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)