The Young Partisans: A Time Travel Adventure in WWII Poland

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://amazon.com/dp/B08639SZD9

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World War II, a Novel, and an Old Journal

 

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

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

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

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

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Blizna Historical Park and Museum

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

Reconstruction of the observation trench to watch launches at BLizna

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

Missle on launcher

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

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

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Bunker at nearby Pustkow Concentration Camppolish-slave-labor

Polish forced laborers working for the Reich

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

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

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

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

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

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Himmler (in middle) during his 1943 visit

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von Braun visiting Blizna

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

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

Missle on launcher 

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

Heidelager Blizna 1943

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

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Germans watching a V-2 launch from the trenches

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

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Crashed V-2 near Blizna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Portable Radio Station used during WWII

 

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Power Generator at Blizna

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Portable WWII Mess Kitchen

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Outline of V-1 launching platform

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A telescope used to view launches from the trenches

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Allied Survellience map of Blizna

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

by Home Army partisans near Blizna

examples of missle fragments found by partisans

 

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Bunkers near Blizna

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

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

SS Camp Heidelager

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Troops at Camp Heidelager

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

Part One: History

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

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

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

Oath ceremony of the Ukranian branch

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

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

Entrance to plant in Pustkow

Entrance to the plant near Pustkow

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Albrecht

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

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

Barrack on Ring 3

A Villa at Heidelager

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

Entrance to polygon command

Entrance to Camp Heidelager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of the rings and barracks in Camp Heidelager near Pustkow

Heinrich Himmler visits

Himmler on a visit to Camp Heidelager in 1943.

*(Part One of Three Articles)

Next: My 2016 and 2018 Visit to Blizna Historical Park

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

 

My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

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

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

 

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

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

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

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

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

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

*From US CPI index

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

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

My visit with Zofia in 2016

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

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

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

A walk in Poland’s forests with my family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

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

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

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

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Milk Bars: A Taste of History in Poland

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

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

 History of Milk Bars

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

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

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

 Finding a Milk Bar

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

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

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

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

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

Atmosphere

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

Milk Bars in Warsaw and in Krakow

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

 Menu

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

      

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Desserts: Apple cakes, cheesecake, paczki, etc.

 How to order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

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


A Polish beekeeper from 1870

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

“You Would Have Done the Same for Me.”

The Story of Helena Kotula

By Donna Gawell

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

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

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

kolbuszo.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will help you,” she said.

“Where can I get papers?”

“I’ll have to talk to the priest.”

“Do I know him?”

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

“Yes, I know of the Monsignor.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You would have done the same for me.”

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

“I’ll talk to the Monsignor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Gromnica: The Thunder Candle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v-2-crashing

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.

assembly-hall-fragments

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.

 

Operation Wildhorn III

Operation Wildhorn III

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

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AK transporting V-2 parts

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

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

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

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

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Dakota

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

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

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

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German Storch Airplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niwiska and Blizna during World War II (part two)

Niwiska World War II

The village of Niwiska is surrounded by the wild Sandomierz Forests and provided great strategic significance in World War II. The Nazis overtook the area and evacuated Niwiska and Blizna to test their experimental V-1 and V-2 missiles. The goal was to shift the balance of power with these new weapons. The seclusion of the forests made it a perfect location for such tests.  This isolation also led refugees and partisans to the Niwiska forests for a place to hide and conduct subversive activities.

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Woods near Niwiska

Many of the villagers were in church when the first Nazi bombs struck. They were listening to Father Kurek’s homily and were startled by these initial explosions.  Panic broke out, and the parishioners stumbled over one another as they fled.

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The Galician Farm and Home of Michal Grabiec

The Farm and Home of Michal Grabiec as described by his granddaughter, Anna Grabiec (revision by Donna Gawell*)

The farm of Michal Grabiec was located at the edge of the village of Niwiska, not far from the forest. The house stood on the hill a little way from the main road that leads from Kolbuszowa to Rzochow and Mielec.  The remains of the Sandomierz Wilderness stretched further on the horizon.

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The house was built of unhewn trees using a construction method that used coal. The trees were stacked with bricks of coal, and the bark was stripped off.

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Ebook now available for “Travel Back to Your Roots”

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Travel Back to Your Roots has just been released on Amazon.com. My goal in writing this book was to inspire others who wish to research their European immigrant ancestors and hopefully discover cousins back in the old country.

Travel Back to Your Roots is for beginning genealogists and those who may not know how to make the jump over the pond to research parish and village or town records in Europe. The reader will learn how to first find the necessary US census, church, and immigration records before tackling those in European churches and archives.

One chapter on immigration will give the reader insight into the reasons for immigration and details the Ellis Island experience to better understand our ancestors’ bravery and the struggles they encountered.

I’m optimistic you will have success in your research and therefore have chapters to explain how to find living descendants in Europe and then how to contact them. The reader will also learn how to plan a budget-friendly ancestral heritage trip.

Finally, another chapter explains how to self-publish beautiful and professional family history books and genealogies at no cost using Create Space. Check out my Amazon site to see examples of these types of books.

Starting genealogy just four years ago, I been able to go back to the 1700’s in the European records with seven out of eight of our immigrant ancestors (Polish, Swedish, and German.) I also found three groups of cousins in Poland and Sweden and was enthusiastically welcomed to visit them in 2014 and 2016. They all exemplified the saying “A Guest in the House is God in the House.”

A ebook version was released just a few days ago, so both versions are now available on Amazon.

Please ask questions!