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.

soup kitchen in Warsaw

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.

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

WIW cover for publicity

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

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

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

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

The History of War and Resistance in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRAISE FOR War and Resistance in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Rescuing Your Family’s Treasures From a Natural Diaster- Like Flooding!

By Donna Gawell

(Update in September 2018: This article was written last year after seeing the incredible loss some people experienced in the flooding. Please share with your friends on the East Coast.)

It is the wise person who learns from the mistakes and tragedies of others. Americans were glued to their TVs for weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma witnessing residents drag out mattresses, sofas, and chairs from their flooded homes, and our hearts ached for their loss. Furniture and household items can be replaced, but some of our most precious items might be lost forever.

Family photos, records, and documents are amongst the most difficult to replace. A grandfather’s original naturalization document, parents’ wedding photos, and their own baby pictures might be floating in a massive soup of muddy water. Those of us who don’t live by the coast have our own natural and manmade disasters such as tornadoes and fire that can cause similar destruction.

Your Family’s Heritage and Story

You may be the guardian of your family’s history or just the owner of a few scrapbooks. Some people don’t appreciate their ownership responsibilities, not understanding that they are the guardians of their ancestors’ legacies. The thought that you are the only one who cares about these documents is misguided. The desire to know more about our history is hotwired in some from birth but comes later in others. A thirty year old launching their career while raising a family may show minimal interest. Trust me: your children or maybe their descendants will someday care. We were all there once. It is up to you to consider various ways to save what your descendants will someday treasure. That box of old artifacts you passed down to your son might be thrown in the trash bin during a nasty divorce.

Learn from Professional Genealogists: The Diversification Principle

So, what steps can be taken to avoid this heartbreak? The underlying principle is that your losses will be minimal if you diversify. Just like the wisdom about portfolio diversification from your financial advisor, genealogists will tell you that you should consider at least one or two strategies for more secure preservation. That said, none of these ideas can guarantee your precious items survival if you suffer a fire in the midst of a digital shutdown compliments of Kim Jung Un. These suggestions will give you some assurance that our family treasures and heirlooms items can be preserved and protected.

Share with Your Family

The best advice is to share with others! While most of my siblings and cousins willingly share precious family photos, I have encountered one cousin who is holding on to the items she inherited with a death grip. It is sad we can’t-do anything to change her distorted thinking, but we can proceed with what we all have and ignore those who have an attitude.

Access to a scanner is essential although taking a photo of a document or picture is second best. Sort out the items most precious to you and create a folder with subdirectories to keep scans in order. You can also store the photos sent to you in these folders. Be sure to label them with the first and last names of the items, not just “Grandpa, or mom.” Try to give a date and place.

I have organized small family gatherings of cousins with the sole purpose of sharing what we each have, and these have turned into memorable events. We all walked away benefitting greatly. Try to invite someone who is tech-savvy and has access to a scanner.

For those family and friends who live far away, ask them to send you copies of the photos and documents by email. Of course, reciprocate to those who have offered their treasures. You are on your way to becoming the family historian.

Create digital family history books- for free!

Donna’s Family History Books Available on Amazon

Many people have a desire to make a scrapbook and love the creativity of all the cute details. As a genealogist, I am more practical. Consider this: who is going to inherit this one scrapbook, and who has room or even wants your huge collection? Even if you have just one child, they will likely have at least a few children. You get the point. A digital scrapbook makes so much sense since you can easily produce multiple copies for less than the cost of conventional scrapbooks when you consider the necessary investment in supplies.

I started out using sites like Shutterfly, and there are hundreds of companies that offer a similar service including your local drug store. The problem is that the cost for each book gets out of control at about $34 for a 9×9, 20-page book. Most companies do not offer a significant discount for multiple copies. The books were lovely but became cost prohibitive for my goal of sharing with the family.

That is when I began to use sites like Create Space, Amazon’s self-publishing company. As an author, I had a few self-published non-fiction books on Create Space and saw that it was a relatively easy process, more efficient and less expensive. There are several “print on demand” companies similar to Create Space such as Lulu and Ingram Spark. Use caution in selecting your company as some are more like old-fashioned vanity presses from the past. They want you to make an investment up front−not a good idea! You don’t want to be stuck with a case of books in your basement that cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front. Note: CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are merging on Amazon in Oct. 2019.

That is the beauty of publishing on demand or POD companies. You create the book, order maybe five very inexpensive proof copies, and then hit the publish key so your family can order their own copies!

The process is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. All of these companies offer their professional design services for a fee, but have confidence! You can do this if you take a deep breath and commit a few weeks to the development.

