If you get lost in the woods, leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Don’t stay out after dark. Don’t talk to strangers.
The schoolboy is walking along Warsaw’s ulica Naruszewicza with two friends. It is the afternoon of 22 January 1957. Snow is on the ground.
The three boys are on their way home from St Augustine High School for their dinners. St Augustine is a good private school, one of the very few in Communist Poland. Its students are the sons of important men.
The schoolboy is fifteen-years-old. His dark hair is combed back from his forehead in a pomaded shell. He carries his school books in a brown leather briefcase. He wears a herringbone overcoat and winter boots with white laces.
It is 13:50. At the intersection of Naruszewicza with ulica Wejnerta a tall man with a briefcase approaches the boys.
“Which one of you is Piasecki?”
The schoolboy steps forward. The man takes a piece of paper from his case and shows it to him. The schoolboy silently accompanies the man to a nearby taxi rank on Wejnerta. He does not look back at his friends.
Generic Soviet City
In 1957 there are few private cars in Warsaw. Poland has always been a poor country and ten years of Communism have made it poorer. People ride the trams. The lucky ones have bicycles.
Few cars, much destruction. In 1957 the city is still being rebuilt after the war. The Poles rose up against the occupying Nazis in 1944, with only ten months left on the clock of World War II. They banked on Russian help that did not arrive. After their defeat Hitler ordered every building and monument in Warsaw destroyed by dynamite. On the west side of the Vistula less than twenty percent of the city survived. Only the Praga district, on the east bank, escaped. The Soviet Army waited there on Stalin’s orders and watched the Poles lose the battle.
Rebuilding is slow. The government dedicates its most enthusiastic efforts to symbolism. The Stare Miasto (Old Town) has been recreated to the smallest detail, as a gesture of contempt to the Germans who blew it up. In the centre of Warsaw the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (the Palace of Culture and Science), a bristling Soviet skyscraper that looks like a geometrically perfect wedding cake, towers over the city. Its stonework is the colour of old champagne. A gift from Stalin, it was finished the year after his death. The Poles hate it.
A popular joke:
Q. Where is the best view of Warsaw?
A. From the top of the Palace of Culture.
Q. Why there?
A. Because it’s the only place in Warsaw you can’t see the Palace of Culture.
The Palace is beautiful as Versailles compared to the grey Soviet housing blocks emerging from the ruins elsewhere in the city. Utilitarian and totalitarian, they seem to have been designed purely to crush the spirit.
The schoolboy and the man walk to a taxi waiting on Wejnerta. Another man waits there. The three talk and get into the taxi. The taxi drives away along Warsaw’s notoriously poor roads. The schoolboy’s name is Bohdan Piasecki. No-one will ever see him again.
If you get lost in the woods, leave a trail of breadcrumbs.
A Man of God
Bohdan’s father missed the kidnappers’ call. He was at the Ministry of the Interior begging them to find his son when a man rang the family home at 16:00 and spoke to an assistant.
Piasecki senior had been told of the abduction by his youngest son Jarosław. The two schoolboys with Bohdan had returned to St Augustine High School, waited until Jarosław finished his class, then told him what had happened.
Neither of the boys was sure what they had witnessed. Were the men kidnappers, policemen, or chauffeurs? In Poland, during 1957, anything was possible.
Bohdan’s father was Bolesław Piasecki. He was an important man. In late 1945, the brief cloud-break between wartime and the arrival of a Soviet-backed dictatorship, Piasecki had formed the Progressive Catholics. The organisation was small and elitist. Its purpose was to convince Catholics they had nothing to fear by voting for the Polish Communist party. The group printed newspapers (notably ‘Dziś i Jutro’ – Today and Tomorrow) and pamphlets, campaigned against priests who criticised the Soviet Union, and arranged payoffs for the loyal.
When Poland became a Communist state in 1947, Piasecki was rewarded by the new authorities. The Progressive Catholics morphed into PAX, bigger but still unashamedly elitist. In the People’s Republic of Poland it should quickly have become an irrelevance, just like the democratic elections the government decided were no longer necessary. Atheist propaganda filled the newspapers, priests were harassed, churchgoers persecuted. Who needed a Soviet-friendly Christian organisation?
But the Poles remained loyal Catholics. The Catholic Church refused to bow to the new state and became a rallying point for anti-Communists. By the early 1950s Moscow and its puppets in Warsaw had abandoned their efforts to destroy the Church and settled for controlling it. The religious group they had set up as a favour to Piasecki now became an important weapon in the cultural war for Poland’s soul.
PAX positioned itself as an alternative hierarchy for the Church, advising priests and suggesting new policy. It became a dog collar round the Church’s neck, transmitting its master’s will. Always threatening to choke.
Piasecki occasionally protested PAX’s independence. He had started the organisation in a barely standing flat along ulica Marszałkowska with a loan from his father-in-law. The Soviets had not helped him. PAX cared only for Poland’s future.
