International Writers Magazine:Travel
- A Country of Doubts
day 9 of our 12 day Poland trip, with our bus headed for Poznam,
my wife asked me a question Id been asking myself, "Why
are we here? Why, with a world of travel alternatives, had we picked
Flying home a week
later, I thought I had successfully summed it up in the final chapter
of my travel diary, writing that "Yes, though Poland was the land
of Copernicus, of Chopin, of great kings and mighty castles, even more
recently, of Pope John, the Poland of Today may be a land of too much
and too little." Too many jobless people, including university
graduates, too little potential for those willing and wanting to work,
even kids who crammed English-courses for potential employment in the
fast growing Travel industry which catered to and craved for the American
dollar. Too many warehouses piled high with goods because too many bad
roads limited trucking to European neighbors and to ships headed for
international markets. Too many family farms deserted by kids wanting
city life, leaving behind aging parents to run farms many werent
able to do. And farm parents reluctant to give up their actually valuable
many "left-over" former Soviet hacks still controlling
little fiefdoms within the government. And, overwhelmingly,
much too much Church influence interfering in everyones life.
How did I know all these things? From lecture after lecture - professional
Polish business and scholarly nationals - speaking to us, often
with shades drawn and doors locked. Looking at that laundry list
today, it becomes clearer why, at the time, my wife and I both shared
negative views of Poland. But from the prospective of time, if asked
today "Poland Yes?, Poland No? " I have
to ask myself this other question. ""Was our judgment
really a fair one?"
Our first two days in Warsaw were, wrapped in the luxury of the
Fryderyk Chopin Hotel. The only way to determine a once-and-for-
all, true answer was, to relive our entire trip from day one, then
These extra two days were deliberately planned. Reviewing the tour
companys itinerary, we saw scheduled for almost every city
we were to visit at least one Cathedral, sometimes more than one.
But not listed was what we thought was a must stop the Jewish
Historical Institute; the museum that remembers the Warsaw Ghetto.To
say we were not prepared for this museum experience is to understate.
Though our knowledge of the ghetto was limited; wed been in
our teens in the 1940s with our only references books and
Hollywood films. But even had we been more prepared there was no
way to relate to what we saw, beginning with a half-hour film pieced
together from actual Nazi footage.
ran free. There on the screen bigger than life was the "Master
Race" killing, maiming, torturing. All the while laughing and relishing
it all. So unthinkable. Such inhuman atrocities. You watched, yet you
could not absorb. You rationalize this wasnt real, it was just
more Hollywood. We had no sufficient cope mechanism for this. And you
realized the full impact of what was meant by "Never Again".
After the film, moving among life size exhibit boards, words were useless.
There was no way to identify these scenes as human activity. For me,
a painting of a guitar player, strumming what I knew was a blue note,
brought back some perspective balancing our world against the past 2
hours. The return walk to the Fryderyk Chopin was mostly in silence.
The next day the rest of the group arrived and here our story begins.
During our city tour bus ride, we heard the first negative info; similar
to what we would hear during the entire trip.
Current unemployment 15%. Recently, more than 400,000 Polish
citizens moved to England, over a million to the United States, mainly
the Chicago Milwaukee area, where many had relatives who arranged
for their transportation and beginning of their U. S. employment.
Agriculture -- Polands # 1 industry (though Tourisms fast
catching up), mostly grains and apples, both export cash crops. Except,
roads are so bad they keep truck transport at a snails pace with
many long hours of stalled waiting, causing a percentage of the crop
Social programs force most retired workers to live on $300.00 month.
Education, formerly controlled by the Communists, has become more open.
Students formerly required to learn Russian, now learn English for jobs
Multi-generational families from grandparents to small children all
live together in single houses most often associated with a farm, Teen-agers
with high school diplomas leave for the city seeking easier, better
paying jobs leaving aging parents to try to manage the farms on their
Thursday Lecture on "Recent Polish Politics".
1993, Communisms influence was on the wane. Lech Wallensas
Solidarity Party had so influenced Poles to think "freedom",
that by their 1990 "Free Election", Communism was a non-factor.
As we know, the election surprise was Wallensa easily winning the
Presidency. Surprise, because the Communists, still power-hungry,
had bragged theyd win 65% of the vote and the Presidency.
They won just 1 parliamentary seat. Wallensas victory was
Central Europes first casting off of the Communist yoke. In
an immediate progressive step, Wallansa entered Poland into the
European Free Market, which at home, prompted the start-up of hundreds
of small entrepreneurial businesses.
However, when we
were there, Poland was being led amazinly by a ruling class. Solidarity,
once 10 million strong, now with just 1 million members, could no longer
mount a fight for workers rights. And, since they had not converted
to the Euro limiting their continental trade, Poland had become one
of Europes weakest economic trading partners.
What followed was those small businesses dried up reducing +15% of the
population to permanent dole.
Saturday Lecture by Gdansk Marketing Department Official. Subject:
The Baltic Sea.
In size, 415,000 sq. km. = the Great Lakes. Problem for shipping is
its not very deep; only ten percent is considered deep water.
