reference at end.)

The site at Blizna was considered to be of such high strategic importance that it attracted personal visits from many of the Nazi régime’s most elite officers. Heinrich Himmler, Hans Kammler, and Gottlob Berger visited Blizna in September 1943. The commander of the site was Major General Dr. Walter Dornberger, leader of Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket program. Adolf Hitler visited in the spring of 1944. Wernher von Braun, the creator of the V-2 and the central figure in Germany’s pre-war rocket development program, visited the test missile impact areas to troubleshoot any problems discovered during trials. After the war, he became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

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Himmler (in middle) during his 1943 visit

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von Braun visiting Blizna

The first test firings began in November 1943 using both V-1 and V-2 missiles. 40% of all the missiles shot from Blizna did not reach their destination, and sometimes created huge craters in the local area.

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The V-1 or “flying bomb” was an automatically controlled unmanned aerial vehicle with a jet-propelled engine.  The V-1 could be taken down by fighter and anti-aircraft fire before it even reached its destination. The launching was from a stationary ramp.

Missle on launcher 

Because of the limitations of the V-1, the V-2 was created. It was the first long-range ballistic missile powered by liquid fuel.  The speed and altitude of the V-2 meant there was no possibility of destroying them before they could reach their destination, but they were also known for their poor accuracy. The V-2 was launched from an upright position on mobile platforms.  The first test runs showed poor reliability with only 20% of the missiles reaching their target destinations. Both the V-1 and V-2 were mostly used to terrorize the civilian populations in England and never created the damage Hitler envisioned. 

Heidelager Blizna 1943

The partisans of the Home Army immediately began sending reports to the Allied Command about this previously unknown weapon.  With the assistance of the foresters, railway workers, and local farmers, the Polish soldiers risked their lives to gain information.  They performed extensive surveillance of the Nazi’s activities and sabotaged the equipment and railroads.

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Germans watching a V-2 launch from the trenches

A group from the Polish underground infiltrated the crew and often sabotaged the construction of the missiles. Once the flawed rockets were placed on their launching pads, they did not follow the programs and commands of the microcomputers. The rockets would lift off but then fall back either directly on the spot or would fly off course.  The saboteurs had either cut the wires or slackened the fuel conduits. Exploded missile fragments found near Blizna were routinely collected and smuggled to the Allies for decoding. Sometimes, local farmers repurposed the high-grade metal into shovels and tools. These heroic acts of sabotage came at a high price: an average of 300 workers working on the missile production at the three sites were killed every day. 

Crashed v-2 missile at Blizna

Crashed V-2 near Blizna

Learning of this sabotage, Von Braun intervened and decided that the rockets should be dismantled before transport and later reassembled in Blizna. This was done in the assembly hall close to the barracks near the road to Blizna.

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In the summer of 1944, local partisans discovered a fully intact and unexploded V-2 rocket, analyzed the components, and then smuggled the parts to London as part of Operation Wildhorn III. A full explanation of this operation can be found in this article:

https://donnagawell.com/poland-in-wwii-niwiska-and-anna-grabiec/world-war-ii-in-poland/operation-wildhorn-iii/

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Part of the V-2 rocket being recovered from the Bug River near Sarnaki

In late July 1944, the advance of the Red Army forced the Germans to evacuate their work at Blizna. The Red Army reached Blizna on August 6, 1944, about ten days after the Germans had moved out. Before they left, the Germans blew up remaining missiles and removed anything of military or material value, including valuables stolen from the locals. The remaining structures built as SS Camp Heidelager were torched and destroyed.

Many remnants of V-2 missiles were recovered by the Russians.  British intelligence agents were eventually granted access to the launch site in September 1944. By this time, the Red Army had already cleared out most of what the Germans had left. The British managed to fill several crates with some useful V-2 rocket parts, which were then transported to England with the full co-operation of the Soviets.  When the crates were opened in London, they did not have the expected contents. Instead, they contained old rusty truck and tank parts. Likely, the Soviet agents had switched the boxes.

The soldiers of the Home Army fought bravely to prevent the Russians from gaining access to the information about the top-secret missile program. A great number of people were killed during the numerous attempts to overtake Hitler’s retaliatory weapons making it the bloodiest operation in the history of the Polish Home Army. Polish officers, cadets, and the Home Army soldiers were arrested by the Red Army after it took control over Poland.

Unfortunately, the Western Allies did not remember the Polish Home Army’s contribution to this great effort. As a result, these brave men and women were sent to a communist prison in Poland and Gulag prison camps situated in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. Many of these prisoners, known as “the doomed or cursed soldiers,” lost their lives, and only a few were able to emigrate west.

Today, an attractive historical park is surrounded by the remnants of the war years in the exact location where the missiles were tested and launched. The people in the area and the community wanted to save the historical truth of the place from oblivion. Blizna played an important role in the history of World War II and the subsequent shaping of military technology, including the space programs in the USA and USSR.

The museum emphasizes the important role of the Home Army that once operated in this area and its contribution to the unmasking of one of Hitler’s most guarded secret projects. Thanks to these Home Army soldiers and local informants, their efforts helped change the direction of many V-2 missiles, preventing them from reaching their targets.

If the Germans and the V-2 had been successful, these large-scale weapons and the adaption of missiles carrying nuclear charges could have produced an entirely different outcome in the war and the history of the modern world.

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More photos from Blizna Historical Park (taken by Donna Gawell during her two visits in 2016 and 2018:

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Portable Radio Station used during WWII

 

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Power Generator at Blizna

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Portable WWII Mess Kitchen

outline of a V-1 launch ramp

Outline of V-1 launching platform

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A telescope used to view launches from the trenches

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Allied Survellience map of Blizna

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Two of the many displays of V-1 and V-2 material fragments recovered

by Home Army partisans near Blizna

examples of missle fragments found by partisans

 

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Bunkers near Blizna

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Be sure to visit the beautiful wild horses that live in the woods near Blizna

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Hitler’s plans for extermination of Poles were first stated in his 1927 book Mein Kampf. He called for Germans to give up their attempt to regain their former colonies (lost after WWI) and to revert instead to their ancient “Drang nach Osten” (Push Eastwards) so as to conquer new territories for German expansion (“Lebensraum”) in Poland. Twelve years later, in a speech to the leaders of German armed forces on August 22, 1939 Hitler ordered: “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women or children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space (Lebensraum) we need. The destruction of Poland is our primary task. The aim is… annihilation of living forces.”

SS Camp Heidelager

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Troops at Camp Heidelager

Nazi Germany’s Lesser Known SS Military Complex and Death Camp

Part One: History

Hidden in a wilderness region of southwest Poland is the Blizna Historical Park, a memorial museum dedicated to the preservation of one of Hitler’s top-secret projects. It is difficult to imagine that in this lovely and heavily forested area was once the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Few foreign visitors even know about its existence, but a visit provides a unique step back into history to learn of the horrors suffered by the prisoners and the local Polish population at the hands of the Nazis.

On my first visit in 2016 to my grandfather’s village in Niwiska, I was astounded that any major atrocities could have happened so close to my grandfather’s birth home. A massive model of a V-2 missile rests ominously in the center of the park. A rocket such as this had been launched and sometimes crashed hundreds of times over my Polish family’s home, just a fifteen-minute walk through the woods!

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At the outset of WWII, the Germans had been well acquainted with every square mile of Poland as the Austria-Hungarian Empire encompassed this territory for over 150 years during the era of the Great Partitions from 1772 to 1918 when Poland ceased to be a nation.  Set in this wilderness area of southeastern Poland, Blizna and the surrounding villages provided a secluded area for the very worst of the Nazi’s military forces: the SS or Schutzstaffel.

Oath ceremony of the Ukranian branch

The SS was founded in 1925 to serve as bodyguards for Adolf Hitler. By WWII, it had evolved into the most powerful and feared organizations in all of Nazi Germany. Recruits had to prove none of their ancestors were Jewish and received elite military training. The SS had more than a quarter million members engaged in activities ranging from intelligence operations to controlling the Nazi concentration camps.

Setting up military training centers began almost immediately after Germany’s takeover of Poland in September 1939. The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces of the Reich (OKW) issued an order on December 21, 1939, to build the SS training base on the area of the former counties of Debica, Mielec, and Kolbuszowa. Important transportation routes (railways and roads) and industrial facilities such as chemical and tire plants, the aerospace plant in Mielec, and numerous sawmills made an ideal location for Camp Debica, later renamed as SS Heidelager.

Entrance to plant in Pustkow

Entrance to the plant near Pustkow

The main task of Camp Heidelager was the training of collaborationist military units and for the reorganization of branches that supplemented the units’ losses. The Estonian SS legion and the Ukrainian Division “Galizien” were created in Pustków.

A concentration camp was created by prison and forced labor in Pustkow. It is estimated that about 15,000 prisoners were killed or murdered at these camps: 7,500 Jews, 5,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 2,500 Poles.  The camp originally opened on June 2, 1940, with the arrival of the first forced laborers, mostly Jews and Belgian prisoners. The conditions were so terrible that most prisoners did not survive the first few months.

The second major group was Soviet prisoners who arrived in October 1941. In the beginning, the POW camp was no more than an enclosed area, and prisoners received minimal or no food and were reduced to eating grass and roots. There were no barracks, so prisoners had to sleep out in the open. A third camp for Polish forced prisoners was established in September 1942, and the conditions were no better than those at the first two camps.

In order to build this massive camp, most of the Polish villagers were displaced from their homes by mid-1940 and often had no more than two days to evacuate. The Germans took no responsibility for finding any housing resources for these people. It was the sad destiny for many to wander to a family member’s village outside the camp area in the hope a relative would take pity on them. Many of their houses were torched for new building projects, or some salvageable parts might be moved to build barracks for worker’s settlements. Displaced families were paid a meager compensation and porridge and black coffee was provided once a week.

Everyone above the age of sixteen was required to register and be accountable for their work serving the Reich. Without their land to farm or a trade to pursue, these Poles were forced to accept work at the camp for building projects. Many of their younger people were captured in group roundups and taken to Germany to work on farms or factories.

These local villagers were employed in the construction of the training ground to build railroads, concrete roads, sewage and water systems, and barracks. A large number of prisoners and workers from the Baudienst (the agency that registered and assigned the local villagers) were assigned for agricultural and horticultural work, and in workshops, warehouse, and in cleaning and food services. Large farms were established to ensure the proper amount of food for the crew and the troops staying at the training ground.

SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Albrecht

Captain Albrecht, a man of incredible evil and one of the characters in my novel.

The Germans used pre-war factory buildings and manor and housing estates consisting of thirteen large, two-family villas and several blocks of flats. The more stately homes were taken over as housing for the officers, and the more impressive buildings were used as SS headquarters.  For example, the city hall in Kolbuszowa became the Gestapo Headquarters, and the Hupka manor house in Niwiska was taken over as housing for Colonel Ludwik Heiss.

Barrack on Ring 3

A Villa at Heidelager

The camp included most of the features of a typical German town with entertainment, cultural, and recreational facilities for their soldiers. There was a cinema-theater that could accommodate over 2,500 people, a newspaper (“Der Rufer”), sports fields, large dining halls, and barracks. For officers, there were impressive villas and ranges for hunting parties.

Entrance to polygon command

Entrance to Camp Heidelager

Camp Heidelager was open every Sunday for civilians who visited soldiers staying at the training camp. The guests and soldiers enjoyed facilities such as sports fields for recreation. Visitors often brought food and alcohol. They also brought news from the front that had a negative effect on the morale of the soldiers, and there were often desertions.

There was also a brothel that was located in the forest far from the rings and barracks called “Waldkaffe” (Forest Cafe).  The entire area of ​​this place was fenced and included a guard who kept order and a cook from the camp.

One bizarre feature of Camp Heidelager was a small fake village. The empty houses were painted, clothes were hung permanently on a clothesline, and statues of farm animals graced the farm. The purpose of this small village is not known, but the locals and foresters found it puzzling.

In the summer of 1943, Hitler moved his top-secret V-1 and V-2 missile research program to Blizna located near the center of the camp. The project had been centered in Peenemunde, Germany but Allied bombing almost destroyed the program. With that devastation, the Germans thought it was more prudent to divide the program between three different regions. The first launch of V-2 rockets took place in Blizna on November 5, 1943, and the V-1 missiles launches began in the spring of 1944. Hundreds of missiles were launched, but many failed, leaving huge craters along their paths.

The Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK) had the entire area under surveillance and performed heroic acts of sabotage and numerous raids on the missile program. The local foresters, railway workers, and farmers risked their lives on missions to covertly obtain exploded missile fragments that were then smuggled to the Allies.

Once the Germans saw the war was turning in the Allies’ favor, they began to move equipment, prisoners, and anything of value to Germany and torched the wooden structures to erase proof of their actions and atrocities.

The activity at Camp Heidelager came to an abrupt end when the Russians moved into the area in early August 1944. plac-768x615

Map of the rings and barracks in Camp Heidelager near Pustkow

Heinrich Himmler visits

Himmler on a visit to Camp Heidelager in 1943.

*(Part One of Three Articles)

Next: My 2016 and 2018 Visit to Blizna Historical Park

I have just completed “War in the Wilderness,” a historical novel set in WWII in Camp Heidelager. The story is based on the true events and real people who lived under Nazi Germany’s Rule of Terror. I will notify you when the actual publication date is assigned!

