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.

The story is told from the point of view of the Christians who lived in the villages. Many of the movies and books we see in America tend to emphasize the Jewish tragedy, but an equivalent number of Polish people died in this Holocaust (three million Jews and three million Poles). This novel is the Polish Christian villagers’ untold story.

This photo is of a house similar to the homes of the people in Niwiska at the beginning of WWII

Here are some places and topics to be featured in the articles and will include many photos:

Castles and Palaces: Malbork (the largest brick castle in the world), Wawel Castle in Krakow, Lancut Palace and the Castle in Przeclaw

  

 

Museums: the new WWII Museum in Gdansk, the Museum of the Armia Krayowa (AK- Polish Home Army during WWII) in Krakow, the Museum of Rzeszow, and the Museum in the former Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory

History of World War II:  The Polish Home Army (Armia Krayowa or AK), Operation Wildhorn III, and the story of the American airplane crews’ emergency landing in Niwiska-  truly amazing stories!

World War II sites: Blizna (the site of Hitler’s top secret VI and V2 missile/rocket research and launch sites), the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and the Pustkow Concentration Camp

Sleeping areas for prisoners of Auschwitz Birkenau often occupied by 6-7 prisoners on one slab

Stories and Information from researchers and historians I had the privilege of interviewing.

Stephen Batory, AK officer  killed by the Russians after WWII

Churches of Poland: St. Mery’s Church and St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Krakow and St. Nicholas in Niwiska

 

Wooden Churches in Poland in Lutcza, Kolbuszowa, and the All Saints Church in Blizne.

Zakopane: our trip to the beautiful Tetras mountains not far from Krakow

Helpful information for English speaking visitors to Poland: transportation, hotels and apartments, restaurants, flights to and inside Europe, communication, etc

Travel in England: London, Southampton, Canterbury

Please check out these future articles when they are posted and share them with your friends and family. In the meantime, you can find many interesting articles by checking the website menu.

My wonderful family (Krutys and Haracz) from Niwiska

 

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.

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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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Blizna and Niwiska: Their Role in the History of Space Exploration

Blizna, along with the neighboring village of Niwiska shares a prominent place in the history of space travel. It was in Blizna that the V-1 and V-2 rockets were launched for experimental and training purposes during WWII.

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V-2 missile crashing during WWII

The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States had its origins in these remote villages because of what scientists had learned about rocket engineering. Much of this information was smuggled to the Allies due to the amazing dedication of the local foresters and AK or Armia Krajowa.

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Fragments of missile assembly area  in Blizna

The story begins in the years preceding WWII. Wernher von Braun, a preeminent scientist of Germany’s pre-war rocket development program and later the post-war director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was inspired in the 1930’s by a science fiction movie “Woman in the Moon.” What had been conceived as a creative and ambitious vision that could develop 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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VonBraun with German officers in Blizna

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