Out of the blue in early 2013, I received an email from an architectural history doctoral student in Poland that opened up an opportunity for me I could previously only have imagined. Magda Starega was looking for postwar images of the Danzig Mennonite Church for a paper she was writing about its architecture; she was told I might have some that were taken by seagoing cowboys.
Many Mennonite seagoing cowboys visited the ruins of the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo courtesy of Glen Nafziger.
The former Danzig Mennonite Church now serves a Pentecostal Church of Poland congregation. The building is on the Polish National Register of Historic Buildings. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.
A correspondence with Magda developed. She wondered what other images I had of postwar Gdansk (the Polish name of the city, reclaimed after the war). I recognized in her a highly professional young woman. Knowing I would be in Germany later that year, the light bulbs went off in my brain. Could I extend my trip and travel on to Poland? See for myself where my grandfather and a majority of the seagoing cowboys had been? Find the rebuilt locations of images shared with me by the cowboys? Would Magda help me? She readily agreed, and my short, four-day visit far exceeded my expectations.
Magda and Grace found the house in the Suchy Dab celebration photo of 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.
At our initial September 30 meeting in the Gryf Hotel in Gdansk, Magda brought a colleague with her, Grazyna Goszczynska, known to me as Grace. In Grace, I recognized another highly professional woman, who had experience in photography and curating historical photo collections. Before leaving home, I had sent Magda the image I had of the ceremony in Suchy Dab we saw in my last post and wondered if we might be able to find that location. And Magda and Grace took me there.
What a thrilling day to stand in the same street as the Heifer Project recipients of 1945, in front of the same house in the photo! We learned later that during the war that house was occupied by a local authority.
Magda and Grace then took me on a cold call to visit a nearby farmer, a Mr. Alaut, who Grace had discovered had received an UNRRA horse in late 1946. We walked up their lane along a fencerow of salmon-colored dahlias and were met by two friendly little black and white dogs who announced our arrival. When the family learned our purpose, they welcomed us into the house that Mr. Alaut’s parents had taken over days before World War II began, after its German owners had left. He said they were safe there during the war.
The Alaut farm in Krzywe Koto, Poland, October 2013. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller
Mr. Alaut recalled walking the twenty kilometers to the ship at age 16 to get the horse for his family, their first horse for the farm. “It was a beautiful horse, but wild!” he said. “I walked it home with a lead rope.” Many of the seagoing cowboys had told me the horses they cared for were wild off the western range, and I often wondered how on earth the recipients managed them. Here was my chance to get an answer. “We trained it,” he said. “My neighbor had gotten a horse, too, and we made the two horses work together as a team.”
Mr. Alaut told me, “We kept the horse in the house to keep it safe. We were afraid of the Russians. They would just come and take anything they wanted. They would steal horses and sell them.”
One of two descendants of the UNRRA horse Mr. Alaut received in 1946. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.
Like all recipients I visited in Europe, Mr. Alaut expressed his gratitude. “Because of help from the U.S.A., we were able to get a start,” he said.
Today, the third generation runs the farm, raising grain and sugar beets, hogs and geese. They still had two descendants of their UNRRA horse, but these, Mr. Alaut said, “will be the end of the line. No one wants horses today.”