Few believed him. Piasecki had committed himself to Communism in 1944 when he was arrested by the Red Army. Offered a choice between collaboration and the firing squad, he chose life. Since then PAX had held the Stalinist line, no matter how it twisted. At times Piasecki seemed more extreme than the apparatchiks in Warsaw or Moscow.
More Stalinist than Stalin, more Catholic than the Pope.
A Kidnapper is Heard
The assistant did not recognise the voice on the telephone. The voice (male, no other details) told the assistant his gang had kidnapped the boy. They had left a letter for Piasecki at Post Office No. 1 in Warsaw. The phone went dead.
The letter demanded US$4,000 and 100,000zł for Bohdan’s release. Further instructions would be telephoned. If Piasecki could not raise the money he should still come to the rendezvous. A twist of the knife – he would have to wear a hat with horns on it. Horns were the emblem of the cuckold.
Piasecki was an unlikely cuckold. He was on his second wife in 1957 and regularly cheated on her. The PAX leader had been a ladies man since his days as a law student at Warsaw University in the early 1930s. Blond, good-looking apart from some pouchiness around the eyes, Piasecki was aloof, clean, and always well-dressed. In a time when hot running water was not a certainty and men stank of sweat through the armpits of aged suits, Piasecki stood out. Women liked him. Many remained loyal even after he had moved on to his next conquest.
The kidnappers knew he would not have to wear the horns. On the black market one dollar was worth about 125 złotys. The kidnappers were asking for enough money to buy five or six private cars. A high ransom but not a fortune. And PAX was cash-rich.
The Communist authorities had given PAX the freedom to set up its own business (candles, church paraphernalia, and religious books were all manufactured by Piasecki’s organisation) and, uniquely in Poland, allowed the group to keep the profits. It even had foreign currency accounts, an extraordinary luxury in a country where just a hint of free enterprise could put people in jail. Piasecki’s share of the profits made him the richest man in Poland. The government valued PAX’s support. Or at least it had until six months previously.
Piasecki packed the cash into a box and waited for the telephone call. There was some good news in the meantime. The Milicja (Militia – Poland’s police force) had arrested the taxi driver and were interrogating him. He was denying any involvement.
The kidnappers rang two days later. The cash was to be taken to the Kameralna restaurant on ulica Foksal. Father Mieczysław Suwała, a PAX employee, took the money. Two Ministry of the Interior men followed him.
At the restaurant Suwała found a matchbox containing typewritten instructions sending him to another address. The priest walked all over Warsaw carrying the box of money, continually redirected by new messages in matchboxes. The last matchbox was empty. Something had scared off the kidnappers.
Later that day they rang Piasecki again and told him a letter with fresh instructions would be found at the door of the Holy Cross Church. The letter raised the ransom and directed him to another letter waiting at the post office. PAX henchman Richard Reiffowi was sent to the post office on ulica Marszałkowska to pick it up but found nothing.
The Ministry of the Interior advised him to try again. This time he found the letter. It told Bohdan’s father to wait for further contact at the flat of Jan Dobraczyński, a PAX journalist and Piasecki’s close friend. The kidnappers said they would be in touch by the 28 January.
Piasecki never heard from them again.
An Organisation in Danger
Missing posters for Bohdan Piasecki went up around Warsaw. Police officers walked the streets, looking for the dark-haired boy. PAX newspaper ‘Słowo Powszechne’ (Universal Word) ran a piece asking its readers for help. “Height 183cm, brown hair, blue eyes, dark eyelashes, slightly upturned nose.” Anyone with information was asked to telephone the editors. There was a reward of 200,000zł.
The Ministry of the Interior had one lead. The taxi driver. They caught him the day of the kidnapping because Bohdan’s friend, Wojciech Szczesny, had remembered the taxi’s number plate (T-75-222) and told Bohdan’s brother.
“Unfortunately, this friend waited until I had finished my classes to alert me. In this way we lost valuable time,” said Jarosław Piasecki.
With a number plate the police could have put up roadblocks, chased down the kidnappers. Why had Wojciech waited until classes finished? He was the son of PAX officials and best friends with Bohdan. In the Poland of 1957 ordinary citizens might accept an abduction. It could be the Milicja, or the Soviets. Dissidents sometimes just disappeared. But Wojciech was not an ordinary citizen. His parents were part of PAX’s hierarchy. He knew that militiamen or secret policemen could not just abduct the son of the organisation’s leader. Could they?
That winter, for the first time in PAX’s history, it was possible.
PAX had been protected by the Communist establishment of Poland and, by extension, the Soviet Union, since its creation. Then, in March 1953, Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev took control. Slowly, glacially, a change came over the Eastern Bloc. In February 1956 Khrushchev gave a speech denouncing Stalin’s rule, its personality cult, and hinting at the millions of deaths that had occurred. The speech was secret but leaked around the world.
