Altered Lives & Lines– Przewodow & The Poland-Ukraine Geopolitical Fault Line (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #248)

In another world that existed not so long ago, the missile that landed in Przewodow, Poland would have struck a predominantly Ukrainian community. If the history that informed the redrawing of Poland’s eastern border after World War II had been different, the location of Przewodow might not have been in Poland at all. Instead, it could have been in Ukraine. That is because back then, Przedonow stood on a geopolitical fault line. One that put it on a collision course with the forces of imperialism, nationalism, fascism, and communism. Many of those same forces still exist today. Przewodow might be remote, but it still cannot escape the forces of history. Neither can Poland or Ukraine.

Visible proof – Poland and Ukraine border markers (Credit: Oblomov2)

Stopgap Measure – The Westward Movement
Today, Przewodow is on another fault line, one between western and eastern values. It is only ten kilometers from where the European Union and non-European Union world divide. The same goes for the separation of NATO and non-NATO territory. The forces that have cultivated peace and prosperity in western Europe have been shifting eastward since 1989. They reached their limit not far beyond Przewodow. These forces are temporarily stalled at the Ukrainian border. The Ukraine-Russia War will decide whether the eastward movement of western values and institutions continues across Ukraine. In the meantime, the war between east and west threatens to spread beyond Ukraine, as it did for one dangerous moment when a missile slammed into the ground at a grain storage facility in Przewodow.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Przewodow was overwhelmingly populated by Ukrainians and occupied by the Soviet Union. It could just as easily have become part of Soviet territory. From an ethnic standpoint that would have made sense, but those redrawing the lines on maps decided to set the border a little bit further to the east. This meant the Przewodow reverted to Poland, where it had been located prior to the war. At the same time, the ethnic composition of the village was radically altered to separate Poles and Ukrainians. This was how Przewodow came to exist in its present form. No one could have imagined at the time that a border adjustment would have geopolitical ramifications seventy-five years later.

Into the abyss – Still images from the missile strike in Przewodow

Nothing Lasts Forever – Bordering On Change
Borders are very strange things. They call to mind the saying that “nothing lasts forever.” Borders sometimes do not last longer than it takes the ink on the treaties which created them to dry. No matter what nation you live in right now, you can be sure that its borders are not permanent. There are thing constants in life, death, taxes, and the malleability of borders. Whether it takes a decade, a century or a millennium, the borders of any polity will eventually and inevitably change. One of the reasons borders constantly shift is because many of them make very little sense. One of the strangest things about borders is how hard they are to distinguish. Most are not demarcated by anything as substantial as walls. Sometimes they are markers set in stone, other times they are virtually invisible. Treaties may delineate borders, but often this does nothing to differentiate between two sides.

I recall the first time I set foot outside the United States, driving across the border into Canada, specifically from the state of Montana into the province of Alberta. The trees looked the same, the road looked the same, even the signage looked familiar. From my perspective, one side of the border looked just like the other. I imagined that there would be something to distinguish between the two countries. If it had not been for border control, I would not have known one side from the other. I thought of that experience while reading news reports of the missile that hit in Przewodow. Looking for images of the village, I noticed the landscape surrounding it was agricultural and monotonous. One of the photos from the village showed farm fields stretching into the distance. The landscape looks much the same on the Ukrainian side of the border. How would a person be able to tell the difference between Poland and Ukraine when the landscape looked the same on either side of the border? This reminded me that the Poland-Ukraine border is just as much a political boundary, as it is a geographical boundary.

A place in time – Road entering Przewodow (Credit: Jakub Kruczek)

Identity Crisis – On The Wrong Side
The border between Poland and Ukraine is like many of the borders in Eastern Europe, a product of recent rather than distant history. The first half of the 20th century in eastern Poland and western Ukraine was marked by a succession of catastrophes. A fine illustration of the turmoil that plagued the region is how often Przewodow changed sides. This innocuous village found itself part of Austria-Hungary, Interwar Poland, Communist Poland and post-communist Poland. There were also occupations by Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and another one by the Soviet Union. Armies that fought the two most violent wars in human history swept through the area on multiple occasions. With such a tumultuous history, it is a wonder that Przewodow managed to survive at all. The village made it through the whirlwind, but it is much different today than it was a hundred years ago.

Present-day Przewodow is ethnically Polish. A century ago, the situation could not have been more different. Of the village’s 737 inhabitants, 658 were ethnic Ukrainians, another 34 were Jewish. In other words, 95% of the population was not Polish. During World War II, the village was a hotbed of sentiment for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as Polish and Ukrainian nationalists fought an ultraviolent war within a larger war. After the World War II war ended, facts on the ground were established to fit the dictates of a new border. This meant shifting the border of Poland to fit the preferences of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Poland’s border was moved westward, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s border was also shifted westward. Forcible population exchanges of ethnic Poles and Ukrainians took place. Przewodow’s Ukrainian population moved to the Soviet Union. Poles moved into Przewodow. That is the way things have stayed since then. Thus, when the missile hit Przewodow it landed on Polish soil. At that moment, the border between Poland and Ukraine mattered more than it has in years. It is no longer just a line on a map, it is the difference between peace and the potential for a more widespread war.

Click here for: The War Has Already Spread – Russia’s Domestic Dissension (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #249)

The End Is Just Beginning – Przewodow & The Next World War (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #247)

I never imagined that the end of the world could start in a remote corner of eastern Poland or that the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse might be centered around a grain storage facility in a place called Przewodow. For several hours the darkest of possibilities arose from a smoldering crater, the product of a missile that landed in the village. What a way it would have been for the apocalypse to begin. On a sleepy afternoon, at the beginning of winter, in a village that few have ever heard of. What did Przewodow and its 413 inhabitants ever do to deserve such infamy. Fortunately, Armageddon was averted as Poland and its fellow NATO member states discovered that the missile was not fired from Russia, but instead came from Ukraine’s air defenses. This was a near miss of world historical proportions. A what if warning to the world that the danger of the Ukraine-Russia war spreading is clear and present. That at any moment the potential for escalation can rise from the obscure places.

Humanity can exhale for now, as life in Przewodow and life on earth will go on much as before. Most of us are either blissfully ignorant, willingly indifferent or vaguely aware of the storm which continues to gather on the warzone’s periphery. It threatens to explode outward beyond the borders of Ukraine at any moment. The incident at Przedonow was an excellent example of this ominous trend that continues to grow. The specter of nuclear war will continue to hang over Eastern Europe, if not the world. One good thing has come from this close call, at least Przewodow will not have its name etched in historical infamy forever. Instead, the village will go back to being as obscure as it always has been. The incident that occurred there will soon be all but forgotten. Thankfully, the village will once again fade from memory until it is a paragraph or two in history books on the Ukraine-Russia War. Przewodow, the place that played a leading role for less than a day, can return to anonymity.