 

Poland Under Nazi Rule 1939-1941

 

 

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I just edited and published a declassified CIA report written in 1941 by Thaddeus Chylinski, the American Vice Consul in Warsaw from 1920-1941. This 110-page report was written by Chylinski when he returned to the United States in the fall of 1941 and provided numerous details describing the desperate situation in Poland. It is perhaps the most objective and unbiased report you will ever read and documents that our government and allies had an accurate description of Germany’s takeover in Poland.

“Poland Under Nazi Rule” will be of great interest to anyone interested in WWII, Poland’s History, and the Holocaust.

The book was released on Jan 1, 2019, and the Kindle version will be available throughout the month of January 2019 for just $.99. It is also available as a 6×9 paperback. Follow this Amazon link:

https://read.amazon.com/kp/card?asin=B07MB88YSN&preview=inline&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9S5lCbH7GSCHA“>

The chapter headings include:

Poland Under Nazi Rule (The Germans Take Possessions and Behavior of Regular Troops.)

Terror (Round-ups and mass arrests, Individual Arrests, Arrests of Women and Girls, Mass Executions, Hostages, List of Prominent Persons who Died in Prisons or Concentration Camps, The Poles Protest, Confiscation of Property)

Condition of the People (General Condition of the Cultured, Working and Peasant Class)

Minorities (The Jewish Problem, German Ukrainian Relations in Poland, Russians, Americans, other neutrals, and Italians, French Nationals, The Georgians.)

Economic Conditions (Fuel, Food, Packages from Portugal, Clothing, Relief Activities, American Relief, Medical Supplies, Relief Among Jews)

Polish Industries Under German Occupation (Damages due to Military Operation, Policy with Regard to Polish Industries, Lists of Former Industrials Plants included in the German War Industry System, German Control over Polish Industries, Employment of Poles in the German WAr Industries in Poland, Control of Iron, steel and other metals, Expansion of Germany’s War Industries in Poland.

Communication and Transportation (Railways, Postal System, Telegraph)

Authorities in the General Government (The General Government, The Gestapo, Polish Police Force, The Emissions Bank)

Education-Science-Art (Education, The Press, The Theatre, Art, Music)

Warsaw After Two Year of German Occupation (Extent of Damages and Repairs, Losses in People, Present Population of Warsaw, Transportation, General Aspect of the City)

The Underground (Organization and Activities, the “V” Campaign, Acts of Violence, General Opinion in Poland regarding the Political Situation)

The Russo German War

British Intelligence in the General Government

The cover is a photo of a gun hidden within a carved out area of a book used by someone in the Polish Underground (Armia Krajowa.)  The photo was taken at the Museum of the Armia Krajowa in Krakow.

Readers may also be interested in a helpful book I released this fall “Travel Back to Your Polish Roots.”  The books details how to begin the necessary genealogy research for Polish immigrants and then how to jump across the pond to find not only your ancestors’ records but hopefully family in Poland!  I began that journey about six years ago and have discovered and then visited my newly discovered cousins. They liked me well enough to invite me back this past May to stay in their home!  The book will also help you with advice on planning travel and some unique ideas for visiting Poland’s wonderful sites.  Poland has it all! It is also available on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

Krakow’s Christmas Tradition: the Szopka

One of Krakow’s favorite holiday traditions dating back to the Middle Ages is the creation of szopki or Christmas cribs. These unique lightweight structures resemble the historic castles, houses, or churches around Krakow in miniature. Other scenes inside a szopka depict historical and contemporary events and contain figurines illustrating elements of Polish culture, such as politicians, artists, the Pope or the Dragon of Wawel. The main materials to build the structure are wood or plywood. Smaller parts are made of cardboard and then are decorated with colorful tinfoil.

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The 2018 winners of Krakow’s Szopka or Christmas Crib Competition were announced on December 9, 2018, after the noontime trumpet call from the towers of St. Mary’s:

Kryspin Wolny is the winner in the category of large cribs

Renata and Edward Markowscy in the category of a medium nativity

Wiesław Barczewski in the category of small cribs

Jan Kirsz is the creator of the most beautiful miniature crib.

(I will include photos of the winners when they are available.)

Every year on the first Thursday in December, the szopka creators place their splendid entrees on the steps of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz located in Krakow’s medieval town square. There, with the 800-year-old Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s in the background, thousands of visitors to the Christmas Market view the newest szopki. Following tradition, the artworks are again presented in a parade before announcing the winner. The szopki are then displayed in the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

Started in the 14th century, the szopka represented the birth of the Baby Jesus, with the calls of the angels, the homage of the shepherds, and the three gifts brought by the Magi. A gallery of other characters representing various regions or countries, occupations, and ethnic groups were often included to honor the holy infant.

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Szopki for sale in 1934 in Krakow

The modern tradition began in 1937 but came to a stop during the German occupation. The event resumed in 1945 on the steps of the destroyed Adam Mickiewicz statue.

The origins of the szopka were likely from mystery plays performed at Christmas in the early 1200s when the Church organized processions. Other historians related the earliest szopki to the portable medieval altars and the evolution of its theatrical function when they appeared in the form of a mobile puppet show in the late 1600s.

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In the past, the Christmas cribs were mostly the works of Krakow craftsmen (bricklayers and construction workers) during their idle weeks of the rain late autumn. In recent year, it is a passion of many Poles from all walks of life. Several families construct new creches every year.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

This year’s competition is even more special. UNESCO placed the Krakow tradition of building szopka nativity scenes on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO recognized the szopka’s important educational functions, as it passes on knowledge about the history of the city, its architecture, and customs.

Some szopki are quite unique and don’t follow the traditional format. This one resembles the bread sold on Krakow’s streets.

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Szopki can be purchased at the museum shop and in local stories throughout Krakow. We purchased this small szopka in a Warsaw gift shop selling items made in Poland. It sits in a place of honor on a table passed down from my Polish grandparents.

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Krakow Szopki from past years:

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From Imam to Pastor

Operation Christmas Child Collection week is November 12-19, 2018 Please read this true, inspirational story about the impact of a simple gift of a shoebox!

Savannah

Told by David*, a National Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child

Serving in mid-western coastal Africa

Written by Donna Gawell

“You are a Christian. We don’t want anything to do with you! Get out of here!” These are words an Operation Christmas Child worker hopes to never hear, especially in a remote Islamic village in Africa. Most people would likely run in the other direction and wonder if they misunderstood God’s directives.

David, a National Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child, praised God as he told the miraculous story of his teams’ journey to bring fifty cartons of OCC shoeboxes to the “Overseas” area in the Northern Region of his country.  The area earned its unusual name from the floods that restrict transportation on nearly all of its major and back roads during the rainy season. The region becomes a veritable sea, and boats are required to access it. “Overseas” is also associated with the area’s remoteness, harshness, and deprivation. The inhabitants have little access to quality education and health services.

The Overseas Region is predominantly Muslim and was an unreached area for OCC, but David felt God’s calling to take a team there in 2015. The original group of ten men dwindled to just four after they had discovered the villagers were considered inhospitable and didn’t welcome strangers.

The team included David, a pastor, the National Church Mobilization Coordinator, and a Regional Coordinator, none of whom had ever traveled to this region.  They eagerly began their trip from on a hired bus loaded with the Operation Christmas Child cartons. The pastor had two villages in mind and planned to distribute the boxes evenly between them. No one was certain of the villages’ names or the distance and time the trip would demand. They guessed the journey would take about two hours.

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Nothing is easy in this part of the world. After a long 4 ½ hour journey by bus, the team arrived at the river thinking the village would surely be nearby. The men were dismayed to learn the remainder of the trip would be by dugout canoe and then on foot. The canoe man’s boat, with only paddles and no motor, could hold only twenty cartons, so they left the other thirty cartons in a dry and secluded area.

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As the journey continued, communication became a significant obstacle. People in this country speak fifty-two different languages. English, surprisingly, is the country’s official language. The pastor was the only one who understood the canoe man’s language.

When the OCC team reached their drop-off point, the canoe man arranged for five boys to guide them to the first village. They soon realized the village was much farther than anyone had anticipated despite the advice given by the canoe man. With only nine people to carry the shoeboxes, the team decided to venture on with only five cartons.

At that time of year, the Overseas region is a savanna with few trees and even fewer inhabitants. After their two-hour journey on foot, the team finally discovered a village but was disappointed to learn it was not the target village. Still, the group wanted to bless this small village before they went on.

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The stories they had heard about the intimidating nature of the “Overseas” villagers were true. Upon learning the team was Christian, the Imam of the village made it clear that they were not welcome and said, “You are Christians. We don’t want anything to do with you. Get out of here!” The team realized they were considered “new faces” and felt threatened by the hostility of the Imam and the elders. They swiftly departed and ventured on to find their target village.

On the way, the team observed a group of twenty schoolchildren dressed in Muslim clothing walking towards them. David and his team noted the children were afraid and so offered each child a shoebox. The excited children dashed off quickly with their gifts. The four men remained unaware these shoeboxes were destined to be used mightily for the Kingdom.

The weary team continued on the path when voices were heard from a distance. As they turned to investigate, the team observed a group of about eight men coming in their direction. David and the others froze when they realized these were some of the same men who had just ousted them out of their village. The team immediately began praying. They were certain the men from the village were angry about their children’s gifts and had come to beat them up− or worse.

To his astonishment, David noted smiles on the men’s faces as they approached the team. The villagers told the team the Imam wanted them to come back to the village. Even though it was late in the afternoon, the group returned but did not understand this turn of events.

The atmosphere had changed from hostile to one of welcome, and the elders invited the men to sit on a long tree trunk, the place of honor in the village. The team refused, wanting an explanation for this puzzling change of heart.

Everyone in the village was smiling, but the widest smile was on the face of the Imam who only thirty minutes ago revealed a furious scowl. The Imam and elders explained they had examined the shoeboxes the children carried back to the village and decided that these four men meant no harm and that the shoeboxes were “good gifts.” The Imam said, “Only people who were good would give such gifts as these boxes.”

The Imam had lived in the pastor’s home city for 15 years and had learned the local language. The two men could communicate, but the Pastor did not know the language spoken in the village. This situation created a dilemma for the team as the Imam was the only person who could speak directly to the villagers.

The pastor explained that the boxes could only be distributed if he had a chance to tell the villagers about Jesus. The Imam would be required to translate the Pastor’s words into the local language, and he willingly agreed. The Gospel message was delivered to the entire village through their Imam’s own voice. David and the team were confident the Imam accurately translated the Pastor’s words as they observed the reactions from the crowd.

The dry savanna winds had miraculously carried the Holy Spirit beyond the village as about one thousand people, some from the surrounding areas, eventually gathered in this small village. Even another Imam from a neighboring village had come with some of his people to hear what the strangers had to say. The schoolchildren from his village who received some of the shoeboxes had shared the news about the team and the boxes.

The team talked about Jesus using His titles from the Koran referring to Him as the Messiah, the Son of Mary, and the Messenger of God. The Pastor felt God had blessed them with the freedom to speak boldly.

The Pastor and the Imam imparted the Gospel message for over an hour. Then the Pastor asked if anyone wished to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Ninety percent of the children and young adults raised their hands. He told them to keep their hands raised, and they repeated the sinners’ prayer together. It was, of course, the Imam’s voice that gave the new believers’ the words they were to repeat.

The large group grew quiet as many of the villagers received Jesus, but all of the elders remained on the bench with their hands down. The Imam showed no outward signs that he wished to receive Jesus Christ on that day, but God was tenderly transforming his heart.

The villagers retrieved the remaining cartons left near the river and all the children in the village received a shoebox. The team then asked for volunteers to teach the children about Jesus. Much to everyone’s astonishment, the Imam was the first one to accept this challenge with four others joining him!

The Pastor and the Regional Coordinator returned to the village just days later with two teachers to train the Imam and other volunteers. Operation Christmas Child provided the resources, food, water, and supplies for the team to stay for one month to disciple the new leaders from the two villages.

The Pastor returned six months later in the fall of 2015. The Imam was no longer a follower of Islam but was now a devoted follower of Jesus. The new congregation worshiped under the roof of a large hut with the new members enthusiastically perched on the ground to hear the teaching each Wednesday and Sunday. The Imam asked the Pastor, “Why don’t you set up a church for us?” Operation Christmas Child praised God for this request and delivered Bibles in the native language of the village, wooden chairs, and other supplies.

One year later, David and another Pastor eagerly returned to see the transformation in the village. The former Imam was no longer wearing his Muslim hat or attire as he led his Christian congregation of 120 people in worship. As the new village Pastor, he was respectful of those who chose to remain Muslims and never pressured or forced anyone to convert.

When he ended his story, David smiled and thanked God, “I knelt on my knees in the village and said ‘God, you can do ANYTHING!’ This is a miracle!”

David’s teams’ arduous journey in 2015 has opened the Overseas area in Africa to receive the Gospel message because of the precious gift of Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. The local pastor, who travels to this village every three months, reported that the surrounding villages have heard the stories and look forward to a visit from an Operation Christmas Child team.  The North Region received four hundred eighty cartons for the 2017 distribution, and we all pray for the impact of the boxes to multiply as the Good News spreads throughout the  “Overseas” region. 

*This story was told by “David” to Donna Gawell in June 2017 in Columbus, Ohio when he was visiting his family in America. He gave his approval for the story’s distribution. His name and the country, town and villages’ names were changed for his and the village’s protection. 