Khrushchev was not a liberal. He approved the 1953 crushing of protests in East Germany and created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as a Soviet version of NATO. But he courted popularity by releasing dissidents in the USSR and hinted that the nations of the Eastern Bloc could enjoy more independence.
These mixed signals gave encouragement to all kinds of people. In Poland criticism of the government began to be heard in 1956 from both those who hated Communism and party members who wanted reform.
Piasecki was a target of both.
A Change in Government
On 28 June 1956 workers demonstrated in Poznań. Their demands were mostly economic. Żądamy chleba (We Want Bread) was their main slogan. The government sent in the tanks. The demonstrators fought back. Over the next three days around seventy people were killed, including a thirteen-year-old boy, and hundreds arrested.
The deaths provided a focal point for dissent. There were more marches, demonstrations. Even some within the Communist establishment protested. The government looked to the Soviets for support. Khrushchev had his own problems and looked away. The Polish Communists were on their own.
Reformers within the party suggested bringing Władysław Gomułka in from the cold. Fifty-one-years-old in 1956, the bald and bat-eared Gomułka was a long-time Communist who helped rig the 1946 elections that turned Poland into a Soviet satellite. A good party man. But in the late ‘40s he expressed support for Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito’s position of independence from Moscow. Gomułka was kicked out of government and into jail. In June 1956 he had been out of prison for less than a year and a half.
The Polish people enthusiastically supported the return of Gomułka. They thought he would change everything. The hardline Stalinists in the government hated him. They congregated in the southern Warsaw suburb of Natolin to plot ways of keeping him out of power. Piasecki was with them. In mid-October he wrote an article for the PAX weekly ‘Kierunki’ (Directions) defending Stalinist strong government and attacking the demonstrators.
He chose the wrong side.
On 19 October Gomułka became First Secretary of the Party and the most powerful man in Poland. His first job was to stop the USSR sending in the tanks. Khrushchev had finally paid attention to events in Warsaw and was alarmed by what he saw. Gomułka reassured him. Poland would remain faithful to Communism.
Meanwhile, the people called for reform and liberalism. PAX was openly attacked in the newspapers. ‘Prawo i Życie’ (Law and Life, published by the Polish Lawyers’ Association) claimed Piasecki’s ‘political activities in the past as well as his latest political moves discredit him in progressive public opinion’. Even ‘Kierunki’, his own publication, distanced itself.
Some PAX leaders split from the organisation and formed an opposition group around the ‘Za i Przeciw’ (For and Against) weekly. They condemned Piasecki as an enemy of change. Andrzej Micewski, one of the splitters, called on Warsaw students to march on the PAX headquarters in ulica Mokotowska and take it over. Piasecki armed his men with revolvers and truncheons in case they came.
PAX’s opponents, inside and outside the party, licked their lips and waited for Gomułka to disband the organisation.
It did not happen.
Despite the hopes that fuelled his rise to power, Gomułka was, like Khrushchev, no liberal. The Hungarian Uprising at the end of October, only ended by a Soviet invasion, frightened him into finding common ground with his hardline opponents. He gradually shut down dissent, buying silence with limited reform.
Few Poles knew that, back in 1945, Gomułka had approved the creation of the Progressive Catholics, Piasecki’s original organisation. The new First Secretary was realist enough to know Communism could never destroy the church. Poland was a country where, as Miguel de Unamuno said of Spain, ‘even the atheists are Catholic’.
In late 1956 the Church was the loudest voice calling for liberal reform in Poland. Reform which, Gomułka knew, could destroying the Party. If he wanted to keep the church under control, PAX was still necessary. Piasecki’s association with the Natolin plotters was overlooked and, soon, his critics would be silenced. By January 1957 those who were very well connected in the Communist Party knew that PAX would probably survive.
That survival was not obvious to fifteen-year-old Wojciech Szczesny. That is why he hesitated before telling Bohdan’s brother about the kidnapping. Perhaps Gomułka had moved against Piasecki … .
Despite the delay Szczesny still had the best lead to crack the case. The taxi number plate.
A Man in a Taxi
The Milicja had arrested the driver of the taxi in the evening of 22 January, only a few hours after Bohdan was kidnapped. They had not put any effort into doing so. When Piasecki passed the taxi license plate to the Milicja they told him the number would not help to identify the driver.
Gustav Kitzman, a PAX man, headed down to the Department of Transport and quickly proved them wrong. PAX now had a name: Ignacy Ekerling. Later that evening Tadeusz Anderszewski, another PAX employee, spotted the taxi on ulica Nowy Świat. He called the Milijca. Ekerling was taken into custody.
Ignacy Ekerling was fifty-three-years-old, Jewish, and scared. He had spent the war in the Soviet Union like many Poles from the east and seemed a loyal enough citizen. He told investigators his taxi had been hired at 13:00 by a man on ulica Żelazny. He drove the fare to the regional court building on ulica Swierczewski where a second man got in. He was directed to ulica Wejnerta where the two men left the car, one standing by the boot, before they got back in with Bohdan Piasecki. He drove them back to the court building, taking a circuitous route that avoided traffic lights (and police stations), and dropped off his passengers. Then he carried on with his day. No, he couldn’t identify them. He had been concentrating on his driving.
