Emerik Bellen: The (un)Finished Story

Writing this story has been my most significant endeavor to date, focusing on the fate of Emerik Bellen for several months.

Polska wersja artykułu

Piecing together this entire narrative required the collaboration of a dozen history enthusiasts from eight countries and involved reading hundreds of documents from the archives of four countries. All of this effort was aimed at concluding my article with the words, “the story of Emerik Bellen remains unresolved.” Just as I began to accept the unfortunate reality that I might not fully uncover the mystery surrounding the enigmatic Yugoslav residing in Lodz, I received a message from Zagreb one day. This message allowed me to modify the subtitle of this article to Emerik Bellen: The (un)Finished Story.

Emerik Bellen (source: Filip Hameršak)

Waves of the Adriatic Sea

The main character of this story is Emerich (Emerik / Emeryk) Christian Bellen, born on December 20, 1903, in Pola, which is now Pula in Croatia, near the end of the Istrian Peninsula. At that time, it was the most important military seaport in Austria-Hungary. Emerik’s father, Josip Bellen, was a Habsburg naval officer of Croatian origin, born in 1878 near the city of Fiume, which is now Rijeka in Croatia. He served as the captain of a merchant ship. Emerik’s mother, Maria, née Notar, was born in 1879 near the town of Brassó, present-day Brașov, Romania, into a family of Austrian origin. In 1905, when Josip retired due to health problems, possibly resulting from hearing loss due to cannon fire or illness, the family moved permanently to Fiume, where Josip took a job as a shipping inspector for the Adria company. After Italian troops occupied the city in 1918, Josip was expelled from the city in February 1919 due to his views—he was a supporter of the unification of Rijeka with the new South Slavic state—and the family moved to nearby Sušak. In 1920, Josip founded the Maritime Bank and soon afterward the Vesna shipping company. He was also a partner in the Nekton fishing company. Not all of his ventures were successful, but the family enjoyed a prosperous life. When he died in 1938, newspapers remembered him as a respected member of the Sušak community.

Young Emerik stands between Maria and Josip; approx 1917 (source: Filip Hameršak)

The wind is blowing towards Lodz

In 1921, young Emerik graduated from the Croatian high school in Sušak. In the mid-1920s, he earned a degree in economics from the Hochschule für Welthandel in Vienna. He later resided in Belgrade for some time in 1927. Most likely, during this period, he authored an article on sea-plane transport in Dalmatia, published in the Naša krila magazine (no. 29 / 1926). Emerik was a charming young man, well-educated, familiar with Europe, and fluent in languages. It is probable that around the turn of 1928 and 1929, for unknown reasons, he relocated from Belgrade to Lodz in Poland. He remained in this city for the next ten years. It is possible that he was compelled to make this move due to the uncertain political situation in his own country, or perhaps it occurred as a result of a woman he encountered during one of his foreign trips.

View of Sušak, 1925 (source: lokalpatrioti-rijeka.com)

A good brother-in-law is a rich brother-in-law

Shortly after arriving in Lodz, Emerik became involved with Maria Kon, about whom we could say – Maria Kon of the Kohn family! Maria had two brothers, Kazimierz and Ludwik, and like Kazimierz, who will play a very important role in this story, she used the surname Kon. The siblings’ father was Samuel Kohn, son of Markus, who in 1865 opened his wool spinning and weaving mill in Lodz at Piotrkowska 779 (currently Piotrkowska 61). In 1919, the factory was transformed into the Akcyjne Towarzystwo Przemysłowe Markus Kohn. Samuel became the president of this factory, and the management board included Kazimierz, who, after changing his surname from Kohn to Kon, changed it again, creating the combination Markon. It was created from the combination of the surname Kon and the first part of the name Markus. In the meantime, the spinning mill was moved to Lakowa 5. Thanks to the help of Bellen’s influential brother-in-law, Emerik began to develop very quickly in the textile business. He regularly held prominent positions in his ventures. In 1932, the company was once again transformed, this time into the Przędzalnia Wełny Czesankowej Markus Kohn S.A with a share capital of PLN 6,000,000. From the diaries of the Croatian writer Julije Benešić, known for translating the works of Mickiewicz and Slowacki into his native language, we know that during his visits in Poland he met with Bellen in order to promote Yugoslav culture. The young immigrant never forgot his roots and sat on the board of the Polish-Yugoslav Friendship Society in Lodz.

Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski and Kazimierz Markon during the ceremonial opening of the Polana S. A. (source: NAC)

Big business

The peak of their business successes came in 1937. It was during this time that Kazimierz and Emerik assumed leadership roles in the newly established Polana S.A. company in Pabianice, aimed at revolutionizing the artificial wool industry. Markus Kohn Sp. Akc. held 34% of the company’s shares, Sni Viscona held 15%, Scheibler and Grohman held 5%, and other shareholders collectively held shares valued at PLN 1,500,000. The extensive preserved documentation of the company reveals that Emerik personally traveled, for instance, to Milan, to negotiate contracts for the procurement of machines and technology. These were obtained under license from the Italian company Snia Viscosa.

From left to right: French consul E. Saladin, J. Saladin, K. Markon, Italian engineers Micodano and Graziani, E. Bellen, factory director engineer Majde and legal advisor of “Polana S.A.”, attorney Dr. H. Felix (source: NAC)

The entire factory functioned as a complex machinery designed for the production of a material known as lanital, a modern artificial fiber at the time, derived from processing animal proteins, primarily casein, imported in large quantities from dairies across Poland to Pabianice. One of Polana’s directors humorously mentioned in his correspondence that while traveling with the Italian representative of Snia Viscosa, he said that when his suit wore out, he could at least eat it! Demand for lanital was abundant, with orders coming from various sources, including Emil Eisert’s company and the Lodz Hat Factory H. Schlee. How much could Bellen earn at this time? A significant amount, undoubtedly no less than Polana’s directors! The company’s payroll indicates that a typist at Polana could expect a monthly salary of PLN 150, while one of the directors, Zygmunt Tomczak, who closely collaborated with Bellen, earned around PLN 1,600 per month. It’s worth noting that the average salary in the Second Polish Republic was approximately PLN 1,300… per year. An intriguing agreement was reached with Polana by Henryk Felix, a lawyer from Lodz, responsible for all the company’s contracts and affairs, who agreed to provide his services in exchange for a commission from production. The opening of the factory in Pabianice was a great event to which over a hundred guests were invited, including Deputy Prime Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, Minister of Industry and Trade Antoni Roman and the inventor of lanital – Antonio Ferretti.

Rally career

Emerik and Kazimierz were connected not only by the partnership agreement and money but also by their shared passion for motoring. They were both enthusiastic motorists and members of the Lodz Automobile Club. While Markon arrived at the factory in an elegant Delage, Bellen clearly valued adrenaline and sports challenges. Starting from 1935, the Yugoslav began regularly participating in races and rallies, representing Lodz Automobile Club.

Emerik Bellen during The Rally of Poland 1939 (source: NAC)

By 1937, he was serving on the Sports Committee of the club, and in 1939, he became a member of the club’s management board. In the same year, Edmund Tesche, whose story I detailed in a separate article, assumed the role of General Secretary of the club. In June 1939, Emerik participated in The Rally of Poland as part of the Skoda team. However, his beautiful Skoda 1100 had to withdraw from the competition due to a broken axle 80 km from Warsaw. Throughout various rallies, he often crossed paths with other motorists from Lodz, such as Franciszek Gretkiewicz and attorney Irena Brodzka. The latter took part in rallies with Leon Kulesza, who would later become Emerik’s co-driver. Regular participation in local events was certainly not enough for Emerik. It was time for serious foreign events!

