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. 

Crashed v-2 missile at Blizna

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.

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A Villa at Heidelager

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

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Entrance to Camp Heidelager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of the rings and barracks in Camp Heidelager near Pustkow

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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!

 

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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“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

 

 

 

Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 24: Nominating Polish Christians for the “Righteous Among the Nations” Award- I Need Your Help!

Monday, April 24, 2017 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I am in the process of completing the application for two Polish people to posthumously receive the “Righteous Among the Nations” award from Yad Yeshem in Israel. This distinction is awarded to gentiles who assisted Jews during the Holocaust. Please read the story and about the ways you can assist so the application and testimony would be favorably received by the committee. Maybe next year in Jerusalem?

A Tree is Planted in Israel for Each Recipient of the Award

The research for my next historical novel led me to a little-known story about a Catholic priest and a widow only known as “Pani Kotulova.” The details of their kindness and bravery took place in the small town of Kolbuszowa in 1942. Father Antoni Dunajecki, the priest from the town’s church and Pani (Mrs.) Kotulova” are the two rescuers of Norman Salsitz, a young Jewish man. Salsitz wrote about these courageous people in his remarkable book “A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa.”

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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.

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V-2 missile crashing during WWII

The post-WWII space race between the Soviet Union and the United States had its origins in these remote villages because of what their scientists had learned about rocket engineering. During the war, much of this information was smuggled to the Allies due to the amazing dedication of the local foresters and AK or Armia Krajowa. The Russians pushed out the Germans in August 1944 and were desperate to retrieve missile fragments and information the Nazis had left behind.

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Fragments of missile assembly area in Blizna

The story begins in the years preceding WWII. Wernher von Braun, a preeminent scientist of Germany’s pre-war rocket development program and later the post-war director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was inspired in the 1930s by a science fiction movie “Woman in the Moon.” What had been conceived as a creative and ambitious vision of von Braun and his peers for space travel was turned into a sinister weapon of mass destruction by the Nazis. Von Braun worked at the Peenemunde and Blizna test sites and personally visited the missile impact areas to troubleshoot any problems discovered during trials.

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von Braun with German officers in Blizna

The development of the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 missile was originally housed in Peenemunde on the Baltic coast in Germany until the Allies destroyed much of the facility in August 1943. While the scientists’ housing was the first target, the British unfortunately also destroyed the nearby concentration camp. Some of the prisoners who perished were the ones who first alerted the British to the existence of Hitler’s top-secret weapon’s program.

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The research and testing program for the V-1 and V-2 missiles was then moved to the secluded area near Blizna in the fall of 1943. The adjacent villages of Niwiska and Pustkow had been previously evacuated to house an SS military base in the early years of the war and had been well developed by the time of the missile program’s move to Blizna. Himmler himself recommended the move to this area.

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The new location in Blizna was desirable as it was outside the range of the Allied bombers. Most of the villagers had already been evacuated to live in nearby villages. Other villagers who were forced to serve the Nazi’s goals lived in facilities within the boundaries of Camp Heidelager, the largest SS training camp outside of Germany while they worked in construction, farming, carpentry, and as maids, cooks, and servants.

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Polish Slave Laborers in a German Ammunition Factory

Two hundred of the slave laborers came from the concentration camp in nearby Pustkow. They were used to build the new infrastructure starting with concrete roads and then a narrow-gauge railway to link to the station at Kochanowka. Barracks, bunkers, buildings and specialized equipment for the firing of the rockets were needed. During WWII 15,000 people died in the Pustkow Concentration Camp.

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Polish Slave Laborers working for the Germans

Efforts were made to disguise the launching sites as much as possible. The Nazis built an artificial village, hoping the area would appear inhabited when the Allies took aerial photos. Cottages and barns made of plywood, lines hung with clothes and bedsheets, and plaster statues of people and animals were created to enhance the deception.

The site in Blizna was of high strategic importance and attracted personal visits from the most high-ranking Nazi officers: Heinrich Himmler, Hans Hammler, and Gottlob Berger. Adolf Hitler visited in the spring of 1944.

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Himmler’s visit to Blizna

The missile testing ground at Blizna, commanded by Dr. Walter Dornberger, was soon identified by the Polish resistance movement thanks to reports from local farmers and foresters. The AK field agents managed to obtain pieces of the fired rockets by arriving on the scene before German patrols. The Germans were aware of the AK, but the AK was always watching the Germans.

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Polish Underground Fighters (Armia Krajowa- AK)

The AK Home Army partisans were actively involved in the sabotage of the missiles originally built at the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp. A group from the Polish underground had infiltrated the crew and sabotaged the construction. Once the flawed rockets were placed on their launching pads, they did not follow the programs and commands of the microcomputers. The rockets would lift off but then fall back either directly on the spot or would fly off course.  The saboteurs had either cut the wires or slackened the fuel conduits.

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

Many local rangers or foresters from Blizna and Niwiska were also agents of the Home Army. Forest Inspector Stachowski was the leader of this close-knit group. The Germans suspected the foresters, but the amount of wood they supplied was an incredibly valuable service and resource for the Nazis. The foresters had access to virtually every location in the local heavily forested territories, and their contributions to uncovering V-weapons secrets were immense.

Fragments of rockets were readily found by the foresters and partisans, and most were covertly transported to the Allies for decoding.  Sometimes, local farmers repurposed the high-grade metal into shovels and tools. The punishment for possessing one of these fragments was immediate death.

These heroic acts of sabotage came at a high price: the Nazis killed an average of 300 workers working on the missile production every day through starvation or accidents.

The story of von Braun and his men is fascinating. As the war was ending, they sought out the Americans, and von Braun’s brother brokered an agreement with the US government to immigrate to America. This elite group of scientists could have chosen to work with England or the Soviet Union, so it was in America’s best interests to offer them asylum. 

So, it can be said that Blizna and Niwiska had a prominent role in America’s space program. Out of the ashes of Nazi-occupied Europe, a group of German scientists decided to cut a deal with the Americans. Their German rocketry expertise was combined with the efforts of independent wartime scientists in California. With Werner von Braun, they carried the keys to the Space Age to America.

Assembly of a V-2 warhead before launching

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A Model of a V-2 at the Blizna Historical Park

Please look for the soon to be released historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness” that tells the story of the brave partisans from this area of Poland.