Close call – Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks about the missile that hit Przewodow

Close Call – Armageddon Averted
A close friend once told me that it was always better to be lucky, than good. Make of that advice what you will, judging by what occurred in the more obscure reaches of eastern Poland, the world was extremely lucky. Nothing about what happened at Przewodow was good. Two innocent famers lost their lives, NATO members were forced into an emergency meeting, no one wanted to accept responsibility for what occurred, and the international community was reminded how quickly the war could escalate with potentially dire consequences far beyond the battlefield. What happened at Przewodow was the byproduct of over a hundred Russian missiles launched at infrastructure across Ukraine. An overwhelming majority of them were destroyed before they struck their targets. A deadly few made it past Ukrainian air defenses which by the standards of the western world are antiquated.

Just as the Russians are forced to rely on less than smart technology at this point in the war, so too are the Ukrainians forced into using old Soviet missiles to defend themselves. More rather than less incidents like the one at Przewodow are likely to occur. One of Ukraine’s air defense missiles was off target and took no heed of the border. There is no such thing as border control anywhere above ground level, thus the missile fell to earth ten kilometers west of the Poland-Ukraine border in Przedonow. Those farmers who lost their lives to the missile were collateral damage in a war often marked by that. Because the missile turned out to be Ukrainian rather than Russian, there was no need for NATO to invoke Article 5 and there was also no need for the rest of us to clutch articles of faith. Armageddon was averted, for now.

Digging a deeper hole – Investigators at site of the missile strike in Przewodow

Warning Signs – A Matter of If, Not When
The threat of conflict between NATO and Russia passed in a matter of hours. A near miss mainly due to luck. That is not a strategy that any nation wanting to avoid war, especially the nuclear kind, ever wants to rely upon. Nonetheless, that is where the international community finds itself due to the inherent danger of the Ukraine-Russia war. Just how dangerous the situation has become is illustrated by this seemingly random incident. What otherwise will have little bearing on the outcome of the war, almost led to an international crisis the likes of which has not been seen since the height of the Cold War. The situation that just occurred can best be regarded as sinisterly sublime. Here we had an anonymous spot on the map – one that does even rise to the level of a backwater – that could have triggered World War Three.

What ifs, near misses, and narrow escapes rarely focus the mind on a way that leads to course correction. In a world that suffers from attention deficit disorder, moments of reflection are few. That is why Przewodow will go back to being forgotten, the proverbial wide spot in the road, a blink and you miss it village. The obscurity of Przewodow will lead to the incident being downplayed. If the missile had landed in Warsaw, Krakow or even Lublin, the outcry would have been much louder, the warning likely to be heeded. Instead, the incident at Przedonow seems like a one off. A coincidence rather than a trend. Failure to recognize warning signs may lead to a worse outcome the next time. Luck will eventually run out. It is not a matter of if, but when. This is a very dangerous game to be playing.

Look of concern – Western leaders discussing the missile that hit Przewodow at the G7 meeting in Bali

A False Sense of Security – The Next News Cycle
If ever there was a false sense of security than it exists post-Przewodow. Sure, there will be politicians proclaiming that everyone needs to be more careful, but that thought will not last much longer than the next news cycle. Ensuring that an incident like the one at Przewodow does not happen again would need action that is extremely unlikely to be forthcoming. The Ukrainians need the most advanced air defense systems the west can provide. Until those are forthcoming, the Russian missile barrages will continue. Along with them will come the risk of another missile landing where it should not. Przewodow could have been the end, now it looks like the beginning.

Click here for: Altered Lives & Lines– Przewodow & The Poland-Ukraine Geopolitical Fault Line (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #248)

Hit & Miss – The Przewodow Incident & NATO (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #246)

Transformative moments in history can happen when you least expect them. The incidents that make or break the world are much more likely to happen on some anonymous Tuesday, rather than when something memorrg7⁷able is anticipated. For instance, no one anticipated that Sarajevo would be the setting for an assassination in 1914 that would trigger one offer the deadliest wars in human history, one whose consequences we still live with today. No one would have expected that a provincial city recently annexed by a fading empire would be the starting point for global catastrophe. The anonymous can become the ominous literally overnight. When tensions are high and international relations teeter on the precipice between war and peace, seemingly small events have the potential to metastasize into a conflict beyond anyone’s imagination. This is what happened at a small village in eastern Poland when a missile landed on a NATO member state’s territory leading to the deaths of two Polish citizens. 

Epicenter – Location of missile that landed on Polish territory

Article 5 – A Commitment To Collective Security
In the later afternoon on Tuesday, November 15th, a couple of farmers were returning from corn fields around the village of Przewodow in eastern Poland. Then suddenly they heard an earsplitting sound followed by an explosion. In a matter of seconds, the lives of two unsuspecting Polish farmers came to an end. They were collateral damage from a missile falling out of the sky. That same day, Russian forces had launched attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure with over a hundred missiles and suicide drones. Ukraine’s air defenses shot down over 80% of them, but some managed to still get through to their targets. When one missile hit a grain storage facility ten kilometers west of the Polish-Ukrainian border, it was believed to be a Russian missile that had missed its target.

Immediately, international news media across the world reported a potential Russian strike against a NATO member state. References were soon made to the potential for an apocalyptic showdown that could decide the fate of the world. Whether intentional or not, the fact that a Russian missile might have landed on a NATO member state’s soil was alarming in the extreme. Discussions soon turned to whether the incident would lead NATO to invoke Article 5, whereby an attack against one member is considered an attack against all members. Members of the alliance are bound by Article 5 to come to the defense of fellow members when they are attacked by another nation. This has the potential for direct confrontation between nuclear armed powers.

Article 5 is a collective security measure meant to provide ironclad protection for all NATO member states, no matter if they are large or small. It has been extremely helpful in keeping the post-World War II peace in Europe. It is one of the reasons Europe has experienced very few wars since 1945. It is not a coincidence that the two largest European conflicts since then, the Yugoslav Wars and Ukraine-Russia War, involved non-NATO member states. The one major drawback to Article 5 is that it could lead to a situation where larger powers get pulled into a war due to their obligations. This is the situation that suddenly facing NATO members after that missile landed on Polish territory. Immediately Poland’s senior government leadership commenced an emergency meeting. President Joe Biden of the United States did the same at the G7 meeting in Bali, Indonesia with several leaders of other NATO member states. The situation was fraught with danger.