Bellen with a Fiat 1500 during The Rally of Poland 1937

Towards Monte Carlo

The Monte Carlo Rally holds a special place in the history of motorsport. Before the war, Polish representatives had already achieved several successful performances there, including members of the Lodz Automobile Club. In 1929, the first crew from Lodz, led by Wilhelm Kühn, a proxy at Karol Kronig’s Karolewska Manufaktura, embarked on the journey to Monte Carlo. He was accompanied by Alfred Zaleski and Tadeusz Rosenblatt in a red open Austro-Daimler. Unfortunately, the second team consisting of the Kebsch brothers from Lodz did not start due to the sudden illness of one of them. Press reports indicate that Kühn’s team traveled from Warsaw to Berlin and then continued their journey to Monte Carlo. However, nothing is known about the further fate of these motorists. In the same year, Kolaczkowski, Skarbek, and Tyszkiewicz also participated in the rally.

Polish passenger car Ralf-Stetysz at the finish line of the Monte Carlo Rally 1929. From the left: car mechanic Kowalski, Count Stanisław Ostroróg-Gorzeński, Count Stefan Tyszkiewicz and mechanic Nowicki (source: NAC)

Couple goals

In 1937, another representative of the Lodz Automobile Club appeared on the official starting list for the famous Rally Monte Carlo. Emerik and his wife started with the number 48 from Warsaw, not from Athens as the press reported. Leaving Poland in a Fiat 1500, they passed through subsequent checkpoints in Berlin, Velno, Brussels and Paris. In total they covered 2,630 km. As Bellen himself later told a journalist of a Lodz newspaper – starting from Warsaw was a mistake, because it took us many valuable points. Ultimately, Bellen and his wife finished the rally in 62nd place overall, and in 13th place in his class (up to 1500cc) .

Interview with Bellen before the start of the Rally Monte Carlo 1938 (source: Glos Poranny no. 13/1938)

Kulesza joins Bellen!

Emerik had a passion for sports and wanted to improve his result. In 1938, experienced mechanic and co-pilot Leon Kulesza joined his team. Kulesza was described in the pre-war automotive press as one of the most valuable rally navigators [i]. Initially, Kulesza was not supposed to go to Monte Carlo as Emerik’s partner. Kulesza was supposed to be the pilot and mechanic of Urban Siemiatkowski, with whom he had already won the Rally to Warsaw for the Gordon- Bennet Cup [ii] in August 1936 . In 1937, during the Ladies’ Rally to Gdynia, Kulesza was the co-driver of Malgorzata Baczewska [iii].

Malgorzata Baczewska and Leon Kulesza during the Ladies’ Rally 1937 (source: ATS no. 10/1937)

During the 10th Rally of Poland, together with Urban Siemiatkowski, driving a Polish Fiat 508, they took 2nd place in the 1000cc class. Bellen also took part in the same rally in a Fiat 1500 and, together with mechanic Frachowicz, finished 7th in the 1400-2000cc class. Siemiatkowski and Kulesza, being a good team, planned to go to Monte Carlo together. Everything was ruined by an accident. One evening, in October 1937, a car driven by Siemiatkowski collided with a truck loaded with flour. One of the passengers of the car and the truck driver died in the accident. The second passenger of the car and Siemiatkowski himself suffered serious injuries [iv]. This excluded him from taking part in the international event and in this way Kulesza became Bellen’s pilot.

