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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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