Ground zero – Crater from missile strike in Przewodow

Off Target – Raising The Risk
The first hint that the incident would not be allowed to spiral out of control came when Poland announced they would invoke Article 4, which calls for consultation with other members “when territorial integrity, political independence or security of the parties is threatened.” Not long thereafter, President Biden announced that preliminary information showed that the missile was not fired from Russian territory. That immediately raised the question of where it did come from. Further sleuthing by investigators on the scene and intelligence agencies led to the conclusion that the missile came from Ukrainian air defenses aimed at one of the incoming Russian missiles.

There was a palpable sense of relief as all those involved could breathe easier. Neither Articles 4 nor 5 would be invoked. Unfortunately, the incident showed how easily the Ukraine-Russia War could lead to a wider and possibly cataclysmic conflict. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th, there has been a great deal of worry of the war spreading to other parts of Europe. That concern is warranted. The incident at Przewodow will likely not be the last time missiles end up on the wrong side of the border. The problem is that the sky has no limit. Once a missile is launched either for offensive or defensive purposes there is always the chance it will go off target with unintended consequences.

The missile which landed on Polish territory may have come from Ukrainian air defenses, but that was only because of the attacks being launched by Russia. The incident would never have occurred if not for Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine. In the future, there is still just as great a chance that the missile will come from Russian forces. Intelligence estimates have shown that Russian stocks of precision missiles are running extremely low. Due to sanctions, the Russians cannot acquire the necessary technological components for precision guided missiles. As the war has continued, the Russians have increasingly relied upon missiles that are imprecise by the standards of modern warfare in the 21st century. That raises the risk of a missile landing in Poland or another nearby NATO member state.

The death of innocents – Damage from a Russian missile strike in Ukraine

Future Prospects – From Crisis To Consequences
The main conclusion to be drawn from the incident at Przewodow is that NATO and Russia could be drawn into direct conflict through an unintentional accident. It will be imperative to keep open channels of communication and seek de-escalation from this point forward between all sides. This mini crisis also offers an opportunity, some might say an excuse, to provide Ukraine with the most up to date air defense systems to deter Russian missile attacks. This would further safeguard Ukrainian civilians and the nation’s critical infrastructure from Russian attack, while lowering the chance that a Russian missile accidentally lands on a NATO member state’s territory. Even with these measures, a heightened risk of a Russian missile going off target will remain. The more missiles Russia launches, the greater the chance that one of them will find its way into a NATO member’s territory. Next time this happens the consequences might be more than deadly. They could end up catastrophic.

Click here for: The End Is Just Beginning – Przewodow & The Next World War (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #247)

A Pole Apart – Hubert Hurkacz: Many Happy Returns At Wimbledon

Polish sport, much like the country itself, has historically been overlooked due to its much larger neighbors that have dominated international competitions such as the Olympic Games. Germany and Russia have had many more champions in both individual and team sports compared with Poland. This is not surprising since Poland has a much smaller population. Plus, Germany and Russia have given a great deal of financial backing to sports. Nonetheless, Poles have had many great sporting achievements and sportsmen. In football, Poland’s national team was a force to be reckoned during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, coming in third place on two separate occasions. Currently, one of the best football players in the world, Robert Lewandowski is Polish.

Moving forward – Hubert Hurkacz

A Run For The Ages – Taking Home A Title
Besides football, Poland has really made a name for itself in professional tennis over the past two decades. This has mainly come on the women’s side due to the exploits of Agnieszka Radwanski who made it all the way to the Wimbledon Final in 2012 where she lost to the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, in three close sets. Radwanska attained a number two world ranking and won over $27 million dollars in prize money during her career before retiring in 2018. The only thing Radwanska did not achieve was winning a Grand Slam title. Poland would not have to wait long for another native daughter to send the nation’s tennis spirits soaring. At the pandemic delayed French Open last autumn, 20 year old Iga Swiatek went on a run for the ages.

The 54th ranked Swiatek had never won a tour level title in her career. In the 4th round, playing against Romania’s Simona Halep, she served notice that greatness had arrived. Swiatek thrashed Halep who was ranked #2 in the world at the time, 6-1, 6-2. What made the victory even more stunning was that Halep had beaten Swiatek 6-1, 6-0 the year before at the French. Swiatek continued her dominance in her next three matches, surrendering no more than five games to a single opponent. She ended up winning the title without the loss of a set. In the process, she became the first Polish woman to win a Grand Slam singles title. The question has now become when a Polish man might accomplish the same feat. The chance of that happening has become much greater since another Polish player is excelling at Wimbledon this year. Hubert Hurkacz has just become only the second Polish male to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. The question is whether he will become the first to make the final and/or win the most coveted championship in tennis.

Always in style – Wojtek Fibak (Credit: Bert Verhoeff/Anefo)

The Art of Tennis – Wojtek Fibak
Polish professional tennis is now enjoying some of its better days. It cannot be called a resurgence because that implies Polish tennis once had a golden age. Besides Wojtek Fibak, pickings were extremely slim throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Fortunately, Fibak represented Polish tennis well. He was an excellent player who won 15 singles and 52 doubles titles, there was really no one other than him to represent Poland in the upper echelons of men’s professional tennis. Fibak’s closest confidante on tour was Ivan Lendl. The two often traveled together throughout Europe, competing in tournament after tournament. They were accused of being renegades who were out to win as much prize money as possible. Ironically, they were both from communist countries, but knew how to make a mint out of the bandit capitalism that pervaded pro tennis at the time. Fibak faded long before Lendl. He then went into business, making another fortune and becoming one of Poland’s premier art collectors.

After Fibak, Polish tennis went into a deep freeze. The Cold War may have ended, but there were few potential pros rising through the ranks. The thaw would only come after the turn of the 21st century. The highlight occurred at Wimbledon in 2014 when two Poles faced off in the quarterfinals. Jerzy Janowicz defeated Lukas Kubot to become the first Polish man to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. He then took the first set off eventual champion Andy Murray before losing in four close sets. Janowicz’s future looked bright until knee problems darkened his horizons. At Wimbledon, he had achieved the tennis equivalent of a false summit, getting close to the pinnacle of glory only to fall backwards. Fortunately. there was another Polish hope on the way. It arrived in the form of Hurkacz. Hurkacz is not only the second Pole to make it to the Wimbledon semis, but he also has to be the only player in history who lost his last six matches prior to arriving at the All England Club. He had displayed better form earlier in the season when he won a Masters 1000 event in Miami.

Many happy returns – Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon 2021

A Wave of Confidence – Beating The Best
Coming into Wimbledon, Hurkacz did not have many expectations. He just wanted to break out of his recent slump. The grass at Wimbledon was as good a place as any to do that since Hurkacz plays a power game. On grass he can more easily impose his game on an opponent. He sailed through his first three matches without the loss of a set. In his 4th round match against second seed Danil Medvedev, Hurkacz lost two of the first three sets. His hopes of a comeback looked bleak since he was only 1-4 in five set matches. Improbably, Hurkacs managed to beat Medvedev by winning 12 of the last 18 games.

