An Untold Story of Heroism: Helena Jablonowska

Helena could have fled Poland well before the Germans invaded her homeland in September 1939. As a wealthy Polish landowner in Debica, Helena Jablonowska quickly learned the Germans had targeted the elite as they ravaged the entire country. The Germans considered the aristocracy and the intelligentsia as most likely to lead any uprising against the Reich. Within six months, tens of thousands of Poland’s wealthiest and best-educated citizens were imprisoned and executed. How easy it would have been for Helena to pack her valuables and spend the war years in a neutral country! She instead chose to remain in her beloved homeland. As Helena stood and fought against German facism and Russian totalitarianism, she lost her family’s property, wealth, and status but never her compassion or integrity.

Countess Helena

Helena Jablonowska was one of the most extraordinary women to rise up against the Germans during the Second World War. She was born on January 4, 1895, in Andrychow, Poland, and was, as one might say, “born to the service of others.”  As the eldest daughter of Mikołaj Rey, a political activist associated with the peasant movement, Helena would follow in her father’s footsteps.

From 1906-1913, Jablonowska received an excellent education at a school for girls at the Convent of the Niepokalanki sisters in Jaroslaw. The sisters instilled a strong sense of moral duty for those in need and were themselves well-known rescuers of Jews and partisans during the wars.

The Convent in Jaroslaw

Jozef and Helena Jablonowski

Helena married Jozef Jablonowski, a man whose family shared her zeal for political activism. After their marriage at the church her father funded in Chotowa, the young couple settled in the family’s manor in Przyborów, near Debica. Three sons and one daughter soon followed. As Helena raised her family during the interwar period, she was the president of the Catholic Action and Marian Sodality. She initiated efforts to organize orphanages where children from rural areas safely received care and food while their mother participated in agricultural work.

The Jablonowski Manor House

Helena’s greatest trials came with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. The wilderness areas of Debica and the surrounding villages proved to be the perfect place for Hitler to build the largest SS training camp outside of Germany. Within the first few months of occupation, the Germans turned many of the local population into refugees as their homes were raised for building the camp. Those who chose to stay worked as forced laborers, felling trees and building the massive camp reaching from Debica to Kolbuszowa.

Map of Camp Heidelager

Helena’s love of Poland and her sacrificial nature were challenged by the atrocities all around her. Recognizing her family’s status and wealth, she exerted influence on behalf of those less fortunate.  At significant risk to her family, the Jablonowski home became a shelter for the families of Polish soldiers and Polish Army officers, and displaced villagers.  

Helena’s work with the Polish Home Army (AK) is perhaps her most remarkable achievement where she was known by the AK codename, “Rzepechia.”  The Jablonowski home became a center of partisan activity, and her sons also were Home Army soldiers.  One son, Andrzej, was shot by Germans while carrying a wounded partisan on his back during Operation Tempest.

Estonian and Ukranian Troops training at Camp Heidelager

As Camp Heidelager was expanded, separate prisons for Poles, Jews, and captured Russian soldiers were built in nearby Pustkow. Helena boldly requested a meeting with the camp commander, asking to help feed the starving prisoners. As her German was fluent, she was able to employ sizeable influence. To everyone’s surprise, the commandant allowed Helena and her daughter Marysia to organize a weekly food collection for the prisoners. Helena also acted as an intermediary in collecting letters and secret messages from prisoners to their families and the outside world. She even assisted in the escape of some prisoners at Pustkow. 

Through her various activities at the camp, Helena gathered information about the number and condition of the prisoners and Pustkow Prison Camp’s functioning. She also collected information about Hitler’s top-secret V-1 and V-2 missile research in nearby Blizna, inside Camp Heidelager. Helena passed the details on to the command of the Polish Home Army.

V-2 launch at Blizna in Camp Heidelager

Eventually, Debica became too dangerous for the AK officials, so they move their headquarters (known as Deser) to Gumniska, a hilly area south of town. Resistance fighters engaged in acts of sabotage and often attacked the trains carrying German troops on the Krakow-Lwow rail lines.

 In early 1944, the AK attempted to blow up a train carrying Hans Frank as it passed through a station near Debica. The Germans arrested innocent villagers from nearby Gumniska to send to prison camps as retribution, known as “collective punishment.” While the prisoners waited in German trucks in front of an administrative building, Helena Jablonowska opened the building gate and truck doors holding the prisoners. Taking advantage of the confusion, the prisoners scattered around the city. The Germans managed to catch only eleven people and were furious.  Helena was dismissed from her position as chairman of the Central Welfare Council of Debica, but the decision was never enforced.

As the Russian “rescuers” moved into the area in July 1944, the locals fled from the towns and villages to avoid the ensuing battles. Together with three hundred locals, the Duchess remained in hiding for several weeks in cellars and outbuildings.  The Germans destroyed the Jablonowski manor house and farm buildings as they fled from the Russians in the late summer of 1944.

