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.

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)