This set up a match against Roger Federer on center court. Federer is probably the best grass court player of all time, but he was no match for Hurkacz who rode a wave of confidence after Federer made a couple of costly errors in the crucial second set tiebreak. Hurkacz then became the first man to ever win a 6-0 set against Federer at Wimbledon when he closed out the match in straight sets. Like Swiatek’s run at the French Open, Hurkacz has been a surprise. Whether his run will continue all the way to the championship remains to be seen. The hopes and dreams of Polish tennis have fallen on Hurkacz’s broad shoulders. Can he carry the load? We will find out.

Rescue Mission – Herberta C Hoovera: An American On Behalf of Poland (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #30)

Hoover. Unless you are into vacuum cleaners, the name is synonymous with failure. This is due to the surname’s most famous namesake, Herbert Hoover. A man who was unlucky enough to be the American President when the Great Depression struck. That cataclysmic economic event ruined Hoover’s reputation, both then and now. Because he was unable to stabilize the American economy, Hoover will be forever labeled as a failure. Sadly, this is a very narrow view of the man. One that only looks at Hoover through the prism of his presidency from 1929 -1933. Many never realize that the popular image of Hoover as a failure is a false one. Herbert Hoover was a success in everything he did other than the American presidency. He was a man whose ability to organize and facilitate aid for the needy was unprecedented. Those skills saved countless lives, including in Poland.

Hoover led large scale relief efforts for those left destitute by war. Most famously, in establishing and leading the Commission for Relief in Belgium that provided lifesaving assistance to Belgians after the German invasion of the country in 1914. Just as important, but much less well known were Hoover’s efforts after the World War I ended. President Woodrow Wilson made Hoover the point man for one of the largest relief efforts in human history. Hoover was charged with leading the American Relief Administration (ARA) in Central and Eastern Europe. Nowhere was Hoover’s work appreciated greater than in Poland. A newly reconstituted nation whose citizens, especially children, would forever be indebted to Hoover for feeding and clothing them in the years after the war.

Helping Hands – A Nation In Need
Several years ago, I was walking around Warsaw’s Old Town, fascinated by its immaculate post-World War II reconstruction. There was nary a stone out of place. The buildings resonated Old World charm. It felt as though the clock had been turned back several centuries in this part of the Polish capital. Perhaps that was why I took notice of something that was much more modern, a name that evoked the new rather than old world. On a sign I saw the words, “Herberta C. Hoovera Skwer” (Herbert Hoover Square). This could mean only one thing, that Herbert Hoover was honored with a square named after him in the Polish capital. At the time, I had no idea how important Hoover’s efforts were at helping fight off starvation in Poland after World War I. And this was not the only time Hoover assisted Poland. He was one of the few Americans who visited Poland both before and after World War’s I and II. Hoover’s visits in 1913, 1919, 1938 and 1946 endeared him to Poles. Of those visits, none was more important than the one in 1919, when Hoover witnessed an outpouring of adulation, the likes of which has rarely been seen before or since for a foreigner visiting Poland.

With World War One at an end, many parts of Europe were in dire need of food and clothing. Nowhere was this problem more acute than in Eastern Europe, where low level warfare still raged and new nations struggled to keep their citizens healthy and fed. Poland had hundreds of thousands of malnourished citizens. This problem was particularly bad among children. As head of the ARA, Herbert Hoover facilitated the shipment of provisions to Poland. This also included organization and setup of 10,000 kitchens during 1919-1920. It was estimated that some two million children gained much needed nourishment as part of this program. Hoover’s organization skills and administrative acumen became the stuff legends are made of, at least in Poland. In the summer of 1919, he decided to visit the country to see firsthand the fruits of the ARA’s labors.

An American in Warsaw – Herbert Hoover visiting Polish war orphans in 1946

Ultimate Honors – The Barefoot March
Hoover arrived in Warsaw on August 14, 1919. By this time, the ARA’s efforts had resulted in half a million Poles being fed each day. Among the most grateful were children who decided to pay Hoover the ultimate respect during his visit. At a horse racing track in Warsaw, tens of thousands of barefoot children, marched past Hoover. Many of the children waved small American flags. The procession lasted from the early afternoon into the evening. This outpouring of gratitude moved Hoover to tears. It also motivated him to even greater action. After what he saw in Warsaw, Hoover ordered that 700,000 pairs of shoes and overcoats be shipped to Polish children in need. At the same time, the ARA continued to provide meals. Their work saved innumerable lives. It is estimated that the kitchens they setup may have served as much as 500 million meals. While that number was astounding, it pales in comparison ti its result. None of this would have been possible without Hoover’s efforts. The Poles could not think him enough, but they certainly tried in the years to come.

In 1922 Hoover became the first foreigner granted national citizenship by the Polish Legislative Assembly. That same year Herbert C. Hoover Square was also designated with a Monument to American Gratitude erected in the square. The sculpture did not directly reference Hoover. Instead, it was of a mother holding a child on each of her shoulders. Hoover would have approved. He came from modest circumstances, growing up in a Quaker household. His greatest satisfaction came from helping others in need, something he would do once again for Poland after Germany invaded it 20 years later. Hoover once again spearheaded a relief effort. He led the Commission for Polish Relief to assist a population ravaged by war. After the Germans declared war on the United States in December 1941, Hoover focused his efforts on helping Poles who had fled to other countries.

Destined For Greatness – Herbert Hoover in Warsaw with Prime Minister & famed pianist Ignac Paderewski and military leader Jozef Pilsuski

A Necessary Corrective – Do No Wrong
After World War II ended, Hoover came back to Warsaw for a final visit to help organize yet another relief effort. It was a fine example of Hoover’s tireless efforts to lead by action. His four historic visits in twenty-seven years were the public face of an effort that required incredible administrative skills. The upshot was that Hoover probably saved more Polish lives than any foreigner in 20th century Polish history. His work was based upon kindness and generosity. Hoover’s Polish relief efforts were a masterstroke of soft diplomacy, winning over the hearts and minds of Poles through humanitarian efforts.

In turn, the Poles helped provide a bulwark against Bolshevism, which they would beat back in the Polish-Soviet War in 1919-20. It is questionable if the Poles would have been successful without the American Relief Administration aid that was sent to them. That aid made Hoover a legendary figure in the country. It is little wonder that his name can still be seen in Warsaw today. To Poles, both then and now, Hoover could do no wrong. A necessary corrective to his historical image in America of a president who could do no right. Herbert Hoover was one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century. His work on behalf of Poland is one of the great unknown legacies of an astonishing life.

