At about half past two on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 24, 1945, a young American named Eddy Baranski shuffled into a basement in Mauthausen, Austria. He was twenty-seven years old. He was told to remove his clothing and walk into the next room, where his photograph would be taken. He was told to stand against the wall. Probably he was told to stand as motionless as possible, so as to yield the most exact photograph. As soon as he was lined up properly with the camera he was shot from behind, in the brain, from perhaps three inches away. He died instantly. A Polish prisoner named Wilhem Ornstein then carried Eddy into an adjacent cold storage room, where he was laid until Ornstein had finished mopping the blood from the floor. Ornstein then carried Eddy to the adjacent crematorium, where an Austrian prisoner named Johann Kanduth roasted Eddy and scattered his ashes atop a vast pile of ashes of men and women and children from around the world.
So vanished Army Air Corps Captain Edward Baranski, whom the Nazis considered a cunning spy, whom the Nazis had tortured so thoroughly that he could no longer properly use his arms, whom the Nazis blamed for his role in the Slovakian revolt against the Nazis in 1944. And so vanished Eddy Baranski from the lives of those he left behind in Utah: among them his father, who never spoke his son’s name again the rest of his life; and his mother, who prayed for her boy every day the rest of her life; and his young wife, Madeline, who had a vision of him, whole and smiling, in the Utah darkness, at exactly the moment he died in Austria; and his daughter, Kathleen, who was two years old when her daddy flew off to fight Hitler, and who spent the next fifty years fatherless, without a memory of his voice or face or smell, without even the cold facts of his murder.
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In 1993 the University of Portland admitted a young woman to the Class of 1997. Her name was Christina Lund. Intrigued by the university’s extensive foreign study opportunities, she applied and was accepted to the university’s oldest and largest adventure abroad, in Austria. One annual aspect of the Salzburg Program is a trip to Mauthausen, one of the many lairs of hell operated by the Nazis during World War II, and the one from which legendarily no one ever returned.
Christina’s mother, Kathleen, Eddy Baranski’s daughter, decides to visit Mauthausen while she and her husband, university regent Allen Lund, are visiting their daughter in Salzburg.
I’d never wanted to go there before, not in fifty years, says Kathleen. But something then made me want to go, and we went, and it was chilling. I walked around. I found the place where he was shot, and I waited for something there, some feeling, some message; but there was nothing.
They went home, Kathleen and Allen, and they went about their lives but something had changed in Kathleen, some seed opening, some cold place warming; and she began to inquire about her father, and poke her uncle John for information about his beloved brother, and write to the National Archives, and to museums in Europe, and to the United States Army, and slowly, miraculously, Eddy Baranski’s story flew toward her, into the world, in the hearts of his children and grandchildren; and that, says Kathleen, was his first gift.
Somehow he began to find me, she says.
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Eddy Baranski grew up in Chicago, was an all-city football player for McKinley High, and went on to college at the University of Illinois. There he joined the Army cadet corps, sang in a quartet, led the Catholic student group, and waited tables in the student cafeteria. One day in the cafeteria he gets to talking with a witty, cheerful, sparkling girl named Madeline Cleary, and pretty soon Madeline and Eddy are in love, and they marry, and they have a child. Kathleen, and they move to Utah, and then suddenly the worst war in the history of the world erupts, just as they have another child, Gerald, and soon Eddy is Lieutenant Edward Victor Baranski of the Army Air Corps, flying into the very heart of the Nazi juggernaut at the peak of its savagery.
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Because he spoke German and Slovak, legacies from his Slovakian mama, Eddy was recruited by the mysterious OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the most secretive and dangerous of the Allied intelligence units in the war. He served in North Africa, Algeria, Italy, and England (where he worked with the Czechoslovakian government in exile) before being quietly sent into Slovakia to help with a rumored partisan uprising there. In August of 1944 the Slovakian partisans did rebel against the Nazis, who crushed the rising immediately. Eddy Baranski, by now an Air Corps captain, slid out of his American identity altogether and into life as a German seller of firewood, living in the villages of Zvolen Slatina and Piest, trying to find and help partisans, tracking and radioing Nazi activity to the OSS. On December 9, 1944, the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, having tortured residents of Zvolen Slatina for news of Eddy’s whereabouts, captured him in a farmhouse in Piest, and took him eventually to Mauthausen. His friends in Piest kept Eddy’s personal belongings secret for the next half a century: a Gillette shaver in a silver case, a first-aid kid, a prayer book.