E. Bellen and L. Kulesza at the finish line of the Rally Monte Carlo ’38 (source: Auto 3/1938)

The car of Mr. Bellen and Kulesza (starting number 88) has slightly fewer amenities – its main decoration is a foldable seat that can be converted into a bed for use while driving. Instead of a fourth seat (the third seat will be taken by Mrs. Bellen, who accompanied her husband on the trip to Monte Carlo for the second time), two suitcases were packed, made especially according to the shapes and dimensions of the seat. A very ingenious, yet simple “invention”[v]

Mr. Elgood tests the folding seats in Bellen and Kulesza’s car (source: ATS No. 3/1938)

The team started in a Lancia Aprilia, which Kulesza had prepared for the trip. This time, the starting point was Stavanger in the southern part of Norway. While driving through Norway, Kulesza demonstrated extremely reckless driving through deep snow, which only confirmed his class not only as a mechanic, but also as a second driver and co-pilot. The team took 25th place overall and 6th place in the class. As reported by Glos Poranny on March 28, 1938, at a ceremony organized by the Polish Automobile Club, Bellen and other Montecarlists representing Poland received commemorative plaques for participating in the Rally Monte Carlo. After the ceremony, a film prepared by Leon Kulesza entitled Rallye Monte Carlo!

source: Glos Poranny no. 27/1938

Up to three times Monte Carlo

The third start to Monte Carlo ended with the best result in Bellen’s career and the best result of the Polish crew in the 18th edition of the Rally Monte Carlo. The team started with the number 25 Ford V8, consisting of Emerik Bellen and Stefan Pronaszko. They took 17th place overall, and a high 16th place in their class. The drivers started from Tallinn on January 12 and it was a truly heroic expedition. The route was 3,792 km long and led through Riga, Warsaw, Berlin, Hanover, Venio, Brussels, Reims, Dijon, Lyon and Grenoble. One of the Warsaw dailies described how Bellen, during the checkpoint in Warsaw, had to sign documents brought to Warsaw by his secretary for half an hour before he went for a group rest [vi]. Grzegorz Kornacki was probably Bellen’s secretary at that time. Starting with the very experienced Pronaszka at his side was an excellent decision and could have contributed to even greater successes. Below are photos of participants of the Rally Monte Carlo ’39 during the stop in Warsaw.

Pronaszko, our man at NASA![vii]

I decided that Stefan Pronaszko deserved a separate paragraph in this story. Pronaszko was born on November 25, 1904 in Warsaw. From an early age, he was fascinated by technology and studied in this field. He started his career as a mechanic in the workshops of his brother-in-law, Feliks Mieszkowski. Later, he joined the Czech car factory Zbrojowka, and finally he worked for Fiat from 1930 until the outbreak of the war. Initially, he was a salesman. Later, assistant technical director for Poland. Thanks to his involvement, work began on adapting Fiats to use fuel mixed with alcohol. He was active in the Sports Committee of the Polish Automobile Club and took part in many rallies and races. He set, among other things, a world record for minimum fuel consumption by driving a Fiat 500 for 145 km and consuming only 5 liters of fuel. He took part in the Monte Carlo Rally twice. In 1937, he was a pilot of the great driver Wojciech Kolaczkowski, with whom he started in a Lancia Aprilia. They took 79th place overall, but their car won the first prize for its modern equipment. In 1939, Pronaszko was the rally partner of Emerik Bellen.

E. Bellen and S. Pronaszko in front of the Polish Automobile Club. Ride of the Rally Monte Carlo ’39 participants through Warsaw (source: NAC)

In 1938, he took over as Steyr’s technical director for Poland. In September 1939 he was drafted into the army, but on September 7 he was wounded in the eye. He left Warsaw and went to the Eastern Borderlands, and from there he got to England. He was sent to work in the Paris verification office. Thanks to the help of his old colleagues from Fiat, he not only sent money to occupied Poland to support his family, but above all, he rescued his wife Maria and daughter Dorota from the German camp in Lodz. Later, through influential friends from Fiat, he managed to bring them to Italy. After the capitulation of France, the family fled to Palestine, where Pronaszko was tasked with going to Egypt to create a motorized regiment there and prepare reparations workshops. When he obtained a visa to Canada, he stopped in South Africa, where, at the request of the Polish government, he organized a technical school for Polish orphans evacuated from the USSR. In 1944 he finally reached Canada and began working at National Research Council , where he was involved in improving fuels and engines for transatlantic flights. In 1949, he went to the USA and started working for General Motors, and later for Ford. Six years after his arrival, he received American citizenship. Later, fate brought him to Rocketdyne, where he worked with Warner von Braun on rocket engines. For his participation in the work on the engine for the Saturn-Apollo space vehicle, which played a major role in landing man on the Moon, he received a letter of congratulations from NASA in 1969. He died in 1986. These were the people Emerik Bellen surrounded himself with.