Click here for: Live Targets – The Assassination Of King Alexander I In Marseilles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 31a)

Declarations of Independence – Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #29)

If a visitor to Krakow does not know who Tadeusz Kosciuszko was, I am sure they will after they visit Wawel Castle. Outside the royal castle stands a statue of Kosciuszko on horseback. The pose is highly charismatic, with Kosciuszko gazing off into the distance as he waves his hat. The steed he is riding prepares to rear upwards. The bronze statue is a delightful work, one that adds to the royal ambiance that pervades the Castle and accompanying grounds. It is fitting that Kosciuszko’s statue retains a prominent place at Poland’s greatest national shrines. He fought for Polish independence at a time when all hope seemed lost. Kosciuszko’s life was coterminous with the partition of Poland between the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian Empires during the late 18th century. Though Kosciuszko’s efforts failed, he kept alive the flame of Polish liberty during some of its darkest days.

After a failed revolt against Tsarist Russian rule in 1794, Kosciuszko was imprisoned in St. Petersburg. In 1796 he was released from prison and sent into what would turn out to be permanent exile from his beloved homeland. Unlike other exiled revolutionaries, Kosciuszko held citizenship in another country, the United States. He had earned citizenry through meritorious service during the American Revolution. Kosciuszko had performed feats of engineering that helped the American colonists defeat the British. The Americans never forgot Kosciuszko’s invaluable assistance to their war effort. I realized this when I discovered another important site dedicated to the memory of Kosciuszko. This one could not have been more different from the equestrian statue in Krakow. An ocean away from Poland, in another place synonymous with freedom, stands the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia. It preserves the boarding room where Kosciuszko spent part of 1796-1797 before he returned to Europe.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia (Credit: Victoria Staffenberg/NP Gallery)

Poetic Justice – The Freedom Fighter
The National Parks have been called America’s best idea. They are also said to be a uniquely American idea. While this is true, in many cases they also tell stories of immigrants, including those from Eastern Europe. The most famous of these is the Ellis Island National Monument in New York harbor. Conversely, one of the least known is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. That might have something to do with its size. The National Memorial is the smallest of the 425 units that makeup part of the National Park System in the United States. It is easy to overlook. Though it is only a five minute walk from one of the most visited National Park units in the nation – Independence National Historical Park (NHP) – few are aware of its existence. With the site only open on weekends, it can be difficult to access. My wife and I were lucky enough to visit it on a summer afternoon.

It is poetic justice that a site dedicated to Kosciuszko is administered by Independence NHP. His life spanned the fight for freedom on two continents. What better place than a site synonymous with liberty for the Kosciuszko National Memorial to be associated. While the National Memorial may be small, the place it protects tells a much larger story. Kosciuszko’s life represents the pursuit of independence, something he never stopped fighting for, even when he was half a world away in the United States. Kosciuszko’s second and final journey to America in 1796 was met with great fanfare. When he arrived at the harbor in Philadelphia, he was met by chants of “Long live Kosciuszko” from an adoring crowd that had come to welcome a returning hero. The crowd was so enamored with Kosciuszko, that they unhitched the horse that was supposed to pull his carriage into the city. They then pulled the carriage themselves. Only a few months earlier, Kosciuszko had been a prisoner in Russia, now he was being feted as a national hero in America. Such were the extremes of life for this Polish patriot.

Enshrined in Bronze – Kosciuszko Statue at Wawel Castle (Credit: Poeticbent)

Preserving Polish Patriotism – A Memorial To Memory
Once he settled in at his lodging, Kosciuszko used his contacts in Congress to arrange a meeting with the French consul. Kosciuszko wanted to arrange a meeting with Napoleon when he returned to Europe. The French were the Poles’ best bet when in creating an alliance that could advance their interests. Kosciuszko’s stay in Philadelphia was not for long. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most famous physician in America, advised him to leave the city to avoid a deadly epidemic of yellow fever. After visiting friends and colleagues from his service in New Jersey and New York during the American Revolution, Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia after the epidemic subsided. It was during this time that he rented a room on the second floor of a Mrs. Relf’s Boarding House on Pine Street. The room could only hold a handful of people at one time. I can vouch for its small size. While the room may be small, it is also quite intimate.

To think that one of the greatest Poles in history spent several months here is mind boggling. The fact that the room has been preserved as a National Park unit is heartening. Whomever decided the site was worth preserving had their heart in the right place. Kosciuszko may have been at the wrong place at the wrong time in Poland, but in the United States he was in the right place. He bided his time here, collecting backpay that Congress had voted for his service during the American Revolution. He then sailed back to Europe in 1797. Kosciuszko’s American adventure was over, but never quite forgotten. In 1972 Mrs. Relf’s boarding house became a unit of the National Park system. It brought much needed attention to a man whose name had been lost to American history.

Leading the Charge – Thaddeus Kosciuszko (Credit: Juliusz Kossak)

Life Everlasting – An American Honor
Kosciuszko would live another seventeen years after he left America. Unfortunately, he would not see the resurrection of Poland or freedom for its citizenry. He died in Switzerland at the age of 54, never returning to his native Poland until his remains were sent to Wawel Castle. The fight for Polish independence would outlive Kosciuszko, finally being realized at the end of World War I. As a Polish patriot, Kosciuszko would have been proud. He would also have been proud to know that the National Park system was preserving his former residence in perpetuity. It is said that nothing lasts forever, but the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial just might.

A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

The Bezdany Raid came to me as a gift, falling into my mind on a mid-winter’s day. Like the most fascinating aspects of history, it left me wanting to learn more. The raid was Eastern European history at its finest, shrouded in obscurity, a lesser known mystery. I knew the main man behind it, Jozef Pilsudski, that great Polish patriot and founder of modern Poland. What I did not know was how the raid at Bezdany brought Pilsudski and several others to prominence. It had also led to the development of a viable Polish military force. All this from the robbery of a single treasury train on the frontiers of the Vilna Governorate (present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). This information came to me, as so many things do, while I was reading about something entirely different. The path to Bezdany started with Ekaterine “Kato” Svanidze (Joseph Stalin’s first wife). Svanidze’s story led me to the famous 1907 Bolshevik Bank Robbery in Tiflis (present day Tbilisi, Georgia). Then the Tiflis robbery brought up the subject of other famous turn of the 20th century robberies in Eastern Europe. That was where I stumbled upon the Bezdany Raid.

