Poland Revisited

"What I like about Americans is that they are always so relaxed." Tadeusz Dominik, a thin, wiry man of about forty, dressed in sandals, dark pants and a sleazy, open-necked purple shirt, waved a hand to include all his countrymen, and added, "The Polish people are always worried and so tense." If he had been more familiar with current slang, he would probably have said "up tight."

The Poles have every reason to be up tight. For hundreds of years they've led a precarious existence as a nation of conglomerate peoples, caught between Russia and Central Europe. They have been buffeted, battered, occupied, reoccupied, divided, subdivided, liquidated, deported and resettled in almost every European war since the 10th century. At the end of World War II, when the western allies failed to support their independence, they disappeared behind the Iron Curtain where they continue to exist in uneasy equilibrium under Russian domination. They have no reason to be grateful or trusting of the West; they are even more distrustful of the Russian overseers who have "liberated" them before. The future offers little promise.

Four of us, tourists all, were sitting around one of the low tables in the no longer elegant lobby of the Hotel Europejski drinking bottled plum juice and brown beer. While waiting for the bus to take us to the Warsaw airport and the plane for Vienna, we had been trying to communicate (unsuccessfully) with a young Polish student until his professor, Mr. Dominik, arrived. In fact, during the five days we'd spent in Poland, the opportunities to talk directly with any Polish citizens had been limited.

However, Professor Dominik (he apologized for his un-Polish surname, theorizing that some time in the past his ancestors must have come from southern Europe) was eager to talk. He was head of painting in the School of Fine Arts at Warsaw University, and ten years ago had spent six months touring the United States on a Ford Foundation scholarship. In the next half hour he answered all questions freely - about the school system, about medical care, about housing, about his own Communism and new opportunities in the "People's Republic." He insisted that, on our next visit to Warsaw, he would personally be our guide and show us the real Poland.

Our stay in Poland had been most interesting. Thirty of us, all former prisoners of war (along with 21 wives), had returned to see the prison camp at Szubin which we left in late January 1945 when the Russians overran it. The group tour had been well planned and organized by the Scandinavian Airlines System in conjunction with Wanda Rudzinski, representing a Long Island travel agency, and the super-efficient Orbis Agency (Poland's equivalent of Russia's Intourist, which runs the major hotels, the busses, car-rentals, guide service, tours and tourist shops). We had arrived in Warsaw on a Saturday afternoon, spent the night at the Europejski, and traveled by bus the next morning westward for 150 miles through the Polish countryside to the Hotel Mercury in Posnan, stopping on the way at Zelazowa Wola to visit Chopin's birthplace. We went by bus again the next day for 50 miles to Szubin, where we spent two hours at the old camp, Oflag 64, before going on to nearby Bydgoszcz for an official luncheon and speechmaking. We returned to Warsaw that evening over another route paralleling the Vistula to spend two more days there at the Europejski.

Of course, just the visit to the old camp itself in company with others who had shared past experiences was worth the trip. Most of the buildings were still there - and in much better shape than when we had occupied them, for the camp is still in use as a reform school for problem boys. Only some of the old wooden barracks, the double fences of barbed wire, the sentry boxes and searchlights were gone. The sole familiar face belonged to the ancient Pole janitor who, in our day drove the horse-drawn "honey-wagon" which pumped out the 12-holer open-air latrine and then spread the night soil on the fields across the road.

Nearly all of the countryside through which we traveled going from Warsaw to Posnan, Bydgoszcz and back (in fact, most of northern Poland from East Germany on the west to Russia on the east) is a vast, flat, fertile farmland. We were told that 85% of the farms are privately owned - at least, they are government allotted but privately run with the produce sold on the open market. But the acreage size of the "private" farm is only 15 acres, and no more than six in a family may live on it. The acreage of the 15% of collective farms was not disclosed, but the ones we passed were extensive operations, and only on these is any mechanized equipment in evidence.

Each farm has its small cottage, its chickens and pigs, its potato mounds, its small orchard, and its planted main crop or crops. (The raspberry farms are said to be most profitable.) They are farmed by hand and horsepower, and each seemed to have a standard all-purpose rubber-tired wooden farm wagon pulled by one or two horses. There is little commercial fertilizer industry in Poland, and nearly all of the neatly plowed and planted fields were dotted with lines of manure piles, and, in the evenings, solid farm women wielding pitchforks methodically spread them out. Each year most of the trees along the farm borders are trimmed severely back to the trunk, and their stubby, thicket-crowns of new growth are favorite nesting sites for Poland's many old-world storks. There is no wasted or unused land, and, in this section, practically no forestland except for small patches of neatly planted government forests. There are no super-highways, and no need for them, as the traffic load is minimal; but the two-lane main roads are quite good, well kept and free of litter.

