A Real-Life War Horse: *Witez II’s Journey Into History
by Kristin Berkery
First published in 1967 by Little, Brown and Company, And Miles To Go was reprinted in 1986 by the Arabian Horse Trust during a time when the Arabian business was still flush with cash. After the crash of the Arabian market, the book was never reprinted. The Arabian Horse Trust closed its doors in 2000.
The Polish family portrayed in Witez’s early life is fictional, but the author stayed true to the events that were happening in Poland. Other key characters who interacted with Witez (pronounced vee-TEZH) during his journeys were real people.
Witez was a bay colt foaled on April 1, 1938, at Janów Podlaski (pronounced YAH-noff pod-LAH-skee), a state stud that bred horses for the Polish cavalry. He was the son of the great desertbred sire Ofir and out of Federacja, a mare with several generations of Polish and Hungarian breeding. He was given the name Witez, a word in old Polish meaning “chieftain, knight, prince, hero” as well as “honor, courage, and loyalty.” There had been a previous Witez registered in the Polish stud book, so the new colt was given the Roman numerals “II” after his name.
Shortly after Germany marched into Poland on September 1, 1939, Janów Podlaski was evacuated on foot (and on hoof) in the hope that the Nazis wouldn’t get their hands on Poland’s best horses. Within a short time the handlers had no choice but to return to Janów, where they experienced even more bad luck.
Just two weeks after the Nazi invasion, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east (under the guise that they were protecting the minority populations of eastern Poland from the Nazis) and moved through Janów before the Germans got there. They further weakened Poland’s military, leaving the Polish government to evacuate all troops to France to reorganize efforts.
Because of a secret non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland was partitioned by both nations. Germany took the land west of the River Bug, which included Janów, and the Soviets held the land east of the river. Soviet troops passed through Janów on their way back to the U.S.S.R., taking with them some of the most prized breeding stock: Witez’s sire and dam, Ofir and Federacja, along with about 100 others.
The Germans took over management of Janów Podlaski after the Soviets left, but surprisingly things began to stabilize at the stud. The Nazi officer assigned to managing Janów was Major Hans Fellgiebel of the German Armed Forces (the Wehrmacht in German).
The new stud manager’s brother was General Erich Fellgiebel, one of the July 20th (1944) conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, made famous in the recent film Valkyrie. While at Janów, Hans Fellgiebel hosted meetings of the resistance in his home and was arrested along with his brother Erich immediately after Operation Valkyrie failed. Erich was hanged the day after the attempt, but Hans survived arrest and after the war took a position at a stud in Goslar, Germany.
Leaving the Homeland
In 1943 Witez was chosen to stand at the Nazi “super horse” stud at Hostouň, located in the present-day Czech Republic. He was among 1,500 horses of various breeds at the farm until it was liberated by American troops in April 1945. He would never return to Poland.
After the Germans surrendered, the U.S. Army ordered 200 of the breeding stock at Hostouň to be moved more than 200 miles to Mansbach in west-central Germany. Mares with foals were shipped by truck, but mature able-bodied horses, like Witez, were ridden the distance. Many arrived at Mansbach lame, but Witez, who was fortunate to be shod, stayed sound.
After their arrival by ship in Newport News, Virginia, the horses were transported by truck to the Pomona Quartermaster Remount Depot at Kellogg Ranch in California where they were used to breed horses for the U.S. Army. The Pomona Remount was closed in 1948 due to lack of funding and the changing technology of warfare, so many of the remount’s horses, including *Witez II, were shipped to another remount station in Fort Reno, Oklahoma.
"You got *Witez II!"
*Witez II arrived at his new home in Calabasas, California, owned by the Hurlbutts. Initially he was not shown because the Hurlbutts saw no reason to put their prized stallion through the rigors of showing for a blue ribbon. They felt he’d proven his remarkable abilities enough in his journeys from Poland to the U.S., so they kept him as a breeding stallion only.
The grand old stallion was retired from the show ring and continued breeding until his death at age 27 in 1965. He sired 223 foals in his lifetime.
One of *Witez II’s most famous daughters was Ronteza, who won the Open Reined Cow Horse Championship against all breeds at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California, in 1961. Ronteza was the first Arabian to win the championship and her rider, Sheila Varian, was the first woman and amateur to win the title.
Hans Fellgiebel, the stud manager at Janów Podlaski during the war years, passed his love for horses to his daughter, Inge Theodorescu, and Inge’s daughter, Monica Theodorescu, who has won three Olympic team gold medals in dressage, eventing, and jumping.
Established in 1817, Janów Podlaski continues to breed Arabians and Anglo-Arabians for racing, show, and sport. The stud hosts the Pride of Poland sale each year.