It was a believable story. Ekerling as an ordinary man caught up in a nightmare. But it was a lie.
The Milicja had managed to locate two further witnesses to the kidnapping, a good result in Warsaw, still an under-populated city a decade after the war. Henryk Rusak, a newspaper seller, and Andrzej Nowakowski, a passerby, agreed with the two schoolboys. Ekerling was not the man driving the taxi.
Ekerling stuck to his story, even as it fell apart. At one point he told investigators that there were other people he was more scared of than them, but refused to elaborate. In February, as Piasecki waited by the telephone for the kidnappers, Ekerling was unexpectedly released. He sold his flat and requested a passport, which was granted in March. On 4 April he left Warsaw.
The Milicja informed Piasecki the taxi driver was heading for Szczecin, in the north-west. Instead, Ekerling headed for Zebrzydowice in the south-west, on the border with Czechoslovakia. It was the route commonly taken by Polish Jews emigrating to Israel. An alert PAX man spotted him there and telephoned Piasecki, who contacted the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Ministry expressed surprise, returned Ekerling to Warsaw, allowed him to work at the taxi company again, and gave him a new flat.
Henryk Rusak, the newspaper seller, told the Milicja he was being followed around Warsaw by strangers. The Milicja showed no interest.
On 28 April someone attacked Bohdan’s friend Wojciech Szczesny outside his house and told him to stay out of the Piasecki case. The experience traumatised Szczesny so much he tried to commit suicide a week later. He survived. The Milicja failed to find the attacker.
A Time of War
Back in February when Ekerling was selling his flat and Szczesny still trusted the Milicja, an article appeared in ‘Dookoła Świata’ (Around the World) magazine by the journalists Zdzisław Szakiewicza and Leszek Moczulski. It accused Bolesław Piasecki of a hoax. His son was not dead. He was living abroad with his mother.
The authors were sympathetic to the Communist establishment. Moczulski had been expelled from the party in 1950 during a power struggle but had since made peace. Clearly, some powerful people wanted their article to be heard. The story was soon all round Warsaw.
Piasecki did not act like a man whose son was safely abroad. He sat by the telephone in his home, a magnetophone recording every call, as it had done since the day of the abduction, waiting for the kidnappers. The 28 January deadline passed without contact. The vultures circled. Cranks and criminals rang, claiming they had Bohdan. PAX men chased around Warsaw after false leads, false hope.
The Milicja arrested many supposed kidnappers and discovered they were just extortionists and chancers with no knowledge of the schoolboy. Piasecki had a heart attack and was confined to bed. His wife sat by his bedside. His eldest son waited by the telephone.
Was the article true? The authors failed to do their research. Piasecki’s first wife was dead. Halina Piasecka, mother of Bohdan and Jarosław, died in August 1944 during the Warsaw Rising, the Poles’ doomed attempt to take control of their country before the German dictator fled and the Soviet dictator arrived.
A pretty, thoughtful blonde, Halina was a liaison officer for the insurgents, running messages for Lieutenant-Colonel Jan Mazurkiewicz through the rubble of Stare Miasto as German shells smashed down. She was a Protestant, unusual in Catholic Poland. Some thought Piasecki’s willingness to marry her showed religion was less important to him than he claimed.
Piasecki was not in the capital when his wife died. He had spent the German occupation fighting a separate war from the mainstream Polish resistance.
The Battle for Poland
When the German tanks rolled over the frontier on 1 September 1939, Piasecki was a recently enlisted platoon leader in the Polish army. The Poles fought bravely but they were outnumbered and outgunned. The hammer blow of the Soviet invasion in the east on 17 September was the end.
Piasecki commanded a platoon in an armoured brigade stationed in the Ochota district of central Warsaw. The Polish capital held out for three weeks (the following year Paris would capitulate after only nine days) but it fell, as all things fall. Piasecki roamed the ruins of Warsaw until he was arrested by the Gestapo at the end of October. Released after seven months, he headed for Sabnie, a village in eastern Poland, and started his own resistance movement.
The Konfederacja Narodu (National Confederation) was made up of pre-war comrades. It hid weapons, forged passes, set up camp in the woods. Its Uderzeniowych Batalionów Kadrowych (Shock Battalion Cadres) attacked both Nazi and Soviet occupying forces. After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 most Polish underground groups obeyed instructions from their London-based government-in-exile to collaborate with the Communist resistance groups now springing up. My enemy’s enemy. Piasecki attacked them instead. He hated Germans and Communists equally.
The Konfederacja Narodu’s ideological determination was not backed by military skill. Polish officer Zygmunt Koc, on the run from the Germans, encountered the Shock Battalions in the forests near Sabnie. While helping organise the military side he noticed the Nazis were moving in.
