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!

 

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.

 

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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