Donna is a Drop Off Center Team Leader for Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritans’ Purse and a Year-Round Volunteer. Please consider donating packing a shoebox.  You can find more information about this international ministry by clicking this link:

Samaritans’ Purse

The photos in this story are representative, and not of the village.

 

 

 

 

Rescuing Your Family’s Treasures From a Natural Diaster- Like Flooding!

By Donna Gawell

(Update in September 2018: This article was written last year after seeing the incredible loss some people experienced in the flooding. Please share with your friends on the East Coast.)

It is the wise person who learns from the mistakes and tragedies of others. Americans were glued to their TVs for weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma witnessing residents drag out mattresses, sofas, and chairs from their flooded homes, and our hearts ached for their loss. Furniture and household items can be replaced, but some of our most precious items might be lost forever.

Family photos, records, and documents are amongst the most difficult to replace. A grandfather’s original naturalization document, parents’ wedding photos, and their own baby pictures might be floating in a massive soup of muddy water. Those of us who don’t live by the coast have our own natural and manmade disasters such as tornadoes and fire that can cause similar destruction.

Your Family’s Heritage and Story

You may be the guardian of your family’s history or just the owner of a few scrapbooks. Some people don’t appreciate their ownership responsibilities, not understanding that they are the guardians of their ancestors’ legacies. The thought that you are the only one who cares about these documents is misguided. The desire to know more about our history is hotwired in some from birth but comes later in others. A thirty year old launching their career while raising a family may show minimal interest. Trust me: your children or maybe their descendants will someday care. We were all there once. It is up to you to consider various ways to save what your descendants will someday treasure. That box of old artifacts you passed down to your son might be thrown in the trash bin during a nasty divorce.

Learn from Professional Genealogists: The Diversification Principle

So, what steps can be taken to avoid this heartbreak? The underlying principle is that your losses will be minimal if you diversify. Just like the wisdom about portfolio diversification from your financial advisor, genealogists will tell you that you should consider at least one or two strategies for more secure preservation. That said, none of these ideas can guarantee your precious items survival if you suffer a fire in the midst of a digital shutdown compliments of Kim Jung Un. These suggestions will give you some assurance that our family treasures and heirlooms items can be preserved and protected.

Share with Your Family

The best advice is to share with others! While most of my siblings and cousins willingly share precious family photos, I have encountered one cousin who is holding on to the items she inherited with a death grip. It is sad we can’t-do anything to change her distorted thinking, but we can proceed with what we all have and ignore those who have an attitude.

Access to a scanner is essential although taking a photo of a document or picture is second best. Sort out the items most precious to you and create a folder with subdirectories to keep scans in order. You can also store the photos sent to you in these folders. Be sure to label them with the first and last names of the items, not just “Grandpa, or mom.” Try to give a date and place.

I have organized small family gatherings of cousins with the sole purpose of sharing what we each have, and these have turned into memorable events. We all walked away benefitting greatly. Try to invite someone who is tech-savvy and has access to a scanner.

For those family and friends who live far away, ask them to send you copies of the photos and documents by email. Of course, reciprocate to those who have offered their treasures. You are on your way to becoming the family historian.

Create digital family history books- for free!

Donna’s Family History Books Available on Amazon

Many people have a desire to make a scrapbook and love the creativity of all the cute details. As a genealogist, I am more practical. Consider this: who is going to inherit this one scrapbook, and who has room or even wants your huge collection? Even if you have just one child, they will likely have at least a few children. You get the point. A digital scrapbook makes so much sense since you can easily produce multiple copies for less than the cost of conventional scrapbooks when you consider the necessary investment in supplies.

I started out using sites like Shutterfly, and there are hundreds of companies that offer a similar service including your local drug store. The problem is that the cost for each book gets out of control at about $34 for a 9×9, 20-page book. Most companies do not offer a significant discount for multiple copies. The books were lovely but became cost prohibitive for my goal of sharing with the family.

That is when I began to use sites like Create Space, Amazon’s self-publishing company. As an author, I had a few self-published non-fiction books on Create Space and saw that it was a relatively easy process, more efficient and less expensive. There are several “print on demand” companies similar to Create Space such as Lulu and Ingram Spark. Use caution in selecting your company as some are more like old-fashioned vanity presses from the past. They want you to make an investment up front−not a good idea! You don’t want to be stuck with a case of books in your basement that cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front. Note: CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are merging on Amazon in Oct. 2019.

That is the beauty of publishing on demand or POD companies. You create the book, order maybe five very inexpensive proof copies, and then hit the publish key so your family can order their own copies!

The process is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. All of these companies offer their professional design services for a fee, but have confidence! You can do this if you take a deep breath and commit a few weeks to the development.

  • Write out your family’s story
  • Insert photos and documents (family trees, copies of the census, scans of documents, etc.)
  • Do a bit of simple formatting:
  • Choose an easy to read text type and size (Roman New Times, size 12 is popular)
  • Decide on single, double spacing, etc. and indentation (all in paragraph in MSWord)
  • Left align -If you are unsure, just google formatting AND self-publishing, and many guides will pop up.
  • Use spell check and perhaps a free grammar and writing checker like Grammarly. Your work will look more professional.
  • Design your cover- it’s easy! Find a photo of your own or use a free one offered on these sites. You also make decisions about the cover layout and color background. The creator can easily make changes, save it, and come back another day to finish the process.
  • Upload your book to the site. Many will provide an ISBN for free.
  • Decide on the size of your book and if you want it in color or black and white. I use the 8.5 x 11 and color, but if your photos are all black and white, you might want to choose that option.
  • Now comes the trickiest part: pricing. On CreateSpace, you can purchase very inexpensive proof copies and reduced cost author copies of your books. The cost of selling the book to others has a bottom line because Amazon has to make some profit, but you will be able to see what the royalty you as the author will receive from your book before you make the final decision. Because all this work is my gift to the family and future generations, I simply round up the price to the next dollar. You might feel differently.
  • Submit the book for review. The company will inspect it for formatting issues and usually reply within 24 hours with suggestions or their approval. Keep in mind that the computer they use doesn’t realize that many of your photos are not high resolution, so ignore those issues. You can keep tweaking your work and resubmitting until you are satisfied.
  • Hit the approve key, and you are now an Amazon author!

Off-Site and External Backups

Backup your photos and documents in the cloud, on DVDs and flash drives or memory sticks, etc. A little research on the internet will provide instructions for those of you not familiar with these lifesavers. These backups come with their own limitations as experts warn us that the devices needed to read a DVD or memory card may be obsolete in ten years. Once again: heed the advice to diversify!

Advice for That Dreaded Disaster

There are some emergencies for which you can prepare. Consider the storage location of your photos and documents. Most basements are the worst place for these items because of inevitable mildew issues. Inspect antique clothing periodically and store them in plastic bags.

If you are forced to evacuate and leave many of your precious items behind, consider using your dishwasher as a reasonably airtight storage container. Take out all the racks and put in items that are treasures. Your dishwasher can be locked and should be reasonably waterproof. I would put the items in new zip lock bags and maybe even secure airtight plastic containers first. Might your dishwasher go floating down the street in a flood or burn up in a massive fire? Perhaps, nothing is perfect or 100% guaranteed, but this seems like a prudent alternative to leaving the items exposed on a shelf.

There are countless internet sites with instructions on how to recover photos and other items the owners thought were damaged beyond repair. I watched videos of photo restorations carried out with surgical precision as the items were carefully cut out of the wet plastic sheets and then washed. The efforts seem laborious, especially for people who have so many other emergency tasks in front of them.

Expert Advice for Damaged Photos and Documents

Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together making saving them much more unlikely. Carefully lift any photos from the mud or dirty water. Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate those that are stacked together. Be careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface. Also, remove photos from plastic sleeves from these wet albums right away if possible.

Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To successfully remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

If you have time and adequate space immediately after the disaster, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Do not use newspapers or printed paper towels because the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change out the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. If possible, try to dry the photos inside, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.

After the photo is dried you can remove any mud or dirt by gently rinsing both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don’t rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.

If you don’t have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax or parchment paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Some experts recommend freezing the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly. Others believe that freezing will cause small cracks to appear and don’t recommend it.

It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

Rescued and restored photos can give the owners a little piece of themselves back when so much has been lost. The stories from recent natural disasters should motivate all of us to write that family book and make the preservation of your photos a priority.

 

A Real Puritan Woman: Joan Braybrooke Penny

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Mehitabel’s Evil Stepmother : Joan Braybrooke Penney

Joan Braybrooke, one of the main characters in “The Shadow of Salem: The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke, had every reason to be angry. Her husband, Richard Braybrooke, and their indentured servant were accused of fornication in 1652 by the courts in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  After being whipped and fined, Richard fulfilled the next part of his sentence: he was to raise his infant daughter Mehitabel in the Braybrooke home.

It was also a historical fact that Joan held Mehitabel in contempt throughout her childhood. The Braybrooke’s neighbors attributed their opinions of sixteen-year-old Mehitabel to their conversations with her stepmother Joan. The actual court records quote them to describe Mehitabel as “unchaste and spiteful,” and as “a liar and a thief.”

How tragic that Mehitabel would be the only child in the Braybrooke household. Joan Braybrooke was a barren woman; a situation considered a sign of God’s disfavor in the Puritan culture.

Joan made it into the Ipswich court records for her own offenses on several occasions. In 1653, she was brought into the quarterly court for “wearing a silk scarf,” a crime in Massachusetts if her husband’s property was valued at less than 200 pounds. The Puritans viewed the wearing of lace or silks as a privilege only for the wealthy. She was proven not guilty on that charge. Joan was also charged four years later with “a breach of the Sabbath” for “carrying a half bushel of corn or pease” on her way to church. The Puritans had rather draconian punishments for those who violated the Sabbath rest!

The most dramatic event in Joan’s life came in the year 1692 with an accusation that would be punishable by death if proven true.  Read about Joan Braybrooke Penney in The Shadow of Salem. 

This article is part of a series telling the history of some of the real Puritan women who were part of Mehitabel’s life in the historical novel In the Shadow of Salem. The book is in print and e-book format through Amazon.   Linked here:  https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.

 

My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

The Tragic Life of A Real Puritan Woman: Rachel Clinton

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The story of Rachel Haffield Clinton’s tragic life lies buried in the early records of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her family emigrated to New England on the sailing ship named The Planter in the spring of 1635. She grew up in an affluent household when Ipswich was a new village in the colony of Massachusetts, but the Haffield family’s fortune dwindled shortly after their arrival.

The years to come would find Rachel destitute and then accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Rachel is one of  the fascinating characters in the newly released historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.” https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

Continue reading

An Interview with Mehitabel Braybrook Downing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview an ancestor from long ago?  Please enjoy my interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, the main character in my historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem.

DONNA: Thank you for this unique opportunity to interview you, my 8th great grandmother. Would you start out by telling me about your beginnings−your birth?

MEHITABEL: I was born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony. My birth mother was my father’s indentured servant. She and my father were brought before the Ipswich courts for the sin of fornication, and they were both whipped, and my father was fined.

DONNA: Tell me about your early years in Ipswich.

MEHITABEL:  The courts insisted my father Richard had to take me to his home and raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother, always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.

DONNA: How did you and your husband, John Downing meet?

MEHITABEL: We were both born and raised in Ipswich. Everyone knew one another as the colony was still so young. He was ten years older than me, so we were not childhood playmates.

DONNA: You married him at quite a young age.

MEHITABEL:  Yes, like you mentioned in the story, most Puritan women didn’t marry until they were about twenty-two, but things were not going well for me after my time in prison for arson. John wanted to marry me, but my father also rewarded his willingness with a very handsome dowry.  My father gave John about half of his lands.

DONNA: So your in-laws really were the illustrious Emanuel and Lucy Downing?

MEHITABEL: Yes, but they had moved back to England and Emanuel had died by the time we married. Lucy was not attentive to her children she left in the colony. I heard that historians have even written about how Lucy foolishly put all her attention on Sir George, her eldest son. He certainly didn’t treat her well when she became elderly and was forced to depend on him.

DONNA: In your opinion, were the book’s details of your arson trial accurate?

MEHITABEL: Oh, yes!  As I read the court reports about the trial, I am deeply embarrassed. The records present me as a fool and pretty evil, but I was only sixteen. The fire was really a horrible mistake, but I was guilty of starting the fire with my pipe. Standing back now, it all seems so surreal.

DONNA: What about the horrible things said about you in the testimony from your neighbors?

MEHITABEL:  You can see where my neighbors got their wrong opinion of me.  My stepmother, Joan’s words were quoted by others in the court records, calling me unchaste and a liar.

DONNA: It must have been horrible living with a stepmother who hated you.

MEHITABEL: Yes, I didn’t have a loving mother to guide and teach me. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me.

DONNA: Can you talk about the incident with the pigs tearing at your clothes?

MEHITABEL:  That really did happen. Just like my setting the Perkins’ house on fire, I landed in court, and there is an account that exists to this day.

DONNA:  So, was my accounting accurate?

MEHITABEL:  Let’s just say that you were very kind, but you got the basic story correct.

DONNA:  What about John Beare?  Was he your real cousin?

MEHITABEL:  Absolutely. He lived with us for quite a few years, and father gave him some property when John Beare was of age.

DONNA: What were the most difficult times in your life?

MEHITABEL: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prison if we were released.

DONNA: Did I spell your name correctly?