“I went to warn the commanders of Piasecki’s unit that the Germans were trying to encircle the unit, but they chose to ignore my advice. I was told that it was none of my business, that the leadership of the unit had been taken over by regular officers and my role was at an end.
“In the morning I left quite calmly, went to the nearest village, and eventually got back to Sabnie. Meanwhile, the Germans had successfully encircled the greater part of Piasecki’s unit. Of the original five hundred, only fifty men, who had been equipped with some sort of weapon, had crossed the Bug and thus evaded capture. The rest had disappeared. No word was ever heard of them again. After this episode, I left Piasecki’s organisation because I thought that Piasecki was irresponsible. The losses he was prepared to sustain were too great … .”
Piasecki rebuilt Konfederacja Narodu and continued to fight. The government-in-exile tried to put a leash on him in but he refused to listen. There were rumours he had been marked for assassination to please the Soviets.
Not true. After news reached the west of the 22,000 Poles murdered by the Soviets in the Kaytn woods, no-one was going to shoot Piasecki for killing Communists, no matter what they might say in public.
In 1943 the Konfederacja Narodu joined the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), the government-in-exile’s umbrella organisation for resistance groups. Piasecki was outside the capital when the Warsaw Rising took place the next year and his wife died. He mourned, briefly regretted his adulterous affairs, and went back to the war.
The shock battalions continued to attack the retreating Germans and the advancing Soviets until Piasecki was captured by the NKVD in November 1944. A year later the Progressive Catholics was born.
The ‘Dookoła Świata’ was wrong. Bohdan Piasecki was not abroad. Where was he?
The Past is Revealed
The article by Szakiewicza and Moczulski was among the last of its kind. By the spring of 1957 Gomułka made it clear PAX would not be disbanded. Criticism of the organisation was no longer acceptable.
In return, Piasecki wrote, or at least signed, an article in a PAX newspaper giving his support to the new government. The Stalinist Catholic was now loyal to the new liberal order in Poland. The attacks on PAX stopped by order of the Party. The organisation was back in the belly of the beast, bloody and bruised but still alive.
Piasecki had survived politically but his family worried about his health and emotional state. Fake kidnappers rang every month to extort money and give false hope. The Milicja kept arresting them. Piasecki badgered the Ministry of the Interior to continue its investigation. Autumn came. Winter. Christmas, the New Year. 1958.
In April 1958 the Ministry’s wheels finally began to turn. They re-arrested Ignacy Ekerling. The taxi driver still claimed to know nothing. The Milicja turned his flat upside down and found a notebook. Among the scribblings was a hand drawn map of the roads around St Augustine High School, the address of a doctor, Bożeny Błażewicz, whose flat overlooked the area, and four other names.
Two belonged to men who lived in buildings in which notes had been left for Piasecki by the kidnappers: Zygmunt Rodziewicz and Szyja Szewc. Compelling but not definitive evidence. Lots of people lived in those buildings. The other names belonged to members of the Security Service: Jan Kossowski, from Toruń, and a man called Kostański. The four men, all Jewish, had emigrated to Israel in the weeks after the kidnapping.
Poland’s Jewish population was estimated at around 45,000 after the war and most were as anxious to leave the Communist state as everyone else. In the early 1950s the Polish government grudgingly allowed an emigration quota of 100 a month. In July 1956 a Polish-Israeli agreement settled on 20,000 as a maximum figure and monthly departures ramped up. Between September ‘56 and January 1957 around 5,000 Jews arrived in Israel from Poland, some of them Polish, some emigrants from the Soviet Union who were using Poland as a staging post. The numbers then started to increase. By March ’57 around 100 Jews a day were leaving Poland. Possibly as many as 9,000 Jewish Poles and other nationalities emigrated to Israel during February, March, and April 1957.
There was nothing unusual in Ekerling’s contacts having left the country or in the taxi driver himself wanting to go. The gates had been opened but no-one knew for how long. Polish Jews were rushing to leave.
The two members of the Security Services might once have been loyal enough to stay in Communist Poland but their organisation had recently gone through a shake up. In 1954 the Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego (Ministry of Public Security – MBP), notorious for spying on and arresting anyone it suspected of being a subversive, was humiliated when one of its top men, Lieutenant-Colonel Józef Światło, defected to America.
In response the government split the MBP into two organisations, the Komitet do Spraw Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego (Committee for Public Safety) which continued the MBP’s spying and counter-espionage activities, and the Ministerstwo Spraw Wewnętrznych (Ministry of Internal Affairs), which controlled the Milicja, the prisons, and the border guard. When Gomułka came to power the Komitet was folded back into the Ministry and its spying section renamed Słuzba Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service – SB).
In the new liberal Poland the SB’s domestic activities were pruned. The days when there was one secret policeman for every 800 Poles were gone. No-one lost their job – there was officially no unemployment in Poland – but a lot of security men had time on their hands and the feeling the government no longer appreciated them. A good time to emigrate.
