A seagoing cowboy encounters Russian soldiers

 

The F. J. Luckenbach docked in Nowyport, Poland, end of March 1946.

The F. J. Luckenbach docked in Nowyport, Poland, end of March 1946. Photo courtesy of Daniel Miller.

A year after Russian soldiers had “liberated” Gdansk from the Germans in March 1945, CPS Reserve member James M. Martin found himself in Poland by way of the livestock ship F. J. Luckenbach. The ship docked in Nowyport, which Jim recalls as “a small port town of obviously old and dilapidated houses that had mostly escaped destruction from the war.” The first afternoon, groups of cowboys strolled into town, finding few people on the streets and occasional Soviet soldiers. Jim writes:

Jim Martin talks with a Polish woman near the port. Photo courtesy of Jim Martin.

Jim Martin talks with a Polish woman near the port. Photo courtesy of Jim Martin.

To our surprise we found at the door of one of the houses a middle-aged man who spoke to us in English and invited us into his house. It developed that he had grown up in the U.S. and had somehow come to live in Poland as a young man. He had a Polish wife and two or three children. They were obviously incredibly poor and rather reluctantly admitted that they’d be glad for anything we didn’t need that we could give them. The man had a rather dejected manner and spoke freely but not joyfully.

Late in the afternoon of either the first or second day of our stay in Nowyport, we decided to take some of our cast-off clothing to the family we had met. We were leisurely strolling with the clothing in our arms when we were suddenly accosted by three Soviet soldiers (armed, of course). We couldn’t understand each other but it became apparent that we were to follow them.

They took us a short distance to an old wooden barn, completely empty except upstairs — I’d call it the hayloft — where there was a desk and several chairs and an unshaded light bulb suspended over the desk. At the desk sat another soldier who was obviously in command. There were also several other soldiers standing or sitting there.
The officer spoke toward us in Russian. We said we’re Americans. We couldn’t understand each other, except he probably understood ‘American.’

For a minute or two there was an awkward stalemate. Then it occurred to me to ask whether anyone speaks German. One soldier said he did a little. Well, ‘a little’ was the same for me.

So there began a cumbersome conversation. “Where were we going and why?” “To visit the family we had met and give them our cast-off clothes.” “This is not permissible for you to sell anything to anyone here.” “Oh, no, these are not for sale. Sie sint geschenke fur unserer Freunde. These are gifts for our friends.” “No, that’s not permitted. Nehmen sie zurick und gieben sie zum Rote Kreuz. Take them back and give them to the Red Cross.” That turned out to be the gist of our limited conversation, but we went around several times, I insisting that they are gifts and the officer insisting that we can’t do that and we should take them back home to the Red Cross. Eventually the same soldiers who had brought us there took us back to the ship.

Thinking of it afterwards I realized when we were first accosted it was dusk, and by the time we were taken back to the ship it was dark, so we probably were taking a greater risk than it seemed to me. Surely the area was under martial law and a curfew must have been in effect. Years afterward, one of the fellows in our group insisted that ‘you saved our lives.’ I don’t think it would have come to that, but I’m content to let him think so!!

I must add that the morning after we had been taken to the barn and questioned, we donned the extra clothing, several layers of it, strolled down to the home of the impoverished family, disrobed everything surplus, and left it there!

 

F. J. Luckenbach cowboys on a tour through Gdansk, early April 1946. Photo courtesy of Arnold Dietzel family.

F. J. Luckenbach cowboys on a tour through Gdansk, early April 1946. Photo courtesy of Arnold Dietzel family.

Of a tour through Gdansk that followed Jim recalls “block after block of skeletons of bombed-out buildings or piles of rubble that had once been buildings. Nothing in the newspapers back home could have brought to us the realities of war like this visit to Danzig. What must have been the terror in the hearts of the people who once called this home!”

Jim and his friends could leave Poland knowing they had at least helped the plight of one family, as well as the farmers who received the horses their ship delivered.

Find James M. Martin’s full account of his trip on the Cowboy Stories page of my website.

Advertisements

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part IV–2013 and 2015

What a gift these two women, Grace and Magda, were to me in Poland!

What a gift these two women, Grace and Magda, were to me in Poland! Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

In this concluding post on recipients in Poland, I want to say more about my experience with Magda and Grace and more about Ralph Witmer’s experience. Little did I know when I set out for Poland in 2013 that I would become a link connecting the seagoing cowboys with people who are preserving the history of Gdansk. Before I left home, I had pulled some 800 images of postwar Gdansk from my seagoing cowboy computer files onto a flash drive to take with me. I printed out hard copies of about 280 of those images, nine to a page, hoping to be able to identify buildings and locations in the photos. When I first sat down with Magda and Grace after my arrival, I had no idea what a treasure I was bringing my new friends in Gdansk.