MEHITABEL:  I notice my name was spelled differently in various records, but you chose the one I used: Mehitabel. I used that spelling in that letter “The Ten Persons of Ipswich”−the one we wrote in prison in 1692. That was my signature! Your readers should know that spelling wasn’t standardized back then. My maiden name is spelled Brabrook, Braybrooke, Brabrooke and even Brubruck on different records. Whoever was doing the writing decided on the spelling of a person’s name.

DONNA: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?

MEHITABEL: I am thrilled that finally an accurate and complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly court records. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins, and even some of those were distortions. Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?

DONNA: Is there anything else that the readers of your story should know?

MEHITABEL: They might be interested to know I am probably the only Puritan woman of my time who had historical documents from birth to my life’s end. Court and town records have left me with a rather scurrilous reputation, and I am grateful that you made a valiant attempt to see beyond the cold facts.

In the Shadow of Salem can be purchased on Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Salem-Donna-Gawell/dp/1946016500/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1532380324&sr=8-2&keywords=in+the+shadow+of+salem+by+donna+gawell

 

 

What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?

Most Americans have many family immigration stories. Those of us who are second or more generations Americans have ancestors who left their homelands under unimaginable harsh circumstances but passed on few personal records to tell their story. The typical immigrant was far too busy to keep a journal, and their descendants may have discarded the once treasured naturalization or foreign birth records.

My grandfather’s naturalization records found in the National Archives

Today, Americans whose ancestors came more than a hundred years ago might consider them as the privileged ones, but these immigrant stories are just as dramatic as modern-day people who cross America’s borders illegally or wait years until their visas are approved.  The immigrants from long ago didn’t just hop off the boat and get on with their lives. Their situation was often more desperate, and they often sacrificed much more. Continue reading

In the Shadow of Salem

I am excited to announce the release of “In the Shadow of Salem” (The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke.). After five years of research and writing, my historical novel is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com for a sizeable discount before the official release date of June 18, 2018.

“In the Shadow of Salem” is a historical novel about the life of Mehitabel Braybrooke, a Puritan woman born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Mehitabel was accused of crimes−the first for arson and the second for witchcraft. History has not been kind to Mehitabel, but what was the real story behind her scurrilous reputation? Would she ever be redeemed from her lifelong curse? Or was Mehitabel as wicked as her numerous Essex Court Records imply?

This novel is the first time any author has written about Mehitabel’s amazing life from birth to the end of her life. Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing is one of the 200 people accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials, but she found herself in the courts on more than a few other occasions. I’m grateful that she generated so many Essex Country court and town records and that she happens to be my 9th great-grandmother!

Please visit the pages on my website dedicated to Puritan history, articles about the real people who are characters in the novel, and “The ABC’s of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England.

Link for ordering:

https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

 

I’m back from a fabulous research trip to Poland!

A walk in Poland’s forests with my family

I have just returned from an amazing research trip to Poland and will be writing many articles related to WWII history and travel in Poland and England in the months to come. These will usually be posted as a blog on this website and in the permanent article section.

I will also be completing my historical novel “War in the Wilderness” (working title) this year. The novel is set during WWII in the villages near Blizna and Niwiska in Poland. It tells the story of the villagers’ experiences living amidst the largest SS training camp outside of Germany, working as forced laborers for the Nazis, real villagers’ experiences in German concentration camps such as Magdeburg and Ravensbruck, and also the impact on the locals when Hitler brought his top research V1 and V2 missile program to Blizna in 1943 after the bombing in Peenemunde. So many fascinating people in Poland, Sweden, and the USA have been providing me information.

IMG_4884 (2)

This story is unique as it is the first time much of this information has been made available to English speaking people. Many of the Polish villagers’ stories have NEVER been revealed because of the brutality of the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1990. Most feared for their lives if their partisan involvement was discovered. One of my husband’s relatives was executed by the Russians in 1948 because of his AK activity during the war, and his body was recently just discovered in a mass grave. Poland was a harsh place to live for many decades, and WWII didn’t end for them in 1945. The war more correctly ended in 1989 when Poland became a free republic.

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Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

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The Invasion of Ellis Island in 1944: The Untold Story


 

My father, Stanley Bryk served as a Boatswain’s Mate First Class in the US Navy during the World War II. He participated in four invasions, led the enlisted sailors of the USS Lyon and LST-372, shot down aircraft, and supervised the day-to-day operations of both ships. But, his adventures in New York City were perhaps the most distinctive and noteworthy.

 His LST-372 returned to the States to be refitted and rearmed before the Normandy Invasion. While there, the crew made a short stop to New York Harbor where Stanley took the payroll master to Wall Street to fill the payroll slips for the sailors.  He was allowed to use a Higgins boat which is a small boat that could carry troops from ships to open beaches. They drove the boat out, docked, took care of the paperwork, and then attempted to return to the LST-372.

A developing fog in the harbor began to pose a problem.  Stanley motored around looking for the LST, but gave up and attempted to land back on Manhattan Island.  Well, at least they thought they did.  To their amazement, they passed a towering figure−The Statue of Liberty.  Stanley knew that at least he was in New York City!  They finally landed on the adjacent island; Stanley had successfully invaded Ellis Island in that dense fog. 

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The Other Three Million Who Died in the Holocaust: The Forgotten Story of the Polish Christians During WWII

The forgotten story of the Polish Christians who were killed by the Nazis during WWII is one which few people outside of Poland are aware. All of the people in Poland suffered enormously during the Holocaust−both Jews and Christians. Six million Polish people died under the Nazis and half of these were Christians.  The German occupation and brutality overwhelmed all Poles during WWII, and this fact needs to illuminate the plight of all the Polish people. Unfortunately, some writers of the Holocaust deliberately distort the tragic circumstances of the typical Polish citizen while others might insert this fact in the last sentence of their article.

Polish women forced to work at a Nazi slave labor camp

The Jewish experience of the Holocaust has been remembered and honored in numerous books, movies, and museums. The movie “Schindler’s List” gave us insight into the valiant efforts of businessman Oskar Schindler’s rescue of eleven hundred Jews. Irena Sendler, a Polish Christian nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw saved more Jews than any other individual  during the Holocaust (besides diplomats who furnished visas.)  Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was instead awarded to Al Gore for his work on climate change.

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When Fiji was “The Cannibal Isles”

The Fijian Islands are celebrated as a lovely vacation paradise with a friendly population, and it is difficult to imagine that they were once known as the Cannibal Isles. In the 1700 and 1800’s, sea captains sailed far away from the Cannibal Isles for fear of being shipwrecked and therefore victims of the locals who actively practiced cannibalism.

My visit to two islands in Fiji in October 2017 allowed me to meet locals who were amongst the kindest and most hospitable I have met in my travels. Our taxi driver, a very kind young man from Lautoka, invited us to his home for tea and dessert. The next day in Suva we were treated as honored guests of the native Fijian congregation at the Centenary Methodist Church for Sunday services.* Today, the Christian faith of Fijians is strong and fervent, and Sundays are sacred, but their ancestors less than two hundred years ago certainly would not have greeted me in such a hospitable manner.

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Milk Bars: A Taste of History in Poland

In Poland, tourists won’t find milk bars in a “Top Ten Places to Go” list.  Malbork Castle, the Salt Mines, Zakopane, and the Old Town in Krakow are all there, but milk bars (“bar mleczny” in Polish) should be near the top if you are seeking a unique experience not found anywhere else. Some refer to milk bars as “ Poland’s version of cheap fast food,” but it is more accurate to view them as “good traditional food served fast.”

Milk bars are very inexpensive restaurants found mostly in Poland’s larger cities and offer traditional polish cooking, just like your grandmother used to serve. The only difference is that the women servers in their flowered aprons won’t remind you of your sweet, solicitous grandma. These women are cooks, not chefs, are efficient and hard-working, but have a reputation for being impatient with those who don’t know how these cafeteria-like eateries work.  Seinfeld’s hilarious episodes about the man referred to as “the Soup Nazi” in New York might be the closest comparison.*

 History of Milk Bars

Milk bars have nothing in common with lounges and bars as you won’t find alcohol. The milk part of the name harkens back to their origins in urban dairies in the late 1800’s when the abundant supply of milk made it possible to help feed those on a very limited income. Early milk bar meals consisted of milk, egg, and flour-based foods and no meat

 After WWII, when Poland was satellite country within the Soviet Union, milk bars became state-subsidized. Workers were quite poor but could find an inexpensive, hot meal at these eateries. There were more than 40,000 in their heyday, but the numbers shrank to about 140 by 2016.

Milk bars began closing after Poland gained total independence in the 1990’s and embraced capitalism. During these transition years, milk bars represented a holdover from the decades of communism and patronage fell into decline.  Today, the younger Polish people aren’t burdened with memories of socialism, making milk bars popular with university students. The average Pole and lucky tourist will not find a better deal for dining. 

 Finding a Milk Bar

My favorite way to find the best milk bars and other inside information is to ask Trip Advisor Forum experts. These very knowledgeable and generous people will provide information for planning your trip or at the last minute “on the ground” (where is a recommended milk bar in Krakow, Rzeszow, Warsaw, Gdansk, etc.? Where can I find a store in Krakow that sells Polish pottery? etc.).

You will find milk bars in the large cities in Poland but not in the smaller towns. If you haven’t received recommendations, Google map your city and then search with the term “bar mleczny” (milk bar). Cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have quite a few so check out the reviews.

You will discover there are two types of milk bars: government subsidized and not subsidized. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but the ones who rely on government subsidies have their prices with odd numbers in the ones or cents place. These eateries, likely the less expensive of the two choices, change their prices based on the current costs. The menu and prices on a chalkboard, whiteboard or similar board is a clue.

The non-subsidized tend to keep their prices more stable, are slightly more expensive, and their prices are often listed in rounded up numbers: 9.50, 3.20, etc.

A new trend is what some refer to as “hipster milk bars.” Entrepreneurs often purchase milk bars that are going out of business and remodel them to make them more appealing. They often receive very good reviews with mention of friendly servers, nice atmosphere, table service, and the most important attribute: English speaking workers. The food tends to be a bit pricier, and you will find a menu with an international flare: Irish breakfast, crepes, lattes, paninis, etc. These restaurants are highly regarded by many locals and maybe a great place to start your milk bar adventure.

Atmosphere

 Depending on the milk bar’s popularity and the time of day, you can expect a relatively long line at lunchtime. The large menu on the wall will list the items in Polish and the price per serving. The interior will be low frills, usually metal-framed tables and chairs for 2 or 4 people, and minimal décor.

Milk Bars in Warsaw and in Krakow

 The typical patrons are university students and professors, local workers, and pensioners. They order, eat, and leave since the ambiance doesn’t lend itself to leisurely dining. The expectation is to eat and move on.

 Menu

Each milk bar is unique, but all the menu items are familiar to Poles and may not be in English.  Milk bars that cater to tourists have the foods listed in Polish and English. There is nothing wrong with that if it encourages visitors to order. Some milk bars offer an English translation on paper without prices.

      

 One of the best features of milk bars is that they serve fresh foods without artificial preservatives. Some favorite and traditional foods at a milk bar are:

 Pierogi filled with meat, sauerkraut, mushrooms or potatoes and cheese.

Soups: Zurek (my favorite), barszcz, chicken noodle, mushroom, or tomato

 Meat Dishes: breaded pork cutlet, fried chicken legs and thighs, beef roulades, golabki (stuffed cabbage), and Bigos.

 Sides: potatoes, sauerkraut, small salads such as coleslaw, cucumber salad, or mixed vegetables, potato pancakes, and bread

 Beverages: coffee, tea, Kefit, or kompot (homemade fruit juices made with fruit, sugar, and raisins)

 Desserts: Apple cakes, cheesecake, paczki, etc.

 How to order:

Since milk bars are mostly cafeteria style, patrons will see the menu displayed above the serving or ordering area. Stand back and study it before you approach one of the servers. 

The goal in ordering is to be quick and efficient. If you are a person with very limited Polish skills, study the menu and do a bit of translation. You might want to write down the food you desire before approaching the line and can ask other patrons for help. The younger people in Poland tend to have very good English skills. Many Poles in larger cities do speak some English, but the middle-aged and older populations were forced to learn Russian in school and often are not able to help.

Even if it is not reciprocated, smile while you order and start with “please” which is prosze (pronounced “proh-sheh”). Then say how many you want. You can also show the server with fingers, but it is preferable to learn the Polish number words:

  • one (jeden, pronounced “yeh-den”)
  • two (dwa, pronounced “dvah”)
  • three (trzy, pronounced “chrih”)

Many milk bars now offer carryout for a small fee. The cashier may ask you “na miejscu? (pronounced nah myay stsu) which means “For Here?” If you are finished ordering, say either “Tak” for yes or “Nie” (neeyeh) for no and continue to order.

Some milk bars are just a cafeteria line with most of the food in steam trays, but most have windows for picking up the order. You will receive a receipt to hand to the worker at the window. Soups and drinks are served immediately, but there is some wait for the popular dishes like pierogi. You can take the ready items to a table and begin to eat while waiting for the rest of your food. Listen for your order to be announced and be sure to bring your receipt. Confirm that the order is yours.

 The patrons are expected to dispose of their trash and return the dishes in the appropriate area.

Now that you have the basic strategies, you are equipped to partake in a bit of history not on most tourist’s radar. Enjoy your dining as a cultural adventurer! 

 

* If you want to see the Seinfeld episode, search youtube.com for Seinfeld and Soup.

