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.

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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.”