One of the sheets of photos I took with me to identify in Gdansk.

One of the sheets of photos I took with me to identify in Gdansk.

You’ll remember that Madga is studying architectural history and Grace is a photographer and curator of historical photos. The two women looked over the images sheet by sheet and their excitement grew as they identified many of the locations, especially when they came to the colored images scanned from slides. Poland had no color film at the time these images were taken. I realized then just how special my collection is. I’ve always been grateful to the seagoing cowboys for so generously sharing their materials with me, but now I feel it ever so much more. Their generosity has brought a wonderful gift to the Polish people.

The offshoot of all of this is that the story is getting out in Poland. Grace is one of those persons who is a mover and a shaker with lots of connections. She was so taken with the seagoing cowboy photos that she arranged for interviews for me on my last day in Gdansk with a newspaper reporter and a TV reporter. The article that appeared in the newspaper the next morning generated a number of phone calls to the newsroom from people remembering those days or discovering the history.

Polish newspaper article #1Polish newspaper article #2The first photo had a young girl in it of whom one reader said, “That’s my grandmother in that photo!” But the really special part of this piece of the story is that I received an email from Grace shortly after I arrived home, saying that her aunt called her when she read the article and told Grace that her own grandparents had received an American cow, something Grace hadn’t known. Her aunt told her the cow soon gave birth to a calf, which meant step by step improvement for the family. Grace said her “grandparents lived on the outskirts of Gdansk and they had five children, so this cow was very important to them.” One of the biggest rewards of my work has been helping people connect with their family history. I’m thrilled that this has happened for Grace!

Seagoing cowboy Ralph Witmer had a similar experience when he returned to Poland last year after 69 years. Ralph’s son Nelson, who went with him, wrote a detailed letter home and has given me permission to share this piece of it:

Before we started our walk [through the old city of Gdansk, our guide] Margaret told us she had much interest in Dad’s story and had done much research. She said before we could go on she had to show us something. She pulled from her pocket a photo of her Grandfather sitting astride a horse. A horse that he had gotten from the Americans who brought them over on ships with many other goods and supplies to help in the rebuilding effort. Margaret’s grandfather had moved to Danzig after losing two homes in the countryside to bombing. He had lost almost everything. Many people were leaving because of the destruction. But he was a builder and stayed because he knew they could not give up. They must rebuild. He didn’t have much, but he did have a cart – and now he had a horse.  And with that horse and cart he joined in the process of cleaning up the rubble and rebuilding Gdansk. With that Margaret gave Dad a hug and said, “Thank you, for my Grandfather.” And so we started to meet the kind, appreciative, generous people of Poland.

Horse carts like these helped clear up the rubble of Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Dwight Ganzel.

Horse carts like these helped clear up the rubble of Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Dwight Ganzel.

Grace and Magda are working on plans for an exhibition in Gdansk of photos from my collection, because they see them as an important piece of the city’s postwar history that needs to be shared. They have applied for a grant from the U. S. Embassy in Poland, so far without success. I’m considering trying to raise money through an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen, but haven’t had the time to pursue that, as yet. If any of my readers know of sources that may be good possibilities, please be in touch with me. I’d very much like to see this happen while there are still seagoing cowboys, like Ralph, healthy enough to make the trip to participate.

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part III–Stanislaw, 2013

My two amazing Polish contacts, Magda and Grace whom we met in my last post, had one surprise after another for me during my short visit to Poland the first of October 2013. Before leaving home, I had sent Magda a list of the recipients of Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland that I had found in one of my rummaging trips to the Heifer International archives, hoping that some of those recipients or their descendants could be found. This was the shipment of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias from my March 11 post.

Heifers off-loaded from the Sangiago Iglesias await distribution to Polish farmers, November 1945. Photo credit: UNRRA.

Heifers off-loaded from the Santiago Iglesias await distribution to Polish farmers, November 1945. Photo credit: UNRRA.

The list I sent Magda included the names and towns of the recipient farmers and tag numbers of the heifers. Grace, being Catholic and living near those communities, went to each village and posted the names of the recipients from that village in their Catholic Church. And she found one of the men! Stanislaw Debert.

Source: Heifer International.

Source: Heifer International.

Magda Starega talks with Stanislaw Debert about his experience receiving a heifer and an UNRRA horse in 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller

Magda Starega talks with Stanislaw Debert about his experience receiving a heifer and UNRRA goods in 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Stanislaw was 89, soon to be 90, when I met him, and I had a delightful visit with him, his wife, and a daughter; and with Magda interpreting for me, I was able to hear Stanislaw’s story.