  • Write out your family’s story
  • Insert photos and documents (family trees, copies of the census, scans of documents, etc.)
  • Do a bit of simple formatting:
  • Choose an easy to read text type and size (Roman New Times, size 12 is popular)
  • Decide on single, double spacing, etc. and indentation (all in paragraph in MSWord)
  • Left align -If you are unsure, just google formatting AND self-publishing, and many guides will pop up.
  • Use spell check and perhaps a free grammar and writing checker like Grammarly. Your work will look more professional.
  • Design your cover- it’s easy! Find a photo of your own or use a free one offered on these sites. You also make decisions about the cover layout and color background. The creator can easily make changes, save it, and come back another day to finish the process.
  • Upload your book to the site. Many will provide an ISBN for free.
  • Decide on the size of your book and if you want it in color or black and white. I use the 8.5 x 11 and color, but if your photos are all black and white, you might want to choose that option.
  • Now comes the trickiest part: pricing. On CreateSpace, you can purchase very inexpensive proof copies and reduced cost author copies of your books. The cost of selling the book to others has a bottom line because Amazon has to make some profit, but you will be able to see what the royalty you as the author will receive from your book before you make the final decision. Because all this work is my gift to the family and future generations, I simply round up the price to the next dollar. You might feel differently.
  • Submit the book for review. The company will inspect it for formatting issues and usually reply within 24 hours with suggestions or their approval. Keep in mind that the computer they use doesn’t realize that many of your photos are not high resolution, so ignore those issues. You can keep tweaking your work and resubmitting until you are satisfied.
  • Hit the approve key, and you are now an Amazon author!

Off-Site and External Backups

Backup your photos and documents in the cloud, on DVDs and flash drives or memory sticks, etc. A little research on the internet will provide instructions for those of you not familiar with these lifesavers. These backups come with their own limitations as experts warn us that the devices needed to read a DVD or memory card may be obsolete in ten years. Once again: heed the advice to diversify!

Advice for That Dreaded Disaster

There are some emergencies for which you can prepare. Consider the storage location of your photos and documents. Most basements are the worst place for these items because of inevitable mildew issues. Inspect antique clothing periodically and store them in plastic bags.

If you are forced to evacuate and leave many of your precious items behind, consider using your dishwasher as a reasonably airtight storage container. Take out all the racks and put in items that are treasures. Your dishwasher can be locked and should be reasonably waterproof. I would put the items in new zip lock bags and maybe even secure airtight plastic containers first. Might your dishwasher go floating down the street in a flood or burn up in a massive fire? Perhaps, nothing is perfect or 100% guaranteed, but this seems like a prudent alternative to leaving the items exposed on a shelf.

There are countless internet sites with instructions on how to recover photos and other items the owners thought were damaged beyond repair. I watched videos of photo restorations carried out with surgical precision as the items were carefully cut out of the wet plastic sheets and then washed. The efforts seem laborious, especially for people who have so many other emergency tasks in front of them.

Expert Advice for Damaged Photos and Documents

Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together making saving them much more unlikely. Carefully lift any photos from the mud or dirty water. Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate those that are stacked together. Be careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface. Also, remove photos from plastic sleeves from these wet albums right away if possible.

Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To successfully remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

If you have time and adequate space immediately after the disaster, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Do not use newspapers or printed paper towels because the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change out the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. If possible, try to dry the photos inside, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.

After the photo is dried you can remove any mud or dirt by gently rinsing both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don’t rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.

If you don’t have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax or parchment paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Some experts recommend freezing the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly. Others believe that freezing will cause small cracks to appear and don’t recommend it.

It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

Rescued and restored photos can give the owners a little piece of themselves back when so much has been lost. The stories from recent natural disasters should motivate all of us to write that family book and make the preservation of your photos a priority.

 

A Real Puritan Woman: Joan Braybrooke Penny

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Mehitabel’s Evil Stepmother : Joan Braybrooke Penney

Joan Braybrooke, one of the main characters in “The Shadow of Salem: The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke, had every reason to be angry. Her husband, Richard Braybrooke, and their indentured servant were accused of fornication in 1652 by the courts in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  After being whipped and fined, Richard fulfilled the next part of his sentence: he was to raise his infant daughter Mehitabel in the Braybrooke home.

It was also a historical fact that Joan held Mehitabel in contempt throughout her childhood. The Braybrooke’s neighbors attributed their opinions of sixteen-year-old Mehitabel to their conversations with her stepmother Joan. The actual court records quote them to describe Mehitabel as “unchaste and spiteful,” and as “a liar and a thief.”

How tragic that Mehitabel would be the only child in the Braybrooke household. Joan Braybrooke was a barren woman; a situation considered a sign of God’s disfavor in the Puritan culture.

Joan made it into the Ipswich court records for her own offenses on several occasions. In 1653, she was brought into the quarterly court for “wearing a silk scarf,” a crime in Massachusetts if her husband’s property was valued at less than 200 pounds. The Puritans viewed the wearing of lace or silks as a privilege only for the wealthy. She was proven not guilty on that charge. Joan was also charged four years later with “a breach of the Sabbath” for “carrying a half bushel of corn or pease” on her way to church. The Puritans had rather draconian punishments for those who violated the Sabbath rest!

The most dramatic event in Joan’s life came in the year 1692 with an accusation that would be punishable by death if proven true.  Read about Joan Braybrooke Penney in The Shadow of Salem. 

This article is part of a series telling the history of some of the real Puritan women who were part of Mehitabel’s life in the historical novel In the Shadow of Salem. The book is in print and e-book format through Amazon.   Linked here:  https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

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!

The Tragic Life of A Real Puritan Woman: Rachel Clinton

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The story of Rachel Haffield Clinton’s tragic life lies buried in the early records of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her family emigrated to New England on the sailing ship named The Planter in the spring of 1635. She grew up in an affluent household when Ipswich was a new village in the colony of Massachusetts, but the Haffield family’s fortune dwindled shortly after their arrival.

The years to come would find Rachel destitute and then accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Rachel is one of  the fascinating characters in the newly released historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.” https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

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