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.

What Dan and Loretta didn’t know was this precious book would soon be hand-carried to Poland through the efforts of historians and genealogists who were total strangers to them. The one thing everyone had in common was my newly released book about Niwiska set in WWII, War and Resistance in the Wilderness. As the author, I was about to take part in a whirlwind plan to get this book into the right hands.

A few days later, my elderly relative, Larry Bender, called his cousin Loretta to inform her of my historical novel. His new mission in life was to tell all his relatives and friends about my book because it is the story of our relatives during World War II in Poland. He even purchased thirty copies to be distributed around Niwiska. During his phone conversation, Loretta mentioned the Niwiska Klub book, and Larry quickly phoned me. “Donna, you need to go to Chicago to see this book for your research!”

A trip to Chicago to view a book written in Polish was not practical since I cannot read the difficult language of my grandparents, so I contacted my friend, Valerie Koselka, President of the Polish Genealogy Society of Michigan. She responded, “Donna, this is the book that Father Antoni has been looking for! He didn’t think a copy existed anymore.” Father Antoni Więch, a distant relative of both Valerie and myself, is a native of a village near Niwiska and the local church historian and author of several books. I then notified him of the book’s discovery, and his immediate response was, “Would they loan me the book for a year so I can translate and analyze the details? I’ll pay the postage!”

Valerie and I started to strategize on how to make this happen. Fortunately, or more correctly, miraculously, Valerie was traveling to Poland within a few weeks and offered to hand carry the book to Niwiska. The next step was to get Loretta to agree to part with the book for a short time. This detail was a bit more complicated because at first, she insisted the book be handed over to a priest who would then give it to Valerie. We soon found a willing priest! But then we only heard crickets from Loretta.

Larry came to the rescue again. I told him of our new complication, and he reached out to Loretta to assure her that sharing this treasure would be a noble gesture and a great help to genealogy and historical organizations and her religious community. This lovely lady finally agreed!

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Dan and Loretta made a several hour journey to meet Valerie halfway in Michigan for the book transfer. Two days later, the book made its journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Poland, and Valerie handed the book over to Father Kazimierz Franczak, the pastor of Niwiska. Father Augustyn, the pastor emeritus, who is featured in War and Resistance in the Wilderness, was nearby to celebrate the book’s delivery.

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Valerie Koselka and Father Franczak examining the book at St. Nicholas Church

Father Więch, who is assigned to a parish in Ukraine, crossed the border to visit Niwiska and view the book. He then turned it over to the highly professional staff of the Kolbuszowa Library, where the team digitized the entire book so that everyone will eventually have access to it.

Larry, Valerie, Loretta, Dan, and I were so honored as we worked together to accomplish this important and amazing task. The journey of The Niwiska Klub brought together six people who were mostly strangers to one another. I’m especially pleased that War and Resistance in the Wilderness was the impetus for this old book’s amazing journey! Hopefully, this story inspires everyone who has a book, a box of old photos and letters, or other items historical or genealogical to consider who might be a better custodian of their treasure.

War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII Poland is available at Amazon. Check out all the five-star reviews!

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

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    The first page of text from “The Niwiska Club.”

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Continue reading

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.

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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.