After WWII, Europe was a mass of shifting populations as country borders and control of countries changed. As we have seen in previous posts, people of German heritage living in eastern European countries were sent back to Germany, no matter how many generations they had lived in the east. Before the war, the area of Poland around Gdansk had been part of Germany, so the Germans had to flee when it was given back to Poland. Stanislaw, on the other hand, fled, from his home in one part of Poland to Gdansk. He had been a combatant for the Polish Army during the war. He said he left his city of Kielce clinging to the roof of a train with only the clothes on his back. Stanislaw and his wife and small child were resettled, then, in one of the abandoned houses outside of Gdansk on 50 hectares (123 acres) to start their new life in the fall of 1945.

They were lucky to receive a house. “We invited five other families to live there,” Stanislaw said. “There was nothing there to eat when we arrived. No fruits. No vegetables. It was cold, and we were sick all the time.” The heifer they received from the Heifer Project, along with two horses and food goods from UNRRA, helped them survive.

“Our heifer was very skinny when we got her, but after a couple of months, she fattened up. We kept her in the house to keep her safe from the Russians,” he said. “They were stealing cows for meat.”

Stanislaw said the Polish government determined who would receive a horse or cow. “We milled grain for flour and fed the cow the leavings. Our cow gave great milk,” he said. “The cream was so thick you could cut it like butter. She was our only cow for five years until she got sick. We had to kill her. The children cried.” With tears in his eyes, he said, “That was a sad time.”

Stanislaw's daughter shows us one of Stanislaw's awards for the studs he raised on his farm. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Stanislaw’s daughter shows us one of Stanislaw’s awards for the studs he raised on his farm. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Stanislaw eventually turned his farm into an award-winning stud farm. Today his grandson runs the farm, which has doubled in size but, to Stanislaw’s chagrine, no longer has horses. Only grain, which worries Stanislaw.

When it came time for Magda, Grace, and me to leave, Stanislaw said, “I didn’t expect so many emotions today that someone would find us on a list in America and remember us so many years later.” He wanted to know, “How can I thank the people for this gift of a heifer?” I told him, “You just did. I will see that your thanks get passed on.”

What a joyous day for Stanislaw, his wife, and daughter and myself remembering the importance of a gifted heifer. Photo credit: Magda Starega.

What a joyous day for Stanislaw, his wife, and daughter and myself remembering the importance of a gifted heifer. Photo credit: Magda Starega.

Multiply these stories of recipients in Germany and Poland over and over again, and you can see the impact the work of the seagoing cowboys in delivering these animals has had in helping to rebuild a broken world.

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part II–Suchy Dab, 2013

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.

Many Mennonite seagoing cowboys visited the ruins of the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo courtesy of Glen Nafziger.

The former Danzig Mennonite Church today serves a Pentecostal Church of Poland congregation. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

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.

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

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.

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.”

Meeting Heifer Recipients in Poland, Part I–Suchy Dab, 1945

This post begins a series of three stories about meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland. Our first story takes us all the way back to November 1945 and the UNRRA and Heifer Project trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, just seven months after fighting ceased in Europe. This was the third shipment to Poland made by UNRRA and the first by the Heifer Project .

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clifton Crouse family.

The ship left Baltimore Nov 19, 1945, with 150 Heifer Project animals on board and another 225 UNRRA heifers. The S. S. Santiago Iglesias docked in Nowy Port, Poland, outside of Gdansk. The sights that met the seagoing cowboys when they arrived were ones of utter devastation. The war had left Gdansk and the surrounding area in ruins. And the cowboys, their work being finished, were free to explore.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International. (An UNRRA photo, I believe.)

The Heifer Project animals were unloaded and distributed in the village of Suchy Dab, some 20 miles outside the city, to pre-selected farmers who had no cow. The village put on a celebration to thank the cowboys for bringing them these heifers.

One of the cowboy leaders for this trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias was L. W. Shultz, who was the administrator of Camp Alexander Mack (IN) and first chairman of the Brethren Service Committee. Church of the Brethren pastor Ross Noffsinger was a cowboy crew leader on another ship carrying only UNRRA animals, the S. S. Mexican, which left Baltimore for Poland three days before the Santiago Iglesias. So these two ships were both docked in Nowy Port at the same time.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

When the truck came to pick up the cowboy crew from the Santiago Iglesias to take them to Suchy Dab for this celebration, L. W. Shultz was away from the ship tending to business in Warsaw; and somehow it happened that the crew of the S.S. Mexican, which had not delivered any Heifer Project animals, got picked up instead of L.W.’s crew. This mistake led to a memorable event for S. S. Mexican cowboy Al Guyer, who was the very first seagoing cowboy that I interviewed, in February 2002. He recalls:

It was over Thanksgiving time, and it was starting to get pretty cold, but they took all the cattlemen out to the country where the cows were given to the farmers, and the farmers had us all together in a great big community building, I guess it was, where they had a banquet for us. And the banquet consisted of some dry fish and little round cakes of some kind, and some brown bread, I think they had, and some vodka. And then they had the children there, and they sang to us. And, oh, how they expressed their real joy in receiving the animals! And then they had kind of a service of friendship where they used salt and bread, and they gave speeches, and there was an interpreter, and our leader, Ross Noffsinger, responded. Of course, it was all done in Polish, and I don’t remember the words to it, except I knew it was an expression of their friendship and thanks for the animals.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser.