Ekerling told his interrogators he knew the names in his list only as fellow members of Warsaw’s small Jewish community, tight-knit and protective after the horrors of the Nazi occupation. He denied knowledge of anything else. He remained in prison.
Piasecki visited Ekerling in his cell. He asked about the kidnapping. The taxi driver claimed he was innocent. Piasecki offered the protection of PAX if he talked. PAX would look after him, feed him, protect him from those he feared. Piasecki gave his word of honour.
Ekerling turned him down. Piasecki may have offered protection in PAX’s castle but the prisoner, and everyone else in Poland, knew the man could not be trusted. The PAX leader would not keep his word of honour with a Jew.
Because from 1937 until the German invasion Piasecki had been the leader of Poland’s biggest Fascist movement. The Falanga had murdered Jews, planted bombs, and planned a coup. Some even believed Piasecki had collaborated with the Nazis.
A Fascist in Warsaw
The Falanga was born in a Polish prison camp. Piasecki and his comrades whispered their plan for a new Fascist movement from wooden bunk to wooden bunk as they lay exhausted after a day of forced labour.
The men were there because of their membership of Obóz Narodowo Radykalny (National Radical Camp – ONR), a radical right organisation that had made the mistake of challenging Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s dictatorship.
The Marshal had made modern Poland. The country had not existed on the map since the late eighteenth century when the once powerful commonwealth was partitioned by the empires of Germany, Russia, and Austro-Hungary. The Poles kept their nation alive as a virtual state, locking its history, language, and culture behind iron bars in their hearts. Periodic rebellions failed, although a temporary alliance with Napoleon put the Duchy of Warsaw, briefly, back on the maps.
In 1919 Poland declared independence. The First World War’s tide of blood had washed away the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian monarchs. The Poles were free. Or so they thought. Within months the Bolsheviks invaded in the name of the Proletariat and it seemed Poland was destined for more foreign domination.
Piłsudski stopped the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw and chased them out of the country. The Poles called it the Miracle on the Vistula. The Marshal became such a national hero that no-one objected much in 1926 when he took power in a coup. Even the trade unions supported the former socialist, until the Marshal made his politics clear.
‘Comrades,’ he told them, ‘I took the red tram of socialism to the stop called Independence. And that’s where I got off.’
Piłsudski’s dictatorship had a few elections and a smear of democracy but not enough to disturb his placid, authoritarian right rule. His angriest detractors were further to the right, furious he would not take Poland down a more radical path. And even more furious when he opposed their anti-Semitism.
Independent Poland did not have a clear conscience where Jewish Poles were concerned. Devout Catholicism and accusations of collaboration with the Red Army made an unpleasant mix. But the Marshal made a point of befriending the Jewish community and crushing overt anti-Semitism. When the ONR was formed in April 1934 Piłsudski was in decline but still strong enough to express his opposition.
A few months after the ONR’s creation, a Ukrainian nationalist shot dead the Minister of the Interior as he left a nightclub on ulica Foksal. The police took the opportunity to crack down on the new organisation, otherwise unconnected to the assassination. Piasecki, then a nineteen-year-old law student at the University of Warsaw, found himself shivering, starving, and beaten in the Bereza Kartuska prison camp.
He got out after three months, now certain the ONR had failed because it had not been extreme enough. The Ruch Narodowo-Radykalny (National Radical Movement – RNR) was born.
A Leader for Poland
Piasecki’s group was better known as the Falanga, after the name of its newspaper, itself influenced by the Spanish Fascist group whose mix of Catholicism and radical politics appealed to rightist Poles.
Despite its leader’s visions of himself as the next Marshal, the Falanga was a small group made up of students and the occasional rogue army officer. Members wore black berets and beige shirts with a green armband bearing the movement’s logo – a geometric arm and sword that looked like Thomas Tew’s pirate flag drawn on graph paper.
Piasecki may have had financial help from Fascist Italy. His movement seemed well-funded. It published newspapers and magazines that tried to incite revolution. It marched and held rallies. When the public showed no interest, Poland’s Fascists showed they were not afraid of violence. They planted bombs in universities that failed to adhere to Falanga quotas on Jewish students. They fought leftists and government supporters in town squares. In 1937 members attacked a left-wing May Day march in northern Warsaw’s narrow streets and shot dead a five-year-old boy.
Marshal Piłsudski had died back in May 1935 and the new administration under Edward Rydz-Śmigły was too busy squabbling over his legacy to squash the Falanga. A few of Poland’s new rulers seemed to admire the movement. In 1937 Piasecki was involved in coup attempt organised by some senior military figures. Pre-emptive arrests quietly snuffed out the plan before it could take place. Poles still debate how serious the coup plan really was; Piasecki and his men were back on the streets in days.
The Falanga carried on its plan to radicalise Polish politics. Anti-Semitism, rallies, waving revolvers in the air at meetings. Falangists were blamed for every act of violence against Jews, the government, the left. They were guilty most of the time.