 

Hobbiton in New Zealand

We Went on an Adventure!  (to quote Bilbo Baggins)

Hobbiton is a real place in New Zealand, and we went there on an adventure in October 2017.  Hobbiton is outside of Matamata and is the permanent movie set where parts of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies were filmed. It is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions. You don’t need to be a Hobbit fan to think a  day in the Shire is a pretty wonderful adventure!

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Sunday Church Services in Suva, Fiji

Going to church in Fiji was a highlight of our Transpacific cruise to Australia.  Fiji is a predominantly Christian country, and the first missionaries were the Methodists. We had read about the unique and lovely experience of attending church in Fiji, and so I did a bit of research. I found the Facebook page for the Centenary Methodist Church which is close to the port and contacted them.  I received an immediate welcoming reply: “Bula, Donna!” with a request to know more about us.  I informed the cruise critic group and a group of Christians we had met onboard the Explorer of the Seas about the invitation.

Centenary Methodist Church in Suva, Fiji

 

Our group of about twenty walked off the ship together and easily found our way to the church which was about a ten-minute walk. Some church members were waiting at the stairs of the church for us and greeted us warmly. They had reserved the front pews for our group. 

Many of us had purchased school supplies and backpacks to offer as a gift to the church’s children, and these were placed on an altar table near the front. 

We had a chance to meet several groups of parishioners before the service, and they were very hospitable.

  

A Lali (ceremonial slit drum) announced the beginning of the service.  It functions as a church bell. At this time, the church was filled with the local parishioners and some other visitors.

Our gifts and the congregation’s offerings were formally accepted and blessed. Our fellowship group was introduced and welcomed by the pastor at the beginning of the service which was conducted in their native Fijian.

Many members shared their hymn books with us, and fortunately, the language is rather phonetic and easy to follow.

This particular Sunday was Youth Sunday, and the children mostly sat together with their teachers, and the “Youth” (who appeared to be ages 18-35) were seated in the front and did most of the singing and teaching.  The young women wore white dresses, and many had traditional Fijian hairstyles. Their worship was without instruments, and their voices were lovely, like angels singing, often in four-part harmony. 

The congregation is very traditional and conservative in their style of worship and dress.  The women wore their finest outfits, and the men wore a dark sulu (skirts), a white dress shirt, a tie, and a suit jacket. 

After the service, a curtain was drawn to allow the youth to prepare for a drama. While we could not understand the words, it was obvious the drama was about judgment day and began with the introduction of various types of characters: the humble, the arrogant, the unbeliever, and finally the man who begged crumbs that fell from the table of the rich man.

 

When the poor man died, he was placed on a stretcher that accidentally fell apart, but the performers improvised and just carried him out the front door. The children howled with laughter. The men returned with his coffin.

 

The judgment scene was quite hilarious and tragic at the same time. The Devil, dressed in blackface and clothing, beckoned those to be judged to join him. Two angels guided the judged to their destiny.  Those who went to hell were sent to a smoky area of fire. The congregation, especially the children, loved the drama, and we also found it entertaining.

Visitors can attend the Sunday services at 10:00, but I am so pleased that we were anticipated and especially welcomed because of my prior contact.  The entire service lasted about three hours and the Christian Fijian’s hospitality was warm and friendly.

Besides the lovely singing and sincere worship, I was impressed how reverent the Fijians are about their faith. The island is mostly Christian and has been so since about 1860 when most of the people were converted.

The military takeover relaxed some of the Sunday blue laws, but much of the city is closed on Sundays. It is only recently that some stores and the museum are open after church services and then only when a ship is in port.  Most of those in Suva attend services on Sunday.  Their desire to hold on to tradition is admirable.

We had lunch and walked around a few open shops (Jack’s is one of the largest) before taking a taxi (about $3 USD.) to the Suva Museum.  There are many interesting displays about Fiji’s history and culture, and they don’t hide the fact that cannibalism is part of Fiji’s past. Fiji was referred to as the Cannibal Islands in the late 1700-early 1800’s with good reason.  Sailors were terrified at the possibility of being shipwrecked in the area. The early missionaries left journals and stories about their eyewitness accounts. The last missionary was eaten in 1863. This practice of devouring one’s enemy had more to do with power and humiliation than anything else.  What is remarkable is that Fiji as a culture seems to be traveling in a positive but opposite trajectory compared to many people from western nations who seem to be shedding their moral principles.

A Miss Fiji Beauty Contest was taking place outside of the museum. The young ladies were in their traditional dress, and a festival was also going on.

 

 

 

 

 

We walked back to the ship and stopped in a park to rest. 

The day was delightful and a unique cultural and spiritual experience and the Fijians were hospitable and gracious.

 

 

How to Save Your Family History Treasures from Natural Disasters

 

By Donna Gawell

(Update in September 2018 This article was written last year after seeing the incredible loss some people experienced in the flooding. Please share with your friends on the East Coast.)

It is the wise person who learns from the mistakes and tragedies of others. Americans were glued to their TVs for weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma witnessing residents drag out mattresses, sofas, and chairs from their flooded homes, and our hearts ached for their loss. Furniture and household items can be replaced, but some of our most precious items might be lost forever.

Family photos, records, and documents are amongst the most difficult to replace. A grandfather’s original naturalization document, parents’ wedding photos, and their own baby pictures might be floating in a massive soup of muddy water. Those of us who don’t live by the coast have our own natural and manmade disasters such as tornadoes and fire that can cause similar destruction.

Your Family’s Heritage and Story

You may be the guardian of your family’s history or just the owner of a few scrapbooks. Some people don’t appreciate their ownership responsibilities, not understanding that they are the guardians of their ancestors’ legacies. The thought that you are the only one who cares about these documents is misguided. The desire to know more about our history is hotwired in some from birth but comes later in others. A thirty year old launching their career while raising a family may show minimal interest. Trust me: your children or maybe their descendants will someday care. We were all there once. It is up to you to consider various ways to save what your descendants will someday treasure. That box of old artifacts you passed down to your son might be thrown in the trash bin during a nasty divorce.

Learn from Professional Genealogists: The Diversification Principle

So, what steps can be taken to avoid this heartbreak? The underlying principle is that your losses will be minimal if you diversify. Just like the wisdom about portfolio diversification from your financial advisor, genealogists will tell you that you should consider at least one or two strategies for more secure preservation. That said, none of these ideas can guarantee your precious items survival if you suffer a fire in the midst of a digital shutdown compliments of Kim Jung Un. These suggestions will give you some assurance that our family treasures and heirlooms items can be preserved and protected.

Share with Your Family

The best advice is to share with others! While most of my siblings and cousins willingly share precious family photos, I have encountered one cousin who is holding on to the items she inherited with a death grip. It is sad we can’t-do anything to change her distorted thinking, but we can proceed with what we all have and ignore those who have an attitude.

Access to a scanner is essential although taking a photo of a document or picture is second best. Sort out the items most precious to you and create a folder with subdirectories to keep scans in order. You can also store the photos sent to you in these folders. Be sure to label them with the first and last names of the items, not just “Grandpa, or mom.” Try to give a date and place.

I have organized small family gatherings of cousins with the sole purpose of sharing what we each have, and these have turned into memorable events. We all walked away benefitting greatly. Try to invite someone who is tech-savvy and has access to a scanner.

For those family and friends who live far away, ask them to send you copies of the photos and documents by email. Of course, reciprocate to those who have offered their treasures. You are on your way to becoming the family historian.

Create digital family history books- for free!

Donna’s Family History Books Available on Amazon

Many people have a desire to make a scrapbook and love the creativity of all the cute details. As a genealogist, I am more practical. Consider this: who is going to inherit this one scrapbook, and who has room or even wants your huge collection? Even if you have just one child, they will likely have at least a few children. You get the point. A digital scrapbook makes so much sense since you can easily produce multiple copies for less than the cost of conventional scrapbooks when you consider the necessary investment in supplies.

I started out using sites like Shutterfly, and there are hundreds of companies that offer a similar service including your local drug store. The problem is that the cost for each book gets out of control at about $34 for a 9×9, 20-page book. Most companies do not offer a significant discount for multiple copies. The books were lovely but became cost prohibitive for my goal of sharing with the family.

That is when I began to use sites like Create Space, Amazon’s self-publishing company. As an author, I had a few self-published non-fiction books on Create Space and saw that it was a relatively easy process, more efficient and less expensive. There are several “print on demand” companies similar to Create Space such as Lulu and Ingram Spark. Use caution in selecting your company as some are more like old-fashioned vanity presses from the past. They want you to make an investment up front−not a good idea! You don’t want to be stuck with a case of books in your basement that cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front. Note: CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are merging on Amazon in Oct. 2019.

That is the beauty of publishing on demand or POD companies. You create the book, order maybe five very inexpensive proof copies, and then hit the publish key so your family can order their own copies!

The process is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. All of these companies offer their professional design services for a fee, but have confidence! You can do this if you take a deep breath and commit a few weeks to the development.

  • Write out your family’s story
  • Insert photos and documents (family trees, copies of the census, scans of documents, etc.)
  • Do a bit of simple formatting:
  • Choose an easy to read text type and size (Roman New Times, size 12 is popular)
  • Decide on single, double spacing, etc. and indentation (all in paragraph in MSWord)
  • Left align -If you are unsure, just google formatting AND self-publishing, and many guides will pop up.
  • Use spell check and perhaps a free grammar and writing checker like Grammarly. Your work will look more professional.
  • Design your cover- it’s easy! Find a photo of your own or use a free one offered on these sites. You also make decisions about the cover layout and color background. The creator can easily make changes, save it, and come back another day to finish the process.
  • Upload your book to the site. Many will provide an ISBN for free.
  • Decide on the size of your book and if you want it in color or black and white. I use the 8.5 x 11 and color, but if your photos are all black and white, you might want to choose that option.
  • Now comes the trickiest part: pricing. On CreateSpace, you can purchase very inexpensive proof copies and reduced cost author copies of your books. The cost of selling the book to others has a bottom line because Amazon has to make some profit, but you will be able to see what the royalty you as the author will receive from your book before you make the final decision. Because all this work is my gift to the family and future generations, I simply round up the price to the next dollar. You might feel differently.
  • Submit the book for review. The company will inspect it for formatting issues and usually reply within 24 hours with suggestions or their approval. Keep in mind that the computer they use doesn’t realize that many of your photos are not high resolution, so ignore those issues. You can keep tweaking your work and resubmitting until you are satisfied.
  • Hit the approve key, and you are now an Amazon author!

Off-Site and External Backups

Backup your photos and documents in the cloud, on DVDs and flash drives or memory sticks, etc. A little research on the internet will provide instructions for those of you not familiar with these lifesavers. These backups come with their own limitations as experts warn us that the devices needed to read a DVD or memory card may be obsolete in ten years. Once again: heed the advice to diversify!

Advice for That Dreaded Disaster

There are some emergencies for which you can prepare. Consider the storage location of your photos and documents. Most basements are the worst place for these items because of inevitable mildew issues. Inspect antique clothing periodically and store them in plastic bags.

If you are forced to evacuate and leave many of your precious items behind, consider using your dishwasher as a reasonably airtight storage container. Take out all the racks and put in items that are treasures. Your dishwasher can be locked and should be reasonably waterproof. I would put the items in new zip lock bags and maybe even secure airtight plastic containers first. Might your dishwasher go floating down the street in a flood or burn up in a massive fire? Perhaps, nothing is perfect or 100% guaranteed, but this seems like a prudent alternative to leaving the items exposed on a shelf.

There are countless internet sites with instructions on how to recover photos and other items the owners thought were damaged beyond repair. I watched videos of photo restorations carried out with surgical precision as the items were carefully cut out of the wet plastic sheets and then washed. The efforts seem laborious, especially for people who have so many other emergency tasks in front of them.

Expert Advice for Damaged Photos and Documents

Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together making saving them much more unlikely. Carefully lift any photos from the mud or dirty water. Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate those that are stacked together. Be careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface. Also, remove photos from plastic sleeves from these wet albums right away if possible.

Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To successfully remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

If you have time and adequate space immediately after the disaster, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Do not use newspapers or printed paper towels because the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change out the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. If possible, try to dry the photos inside, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.

After the photo is dried you can remove any mud or dirt by gently rinsing both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don’t rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.

If you don’t have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax or parchment paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Some experts recommend freezing the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly. Others believe that freezing will cause small cracks to appear and don’t recommend it.

It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

Rescued and restored photos can give the owners a little piece of themselves back when so much has been lost. The stories from recent natural disasters should motivate all of us to write that family book and make the preservation of your photos a priority.

 

The Founding Mother of Harvard: Lucy Winthrop Downing, A Puritan Lady of Influence

Lucy Winthrop was a woman who knew how to get things done in the male-dominated world of the English Puritans. She was born into the aristocratic society of her parents, Sir Adam Winthrop, Lord of the manor of Groton and Anne Browne on January 9, 1601. History remembers her colorful letters and strong, sparkling personality, but Lucy’s most important accomplishment might be her influence in the founding of Harvard.

Lucy married Emanuel Downing, a barrister of the Inner Temple in 1622. She was a pious Puritan, but still enjoyed the life of a lady during her years in London. Lucy’s surviving letters and actions made her priorities clear: her eldest son George was her most important child. His education and career reigned supreme in her life, and she probably rivaled the most determined helicopter mom of the 21st century. Unfortunately, Lucy lived to see her folly and learned that with favoritism came its sister ‘Regret’.

