Hate begets war begets hate

A popular Advent theme is “Peace.” In these times of hateful vitriol, I pondered that theme as I read the account of seagoing cowboy Gordon Shull of his time in Gdansk, Poland, in May 1946. And I wonder, how does one defuse hate to keep it from breeding war? And after a war, how does one pacify the hate that lingers?

The destruction World War II survivors had to cope with in Gdansk, Poland, May 1946. Photo credit: Marvin Snell, shipmate of Gordon Shull.

Shull experienced that hate in post-World War II Gdansk. Gdansk had been the German free city of Danzig before the war, repopulated by the Poles at war’s end when most surviving German citizens were expelled in accord with the Potsdam Agreement. Life was rough for the small number of Germans who stayed, as detailed in Shull’s letter from that time:

“[T]he immigrating Poles have brought with them a blind, deep-seated hatred of all Germans . . . [and they] are taking their sweet revenge.

“Put yourself in the shoes of Mary K–, with whom I talked for several hours. Imagine yourself standing helpless by as an invading Russian soldier loots your home, opening trunks, overturning tables, adding your wristwatch to the half-dozen others that already adorn his arm . . . disguising yourself as an old woman in order to evade the sex-hungry soldiers, but sometimes failing because some 80-year-old women were raped, while others who had the misfortune of being young and beautiful were raped as much as 30 times.

“Then, after the Russians have settled down, and after your friends and relatives have left Danzig for uncertain fates in Russia or Germany, imagine yourself at the mercy of people whose moral principles, already reduced by war and its familiar accompaniments, have reached a new low in a boom-town atmosphere. You are now the scapegoat of a people who have suffered at the hands of Germans and Russians. Imagine yourself chased out of your home at the point of a gun by a Pole who allows you to take only that which you can lay your hands on as you leave (no . . . you must leave your camera, your watch, your bicycle, your jewelry) . . . finding a greenhouse or a clubroom or a not-too-badly-ruined dwelling in which to live . . . dragged out of bed at 6:00 AM, every once in a while, by Polish police, and forced to work all day in their headquarters for absolutely nothing . . . getting up at 5:00 each morning so that you can hide from the Poles, and thus go to your job – which, incidentally, pays about half as much as a Pole would get . . . thrown off of streetcars as soon as your identity is discovered . . . having no law whatever to protect you . . . living in perpetual fear, so that when someone knocks on your door, you hold your breath . . . .  All of this and more happened to middle-aged Mary K–. . . .

“Before the war, Mary was a Physics Instructor. A graduate of the University of Danzig, she had done work on the electronics microscope. Now she wields a sledge hammer. Her wage consists of one or two meals, and ten cents a day. That’s about enough to buy two or three loaves of bread on the market. . . .

With so many men killed in the war, women did most of the clean up work. Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman.

“Mary told us that she and many of her friends had opposed the Nazis so much that the Nazis had boycotted their businesses. ‘Because of our opposition,’ she said in pretty good English, ‘we didn’t dream that any harm would come to us after the war. But no . . . you can’t imagine!’ Several times in the course of our conversation she repeated that phrase, covering her head in her hands as if to suppress memories that were too bitter to describe, or even to hold in her mind. Then, with a determined [shake] of her head and a quick clenching of her fist, she would snap out of it.

“. . . Because we knew that she was not begging, and would share with other needy Germans anything we might give her, we made our contribution all the larger, when we left.”

Join me on my seagoing cowboy journey!

Seagoing Cowboys!

The term itself makes one curious, draws one in. Who were they? What did they do? My own curiosity began with an envelope of my grandfather’s photos given to me by my father after my grandpa died. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, I knew about seagoing cowboys; but I didn’t know my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. In September 1946, at age 49, he sailed to Poland on the SS Pierre Victory with a load of 774 horses. This shipment was part of a program run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help countries devastated by World War II recover and rebuild.

Seagoing Cowboy Abraham Reiff

Grandpa Abe and fellow cowboys on the SS Pierre Victory, October 1946

The story hiding in grandpa’s photos meshed with a growing interest I had in writing a young adult novel. What a great topic! I thought. I could write about the journey of a young seagoing cowboy to Poland. Little did I know what a journey the pursuit of this project would become for me!

My curiosity led me to a former pastor, Rev. Al Guyer, who I knew had been a seagoing cowboy to Poland. Maybe I could learn from him what Grandpa’s trip might have been like, I thought.

Al’s story drew me in.

Seagoing Cowboys leave home

Al Guyer and Jack Baker prepare to leave home for the journey of a life time in November 1945.  Source: Albert Guyer

That interview was in January 2002, right before our family moved from Maryland to Northern Indiana, smack dab in the middle of seagoing cowboy country where the story of the related Heifer Project, today’s Heifer International, began. My passion for the story grew with every cowboy I interviewed and I’ve been uncovering, documenting, writing, and speaking about this little-known history ever since. It turned out to be a much larger story than I had anticipated, taking me all across the country to interview cowboys and visit various archives, including those of the United Nations, Heifer International, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites.

Peggy Reiff Miller researching seagoing cowboy history

Digging for information in the Heifer International archives.

Most recently, my research has taken me to Germany and Poland where I was able to see where the seagoing cowboys had been and meet recipients of animals delivered in 1945 to Poland and in 1950 to Germany.

Peggy Reiff Miller meets with Reichswald settlers in Germany who received heifers from the Heifer Project.

In September 2013, I met with 11 Reichswald settler families in Germany who received heifers in 1950 from the Heifer Project. My interpreter and friend Ingrid Marx is on my right. Photo credit: Hannelore Erkens


Peggy Reiff Miller meets with the Stanislaw Debert family in Pruszcz Gdanski, Poland.

I had a joyous meeting with the Stanislaw Debert family in Pruszcz Gdanski, Poland, in October 2013. Stanislaw received a heifer from the Heifer Project and two horses from UNRRA in late 1945. Photo credit: Magda Starega

So what about my novel?

Finding Charity, which has long since been drafted and gone through three major revisions, is resting. Along the way, I realized it was a nonfiction book about the seagoing cowboys that was needed and wanted by the cowboys, as well as a book about the beginnings of the Heifer Project. So that has become my priority. I have a children’s picture book, Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy, under contract with Brethren Press; and I’ll keep you posted on its progress. But for now, the point I’m at is sifting through a roomful of accumulated research materials to find the stories for my nonfiction books.

Peggy Reiff Miller's office

Lots and lots of files to process!

l’ll be sharing pieces of this history here as I go. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.

[My intention is to post every second and fourth Friday or Saturday. I invite you to become a regular follower.]