There are no visible gas stations, only an occasional roadside pump in the larger villages or along the streets of the large cities, and nothing comparable to our own service station extravaganzas. At the infrequent rest stops along the roads there is sometimes a small government run concession stand where you may buy a pallid, weakly carbonated orange drink and stale cookies. Plumbing facilities are rarely present except for the woods, which serve both sexes (ladies to the left, men to the right, and step carefully).

Twenty-six years ago Warsaw was reduced to rubble. In 1944, on order from Hitler, the Germans had methodically destroyed 85% of the city by shelling, dynamiting and fire. As the Russian army approached, its generals had called for assistance and urged the Poles to rise and resist, but for the next 63 days the Russians waited patiently on the other side of the Vistula and did not move in to "liberate" the city until they were sure the Germans had done a thorough job. Still, today, Warsaw is very impressive. At least half of the city, and almost all of what is called The Old Town, has been restored from pictures and old plans exactly as it was in the past. The rest, too, has all been rebuilt, but with wide streets, parks and many large open plazas and squares.

On the outskirts, and on a number of city buildings whose outer walls survived sprays of rifle and machine gun, bullet marks can still be seen. New housing projects are scattered throughout with shining, modern, high-rise apartments; the open areas between buildings are paved with walnut-sized pieces of rubble painstakingly hand-laid in intricate design. The old, 100-block, walled Ghetto, into which the Germans had crowded 500,000 Polish Jews, is one of these pleasant open projects, and there is a hauntingly sculptured bronze monument commemorating the heroic leaders of the Jewish Resistance. There is a smaller, even more impressive, sculpture covering the sewer through which supplies and guns had been smuggled into the Ghetto, and, eventually, through which a handful of survivors escaped.

Warsaw is a compact, clean and orderly city, and now its population is back to more than a million. There are flowerbeds everywhere, and, when we saw them in May, they were filled with pansies in full bloom. Eighty-five percent (the standard statistical figure, it seemed) of its businesses, even the small shops, are government controlled. There is one large modern shopping mall and center in mid-town opposite the tall, monstrously ugly, Russian-built Palace of Culture and Science, where there is a large amount of merchandise, expensively priced and poorly displayed.

Housing is still in short supply, and apartments are assigned according to family size; a six-room apartment is a tremendous one. A young couple getting married is allotted two rooms, but must sign and go on a waiting list for three years. There is no pollution and no traffic problem in Warsaw. Automobiles are scarce enough that people gather in knots about any unusual car like the one from Switzerland parked by our hotel. There are no German or western-made cars to be seen; the most common car now is the Polish-made Fiat. (The Poles call one Russian-made car, "the Philosopher's Car" - if you buy one you think you own an automobile.) It is everyone's ambition to own a car, but only bureaucrats and officials can afford one. The Warsaw streets are safe, and there is no rowdiness; there are no "hippies." The women are liberated, equal and plainly dressed; they work as doctors, officials, and guides; they drive cabs, push wheelbarrows, lay sod, sweep streets, dig with shovels and mix cement. Everyone seems industrious and busy - but, like Professor Dominik said, tense. There is not much joviality or open friendliness. Generally, the Poles avoid tourists and strangers, and, it seemed, even each other.

Still, when you remember Polish history, that its boundaries have been constantly changing for 10 centuries, that some 250,000 Poles who fought with the west were never able to return home after World War II, that a million or so were eliminated by the Germans, another million by Russians, that an additional 3-1/2 million Polish Jews (who once made up 11% of Poland's population) have all but disappeared, and that a large number of its present inhabitants have been moved about and resettled by decree of the Russian dominated "People's Republic", you begin to understand why the children look serious, and why the adults are wary of strangers.

An old aunt of one of our group (still living as a pensioner in Warsaw) said, "Yes, things are much better now. We live in a nice large concentration camp instead of a small one."

(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Jul 1971, Vol. XVIII No.7, p.8

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