Amber was Gdansks first export, going to Rome. In the following
Hanseatic period, merchants shipped mainly timber and grain. By the
17th century, Gdansk was the Baltics largest seaport, with its
major export cash crop being grain. Though the Baltic representing 1%
of world shipping water, it carried 10% of worlds traffic. So
many ships discharging pollutants, has affected the almost 20 million
people living along its shore line. Fish, formerly a prime food source,
is in such short supply, its cost in markets is almost as much
as imported beef.
Todays major Bulk cargo: oil, coal, natural gas and grains. About
20 international tour ships sail yearly, plus many daily ferries to
Sweden. Gdansks newest terminal raises it to the Baltics
2nd largest port. But, "feeding" the ships remains a continuing
problem because of Polands horrible road system + its antiquated
Dinner, hosted by
the Wominitzki Family, was the best meal of our trip. Served by family
& friends, the menu was Lemon/Dill Soup, Lettuce tomato salad,
Stuffed Rolled Ham, Breaded Chicken and the hit of the meal, home made
Kasha w/Sausage. Kaffe, Tea and 2 different cake choices completed this
wonderful dinner. On the bus ride to our Puznam hotel, is when Claryce
asked her question. Strange, after so many down days, to pose her "Why
are we here?" question, after such an up one?
Monday, Professor Arkadiasz Sadowski lecturing on Agriculture,
noted that since 2004, Poland has been one of 25 EU trading partners.
However, of its available arable land, only 30% is actively used. Italy
with half that arable land equals Polands cash crop profits, Poland
being last in EU country land on investment return. Potential is always
stressed rather than actual, so equally listed are Potatoes (high yield),
Cereals (limited yield), Sugar Beet & Pig Live Stock (major exporter)
Mineral Fertilizers (practically non existent). Overall, with Poland
offering the cheapest land cost vs. value in the EU, people wonder,
why, while government costs continue to rise, workers still receive
bottom level wages. And why, with most farm equipment, roads and railways
uselessly outdated, are there insufficient funds to upgrade? (Where
goes that money?)
Another party line is "With low land and labor costs, Poland will
shortly attract added EU investment." Not so, people say, because
too many church and government regulations block that potential. Or,
as Sadowski summed it up, "Poland is really Pogo. We also have
met the enemy and, they, definitely, are us."
Tuesday, "How many Poles does it take start a tractor?"
Answer: "None. There are no tractors." A typical Polish joke,
Our Polish guide is an amazing, walking/talking encyclopedia; he delivered
us total substance and verse on any subject. Example: When our bus driver
got lost, He extemporized the lecture we were missing. That this area,
Selessia, had for centuries been ruled not only by neighbor countries,
but in the 1100s by Genghis Kahns invading Tartars. That,
in the 1600s, Hapsburg Christians firmly reigned, enforcing their
own culture by constructing a Cathedral rival to the Royal Cathedral.
That in a religious war, the Hapsburgs were defeated by Protestants,
mainly German farmers. whose language, culture and law still prevail.
began with a ride to Auschwitz, where the front gate at Camp
#1 reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Works makes you free). That
was lie One told the original Polish prisoners, then the Jews, who
were either transported or death marched here. Those who didnt
die enroute, were worked to death and when unable to work, given
Nazi "showers", the final lie. Zyklon 8 showers which
killed about 150 a day. Evidence of their existence are collections
of eye-glasses, shoes, prosthesis and clothing. No more words are
needed. The same aptly applies to Birkenau, where the only seemingly
appropriate words might be, "Never again!"
Birkenau is the
larger camp, boasting a "new and improved" crematorium, which
(Nazi terminology) - could dispatch 4,576 corpses each day (they
kept count). Spielbergs "Schindlers List" featured
scenes showing the Rail Head, where box cars from throughout occupied
Europe delivered hundreds of thousands of prisoners, mainly Jews. Add
to that the some 60,000 who were forced marched here and you have some
concept of how many prisoners were cycled through these two camps. When
liberated, remaining were found 5,000 old and sick prisoners.
Thursday, In a morning lecture, an official of the current government
addressed us on the subject of Business Environment. Listening to his
glowing praise for the Polish future, we looked at each other in disbelief
having heard what we have heard previously and seeing what we had seen.
Taken aback by our questions which refuted his comments, the poor man
suddenly remembered "that he had another important appointment
for which he was late" and had to run. He ran. Not even our very
patriotic guide believed him, telling us he had to wait eight months
for approval to move into his apartment. That the reason roads were
so poor, was government inattention. His dire solution in his words
"the older generation needs to die out including the
dinosaurs who run the government - before Poland can enjoy any sense
of Progress." Hows that for negative apples?
we visited the Synagoga Remu, originally built in 1558, rebuilt
in 1829 and restored in l958 l966, when broken head stones
were collected and resurrected into a striking ceremonial mosaic
outside the synagogue was a street we visited twice. First, on
a "Schindlers List" tour to see key film locations.
