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.
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.
The 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.
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.