A Collaborator with Germany
Piasecki put the Falanga on ice when it became clear the Nazis were planning to invade. Arrested after the fall of Warsaw he was sprung from his prison camp through the intervention of well-placed Italian Fascists with good German contacts. They knew him and his movement, and admired both.
He spent the war commanding the Konfederacja Narodu but post-war rumour claimed something darker. He had collaborated with Germans. Or he had tried to collaborate. At the least, he offered his services. Was it true?
The beating heart of the rumour was an apartment in the centre of German-controlled Warsaw. In late 1939 it housed a group of Falanga men, guests of the Nazis. Collaborators.
The main man was Andrzej Swietlicki, head of the Falanga in Warsaw. He claimed to be leader of a new organisation called Narodowej Organizacji Radykalnej (National Radical Organisation – NOR), established in October 1939. Ready and willing to help Poland’s new masters. For a few months the German military authorities kept Swietlicki and his followers on a short leash while they assessed their usefulness. The NRO even took part in an attack on Warsaw’s Jews in Easter 1940, apparently trying to impress their new masters.
Within a few months the Gestapo replaced the German military as the group’s sponsors. They considered the offer of collaboration, studied the Fuehrer’s views on untermenschen Slavs, and in August 1940 shot Swietlicki and his followers. They were not needed.
Collaboration was rarer in Poland than in other conquered nations. The Germans did not want it and the Poles hated the invaders too much. It still happened. A radio announcer who sold his soul here, a policeman who liked having the power of life and death there, even an amoral gangster like Abraham Gancwajch who terrorised fellow Jews in the Warsaw ghetto with Gestapo encouragement.
The Polish resistance put collaborators in the cross-hairs. Women who slept with Germans soldiers had their heads shaved, sometimes their faces tattooed. When Wacław Krzeptowski tried to promote the mountainous southern Podhale district as a separatist state loyal to Berlin the resistance tracked him down and his own brother put the noose around Krzeptowski’s neck.
Even years after the war accusations of collaboration were serious, shocking. Fatal. A senior Communist like Piasecki should not even be suspected of that kind of past.
Was he a collaborator? In one version Swietlicki was operating on his own initiative, out of contact with Piasecki, who was arrested by the Gestapo the same month the NOR was created. Swietlicki was just a young man who believed he could be the Polish Fuehrer. Piasecki, as flawed as a cracked mirror, was still a patriot.
That is one story. Another is that Piasecki ordered his subordinate to form the organisation and approach the Germans. Or that he was simultaneously creating a resistance movement and the NOR was a sham to protect him from the Germans. If so, it did not work. The Falanga leader was arrested by the Gestapo in October, apparently pointed out by Stanisław Brochwicz, a Polish reporter recently sprung from jail where he had been counting down the days to his execution for being a German agent. Piasecki had been the one who reported him to the Polish police in June ’39.
Sometimes the trees grow so high they block out the sun. Could a man who hunted down German spies and was arrested by the Gestapo have helped the Germans?
No-one knows. There is no documentary proof or first-hand account to show Piasecki was a collaborator. But not much proof to show the opposite.
The taxi driver refused to help the PAX leader. Bohdan remained missing.
A Schoolboy is Found
On 8 December 1958 two workmen were checking the sanitation in the basement of ulica Świerczewskiego 82A. It was a new block, rising grey and concrete from the Warsaw rubble. The workmen were surprised to find that a door off a dark corridor had been nailed shut. They broke the door open.
The room behind was a washroom with two toilets. In one, the workmen discovered a body, naturally mummified. They called the Milicja.
The body sat on the toilet bowl, its head bent forward. It wore a herringbone overcoat and winter boots with white laces. On the floor was a brown leather briefcase filled with schoolbooks.
It was the corpse of a young man. He had been smashed over the head with a blunt object. A knife with a 16cm blade had been stabbed into his chest. It missed the heart but punctured the left lung. The wooden handle protruded from the body. Both wounds would have been individually fatal.
It was Bohdan Piasecki. He had probably been killed the same day he was abducted.
Flat no. 120 in the building belonged to a department of the Milicja under the control of Jan Kossowski, the SB man on Ekerling’s list.
The Consequences of Death
The funeral was huge. Even those who hated PAX could understand the pain of a bereaved father. They came out in their thousands on 13 December 1958 to pack the streets around the church of saint Karola Boromeusza in Warsaw.
The priest spoke words over the coffin as Piasecki and his family sat hollow-eyed in the pews. The crowds followed them to the cemetery and laid flowers by the grave. The agony of loss. The feeling that life cannot go on.
But life had to go on.
The Milicja never found the killers. The abduction and murder of Bohdan Piasecki remains Poland’s best-known unsolved crime.
Ekerling remained in jail until 1959 when Polish prosecutors tried to charge him with involvement in the kidnapping. They claimed he had contacts in the Warsaw underworld. He still denied everything. There were protests from Poland’s Jewish community and abroad, claiming anti-Semitism. The case was dropped under instructions from high up. Some have claimed Gomułka himself gave the order.