The Power of Place - Bezdonys Train Station

The Power of Place – Bezdonys Train Station (Credit: Aleksandrs Timofejev)

Staying Power – Living On The Edge
My path to the Bezdany Raid was short and serpentine, simple and sublime. I had not planned on reading about anything other than Stalin’s first wife and her death from typhus. In the process, I found a reference to the Tiflis Bank Robbery which Stalin helped mastermind. This landmark historical event provided the Bolshevik movement with badly needed funding. The robbery was also illustrative of the extremes to which men like Stalin would go to in support of their ideological values. Little did I know that Pilsudski would do much the same thing. The difference is that Pilsudski and his fellow Poles’ actions are viewed as supporting a worthy cause, an independent Poland free from foreign occupation. Maybe that was why I found the raid so fascinating and decided to write about it. In my opinion, Pilsudski and the Poles were the good guys, lovable underdogs who risked their lives for an admirable ideal – the Polish nation – which is still with us today.

Speaking of today, the sleepy little village of Bezdonys, Lithuania (in Polish it is known as Bezdany thus the name of the raid) is still there awaiting rediscovery. While the village is within an easy of commute of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, the size and scale of the place looks to have changed little over the past century. It also has one attraction of interest to anyone intrigued by the life and legacy of Pilsudski, its railway station. The station’s exterior has changed since the early 20th century, but it is likely the same sub-structure and stands in the same place as its predecessor. The fact that a railway station still operates in Bezdonys is worth noting. If nothing else, it is a symbol of staying power. This despite massive geo-political upheavals that have seen Bezdonys change from Russian to Polish to Soviet to Lithuanian territory in little over a century. Lithuanians and Poles have a litany of historical grievances, but what happened with the Bezdany Raid is not one of them. Throwing off the Russian imperial yoke was in both their interests. As for the village today, it remains forgettable and obscure. That, along with its historical value, put it on my travel radar.

Pilsudski's & Poland's Past - Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Pilsudski’s & Poland’s Past – Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Back To The Start – A Product of the Imagination
A bit of research showed me that I could visit Bezdonys to relive or reconstruct the robbery. Following the trail of this obscure and important history would be a trip to remember. Such an immediate undertaking was out of the question, but that did not stop me from imagining a trip to Bezdonys. My eventual goal would be to stand where Pilsudski and his accomplices made the heist that was integral to creating a free and independent Poland. It was worth a visit, if not in the flesh, at least within the realm of imagination. And let’s face it, every journey starts somewhere in the imagination. Making imagination into reality is as much a matter of belief as it is of having enough time or money for travel. Would I really spend several thousand dollars traveling to Lithuania to visit a railway station in a non-descript village halfway around the world just because something historically important happened in and around there? Absolutely.

The railway station that stands today in Bezdonys looks much the same as the one that preceded it a century ago, a one-story structure that stands adjacent to railroad tracks. The present station has a much more striking exterior than the earlier iteration. Most of it is painted a dark yellow, with brown trim around the bottom and topped by a bright red roof that has two chimneys protruding from it. The rustic looking station fits well with the area. This is a land of deep forests, serpentine watercourses and small lakes. The kind of terrain that lends itself to hiding out. It is also land that has not changed much since the early 20th century. The landscape is as important as the station in understanding how Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators were able to escape from the authorities.

Those looking to get an idea of what Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators experienced on the historic night of September 26th, should focus their energies on the surrounding area as much as the railway station. While the station is obviously important, it has also been revamped. Pilsudski spent less than an hour at the station, whereas he spent the rest of the night and early morning hours making his way through the forests back to safety. The woods offer people like me a path back to the past. I could see myself traveling to Bezdonys on a late autumn evening in the future. It would be best to visit at the same time of year as when the raid occurred, this way I could experience the woods and waterways just as Pilsudski did. Standing within sight of the train station, I could listen for the whistle of an approaching train then plunge into the woods. From there I would attempt to make my way back to the outskirts of Vilnius.

Train Spotting - Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

Train Spotting – Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

A Mad Enterprise – The Trackless Trail
Of course, following the trackless trail of the Bezdany Raid is a mad enterprise.  By turns, insane and inane, the kind of passion pursued by a person who knows plenty about the past except what it really felt like. A passion that only a delusional and devoted history buff looking not only for accuracy, but also authenticity would care to undertake. The idea of traversing Lithuanian woods at night, wading through watercourses and stumbling through the backyards of people who could not begin to fathom my objective would be foolhardy in the extreme. Then again so was the Bezdany Raid and look at how that turned out.

Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

It is one thing to commit a crime, it is quite another to get away with it. With the gift of hindsight, most historians view the Bezdany Raid/Train Robbery by Jozef Pilsudski and his 19 fellow conspirators as a justifiable crime. There was no other way for the future father of modern Poland and his fellow Polish nationalists to find the funding necessary to support development of a military force that might one day free Poland. Historical perspective shows the raid as a great success, but nothing was assured at the time. As soon as Pilsudski and his men disappeared into the darkness of the countryside surrounding Bezdany (present day Bezdonys Lithuania), Russian authorities and Cossack soldiers were hunting for them. Escape was not inevitable for the Poles, while the consequences of getting caught would likely result in death. Pilsudski knew he and his co-conspirators faced long odds of survival, let alone ultimate success. Nonetheless, as they scattered into the night each hoped to live and fight another day. It is amazing how many did.

From beginning to end, the train robbery in Bezdany was supposed to last no longer than 45 minutes. The signal to take the money and literally run occurred when the next train – an hour behind the treasury train – due to arrive at the station came within earshot. When Pilsudski heard its whistle blowing, he called his men off. It was time to make for the exits, which in this case consisted of woods and wilderness, marshes, rivers and two tracks. The Poles melted away into the countryside. It was easy to get out of sight, not so easy to get out of mind. Soon there would be Cossack soldiers scouring the roads and paths in an all-out effort to capture the conspirators. Some took a boat to Riga in Latvia, others found their way through the darkness to safe havens, miraculously nearly all the men – save one – evaded capture that night.

Impenetrable - Forest on the edge of Bezdonys

Impenetrable – Forest on the edge of Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

A Harrowing Escape – The Flight To Safety
Robbing the train at Bezdany was much easier than getting the stolen money to a safe place. Some of the robbery’s proceeds were taken away on horseback, but the majority were carted away by Pilsudski and a veteran of his movement. They made their way slowly along the poor roads. The two wheeled cart buckled under the weight of over a thousand pounds of silver coins. The horse pulling the cart was moving incredibly slow. Pilsudski and his colleague were not far behind. Their ultimate destination was a cabin where Aleksandra and another woman awaited. The two men fought fear, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion the entire way. If Cossack horsemen located them, there would have been no escape. It would have been a virtual death sentence for Pilsudski. Fortunately, the Cossacks went in the wrong direction when setting off for the Poles. This mistake likely saved Pilsudski’s life. That did not make his ordeal any easier.

