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.

My two sets of grandparents were poor farmers who lived in these adjoining wilderness villages that would be swallowed up by the Germans to build Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Soon after the occupation, every square inch of the village and its population were analyzed to determine their usefulness to the Reich. Virtually everyone over age fourteen became a forced laborer as the Germans needed cooks, servants, carpenters, and foresters to build their massive military complex. Schooling was halted for a time, but when it resumed, the children learned only enough to be good workers for the Germans. Village life for everyone was especially difficult with the Gestapo in their backyard.

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Camp Heidelager in Occupied Poland during WWII

The younger people were routinely rounded up, usually at church on Sunday, to be sent as forced laborers in German factories or as farmworkers. The villagers’ farms were confiscated, and the locals had to work on these now German properties. They received a very small wage and were given ration coupons.

The food situation was perilous and unpredictable. Some farmers who were allowed to remain in their homes were permitted a sustenance garden, and one milk cow and horse. Of course, even a low-ranking German could confiscate any possession they wished. Most livestock had to be turned over to the German farms, and the unauthorized slaughter of farm animals often resulted in immediate death. The chickens’ egg production was also put on a German schedule. Desperate farmers bought eggs from the black market if their chickens had a bad week.

Bread, potatoes, cabbage, and beets were the staples of their diet. More desirable foods would have been turned over to the Germans to meet the family’s assigned quota. Chicken or other meats would have been a rare treat. In one story, my great aunt Zofia, who was the cook on a German farm, spilled the pot of Zurek that was the worker’s breakfast. Everyone went to work hungry that day. Zofia was also a helpful person to know because Anna Grabiec reported that Zofia gave her extra food to ward off near starvation. I was so pleased to see that Anna’s letters mentioned my great grandmother, Jadwiga and her family as very kind people.

It was Hitler’s intention to have Poland serve as Germany’s breadbasket by colonizing their farmlands with German farmers. The area within Germany was to be the industrial area of the Reich. When Hitler’s long-term goal was accomplished, the next item on his agenda was the complete extinction of the Polish people. The Germans allotted their civilian population a daily 2,400 calories, but Poles were allotted 600. The 1941 statistics show this not so subtle annihilation began in the early years of the war. My distant relative, Anna Grabiec, reported her mother’s death was due to starvation during the war. Life was cruel, and many were close to starvation. In the villages, the homes during the war were much like their ancestors. Houses typically had thatched or tin roofs, clay floors, and huge ceramic ovens. Most had one or two rooms with rafters for the children’s sleeping quarters. Many somber religious pictures graced the walls with dried herbs and flowers mixed in for decoration.

My great grandparents, Andrzej and Józefa Cudecki, were forced out of their home in Trzesn when the Germans decided to expand Camp Heidelager. Most villagers were given a few days to gather their belongings and leave the area. Where they went was of no concern to the Germans who provided no assistance. Without any means of communication, most put their most important possessions on a cart and in sacks and trudged to a distant village of some relative. The weary and desperate people hoped their siblings or cousins would find room for them in their small, clay floor home with a thatched roof.

Andrzej Cudecki

Andrzej and Jozefa Cudecki before WWII

Andrzej had been the mayor of Trzesn but was still a poor man. He and a few others from his village found abandoned homes in a Jewish settlement in Radomysl Wilki and lived there for most of the war. Life must have been desperate for his family because his grandson was shot and killed by a German in a beet field. His family was starving, and the sixteen-year-old was only trying to assist his family. After his wife died in 1943, Andrzej returned to Trzesn to live with his son at a dilapidated manor house in his village. Andrzej’s daughter’s family left that home in Radomysl after the war when the Jewish owner returned to claim his property.

Jadwiga Bryk in Poland

My Great Grandmother Jadwiga in front of her home in Niwiska, Poland

My other great grandmother, Jadwiga Bryk, was a widow who had an adult son and two adult daughters with sons and no husbands. They all lived with her in a very small home across from the Church of St. Nicholas. Much to my surprise, they were allowed to stay in their home. My theory is they were likely cooks and servants at the local manor house, which was turned into Gestapo headquarters and home for the chief SS officers. Also, any siblings or cousins from her birth village or Blizna were evacuated at the beginning of the war, so she had no one to turn to. Everyone had to serve the Reich, one way or another.

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Hupka Manor House (Gestapo Headquarters during WWII)

The Germans forced Father Jan Kurek to abandon St. Nicholas church in Niwiska, and it sat unoccupied with its windows and metal bells buried in the cemetery.  The priest sometimes made valiant attempts to conduct mass in an abandoned schoolhouse, but mostly had to serve his parishioners in their homes by commuting on a worn bicycle.

Your relatives in the rural villages of WWII Poland would have had similar experiences. Part Two of this series will describe the relationship between the Jews and the Catholic Poles and the various ways many Polish people helped to save the Jews who sought refuge in the countryside. Part Three will describe life in the larger cities of Poland during the War.

War and Resistance in the Wilderness is the story of these real people who endured six years living in Camp Heidelager, referred to as “Camp Wilderness” by Hitler. It is available in print or ebook on Amazon.

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

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

WIW cover for publicity

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

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

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

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

The History of War and Resistance in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRAISE FOR War and Resistance in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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!