Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part III–The Tour

On their third morning in Poland, UNRRA’s Minister of Agriculture to Poland Gene Hayes met the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian to take them on a tour. “Mr. Hayes told us before we started out that he would show us some things we would like to see and some things we would not like to see, but he wanted us to see them,” said Harry Kauffman. When Mr. Hayes arrived, the cowboys climbed into the back of a 1942 Chevrolet Army truck given to UNRRA.

Seagoing cowboys pile into UNRRA truck for their tour, October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

“We went on down into the ruins of Gdansk,” says R. Everett Petry in his journal. “The total destruction can be neither imagined or exaggerated. Every single building in the downtown area is very literally demolished, with just parts of bare brick or stone walls standing as far as our eye could see.

Women largely did the work of clearing up the rubble, as most able-bodied men were no longer around. Gdansk, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

“Mr. Hayes told us that Danzig would be far easier rebuilt on a completely new location somewhere else, but because of its great historical value and its age and the fact that it was once one of the great art and culture centers of the world, the Polish people want to rebuild the entire city on its own site.” To visit the city today, one can see that they accomplished their goal.

The rebuilding of Gdansk. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

“Most of the damage was done by English and American airmen, running out the Germans,” Petry says, “and yet, the Polish people do not hold it against us….they call us their ‘liberators.'”

Hayes took the group to see a former 700-acre German estate east of Gdansk where the heifers had been taken. “We passed and met dozens of Poles,” Petry says, “obviously farmers who were driving horses hitched to wagons and carts loaded with all their earthly possessions, seeking their new homes in any section of country not Russian owned.” The estate lay on land that had at various times been part of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Now it would be part of Poland again, and the land would be divided into small parcels for Poles moving in from territory now claimed by Russia. 

Heifers graze at the former German estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where UNRRA heifers were taken, October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

The cattle were branded at the former blacksmith shop on the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

Trenches, foxholes, and military debris marked the estate as a site where battles had been fought. “There are German and Polish graves all over these fields,” says Lloyd Pepple. “We were told,” adds Petry, “that the nationality of the occupants of the graves could be identified by the cross. A German grave is identified by a German helmet on the cross. A Russian cross is marked by a red star placed at the top of the vertical part of the cross. And a Polish cross is just the plain cross with no identification at all. On every hand were visible signs of the death struggle in which many lives were lost, fighting for this ground.”

Helmets mark this grave at the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Hayes also took the group to another former German estate on the other side of Gdansk where the horses had been taken. “We were told that this estate was owned years ago by a wealthy German who was a great horse-man and he raised and bred pure thorough-bred horses,” says Petry. “The stables were huge and very strongly built and apparently a great many horses had been housed there. [Our] horses themselves were in excellent condition and appeared to have quieted down considerably.”

Sandwiched between these visits Hayes exposed the group to some of those things “we would not like to see,” as Harry Kauffman had noted. Cowboy supervisor John Steele explains it like this: “It is almost too horrible to tell what we saw. One large building, a half block square, had a flat roof and a post every 16 to 20 feet to support the roof. Hitler had tied two or three Jews to each post, then set fire to the building. The human bones were all around where each post had been. A large church was used as a gas chamber. Jews were taken from camp and told they could go there to take a bath. Then after they were inside, the gas was turned on. The bodies were used to make soap. At this place, we saw bodies stored in tanks of formaldehyde that were being saved to show at the trials of the Germans.”

“It was in the basement of a hospital,” says Ken Kortemeier. “Skeletons were all around and in another building nearby we saw leather made from human skin.” Kauffman adds, “I saw some of these products myself, and I wondered many times how and why can men sink so low as to do something like this.”

“Every one of us could only look and shudder and think…,” says Petry. “And we wondered why God permitted such things.”

Commemorative sign on the building seagoing cowboys toured in 1945. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

A few more of the early cowboy crews to Poland that followed were taken to this “human soap factory” as it was called before it was evidently put off limits for evidence of war crimes.

A later cowboy crew outside the Nazi medical research building they had toured in Gdansk, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of Hugh Ehrman.

Petry sums up the experience for the Virginian crew in his journal that night: “All of us felt that today was, indeed, one of the most educational days we had ever spent.”

Next post: Happier days in Gdynia

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