S. Pronaszko and his Steyer. The interwar period (source: photo from the collection of Emil Mieszkowski / Archiwum Historii Mówionej Domu Spotkań z Historią)

A time of great escapes

Pronaszko’s story brings together the wartime fate of millions of Poles through a lens. In August 1939, the Lodz press reported that Edmund Tesche, one of the founders of the Lodz Automobile Club, had escaped from Poland to Germany. The tabloids also reported that, for unknown reasons, Emerik Bellen abandoned the Lodz Automobile Club.

source: Glos Poranny no. 205/1939

According to the German protocol of October 16, 1939, Emerik Bellen was the only representative of Polana S.A. in Lodz at that time. In a short time, the lanital factory in Pabianice was taken over by Germans and transformed into Textilwerke Polana AG. It was probably then that Emerik decided to escape. According to the registration card from December 9, 1939, Bellen appeared in Belgrade. When registering in the country, he stated that he was married to Maria Kon. Family stories show that Emerik and Maria separated in unexplained circumstances after emigrating from Poland. Maria was last seen alive in May 1944 in Split, where she worked as a nurse in a hospital. She was supposed to be killed in one of the Allied bombing raids. However, her name is not on the list of those killed. Another theory is that Maria, as a Jew, was deported from Split to one of the German camps. In 1944, there was an intensified German purge there. Kazimierz Markon and his wife arrived on board the ship Duchess Of Bedford in Buffalo, New York in May 1940. From there they emigrated to Canada. After the war, he fought several times to recover his lost property in Lodz and also helped other holders of shares in Markus Kohn’s company. In Canada, together with old investors from the period of prosperity in Lodz, once again started the cotton business Combing Corporation of Canada Ltd. He died in Lausanne in 1984.

Duchess of Bedford (from 1947 Empress of France) belonging to the Canadian Pacific Steamships line (source: Scotlands People)

Where is Bellen?

It is possible that in 1940 Emerik lived in Austria, annexed by Germany, where he had relatives from his mother’s side of the family. However, it is more certain that at least from November 1940 he continued his studies at the Academy of Economics and Commerce in Zagreb (Ekonomsko-komercijalna visoka škola). There he met Blanka Vinek, with whom he became involved. After the Axis Powers attacked Yugoslavia and established the Independent State of Croatia in April 1941, the couple spent several months in and around the northern Adriatic city of Crikvenica. From there they tried to get to Malta by boat. This failed, and in the fall of 1941 the couple went to Vienna, hoping to later go to neutral Switzerland. Waiting for the right moment and in order to make their stay more credible, they both continued their studies at the High School fur Welthandel. In the summer of 1942, they obtained their doctorates in economics. After consultations with diplomats, they both decided not to go to Switzerland and tried to reach the territories controlled by the Allies by other means. In October 1942 or early November they reached Istanbul, where they were interrogated at the Yugoslav consulate by intelligence major V. Perić in the presence of two British officers. They were then given permission to continue through territories under British control.