The new communist government that occupied Poland from 1944-1989 extended no mercy to the Countess. As was typical of the Russians, they burned complete libraries at manor homes and any item that might work against their totalitatian ideology. Helena was stripped of all her property by the puppet government even though the community attested to her good works during the German occupation. Helena moved to Krakow and never complained about her unfair treatment or sacrifice. This amazing woman understood the importance of living in contentment despite her circumstances.

On June 11, 1977, Helena died at the age of eighty-three and was buried in the family chapel in Straszecin. Her husband, Jozef, died in Krakow in 1966.

The Ruins of the Jablonowski Manor House

In 2007, the European Union announced it would completely rebuild the Jablonowski’s manor in Przyborów. Helena’s father, Mikołaj Rey, a member of Parliament and descendant of the “Father of Polish literature” built the manor house in 1894. Its architect was Stanislaw Witkiewicz, founder of the “Zakopane Style.” It is the only existing manor house of this type that remains. Currently, the manor house remains in ruins.

Helena’s story is a testimony is an inspiration to those of us who might despair in the current world around us. She acted boldly, not for her own interests, but for the welfare of others.

The Quern: A Woman’s Weapon during WWII

A simple quern, likely one passed down from her great grandmother, was probably a Polish village woman’s most treasured possession during the brutal years of the Second World War. A quern, or żarna in Polish, is a simple hand mill typically consisting of two circular stones for grinding wheat, rye and oats in flour.

To the Germans, this ordinary object was a threat to their complete control of the population through implementing food quotas. It was immediately outlawed during the first year of occupation, and the villagers had to turn over their querns that were then smashed and burned. To not comply and then later found with a quern resulted in immediate death by shooting or hanging. Even at risk of death, some women refused to hand over their precious quern. They instead hid their querns in the undergrowth of the wilderness forests and in specially dug pits.

Hand held Quern at Kolbuszowa Museum

My great grandmother, Jadwiga Bryk likely she was one of the few who successfully hid her quern from the nearby SS and played an important role for many people during the Second World War. Jadwiga was mentioned in the letters of Anna Grabiec as a kind person who brought food to the starving forced laborers at a German farm near her home not far from Camp Heidelager in occupied Poland. She also was the person who brought food to Ks Jan Kurek, a priest while he hid from the SS in the roof area of his empty church for six months. Jadwiga lived across the street from the church and knew of his impending arrest. This true story is told in my historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness.”

Jadwiga Bryk in front of her home in Niwiska, Poland
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Polish Home Army During WW2

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Polish Home Army which was by far the largest resistance force in Poland when it was occupied by Nazi Germany. At its height, in 1944, over 400,000  Polish men and women were involved in the Polish Home Army’s resistance efforts. They performed well over 30,000 acts of sabotage and fought over a thousand pitched battles and 24 major encounters. They had no armored vehicles or tanks and no air force or navy. It was mainly infantry aided by their compatriots who were forced into slave labor in camps. By design, these factory workers produced munitions and equipment that malfunctioned or rendered useless in battle.

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Polish Underground Grenade Production

Poles of all many religions, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, and Muslims, joined the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles in The Home Army. They all shared a love of country and Poland’s standards and wanted their country back. There was also what could be referred to as a phantom army of supporters. The fathers, mothers, sisters, brother and neighbors were the ears and eyes that provided medics, chaplains, messengers and financiers for the regular Home Army.

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German Train Blown Up by the AK

The resistance blew up German bridges and railroads, and their mission was to reduce Germany’s ability to wage war and to defeat them through acts of espionage to provide intelligence for the Allies. They also worked to rescue countless Jews, Poles, and POWs in prison camps. An estimated 1-3 million Poles died trying to rescue or help Jews.

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Polish Underground Radio Station

The Polish government still existed throughout WWII, intact and in exile in England with a small navy and air force also stationed in there. Poland’s treasure in gold bullion was sent to England and helped Britain purchase weapons and materials for its defense.

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The Polish underground sent a working replica of the German “enigma machine” along with the ciphers to England in 1939. With this device, the British could read every military dispatch sent from Germany by airwaves or by captured couriers. Three Polish mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zyalsi were credited with the enigma replica. Alan Turning, a Brit was later given exclusive credit for this feat but was really responsible for making a version that could meet the wartime challenge of daily code changes.

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AK (Armia Krajowa)

During WWII, 7,000 German trains and 5,000 German vehicles were destroyed by the AK. Polish intelligence was the most consistent, prolific and reliable compared to any other occupied country during the war. The gallant efforts of the Home Army allowed the Nazis to squander valuable manpower and resources on failed operations.

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Symbol of AK (Armia Krajowa

Although the Allies greatly valued the AK’s work, in the end, the Polish Army was given very little credit. We must not forget the millions of precious heroes who gallantly sacrificed their lives but were extinguished so ruthlessly.

 

Operation Wildhorn III

Operation Wildhorn III

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

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AK transporting V-2 parts

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

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

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

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

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Dakota

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

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

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

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German Storch Airplane

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

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

oil-lantern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niwiska and Blizna during World War II (part two)

Niwiska World War II

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

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Woods near Niwiska

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

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