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In May of 1945 a German citizen named Werner Muller dictated an extraordinary document to an Australian lieutenant named Danny Hunter. Muller, who spoke English, French, and Italian, had been an interpreter for the Wermacht, the Nazi army under Heinrich Himmler. Ordered to Mauthausen in October of 1944, Muller’s job was to help with the interrogations of Allied prisoners. When Mauthausen was liberated, in May of 1945, Danny Hunter wrote down Muller’s account of his months in hell. Muller remembered one prisoner above all: Eddy Baranski.
Eddy and his radioman, Daniel Pavletich, had both been imprisoned and questioned first in Bratislava, where they told the Nazis they were American flyers. On arrival in Mauthausen, Pavletich was interrogated without incident, remembered Muller, but Baranski was a different story. Since this fellow seems to be so very clever, said the commandant, he deserves special treatment. This one we will hang.
“When Baranski saw [Nazi officers] all crowded in the room and the chain over the table,” remembered Muller, “he turned to me smiling and said, I know what they are going to do now.
“They tied his hands behind his back,” remembered Muller, “and attached his wrists to the chain above, which they drew upwards. Although he must have been suffering terrible pain, he kept himself wonderfully. The Kommandant did not seem to like that and said, I think the fellow still enjoys himself. They pulled his legs down so his whole weight was hanging on his arms. In the end he couldn’t stand it any longer. He cried and begged to be let down, but the Kommandant insisted on keeping him suspended in that dreadful position. My eyes were filled with tears. Baranski started praying and the Kommandant asked me what he was saying, and when I told him he and the other officers laughed. In the end, however, they let him down. . . “
His prayers, says Eddy’s daughter, Kathleen – that’s my father’s second gift to me. At the very end of his tether, he prayed. To hear the depth and breath of his faith, to know that now, after not knowing him for fifty years – that is a gift.
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“He was completely broken,” remember Muller. “His poor hands looked dreadful. He was offered some water but he had to hold it himself which he was incapable of doing with his hands. It was a terrible sight how he tried at first to sip some water with the bottle held between his arms. This was the most dreadful half hour I have ever been through in my life and I was ashamed to be there.”
And Muller remembers one more detail, before Eddy Baransky and ten American men and four British men and one Slovakian woman were executed naked in the basement with the fake camera; that when he offered Baranski a cigarette after his torture, Eddy grinned.
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In August of 1999 Kathleen Baranski Lund and thirty of her family and friends were honored guests of the American embassy in Bratislava, where her father had been interrogated by the Nazis. They visited Tri Duby, where the president of Slovakia dedicated a monument to Eddy Baranski and his fellow Allied soldiers who aided the 1944 rebellion against the Nazis. They went to Banska Bystrika, where Eddy Baranski is honored in the National Museum of Slovakia. They went to Piest, where Eddy was captured, and they went to the house where he was captured, and there they met Maria Lakotova, who wept when she remembered Kathleen’s father singing lullabies to her at night when she was toddler in that house. And finally they went to Mauthausen, and prayed at the place where so many thousands of souls fled the earth.
Your father used to sing to me at night, Maria Lakotova told Kathleen. He would hold me on his knee and sing his songs He was so kind and he had such a lovely voice. But I know he was not singing to me. He was singing to you, to his little girl far away.
His songs, says Kathleen – his songs are his final gift to me. It’s like I am finally hearing them after fifty years. I finally found my father. Now I know he never gave up, and he prayed, and he sang, and now he’s alive to me like he never was, not for fifty years. No one ever talked about him after he was murdered, so I never had a father at all. But now I do. Now I’ll have my dad forever and ever. It’s not sad. It’s joyous. It’s a miracle.
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In 2004 the University of Portland admitted a young woman to the class of 2008. Her name is Noel Peterson. She is from Shadow Hills, California. She wants to major in education. She is witty and cheerful and sparkling and lives in Shipstad Hall. Her mother is Natalie Baranski Peterson. Her grandmother is Kathleen Baranski Lund. Her great-grandfather was a most remarkable young man, a devout youth with a lovely voice and a ferocious courage and an irrepressible belief that his brains and energy and creativity and finally his life could be brought to bear to destroy a foul empire that sought to enslave the world. His name was Eddy Baranski, and his story will never die again.