And so it was that this crew of the S. S. Mexican received the ceremony of bread and salt, the Polish traditional expression of hospitality, that was intended for the Santiago Iglesias crew. You can imagine L. W. Shultz’s response when he returned to his ship and found out his crew had not been the one taken for the celebration! He quickly arranged for a second celebration for his crew.

Knowing all this history, this town was on my list of places I wanted to find when I traveled to Poland in 2013. More about that in Part II.

Seagoing Cowboy Ralph Witmer returns to Poland after 69 years

Ralph Witmer (right) and his cousin Howard Weaver ride the waves on their seagoing cowboy journey the end of 1946. Photo courtesy of Ralph Witmer.

Ralph Witmer (right) and his cousin Howard Weaver ride the waves on their seagoing cowboy journey the end of 1946. Photo courtesy of Ralph Witmer.

I’m not scheduled for another post until next week, but I just had to share this.

What a joy it was to find a Farm and Dairy article in my Google alerts last week about one of the cowboys I interviewed in 2006 who made a return trip to Poland in November. Ralph Witmer, at age 88, was able to return to Gdansk with his son and grandson and revisit the place where he had delivered livestock on the S. S. Beloit Victory in December of 1946.

Ralph had one of the more challenging trips, as he and four of his fellow cowboys missed their ship home and had some tense times in Poland before finally catching another ship, very near the end of the UNRRA shipping program. You can read the article HERE.

Ralph Witmer and Howard Weaver mill through a bombed-out bunker in Gdansk, 1946. Photo courtesy of Ralph Witmer.

Ralph Witmer and Howard Weaver mill through a bombed-out bunker in Gdansk, 1946. Photo courtesy of Ralph Witmer.

Of particular interest to me in the article is the last picture showing the Witmers and a group of people from the surprise reception given the Americans. When you look at the article, the blond woman in the pink coat in the second row and the brunette to her left are Grace and Magda, respectively, who were my contacts when I visited Poland in 2013. Magda and Grace were so taken with the copies of photos from seagoing cowboy albums I had with me for the purpose of finding the locations in the photos that they arranged for a newspaper article about my collection while I was there.

The October 4, 2013, Polish newspaper Gazeta Trojmiasto carried an article about the seagoing cowboys who had delivered livestock to Gdansk in 1945-1947 and the photos they had taken of post-war Gdansk.

The October 4, 2013, Polish newspaper Gazeta Trojmiasto carried an article about the seagoing cowboys who had delivered livestock to Gdansk in 1945-1947 and the photos the cowboys had taken of post-war Gdansk. Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

The two women are working on plans for a photo exhibition of these post-WWII images of Gdansk and hoping to find the funding to carry it out. So, maybe one day, in the hopefully not too distant future, I’ll be making a post about an exhibition of seagoing cowboy photos in Poland! I’m guessing that Magda and Grace were extremely excited to meet one of these cowboys.

 

The photos taken in Gdansk by seagoing cowboys document the post-war history of the city.

The photos taken in Gdansk by seagoing cowboys, as shown in this October 2013 newspaper,  document the post-war history of the city.  Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Extra post: Liberation of Gdansk

Today’s special post is in honor of the great city of Gdansk, Poland, destination of over 40% of the UNRRA livestock shipments. My Polish friend Grace, who lives near and works in Gdansk, recently noted that the city would be observing the 70th anniversary of the “liberation” of Gdansk on March 31. World War II started there with an attack by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939, and Germany annexed the city. Gdansk remained under German control until the Russian Red Army came through the end of March 1945 and pushed the Germans out. The city, then known as Danzig, was utterly destroyed in the process. Only six months later, the first UNRRA livestock shipment to Poland arrived in Nowy Port, the port area for Gdansk, making the seagoing cowboys some of the first U.S. civilians to step foot on Polish soil after the war. With their work of tending the livestock finished when the animals were off-loaded, they had time to explore the area. Many of them captured the devastation of this great city with their cameras.

Post-war Gdansk, October 1945

These seagoing cowboys of the SS Virginian were the first cowboys to tour post-war Gdansk, early October 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

Post-war Gdansk, Dec 1945

The Morgantown Victory crew explores Gdansk the end of December 1945. Photo courtesy of Hugh Ehrman.

The people of Gdansk were determined to rebuild the historic center of the city as it had been before the war. Today, Gdansk is a lovely, vibrant city.

Gdansk

Gdansk rebuilt. October 2013. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Gdansk, may you always be free.