Sir George Downing

The serious and staunch Puritans lamented the tarnished moral state of colleges in England during the 1630’s. The well-educated who wished to follow their families and colleagues to the Massachusetts Bay Colony were presented with a dilemma. New England had no college, but the English universities were rife with “raucous behaviors and frivolities.”

There were no suitable institutes of higher learning for the Puritans on either continent, but Lucy was not about to allow this obstacle prevent her family’s immigration to the Americas. Lucy began a campaign to encourage the founding of a college in New England for her most esteemed son George. Her cherished brother, John Winthrop, was the first governor of the colony and surely had significant influence.

Governor John Winthrop

Winthrop had written many letters to the Downings encouraging them to immigrate. Emanuel represented the Massachusetts Bay Colony before the Privy Council in London on behalf of the colony, and so had knowledge about the opportunities and risks concerning a move to America. Lucy wrote to John about the fearful stories she had heard about life in the colonies: “…many good people here and some that understand New England reasonable well, both by sight and relations of friends, that are able to judge, they do much fear the country cannot afford subsistence for many people, and that if you were not supplied of incomes from hence, you lives would be very miserable…” A skilled negotiator such as Lucy Downing knew she should not appear overly optimistic about such a huge endeavor as a move to the Americas.

In the summer of 1636, John Winthrop increased his efforts for the Downings to join him and his family in New England. Lucy had the keen sense that her influential brother could remove the one barrier that kept them from moving. She wrote a letter to John. “George (her son) and his father comply more cordially for New England; but poor boy, I fear that journey would not be so prosperous for him as I could wish in respect that you have no societies…for the education of youths in learning; It would make me go far nimbler to New England if God should call me to it than otherwise I should, and I believe a college would put no small life into the plantation.” Lucy wanted a college for George!

It cannot be a mere coincidence that in late October 1636 the General Court of Massachusetts agreed to allot £400 to establish a school or college in Newtown, which would later be called Cambridge. The legislature and learned Puritans were fearful “to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” John Winthrop, as the highly esteemed founder and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, must have exerted significant influence on behalf of the Downings who had already invested in land and livestock in the colony.

Statue of John Harvard

John Harvard considered one of the founders of Harvard, bequeathed the infant seminary £780 and 400 scholarly books from his library upon his death in 1638. The grateful legislature named the new school “Harvard.” Since Harvard had already been founded two years prior to this gift, John Harvard was not truly a founder but a generous benefactor. Lucy persistence and pressure on the importance of a college in the new colony had to be more than a matter of chance. No other individual’s names are attached to the impetuous to build the colony’s first institute of higher learning. The decision came from the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which John Winthrop was a member.

With the news of suitable educational opportunities in New England, the Downings set sail on the Thomas and Francis in 1638. As educated Puritans, they were impressed with the learned and pious men already in the Massachusetts Bay Colony but were likely concerned about the deprivations of colonial life. The Downings left behind their stately London home and summer residence filled with maids and the luxuries expected by the elite for the more primitive accommodations and treacheries in the new colony.

harvard downing house

The Downing’s House on Essex Street in New England

The Downing family lived with Lucy’s brother John until they erected a house on three hundred acres of land in what is now Peabody. They called this plantation “Groton” after Lucy’s English manor. In the summer of 1645, the chimney caught fire while the entire family was away, and the entire house was destroyed. The family moved to a house on Essex Street where they lived until the Lucy and Emanuel returned to England in 1656. Emanuel received an appointment as Clerk of Council of State in Scotland, and they remained there until his death in 1660.

George Downing was a member of the first graduating class from Harvard in 1642 and was second in his class. He was offered a position as Harvard’s first tutor, which was then a prestigious honor. In 1645, he went to Barbados as a chaplain to Sir John Okey’s regiment. It appears he forgot most of his spiritual training after that assignment.

Lucy moved to London after her husband’s death, likely assured she would reap the benefits as the mother of Sir George Downing who was enjoying the protection and privileges from the royal court. Sadly, George treated his mother no better than he did many others. Lucy lived out the rest of her years under the alleged neglect of her most esteemed son. Desperate, she wrote letters to relatives to ask their assistance in petitioning George to increase her allowance as she “suffered in her old age for the necessities of life.”

“I am now at £10 a year for my chamber and for my servant’s wages and have to extend the other £10 to accommodate for our meat and drink, and for my clothing and all other necessaries I am much to seek, and more your brother George will not hear of for me, and he says that it is only covetousness that makes me ask more.”

Lucy’s nephew John Winthrop Jr., Governor of Connecticut, heard of her distress and begged George to “help Aunt Lucy in her time of age and infirmity.” George dismissed the letter insisting he could do no more, although he had already become a very wealthy and influential man. He was Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet and known as a statesman, diplomat, turncoat, and spy.  Downing Street in London and New York City are named in his honor.

Two centuries after Lucy’s death, her story came to the attention of Harriet Hanson Robinson, a 19th-century author and suffragette. HHR pitied Lucy’s situation during her old age but commented on this familiar scenario. “Lucy Downing established the unwise precedent of educating one member of her family at the expense of the rest- a precedent followed by too many women of her time.” HHR’s observations were accurate as no other Downing sons were educated at Harvard and her daughters were sent out to service in the colonies. One of these daughters was forced to marry against her wishes, although most of her children married quite well. Lucy died on April 9, 1679, in London.

Lucy’s colorful writing lives on and shows her sense of humor and unique choice of words. The lack of spelling and grammar conventions back then make her letters sometimes difficult to read, but they provide a rare insight into the life and concerns of this educated and well to do Puritan woman who lived on both continents. Although she was a mother to nine children and three stepchildren, her letters to family rarely mention any except George. This omission seems noteworthy considering she left seven of them in the colonies when she moved back to England.

Why didn’t Harvard pay more tribute to any member of the Downing family for its very existence? Lucy, although educated and cunning was still a female and had little authority or observable power. Not only could women not vote, but they were not allowed control over their own money or inheritances. It was a man’s world. Also, Lucy abandoned any influence she may have enjoyed in the colony when she had her husband returned to England.

The most likely reason for Harvard forgetting the Downing’s influence is that Sir George Downing, one of its first graduates and its first tutor, was held in very low esteem by the colonists after he returned to England. First siding with Cromwell, George switched his allegiance back to the king when the crown was restored. This was remarkable since George gave his full allegiance to Cromwell, but showed the skill of currying favor with those in power throughout his political career, even if it meant traitorous behavior.

George blamed his time with Cromwell on his teachers at Harvard and the elite back in the colonies for their ill-conceived ideas and teachings. Word of this traitorous and disloyal behavior reached the colonies and George was forevermore held in disdain. It became a proverbial expression in New England to refer to a false man who betrayed his trust as “an errant George Downing.”  Harvard had little reason or incentive to honor Sir George Downing or his mother, Lucy Winthrop Downing.

Lucy’s father, Sir Adam Winthrop

The historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem, is the story of Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, Lucy Downing’s daughter-in-law. It is available on Amazon.

 

 

If You Were a Puritan: What Would Be Your Title?

If you lived in the Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth colonies in the 17th century what would your title have been?  Our early colonial ancestors had traditions in assigning honorific titles that were not based on marital status.

The Puritans and Pilgrims used different standards, and the majority of the early colonists would NOT have been referred to as Mr. or Mrs. A review of the Quarterly Court Records, the Mayflower Compact and many records from the Salem Witchcraft Trials reveal various titles of distinction.

The Mayflower Compact, one of our earliest documents signed by the pilgrims or separatists reveals only eleven of the forty-one signers as Mr. The other thirty used only their first and surnames. As recent arrivals from England, they would have followed the English traditions. Mister is a direct variant of master which was further derived from the Old English meagester, meaning “one having control or authority.” Well-educated and elite Englishmen may have carried royal titles, and those not of royal descent, literate tradesmen, and skilled artisans would have been referred to as Mr.  Continue reading

The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

Honey produced in Poland has always been esteemed as a type of liquid gold. Historically, many bee colonies were under control of the royal landowners. Stealing honey from their estates was often met with death on the gallows.  Destroying an entire colony of bees, even if they belonged to the accused, resulted in an unimaginable punishment: evisceration. The person would “be handed over to the executioner, who shall take out the entrails and wind them round the tree in which the bees were willfully destroyed and shall afterwards hang him on the same tree.”[1]


A Polish beekeeper from 1870

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“You Would Have Done the Same for Me”: The Story of Helena Kotula

“You Would Have Done the Same for Me.”

The Story of Helena Kotula

By Donna Gawell

There are some people whose stories from WWII remain buried under the ashes and rubble. History doesn’t often reveal many details of the ordinary and humble who have come before us.  Sometimes a few facts are resurrected painting a person as brave, wise and generous, and then we don’t need to know much more. Helena Kotula is one such amazing person.

Helena Kotula was a widowed owner of a small grocery store in Kolbuszowa, Poland during WWII. The only surviving information about Kotula comes from books written by author Norman Salsitz. His very traditional Jewish family had known her for years, and she was a loyal and trusted customer of the Solsitz family’s business. It appears Salsitz didn’t even know Helena Kotula’s first name and referred to her only by the formal title, “Pani Kotulova” in his stories.

Kolbuszowa was a unique town as half of the small town’s population before the war was Jewish. The Poles and Jews lived quite separate lives but coexisted in relative peace. For centuries, Kolbuszowa’s town symbol has been two hands clasped in friendship with the Christian cross and Star of David demonstrating this unique relationship. This laudable history was abruptly crushed when Nazi Germany invaded Kolbuszowa in the first weeks of September 1939.

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The trusting friendship between Pani Kotula and the Solsitz family was put to the test during WWII. Most of his family was taken to the nearby ghetto in Rzeszow, and it was this dependable woman who agreed to hide much of their merchandise with the expectation the Solsitzs’ would one day return. The family trusted her because of her honesty during their long time business relationship.

Most of the Jews in Kolbuszowa were placed in a ghetto in the town and subjected to horrible persecution. They were eventually moved to a nearby concentration camp by the Nazis.

In the fall of 1942, the ghetto in Kolbuszowa was completely demolished using the labor of some of the Kolbuszowa Jews.  Norman Salsitz and his brother Leibush were two of these workers who were scheduled to be transferred to a concentration camp in Rzeszow. They heard about the Nazi’s extermination activities against Jews in Rzeszow and decided to escape and join up with some Jews they knew to be in hiding in the heavily wooded forests in the region.

Salsitz was twenty-two-year-old in 1942 when he asked Kotula for help to escape from the ghetto in Kolbuszowa. His situation grew desperate and he gave an account of his escape in his book:

“I now remembered Kotulova, the Polish widow whom I had visited just before I left Kolbuszowa to be with my family in Rzeszow and with whom I had left some belongings and merchandise. Her house was right behind the fence that surrounded the ghetto. I resolved to see her at once. After nightfall, I left the camp without telling anyone, not even my brother. I climbed the fence and knocked on Kotulova’s door.

“Pani Kotulova, I have to run away. I need forged papers, and I may need a place to hide.”

“I will help you,” she said.

“Where can I get papers?”

“I’ll have to talk to the priest.”

“Do I know him?”

 “You should; Monsignor Dunajecki has been our parish priest for nearly twenty years.”

“Yes, I know of the Monsignor.”

“He has all the birth records of the parish, and he may be able to give you the birth record of someone who died during the war.”

“I had a friend in grade school, about my age, who was killed at the front in 1939. His name is Tadeusz Jadach. Maybe I could use his birth certificate.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Come back tomorrow night.”

When I returned the next evening, Kotulova handed me something more precious than gold: the birth certificate of Tadeusz Jadach, a Roman Catholic Pole. With that paper, I might survive the war. I put my arms around the ample frame of my saving angel and hugged her until she protested she couldn’t breathe.

“I will be indebted to you as long as I live,” I told her.

“You would have done the same for me.”

 “Just one more thing, my brother Leibush; I need a certificate for him. Could you possibly get one for him, too?”

“I’ll talk to the Monsignor.”

The next day I had a birth certificate for Leibush: a Ludwig Kunefal born in 1904, a Capuchin who died in 1936. As she handed it over, she mentioned that the Monsignor wanted to meet Leibush and me. A few days later we went to her house to meet the Monsignor. When we saw him, neither of us knew what to do or say; we had never in our lives spoken to a priest, and we were overwhelmed by the man’s appearance. He was tall and majestic-looking, with an inscrutable face. We stood there embarrassed, but he quickly realized our discomfort and extended his hand to us in greeting.

“I am Proboszcz Dunajecki,” he said in a warm, disarming voice. “I am pleased to meet both of you.” We shook his hand, after which our hostess invited us to share some food she had prepared for us. Soon we were immersed in lively conversation.

“I would like to suggest something,” Father Dunajecki said after we had been chatting a while. “You, Tadeusz, you speak Polish like a Pole. But Leibush’s Polish is a dead giveaway. I would suggest that Leibush not use the certificate that I have made available to him. You don’t have to decide now, but think about it.” We told him we would reconsider. As it turned out, we realized that the Monsignor was correct; we never used that certificate.

With Leibush in the other room talking to Kotulova, the Monsignor and I began to talk. The priest grew pensive.

