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 sons 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.
In 1993 the University of Portland admitted a young woman to the Class of 1997. Her name was Christina Lund. Intrigued by the Universitys extensive foreign study opportunities, she applied and was accepted to the Universitys 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 the Second World War, and the one from which legendarily no one ever returned.
Christinas mother Kathleen, Eddy Baranskis daughter, decides to visit Mauthausen while she and her husband, University regent Allen Lund, are visiting their daughter in Salzburg.
Id 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 Baranskis story flew toward her, into the world, into the hearts of his children and grandchildren; and that, says Kathleen, was his first gift.
Somehow he began to find me, she says.
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.
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 Eddys whereabouts, captured him in a farmhouse in Piest, and took him eventually to Mauthausen. His friends in Piest kept Eddys personal belongings secret for the next half a century: a Gillette shaver in a silver case, a first-aid kit, a prayer book.