This street served as Nazi headquarters, where much soldier inter-action
occurred. That same night, with us plus about 200,000 others from
all over the world, it transformed into the venue for the annual
world famed Jewish Klezmer Music Festival. See pic
guide, sans notes, told us the history of Jews in Poland.
9th century - Jewish merchants first arrived to begin trade, some settled.
10th century - Spains Abraham Jacob, told of selling textiles
in Krakow. 11/12/13/14th centuries Jewish mass arrival from less
friendly countries. With Teutonic Knights hated for "raping towns"
on their way to Palestine, Polish kings took to their Jewish doctors,
architects and teachers, raising many to high court positions. Jews
became tax collectors managers of the highly profitable Salt Mines.
15th/16th century Jews elevation angered the Church. It
claims Catholic children were killed so their blood could be used in
making ceremonial bread. Add wars with Sweden, Germany & Russia
and Kings needing Church support began separating themselves from "their"
17th Century Church urged peasants to rise up against Polish
nobles and Jews who worked for them.
18th Century Elections were introduced. Only Noble families could
elect kings The first chosen was from Sweden, favored Swedes over Poles.
1795 - Poland was excised from Europe; lands taken by neighboring countries.
Kosciusko promoted Europes first constitution which threatened
royalty, Jews and women. Years of turmoil followed.
1825, Jews moved into the eastern Soviet area, where the king actually
favored Jewish professionals, except Litvaks. Forced to leave the country,
they went to the U. S. or Palestine. The remaining Jews created their
own parliament with Josef Frank the self-proclaimed leader. But, Frank
did the unpardonable, converting himself and his followers to Catholicism.
Early l900s Hassidism on rise; Polish Jews created the
1939 - Many factions supported diverse ideas, mostly anti-Jewish. Hitlers
army moved East. Soviets moved West. Jews squeezed between. 3-million
returned to Germany and eventually to the camps. Those who immigrated
to the Soviet zone were basically safe at first.
1941 and After The Nazi final solution killed 11,000,000 Jews.
The Soviets started robbing Jews of useable "war" materials,
then mobilized them for forced labor. A sad note to end the morning.But,
not the day. Klezmer bands , "warming up" for that nights
world famed JEWISH Music Festival performed everywhere. We heard many
different languages, including a lot of Polish.
- Walked through the town center to Wawel Hill, to visit the Castle
and Gothic Cathedral where Polands kings were once crowned.
Today its sub-basement is lined with royal burial chapels, keeping
it Polands spiritual capital. In 1978, it was named a UNESCO
World Heritage Site. The Royal chambers have been restored to their
original Renaissance Baroque style with its most valuable items
magnificent 16th century Fleming tapestries, perhaps the
largest collection of its kind in Europe. Obvious is a second matching
dome where years ago its Golden facing was stolen.
split day began with a spiritual a.m., as we with hundreds of
others - paid homage at the Wadi Wici home and church of Karol Wojstyla,
later the Polish Pope, John Paul. where room after room was crammed
with (No Photos Allowed) memorabilia, including thousands of pictures,
amateur and professional, plus reprints from world-wide newspapers and
magazines and official Vatican photo-ops. Pictures of John Paul literally
from birth to death, validating him as the worlds most photographed
we visited the world-class Wieliczka salt mines which, for more
than 700 years, made money selling salt. Today, it sells tourists
a visit to its 3-levels, with hundreds of down stairs and one up
elevator, to view cavernous areas filled with sculptured chapels
and galleries carved from solid, un-mined blocks of salt. Also as
you walk the mine, you come across dozens of hand sculpted statues,
the work of 3 miners over a 60-year span. At tour end, many vendors
sell salt jewelry. Wieliczka mines are a World Cultural and Natural
That was our last
night in Poland. Enroute to our Airport hotel, we enjoyed two neat surprises.
First, being treated to a home dinner hosted by the Kupinskis,
a young married couple living at the base of the 200 year old Lowicz
castle ruins, which they were restoring, hoping to turn it into a future
tourist attraction. Dinner, which began with a salvo from a restored
castle cannon, ended with many shared iced vodka toasts ... to peace,
to freedom, to everyones good health, to a better life for the
Polish people. And, for us all.
Between the cannon salvo and dinner, came our second surprise, the appearance
of Polish Opera Soprano Wanda Bangelogski-Bgnella, who had performed
in both the San Francisco and Chicago opera houses. Accompanied on piano,
she sang folk songs written by Stanislaw Moniuszko, which are considered
the heart of Polish folk culture. Set in the Kupinskis typical
Polish wooden cottage, we were being treated to the full flavor of what
life could be like in Poland in the best of times. Wanda joined liberally
in our after dinner toasts. After reliving our 15 diverse days in Poland,
its now decision time. With the exception of a few personal positive
comments, did all the negative words we heard outweigh all positive
pictures we see? The answer probably rests somewhere in whether or not
you believe that old maxim: "a picture is worth a thousand words."
© David Russell
The year was 1985 and Yugoslavia was still an undivided country
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