“You know, Tadeusz” he said, “I have been a priest here in Kolbuszowa for nearly twenty years, and I have never gotten to know a single Jew.45 I have never had any dealings with any Jewish organizations, and I have never had the slightest idea what was going on in the Jewish community. I have never even met your rabbi. Now, in view of what’s happened to the Jews here, I deeply regret not having made the effort to know your people better. What’s most upsetting to me is the thought that I could have saved scores of Jewish children by placing them among my parishioners; it would have been an easy thing to do. But no one said anything to me, and I myself have been remiss for neglecting what was going on under my very nose. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.” I could tell he was really sincere. I didn’t know how to respond. He was blaming himself, but who really was to blame?

As we were about to leave, he shook our hands and wished us luck. Then he made the sign of the cross over us and bade us goodbye.”

Norman, now known by his new Polish name, Tadeusz, spent the next two weeks planning for his escape. He prepared a knapsack of his most precious and necessary items but decided to leave it in the attic of Pani Kotula. This brief meeting was likely the last time the Helena Kotula and Solsitz saw one another. His brother Leister was shot and killed by the Germans during their escape.

After his escape, Norman lived not just a double life, but a triple life for the remainder of the war when he joined up with the Home Army known as the Armia Krajowa or AK. His physical features and ability to speak fine Polish allowed him to assume the identity of a Catholic in the AK. Salsitz worked for the underground while covertly protecting Jewish families. Later, after he immigrated to America, Salsitz wrote about his war experiences.*

Pani Kotula was a prophetic and wise woman who understood the dire wartime situation in Kolbuszowa. Solsitz describes her evaluation in his book,  A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa:

“If only the Poles would realize that the Germans are no less our enemies than you,” she observed shaking her head, “we would all be much better off. We would join your people, and we would fight together. But the Germans are very clever. They succeeded in turning us against the Jews and getting us to help them destroy your people; then, when they are finished with you, they will turn on us.  They will kill many of us, and those that are left will be their slaves. May God have mercy on us all.”

The story of Helena Kotula is representative of the many Polish people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Poles hid Jews, gave them food, and directed them on to safe houses. In Poland, just the act of bravely looking the other way put a Pole’s very life in danger.  With Monsignor Dunajecki’s help, Helena Kotula assisted Norman Salsitz at the beginning of his escape which then led to his work as an AK soldier saving many more lives.

As we learn about Norman Salsitz’s escape and his life story, it is evident he stands not alone, but on the shoulders of these remarkable people, Helena Kotula and Monsignor Antoni Dunajecki. Their remarkable heroism shines like a beacon and inspires us as we consider the potential of goodness and courage that abides in us all.

The author would appreciate any new information on Helena Kotula or Monsignor Antoni Dunajecki, especially names and contact information of their families. 

The Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews will be publishing this article on their website and Helena’s story will be featured in the museum.

Norman Salsitz is the author of  In a World Gone Mad, Three Homelands, and A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa

 

 

 

Gromnica: The Thunder Candle

One of the most unique gifts I have ever received came from a cousin who lives in a small village in Poland. He handed me a precious gift at our first meeting with these words of caution, “Now this candle is special. It should only be lit during lightning storms or if someone in your house is on their death bed.”

This lovely candle is a gromnica (plural gromnice) and is also known as a Thunder Candle. The Polish word “grom” means a clap of thunder. Almost every Catholic home in Poland will have at least one of these long and relatively thick candles that are decorated with religious symbols and images.  In modern times, the gromnice is stored away carefully for important ceremonies such as a christening, First Communion, Confirmation or Anointing.

The most important function of gromnice has not been ceremonial but protective. As its name implies, the gromnica was believed to protect against thunderstorms and was lit and placed in windows to keep lightning away. My ancestors’ village was in the middle of a huge forest, and I can imagine the villagers knew how the destructive havoc of a bolt of lightning. Likely they saw many homes that were destroyed that way. As a child, I can recall how terrified my Polish aunt was of lightning storms. Even though she didn’t live in a forest, her intense fear of lightning was obviously passed down through the generations. Polish prayer books often contain a prayer to say during storms.

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Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 24: Nominating Polish Christians for the “Righteous Among the Nations” Award- I Need Your Help!

Monday, April 24, 2017 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I am in the process of completing the application for two Polish people to posthumously receive the “Righteous Among the Nations” award from Yad Yeshem in Israel. This distinction is awarded to gentiles who assisted Jews during the Holocaust. Please read the story and about the ways you can assist so the application and testimony would be favorably received by the committee. Maybe next year in Jerusalem?

A Tree is Planted in Israel for Each Recipient of the Award

The research for my next historical novel led me to a little-known story about a Catholic priest and a widow only known as “Pani Kotulova.” The details of their kindness and bravery took place in the small town of Kolbuszowa in 1942. Father Antoni Dunajecki, the priest from the town’s church and Pani (Mrs.) Kotulova” are the two rescuers of Norman Salsitz, a young Jewish man. Salsitz wrote about these courageous people in his remarkable book “A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa.”

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From Steerage to the Suite Life

This article is a detour from my usual historical writing, but I hope you find it interesting.

My husband and I were treated to “the suite life” on a cruise by my daughter and her husband. We typically cruise in cabins classified as inside to those that have balconies, and this was our first full suite (Penthouse with large balcony). I thought it would be interesting for the readers to read a compare and contrast of the cruise experience in different types of cabins.  For those of you who have never cruised, I hope this inspires you to try one.

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S is for Spectral Evidence

One of the greatest travesties of justice in American history was that spectral evidence was allowed as court testimony during the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692. Spectral evidence is based on the visions, hallucinations, or dreams of the accuser. Today, it is inconceivable that any sane person would consider this type of evidence as valid, and there were some in colonial New England who would have agreed

A specter is a spirit or ghostly apparition that causes torment to its victims. The problem is that others cannot see the specter even though they may observe the alleged victim writhing in pain. Only the “victim” and perhaps a few of her friends were privy to observe the specter. This evidence was considered admissible at the time because the Puritans believed that the Devil and his minions were at work and powerful enough to send their evil spirits to lead pure, religious people astray.

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What the Son Wishes to Forget the Grandson Wishes to Remember: Why Our Ancestors Didn’t Talk About Their Past (Me Too)

As genealogists and family historians, we often ponder why our ancestors didn’t tell us much about their past or the old country. Our lament as grandchildren is we neglected to ask our grandparents and parents questions about which we now care so deeply.

In my senior years, I now have a laundry list of questions that should have been asked. What were the reasons you came to America, what was life like in your village, how much schooling did you have, what did your house look like? etc. Oh, if we could only have them in our lives for just a week so that we could uncover all the mysteries and stories that died with them.

I “get it” now. If there is blame to be placed, it likely is on my shoulders. It wasn’t until I became an empty nester that I began to genuinely care about my heritage. My interests centered on me during my younger years, a common theme of those interested in family history. We probably sat on the couch in our grandparents’ living rooms just waiting to go home. Continue reading

How to Publish a Create Space Book on Amazon for Free

This post is for all of my friends who have been impressed with the family history books I have written using Create Space through Amazon.com.  It costs nothing to put your book on Amazon, although of course there is a charge if someone wants to buy it.  This post is taken from my book “Travel Back to Your Roots”, also available on Amazon.  Enjoy!

Three examples of the covers of my family history books.

Chapter Eleven

Writing a Family History Book

Writing a family history or travel memory book is an easy project for almost anyone. Some companies offer self-publishing options for the novice. The final product is a wonderful keepsake and so much more efficient and less expensive than a traditional scrapbook. The only requirements to produce a book that will impress your family and friends are basic word processing skills and some knowledge of digital imaging (uploading and inserting photos, cropping, etc.)

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The Other Three Million Who Died in the Holocaust: The Forgotten Story of the Polish Christians During WWII

The forgotten story of the Polish Christians who were killed by the Nazis during WWII is one which few people outside of Poland are aware. All of the people in Poland suffered enormously during the Holocaust−both Jews and Christians. Six million Polish people died under the Nazis and half of these were Christians.  The German occupation and brutality overwhelmed all Poles during WWII, and this fact needs to illuminate the plight of all the Polish people. Unfortunately, some writers of the Holocaust deliberately distort the tragic circumstances of the typical Polish citizen while others might insert this fact in the last sentence of their article.

Polish women forced to work at a Nazi slave labor camp

The Jewish experience of the Holocaust has been remembered and honored in numerous books, movies, and museums. The movie “Schindler’s List” gave us insight into the valiant efforts of businessman Oskar Schindler’s rescue of eleven hundred Jews. Irena Sendler, a Polish Christian nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw saved more Jews than any other individual  during the Holocaust (besides diplomats who furnished visas.)  Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was instead awarded to Al Gore for his work on climate change.

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Q is for Quakers

 

quakermeeting-woman-on-tub

The Quakers couldn’t have presented a more dramatic contrast to the established church in Essex County. Puritans evidenced no tolerance for other faiths, and the Quakers seemed to incur more than their share of the community’s disdain and intolerance.

The Puritan church held a high and strict version of Calvinist theology. Their narrow interpretation of scripture did not tolerate even the slightest deviation, and sin and crime were synonymous. Their ministers were jealous gatekeepers of God’s Word, and no concept threatened them like the Quaker belief in an ordained ministers’ irrelevance.

Quakers ideas were far less rigid than other faiths, especially in their rejection of many ordinances and rituals. They discarded baptism, the Lord’s Supper and even paid ordained clergy. The Puritans considered these beliefs as heretical, especially the Quaker’s reliance of the “Inner Light” to guide them. Their worship consisted of waiting in silence until moved by the Inner Light which was then shared with the other members.

These early Quakers were not viewed as peaceful or docile but were instead just as zealous in their beliefs as the Puritans. They would burst into church services, bang pots and pans together, and would even strip naked to show they weren’t attached to worldly things. The Quakers patterned their protestations after the prophet Isaiah who went naked for three years as a sign of judgment and their impending doom.

quaker

The Puritans in New England were prepared when the first Quaker preachers arrived in Boston Harbor in 1656. Ann Austin and Mary Fisher who thought they had the gift of prophecy, were arrested as witches before they even set foot onshore. While still on board ship, Austin and Fisher were ordered to be stripped naked and searched for signs of witchcraft (Devil’s Marks). Their literature was burned, and the women were jailed for five weeks before being banished from the colony.

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Although the Quakers were intensely persecuted by Puritans, they continued to arrive in the Massachusetts Colony.  They seemed intent upon disrupting the staunch Puritan Society and would stand in the Meetinghouse to speak after sermons and would shout from their jail cells. The prisons became filled with Quakers, and at least four were executed.  Those who refused to comply with laws prohibiting writing and speaking out were subjected to hideous deterrents such as cutting off an ear or having their tongues bored through with a hot iron.

Despite these persecutions, the Quakers found a number of supporters amongst locals and were repeated imprisoned, fined and physically punished. In 1663, which was a banner year for Quaker protests, a group of women appeared in church naked as the day they were born. They attempted to demonstrate that they were like newborns:  innocent and without shame. Deborah Wilson’s sentence for this crime was wrought with irony. She was stripped to the waist, tied to a cart, and whipped as she was paraded through town.

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A “King’s Missive” from King Charles II halted all Quaker executions, although less severe punishments continued.  After 1675, Quakers were able to freely live, work and worship after the Massachusetts’ Bay Colony experienced an influx of other faith groups.

 

P is for Punishments

Years ago we visited the Criminal Museum in picturesque Rothenberg, Germany. Typical Americans who tour Europe visit royal palaces and grand museums unaware that these ostentatious sites and elegant objects likely are not part of most peoples’ heritage. Relatively few royals immigrated to America. Most of us descended from the persecuted peasant class. This unique museum was my introduction to the cruel world my peasant ancestors had to endure.

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The Criminal Museum displayed hundreds of fascinating punishment devices used in medieval times. I recall a heavy wooden rosary that had to be worn for missing Sunday mass.  There was metal contraption (shown below) resembling a flute that was secured around the neck and inserted into the mouth. Every breath produced a shirll, strident sound announcing that the flutist was a disgraceful musician.

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America’s Space Program’s Origins in a Wilderness Village in Poland

Blizna and Niwiska, two wilderness villages in Poland, share a prominent place in America’s history of space travel. It was there the German’s top-secret V-1 and V-2 rockets were launched for experimental and training purposes during WWII from 1943 to the summer of 1944. The research and knowledge acquired from the V-1 and V-2 missile program that ended in Blizna would lead to the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the first spy satellite and the “small step” taken by astronaut Neil Armstrong.

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V-2 missile crashing during WWII

The post-WWII space race between the Soviet Union and the United States had its origins in these remote villages because of what their scientists had learned about rocket engineering. During the war, much of this information was smuggled to the Allies due to the amazing dedication of the local foresters and AK or Armia Krajowa. The Russians pushed out the Germans in August 1944 and were desperate to retrieve missile fragments and information the Nazis had left behind.

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Fragments of missile assembly area in Blizna

The story begins in the years preceding WWII. Wernher von Braun, a preeminent scientist of Germany’s pre-war rocket development program and later the post-war director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was inspired in the 1930s by a science fiction movie “Woman in the Moon.” What had been conceived as a creative and ambitious vision of von Braun and his peers for space travel was turned into a sinister weapon of mass destruction by the Nazis. Von Braun worked at the Peenemunde and Blizna test sites and personally visited the missile impact areas to troubleshoot any problems discovered during trials.

