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.

 

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.

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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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