Ekerling was released and continued to work as a taxi driver. He never got to Israel.
PAX continued, wounded by the 1957 onslaught and damaged further by Piasecki’s grief. In March 1966 the Israeli newspaper ‘Maariv’ published an article claiming Bohdan’s murderers had been two SB drivers who carried out the kidnapping to punish Piasecki for the Falanga. The men now lived in Israel. It was essentially a rehash of long-standing Polish rumours about the crime but its appearance in an Israeli newspaper added venom to PAX’s activities the following year.
In 1967 the Polish government sanctioned an anti-Zionist campaign, triggered by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. PAX was in the frontline. The campaign’s rhetoric tasted a lot like the Falanga’s old anti-Semitism. Piasecki was now convinced his son had been killed as part of a Jewish ritual murder to punish him for the RNR’s pre-war activities. By the time the government called him off in ’68 there were few people left in Poland who believed Piasecki was not an anti-Semite.
In the following years he regularly asked the government to re-investigate the murder of his son. Nothing ever happened. He was told a magnetophone recording of a call made by the kidnappers had gone missing, along with other evidence. No evidence, statute of limitations, other excuses.
Piasecki died in January 1979, still a senior establishment figure, although an increasingly marginalised one. The Catholic Church and the Vatican refused to deal with him. Even Graham Greene, the British writer fond of Catholicism and Communism, objected when PAX translated his books into Polish.
‘He was a very strange man with many faces,’ says someone, an anti-Communist himself, who knew the PAX world and met Piasecki on several occasions. ‘He wanted power. If he were alive today he would be involved in the traffic of narcotics.’
Ekerling died in 1980. The investigation into Bohdan’s death was officially ended two years later. By that time PAX’s new leaders had steered the organisation into the anti-government stream, allying it with the opposition trade union Solidarność (Solidarity) through the grey 1980s. When democracy came in 1989 Piasecki’s organisation lost the last of its its privileges and power. In 1993 it re-established itself as Civitas Christiana, a genuinely Catholic organisation.
In 1989, just before the end of Communism, PAX published a short book called ‘Sprawa Zabójstwa Bohdana Piaseckiego’ (The Bohdan Piasecki Murder Case). The author was Peter Raina, an Indian Hindu academic with a Polish wife. He lived in Germany after annoying the Polish Communists enough for them to kick him out of the country. The book had originally been published by a Polish exile house in Britain.
Raina was fascinated by the Bohdan Piasecki murder. He laid out the facts with the help of some government documents sent his way by friendly officials.
The book, and the others that followed it in democratic Poland, kept Bohdan’s memory alive. It made him the Polish equivalent of Tsarevitch Alexei, a smooth young face staring from a photograph who somehow symbolises lost innocence and the sins of the father.
But neither Raina or anyone else could solve the mystery of who kidnapped Bohdan Piasecki.
A Forest of Theories
Too much information and too many motives. Ekerling, the lying taxi driver. His list of names. The Milicja’s lack of co-operation. The missing letter from the kidnappers. The missing magnetophone recordings. Clues? Dead ends?
Here are the most common theories about who was responsible for Bohdan Piasecki’s death:
It could have been a genuine kidnapping. Polish prosecutors seemed convinced Ekerling had contacts in the Warsaw underworld. It is not uncommon for a kidnap victim to be killed soon after the abduction and the murderers to act as if the victim is still alive. Piasecki was probably the richest individual in Poland thanks to PAX’s special status in the Communist state. His son would be an obvious target.
2. Communists and Democrats
Polish Stalinists hated Piasecki for siding with Gomułka. Polish Liberals hated him for being a Stalinist. He was too heavily protected to be hurt directly. His son was not.
Some in the USSR disliked the speed with which Piasecki had abandoned his pro-Soviet sycophancy and joined forces with Gomułka. Years of Kremlin worship were tossed aside in the cause of political survival with no apparent regrets. Was Bohdan’s death revenge for this? Some Poles suggest Piasecki was asked to spy on Gomułka for Khrushchev but refused. If so, the kidnapping could have been punishment for his independence.
Ekerling was Jewish and so were the names in his notebook. Could the kidnapping have been revenge for the Falanga’s pre-war anti-Semitism? Early 1957, with Piasecki still powerful but weakened and no-one sure how much longer Jewish emigration to Israel would be allowed, might have seemed the last chance to even the score with Polish Fascism and maybe score a grubstake at the same time. Some have said PAX made money from Jewish emigrants, taking bribes and buying property cheap. Was it revenge for that? And is it relevant that Gomułka’s wife was Jewish?
No-one knows for sure. No-one.
A Kidnapping in Poland
If you get lost in the woods leave a trail of breadcrumbs. But watch out. The black eagles will swoop down and eat that trail. The trees will block out the sky with their branches.And you’ll be lost in the woods forever with no way home.
This article originally appeared on my brightreview website.
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