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von Braun with German officers in Blizna

The development of the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 missile was originally housed in Peenemunde on the Baltic coast in Germany until the Allies destroyed much of the facility in August 1943. While the scientists’ housing was the first target, the British unfortunately also destroyed the nearby concentration camp. Some of the prisoners who perished were the ones who first alerted the British to the existence of Hitler’s top-secret weapon’s program.

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The research and testing program for the V-1 and V-2 missiles was then moved to the secluded area near Blizna in the fall of 1943. The adjacent villages of Niwiska and Pustkow had been previously evacuated to house an SS military base in the early years of the war and had been well developed by the time of the missile program’s move to Blizna. Himmler himself recommended the move to this area.

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The new location in Blizna was desirable as it was outside the range of the Allied bombers. Most of the villagers had already been evacuated to live in nearby villages. Other villagers who were forced to serve the Nazi’s goals lived in facilities within the boundaries of Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany while they worked in construction, farming, carpentry, and as maids, cooks, and servants.

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Polish Slave Laborers in a German Ammunition Factory

Two hundred of the slave laborers came from the concentration camp in nearby Pustkow. They were used to build the new infrastructure starting with concrete roads and then a narrow-gauge railway to link to the station at Kochanowka. Barracks, bunkers, buildings and specialized equipment for the firing of the rockets were needed. During WWII 15,000 people died in the Pustkow Concentration Camp.

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Polish Slave Laborers working for the Germans

Efforts were made to disguise the launching sites as much as possible. The Nazis built an artificial village, hoping the area would appear inhabited when the Allies took aerial photos. Cottages and barns made of plywood, lines hung with clothes and bedsheets, and plaster statues of people and animals were created to enhance the deception.

The site in Blizna was of high strategic importance and attracted personal visits from the most high-ranking Nazi officers: Heinrich Himmler, Hans Hammler, and Gottlob Berger. Adolf Hitler visited in the spring of 1944.

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Himmler’s visit to Blizna

The missile testing ground at Blizna, commanded by Dr. Walter Dornberger, was soon identified by the Polish resistance movement thanks to reports from local farmers and foresters. The AK field agents managed to obtain pieces of the fired rockets by arriving on the scene before German patrols. The Germans were aware of the AK, but the AK was always watching the Germans.

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Polish Underground Fighters (Armia Krajowa- AK)

The AK Home Army partisans were actively involved in the sabotage of the missiles originally built at the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp. A group from the Polish underground had infiltrated the crew and sabotaged the construction. Once the flawed rockets were placed on their launching pads, they did not follow the programs and commands of the microcomputers. The rockets would lift off but then fall back either directly on the spot or would fly off course.  The saboteurs had either cut the wires or slackened the fuel conduits.

Learning of this sabotage, Von Braun intervened and decided the rockets should be dismantled at Mittelbau- Dora before transport and then reassembled in Blizna. This was done in the assembly hall close to the barracks near the road to Blizna.

Many local rangers or foresters from Blizna and Niwiska were also agents of the Home Army. Forest Inspector Stachowski was the leader of this close-knit group. The Germans suspected the foresters, but the amount of wood they supplied was an incredibly valuable service and resource for the Nazis. The foresters had access to virtually every location in the local heavily forested territories, and their contributions to uncovering V-weapons secrets were immense.

Fragments of rockets were readily found by the foresters and partisans, and most were covertly transported to the Allies for decoding.  Sometimes, local farmers repurposed the high-grade metal into shovels and tools. The punishment for possessing one of these fragments was immediate death.

These heroic acts of sabotage came at a high price: the Nazis killed an average of 300 workers working on the missile production every day through starvation or accidents.

The story of von Braun and his men is fascinating. As the war was ending, they sought out the Americans, and von Braun’s brother brokered an agreement with the US government to immigrate to America. This elite group of scientists could have chosen to work with England or the Soviet Union, so it was in America’s best interests to offer them asylum. 

So, it can be said that Blizna and Niwiska had a prominent role in America’s space program. Out of the ashes of Nazi-occupied Europe, a group of German scientists decided to cut a deal with the Americans. Their German rocketry expertise was combined with the efforts of independent wartime scientists in California. With Werner von Braun, they carried the keys to the Space Age to America.

Assembly of a V-2 warhead before launching

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A Model of a V-2 at the Blizna Historical Park

Please look for the soon to be released historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness” that tells the story of the brave partisans from this area of Poland.

 

Polish Home Army During WW2

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Polish Home Army which was by far the largest resistance force in Poland when it was occupied by Nazi Germany. At its height, in 1944, over 400,000  Polish men and women were involved in the Polish Home Army’s resistance efforts. They performed well over 30,000 acts of sabotage and fought over a thousand pitched battles and 24 major encounters. They had no armored vehicles or tanks and no air force or navy. It was mainly infantry aided by their compatriots who were forced into slave labor in camps. By design, these factory workers produced munitions and equipment that malfunctioned or rendered useless in battle.

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Polish Underground Grenade Production

Poles of all many religions, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, and Muslims, joined the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles in The Home Army. They all shared a love of country and Poland’s standards and wanted their country back. There was also what could be referred to as a phantom army of supporters. The fathers, mothers, sisters, brother and neighbors were the ears and eyes that provided medics, chaplains, messengers and financiers for the regular Home Army.

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German Train Blown Up by the AK

The resistance blew up German bridges and railroads, and their mission was to reduce Germany’s ability to wage war and to defeat them through acts of espionage to provide intelligence for the Allies. They also worked to rescue countless Jews, Poles, and POWs in prison camps. An estimated 1-3 million Poles died trying to rescue or help Jews.

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Polish Underground Radio Station

The Polish government still existed throughout WWII, intact and in exile in England with a small navy and air force also stationed in there. Poland’s treasure in gold bullion was sent to England and helped Britain purchase weapons and materials for its defense.

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The Polish underground sent a working replica of the German “enigma machine” along with the ciphers to England in 1939. With this device, the British could read every military dispatch sent from Germany by airwaves or by captured couriers. Three Polish mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zyalsi were credited with the enigma replica. Alan Turning, a Brit was later given exclusive credit for this feat but was really responsible for making a version that could meet the wartime challenge of daily code changes.

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AK (Armia Krajowa)

During WWII, 7,000 German trains and 5,000 German vehicles were destroyed by the AK. Polish intelligence was the most consistent, prolific and reliable compared to any other occupied country during the war. The gallant efforts of the Home Army allowed the Nazis to squander valuable manpower and resources on failed operations.

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Symbol of AK (Armia Krajowa

Although the Allies greatly valued the AK’s work, in the end, the Polish Army was given very little credit. We must not forget the millions of precious heroes who gallantly sacrificed their lives but were extinguished so ruthlessly.

 

Operation Wildhorn III

Operation Wildhorn III

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One of the most dramatic recoveries involving a V-2 missile happened not too far from Blizna and Niwiska. The missiles were directed to areas northeast of Blizna and most blew up in mid-air. The Polish underground army (AK) had become very proficient in arriving at the missile crash sites before the Germans. Plans were made by the AK to storm the Blizna site or attack the rail transports carrying the weapons, but an increased Nazi guard presence made this impractical.

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AK transporting V-2 parts

Then, on May 20, 1944, a V-2 missile launched from Blizna landed in the marshy area near the village of Sarnaki on the Bug River. It had failed to explode and was the first intact rocket containing entire V-2 system ever found by the AK.  The 22nd Infantry Regiment of the AK  hid the rocket under reeds until it could be hidden in a barn nearby. It was then transported by cart under potatoes on little-used rural roads that were shadowed by armed partisans.

Jerzy Chmielewski and Antoni Kocjan worked to dismantle and log all 25,000 parts with a team of engineers and scientists from Warsaw.  This enhanced V-2 missile also included a new type of guidance system that had not seen before. Detailed reports with diagrams, photos and a chemical analysis of the propellant were made for delivery to London.

The local agents had new information about the unusual fuel composition which was neither oil nor gasoline and the AK attempted to transport a sample in a flask. The Polish couriers had no cars and had to transport the flask by bicycle by means of a relay. They would bike for 10 kilometers and pass it to the next member, but soon discovered the flask was empty and that their trousers near the flask were cold. The couriers assumed that someone had spilled the substance or had failed in their task. After another unsuccessful attempt, they were given a special flask with a precisely polished glass cap. This resulted in a successful run, and it was discovered the solution was ethanol alcohol and water.

The nineteen suitcases of the specialized equipment and V-2 parts, reports, and over 80 photos were readied to be smuggled to London. A Dakota V of the 267 Squadron prepared to leave Brindisi, Italy and the landing site was to be at Zaborow near Tarnow. The passengers would board the plane according to priority knowing the risk of being left behind if the plane could not take off. They had reasons to be concerned as so many obstacles would challenge the success of the mission.

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Dakota

The rains poured heavily for over two weeks, and the grassland airfield was very wet. It would take another two and a half weeks before the airfield was dried out for the landing of the Dakota plane. Then when it was almost dry, a Hungarian plane exploded and crashed near the field. It was complete demolished, and the engine sank beneath the earth.

In late July, the signal was given to Warsaw that London could be informed that it was time to commence the operation. Only London was in sole contact with the pilot at Brindisi, and everything appeared to be well planned, but another problem arose. One hundred Germans had just arrived with 2-3 anti-aircraft guns and were resting at a school just 1000 meters from the airfield. They had just fought Soviet guerilla troops in a difficult battle.

The AK prepared a group from their troops who would be ready to fight the Germans when the plane began to land. Their goal was to stop the Germans from getting to the airfield to prevent the plane from landing or taking off. If the Germans had noticed, everyone would have been slaughtered.

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German Storch Airplane

Another problem arose: three German Storches had landed, and the Germans left the planes on the airfield for the night. The AK passed the news of this problem to Warsaw, and they suggested using the horses to drag the planes off the airfield.  Meanwhile, the Germans had a watch all around the airfield. Fortunately, the German planes took off the next morning and were not in the way for the Dakota’s landing.

The Dakota required a couple of hundred meters for a ground run and the field needed to be somehow lit so that the pilot could see the landing field. The twenty-five AK officers brought oil lanterns from their homes and covered them with a cylinder made of stiff black paper. The lanterns could not be seen from the side, but their light was visible from the air.

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It was a beautiful, pitch-dark night in July and the AK took their positions in the airfield. The commander, Colonel Baszak reported they were all shaking, and all had to remain completely silent. He said that he would have shot anyone who attempted to light a cigarette.

The plane drew near, gave a light signal as it was flying without running lights. At the signal of a whistle, everyone on the landing field removed the cardboard sleeve from all fifty lanterns.  The pilot was too high and couldn’t land so had to circle to attempt another landing. Baszak reported that the huge two engine plane “wailed like the devil.”

Finally, the Dakota landed, and everything was quickly loaded onto the plane. When the pilot attempted to start the engine, there was silence. Then the engine finally started, but the plane wouldn’t move. Those onboard guessed that the brakes had probably locked up. There were three attempts to start followed by three failures. The crew suggested that the only option was to burn the plane. Baszak understood that there were other risks to burning the plane, including the inevitable revenge killings of innocents in the nearby villages by the Nazis.

Baszak boarded the plane as he assumed the Dakota had at least a few machine guns but soon learned that the crew had dismounted the weapons to accommodate the increased quantity of fuel felt necessary for such a long flight. Their only weapon was a small “ladies’ style” handgun with four bullets.

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After 80 minutes, Baszak walked around the plane and noted that the tires had sunk quite deeply in the muddy field. He called for his men to bring “plunks” which are the deep, slanted sides of a wooden cart and these were used under the tires of the plane.  Soon, the plane was in the air, and the plane eventually landed at Brindisi. The precious cargo was handed over to the Polish General Staff to translate the coded documents. They were then handed over to the British Crossbow Committee.

This information was passed on to Duncan Sandys, the rather brash and arrogant son-in-law of Winston Churchill who was certain such an unknown fuel did not exist and blamed the Poles for the supposed error. The AK responded that the British should come and see for themselves.

One of the most unusual stories about Operation Wildhorn III came from a Polish scientist who covertly worked out of German officer’s apartment in Warsaw on the V-2 parts. The officer’s servant worked with the scientist who hid some of the V-2 components in the officer’s empty suitcases. The servant would call the officer each day at his office at the airport to ask what he would like for dinner and when it should be served. This information alerted the scientist about the time period when he could work and he would then leave each day safely.

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Also discovered was the control box that consisted of transistors, something that did not exist in England at the time. Eventually, the British, working with Polish scientists, were able to give orders to the German rockets before they fell in England. The Germans would give the order to “FLY, ” and the English intervened and gave an order to “NOSE DIVE.”  The Germans couldn’t reissue orders to override the interception, and the rocket would fall down. London was saved from the more potentially devastating attacks of the V-2 because of the bravery of the incredible bravery of these Polish Army officers.

N is for Nimrod the Rebellious Indian and O is for Ordinaries or Taverns

N is for Nimrod, the Indian who made it into the Essex Court Records a few times. At first, he was like most of the other Native Americans from the area and hoped that the Puritans would help to defend his tribe against their more aggressive enemies.  Eventually, Nimrod began more antagonistic actions towards the Puritan community. The delicate and controversial topic of the Puritans and the Native Americans needs to be reviewed before Nimrod’s actions can be understood.

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The Puritan’s initial contacts with the Indians were mostly for trade and diplomacy.  In the earliest colonial decades, Puritans were vastly outnumbered by the Native Americans and were attempting to establish themselves in the area.  Missionary attempts to convert the native populations were still considered too much of a risk.

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