February 14, 2008

Jan Ziniewicz' Longest Night

Last night, 62 years ago, the glorious city of Dresden was turned into a heap of rubble.

I would like to post a little memorial beyond any "It wasn't our fault, we poor Germans have all been hijacked by some evil Nazi aliens" whining and "Bomber Harris Do It Again" self-hatred.

This is about a survivor of the bombing, a young Polish man named Jan Ziniewicz, and about hope.

To appropriately explain who Jan Ziniewicz was (or is, he may well be still alive) I have to digress.

Breeding pure Arabian horses had a 400-year tradition in Poland already when Germany raided Poland in 1939. In 1817, after the Congress of Vienna on the initiative of Administrative Council of the Congressional Kingdom of Poland, Janów Podlaski, the first and most important Polish state-stud was founded and it was mainly from here that the Arabian horse, gentrified by Polish breeding genius, went to pass on its beauty, toughness, athletic ability and kind disposition to the indigenous breeds of Europe.

More than 80 percent of Janów's horses had perished in the war campaign of 1939 already. In 1944, as the Sovjet army was approaching the River Bug, the German Command ordered an evacuation of the horses. The farm, including its staff, was relocated to Sohland in Saxony where it remained until February 1945. With them were the stars among the stallions, the half-brothers Witraz and Wielki Szlem – and Jan Ziniewicz, their groom.

The evacuation continued westward when the Russian army crossed the River Oder. Arriving in Dresden on the night of February 13th, 1945, the entire group of 80 stallions were swallowed by the firebrand that destroyed the city. More than half of the stallions were lost in this pandemonium, a fate that certainly would have befallen Witraz and Wielik Szlem, had it not been for the courage and determination of Jan Ziniewicz. With Witraz' reins in one hand and Wielki Szlem's in the other, the slip of a lad (as he was described) held tight to his treasured charges throughout the entire horrific ordeal. He didn't let it go, the pride and the future of the Polish Arabian breed, not among fire, bombs and dying people, not when Witraz's tail caught fire, not when his hands were chafed to raw meat and not when he must have realized that he was very probably going to die.

But he didn't.

Stud manager young Dr. Andrzej Krzysztalowicz (1915 – 1998), later to become Janów's Director from 1958 to 1991, arrived early the next morning, riding another one of the stud's priceless stars, Amurath Sahib, to find his two precious stallions deeply upset, but basically unharmed. Of 80 stallions 38 survived, 22 were found dead and 20 were never found at all. When he rode along the 22 dead bodies of his stallions, it can be safely assumed that he wept.

Mares and foals had remained unharmed. They had arrived only after the firebrand because of the slow travelling speed imposed by the presence of very young foals.

The horses, including Witraz and Wielki Szlem, were repatriated to Poland in 1946. They were to establish historic legacies of unmatched importance to their breed, not just in Poland but all over the world.

On October 30, 2005, the Frauenkirche, Dresden's landmark and most glorious architectural gem, was consecrated anew after more than a decade of rebuilding, helped by donations from Britain and the United States.

Jan Ziniewicz with Almifar (Witraz' grandson) and Czort (Wielki Szlem's son). Judging from the birthdates of the stallions, the picture must have been taken in the early Sixties.

My thanks for this picture go to Betty Finke, one of the greatest experts on Arabian horses alive.

Added February 13, 2016:
Günter Blobel, a German-born American, saw the original Frauenkirche as a child when his refugee family took shelter in a town just outside of Dresden days before the city was bombed. In 1994, he became the founder and president of the nonprofit "Friends of Dresden, Inc.," a United States organization dedicated to supporting the reconstruction, restoration and preservation of Dresden's artistic and architectural legacy. In 1999, Blobel won the Nobel Prize for medicine and donated the entire amount of his award money (nearly US$1 million) to the organization for the restoration of Dresden, to the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche and the building of a new synagogue. It was the single largest individual donation to the project.