After several harrowing hours in the darkness well before dawn, they made it to safety. Seeing Aleksandra must have been a great relief for Pilsudski, but this also meant much more had to be done. Several holes were dug where the proceeds were hidden away. Then Aleksandra and Pilsudski took a train toward Kiev. They were lucky to get out of the Vilna Govenorate alive. The Russian authorities were casting a wide net in trying to capture Pilsudski, who was fast becoming one of the most wanted men in Russia. From there it was on to Krakow and the relatively liberal lands of the Austro-Hungarian ruled part of partitioned Poland. It would not be until winter that Aleksandra, but not Pilsudski, returned with several others to dig up the buried treasure outside of Vilno (present day Vilnius Lithuania). It was a long trip that proved emotionally and physically exhausting for Aleksandra. The ground was frozen solid, causing no end of difficulty with the excavation. Then the coins and currency were packed and hidden in luggage that miraculously was transported all the way back to Krakow. When all was said and done, the money proved to be enough to support the development of a Polish military force. Ironically, the money taken during the robbery may well have been worth less than the publicity.

Into the wild - Landscape around Bezdonys

Into the wild – Landscape around Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

Fame & Misfortune – Polish Patriots & Prisoners
Sensational news reports of the robbery went out across Russia and Europe. Many of these were grossly exaggerated, providing Pilsudski and the Polish cause free publicity. While the monetary total of the robbery according to Pilsudski’s own accounting was 200,000 rubles, newspapers inflated that figure by a factor of five. Pilsudski quickly achieved superhero status, both at home and abroad. He became the face of Polish nationalism and resistance, living proof of what could be achieved through grit and guile. Those in the Polish Socialist Party who had questioned his courage and credentials were silenced. From this time forward, Pilsudski became the main figure in the movement to overthrow Russian rule. The image of a Polish David standing up to the Russian Imperial Goliath fit a narrative that had many in Europe cheering for the underdog. None of this would have been possible without the Bezdany Raid.

What became of the other men involved in the train robbery? In the early morning hours after the raid, one man was caught. An intense interrogation followed his arrest, but he could not provide very many helpful details to the authorities. The plan had kept many of those involved nameless, compartmentalizing the damage and keeping the conspirators mostly anonymous to one another. Eventually 5 of the 20 people involved would be apprehended. They were sentenced to an icy exile in Siberia which would not end until after the Russian revolution. Three of the conspirators – Tomasz Arciszewki, Aleksander Prystor and Walery Slawek – went on to become Prime Ministers of Poland after the nation was reconstituted following World War One.

Complete Focus - Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Complete Focus – Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Springboard To Power – The Legacy Of Bezdany
As for Pilsudski, he was blessed over the coming years with more successes than setbacks. He lived to first see an independent Poland reconstituted and then ruled over it as a virtual dictator. The Bezdany Raid was the springboard that elevated Pilsudski to a position as the most powerful Pole in modern history. It is quite possible that no other figure in modern history ever benefited as much as Pilsudski did from armed robbery. His role in the Bezdany Raid created a legend and eventually a nation.

Click here for: A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

Making Out Like Bandits – Pilsudski’s Hoard: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Two)

Waiting is supposed to be the hardest part before undertaking acts of subterfuge. That was not exactly the case for Jozef Pilsudski when it came to the train robbery that he and his fellow co-conspirators (operating as a bojowki – small combat organization) planned to carry out in 1908. The daunting logistical challenges of procuring people and weapons, as well as planning everything down to the last detail led to a series of delays. This was understandable because the operation was going to be a matter of life and death. Life for Polish nationalism or death for the conspirators. With so much on the line, the timetable shifted from spring to summer then to autumn. Unspoken was the fact that Pilsudski, sequestered in the countryside outside of Wilno with Aleksandra, was enjoying the love of his life. He was not in any great hurry to see the plan through. After a succession of delays, Pilsudski and his closest colleagues decided to move forward with their covert operation at the start of autumn.  Unfortunately, things did not quite go according to plan.

Freedom Fighters - Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Freedom Fighters – Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Shrouded In Darkness – Learning From Failure
Without the benefit of modern street lighting, it is easy to forget just how dark it can be in the countryside at night. Just try to imagine finding your way along a marshy road in the Lithuanian countryside during the early 20th century. On the night of Saturday, September 19th, there was only the sliver of a waning crescent moon to guide the way. It is not surprising that many of the Poles involved in the first train robbery attempt got lost. They were traversing a landscape shrouded in darkness with little more than their senses to guide them. A deliberate decision was made not to use torchlight due to the fear of being discovered by Russian police. Along the poor roads they lost their way, wandering down a shadowy path to nowhere. Many of the conspirators were at a loss on how to find their way to the marshaling point near the station.

To make matters worse, a cart transporting bombs that would be used to disable the train got bogged down in the muck. There was no chance that it could get close to the station in time for an attack. Pilsudski made the wise decision to abort the attempt and try again a week later. In retrospect, the aborted attempt turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It helped Pilsudski and his co-conspirators refine their plan. They learned that traveling at night was difficult at best. Plans were made to start moving towards the staging areas during daylight hours. The cart, which was to carry the bombs and take away the loot, was reinforced to hold a heavier load. Everyone now knew exactly where they needed to be and how much time to allot for travel. The conspirators had also been fortunate, no suspicions had been raised during the aborted attempt. In the failure of the first attempt, lay the seeds for a successful second one.

Wanted Man - Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Wanted Man – Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Waiting On A Train – Bombs Away
All the conspirators were ready and willing to carry out the plan once again. As it had been envisioned, six men would take over the station and hold those inside at bay while four men would attack the train with bombs and disable the postal car where the money was held. Four were to get money out of the postal car. Another man was in charge of driving the one horse, two wheeled cart. Finally, three women including Pilsudski’s beloved Aleksandra were to ensure the money was stored in a safe hiding place. To say the operation was complex, did not do it justice. Pulling the robbery off would take courage and a lot of luck. It remained to be seen whether Pilsudski and his team were up to the challenge.

A week after the first failed attempt, Pilsudski and his conspirators were back at it on the evening of Saturday, September 26th. At 10:30 p.m., just as the train was pulling into Bedzany station, the Poles sprang into action. A couple of bombs were thrown at the postal and escort cars, immediately shattering the windows and knocking out any artificial lighting inside. Three of the conspirators were already in the station. They, along with a couple of other colleagues who soon joined them, subdued police and kept control of the stunned crowd of bystanders. The escort car held Russian troops that were unable to react in time. Shots were fired by the Poles as they entered the car. Amid the chaos, several Russian soldiers were wounded with one killed. Pilsudski was part of a small team that forced their way into the postal car with a combination of bombs and threats. They then made their way to where the money was stored.