Registration card (source: Historical Archives of Belgrade)

Deal with the communists

At the end of 1942 or at the beginning of 1943, Emerik and Blanka were again interrogated by the captain of British intelligence in Aleppo (Syria). They gave him a report on Germany’s economic potential. By March 1943 at the latest, the couple reached Jerusalem and contacted the Yugoslav consulate, declaring their desire to join the Royal Yugoslav Forces. On this occasion, they were interrogated again, and after a few months Emerik was sent to Cairo (Egypt), where he served as a translator in one of the British military units. Blanka was delegated to help in the Yugoslav (mainly Croatian) refugee camp in El Shatt on the Sinai Peninsula. In May 1944, Emerik addressed members of the communist National Committee for the Liberation of Yugoslavia (NKOJ), at the military mission in Cairo, declaring his readiness to join the National Army for the Liberation of Yugoslavia (NOVJ), whose slogan was – Death to fascism, freedom to the people! A few days later, for unknown reasons, Emerik was sent to Bari – an Italian city on the Adriatic Sea that was under Allied control. From there, he was sent for several months to the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea, which was the heavily fortified headquarters of Josip Tito.

Last station

The last port of call in Emerik’s long life journey was liberated Belgrade, which he reached at the end of 1944. His beloved city did not welcome him with open arms. Shortly after his arrival, he was arrested by the communist secret police OZNA, which was associated with the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (NOVJ), whose representatives Bellen had already encountered. Blanka quickly joined Emerik. Just a day after reaching Belgrade from Egypt, in February 1945, she was arrested by the communist police. The preserved and, above all, available OZNA files show that Blanka was interrogated from February to September 1945. Emerik was interrogated at the same time, but his file could not be found. This situation will not change until the Serbian archive is fully declassified.

One of the few family souvenirs of Emeryk Bellen. Plaque from the Rally Monte Carlo 1939 (source: Filip Hamersak)

(un)finished biography

Officially, the reason for detaining Emerik and Blanka was suspicion of collaborating with the Gestapo, although there was no evidence of this and the accusation itself seems absurd. From the analysis of Blanka’s interrogations, it can be concluded that their main guilt was cooperation with the British intelligence service and membership in bourgeois reactionary circles. At an unknown date, around the end of 1945 or the beginning of 1946, Emerik’s mother received semi-official information from Belgrade that her son had been shot while trying to escape. In another friendly explanation, the anonymous person reported that it was actually a cover for the services to carry out an execution without a final court verdict. Currently, this version can only be confirmed by a handwritten note in the police files of Blanka Vinek, where the note smrt (death) was added next to both of their names. Other people on the same list were written osloboditi (free). It is almost certain that they were both executed in September 1946 as alleged enemies of the people. The last time his mother and sisters saw Emerik alive was in Zagreb in 1942. Ten years after the end of the war, Emerik Bellen and Maria Bellen were officially declared unfound and dead based on an application submitted by family.

Fragment of the report from the interrogation of B. Vinek. Visible handwritten note “smrt” (source: Croatian State Archives)

This one message

Working on Emerik Bellen’s story was difficult. Mainly because his fate fell apart like a house of cards all over the world. Putting them together required cooperation with historians, enthusiasts and archives from various parts of the world. However, there was something in this story from the very beginning that made me believe that I could finish it. I still remember the excitement that accompanied me when, after several months of wandering, I received news from Filip Hameršak from Zagreb – yes, Emerik Bellen was my mother’s uncle. Of course I will help you! From that moment, Bellen’s story began to come together, and the huge gaps in his biography began to be filled with further details. Thank you for your help: W szczególności dziękuję za pomoc: Mario Stipančević (Croatian Institute of History), Ljiljana Tripovich (Yugoslavroots), Slobodan Mandic (Historical Archives of Belgrade), Marko Vukicevic (HRČAK)  and employees of the State Archives in Lodz.

Other sources:

[i]Auto i Technika Samochodowa No. 8 / 1937, p. 47

[ii]AUTO no. 9/1936

[iii]Auto i Technika Samochodowa No. 10 / 1937, p. 50

[iv]Auto i Technika Samochodowa No. 11 / 1937, p. 57

[v] AUTO no. 2/1938

[vi]Kurier Czerwony, January 19, 1939, page 3

[vii]Biography of Stefan Pronaszko written by Emil Mieszkowski, KARTA Center Foundation, AW_III_707.05.03