Steel Will - Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today

Steel Will – Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today (Credit: Sarunas Simkus)

Hard Cash – Getting Their Money’s Worth
Stepping inside the room was akin to entering a bank vault. Pilsudski immediately noticed numerous bags holding coins, there would turn out to be fifty in all. The only problem was that these bags held silver coins much less valuable than gold ones. To make a financial windfall on the robbery would mean having to carry off a couple thousand pounds of silver coins. There was no way the lone two wheeled cart could hold this heavy of a load. Easier pickings, such as bank notes, were problematic as well.  Those that were discovered had the cashiers signature missing. It had been trimmed off the notes, making them useless other than for the deposit in the Russian treasury.

The Poles luck was not all bad. In another part of the postal car, they discovered some metal boxes with the proceeds from ticket sells. Several of these were opened with the help of small bombs or dynamite. Best estimates of the value of coins and currency stolen during the robbery was 200,000 Russian rubles, the equivalent of 10 million dollars in today’s terms. Pilsudski and his team had not stolen as much as they hoped. Nevertheless, the total would be enough to provide a great deal of financing for the development of Polish military forces, but first the conspirators had to elude arrest in a countryside that would soon be crawling with Russian troops.

Click here for: Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part One)

Try to imagine that after Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch carried out one of their successful train robberies in the American West, they had then used the stolen money to go into politics. Their political careers rise as they make their way toward the American presidency. Cassidy, Kid Curry and other outlaw luminaries then pass the presidency among themselves for many years. Such a tale seems far-fetched, to the point of fantasy. While this never happened in the United States, something similar did occur in Poland. In 1908 twenty Polish revolutionaries, including three future prime ministers, organized and carried out a train robbery in what was then the Russian Empire (present-day eastern Lithuania). The Tsarist government labeled the perpetrators as outlaws and failed to hunt most of them down. The successful raid supplied the revolutionaries with financial resources to help build a Polish military force that could liberate Poland from foreign occupation. At the same time, it helped the group’s leader make a name for himself while establishing his legitimacy as a man who would back up his words with action. The leader of this group was none other than the one man most responsible for the creation of an independent Poland exactly a decade later, Jozef Pilsudski.

Jozef Pilsudski - Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Jozef Pilsudski – Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Career Moves – Working On The Railroad
Bezdonys stands 30 kilometers northwest of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Bezdonys is what it has always been, a small rural village (population 743) where the slow pace of life matches the pace of progress. Even as Vilnius has grown and crept closer, Bezdonys has remained little more than a wide spot in the road. In the early 20th century, the village was a wide spot on the railroad, inhabited by peasants who worked the land around it. There was nothing especially notable about the village except for the fact that the Warsaw – St Petersburg Railroad ran through it. Built forty years before, the railroad brought a bit of modernity to a traditional society. The railroad also brought an opportunity for bojowki – Polish combat teams created by Pilsudski – to commit robberies that could help fund an independent Polish military force.

In 1908, the cool autumn air of Bezdany (as it was then known by its Polish name) was pierced by the shrill whistle of locomotives on Tuesday and Saturday evenings. The whistle came from treasury trains stopping at Bezdany station while on their way to St. Petersburg. The trains, which also carried passengers and the postal mail, were transporting tax revenues and other money out of Poland back to the Russian capital. One bojowki unit led by Pilsudski began to formulate a plan to rob the train and acquire a financial windfall. This was an exceedingly dangerous enterprise. If it was discovered, the Poles would either face exile or execution. Pilsudski knew the dangers that he and his force faced, but he was determined to try for another reason besides the money. There were questions within the Polish Socialist Party whether he would be willing to risk his own safety. In the past, he had always recruited other Poles to carry deadly missions in support of his dream to end Tsarist Russia’s suffocating rule over Vilna Governorate (a Russian administered region of partitioned Poland roughly coinciding with present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). Pilsudski was now willing to take matters into his own hands.

Jozef Pilsudski - The Young Revolutionary

Jozef Pilsudski – The Young Revolutionary

Months In The Making – Suspicion & Surveillance
Trying to rob a train in the Vilna Governorate was not easy. The Russian Empire’s Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) were constantly on the lookout for revolutionaries. They had good reason to keep a vigilant eye on the Poles. There had been several mass uprisings – most prominently in 1831 and 1863 – by Poles against Tsarist rule since the Russians had established control over the area following the Napoleonic Wars. Polish nationalists like Pilsudski were constantly under suspicion and surveillance. He had already been sent into Siberian exile for helping lead protests. Pilsudski knew that if he were caught trying to coordinate and carry out a robbery to help fund military activities that it would almost certainly cost him and his co-conspirators their lives. Fear was not enough to stop him. His critics in the Polish independence movement stated that up to this point, Pilsudski had not personally put his own life on the line for the cause. Pilsudski vowed that he would rather die for the cause of Polish independence then to live as a virtual slave under Tsarist rule.

The coordination and planning of the treasury train robbery was months in the making. Twenty Poles would be involved, three of whom were female. This included Pilsudski’s mistress, lifelong love and eventual second wife, Aleksandra Szczerbinska. She would prove crucial to the robbery’s ultimate success. The first decision was where to attempt the robbery. The most likely place was somewhere close to Pilsudski’s hometown of Wilno (present day Vilnius). Attempting the robbery in the city was out of the question due to the presence of Russian troops. Instead, it was decided to ambush the train at its second stop beyond Wilno, at the village station in Bezdany. There were only a handful of police for the entire village. Taking over the station and disabling the telegraph and telephone lines was of paramount importance. This would make it difficult for anyone to call for help. Even after a call for help went out, Russian soldiers would not be able to respond immediately. Pilsudski and his team then selected the 1908 as the best time to carry out their plan.

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find - Aleksandra Szczerbinska

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find – Aleksandra Szczerbinska

Risk Management – The Importance Of Luck
The where and when of the robbery was comparatively easy to decide. A more difficult challenge would be to coordinate everyone’s involvement. Pilsudski and his closest colleagues were careful about who they selected for the robbery. Because there were twenty people involved, this meant that there would be many potential suspects for the Russians to interrogate if anyone was caught. Information was compartmentalized and many of the conspirators had no idea who was involved or their identities. This way there was less chance that someone could sell the entire group out to the police. While Pilsudski and his confidantes minutely planned every detail, they were taking a massive risk. Success and failure in such an enterprise was a matter of execution and timing. And there was always the element of luck. Fortunately, luck was with Pilsudski and the Poles.

Click here for: Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train (Part One)