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The International Writers Magazine:Travel

Poland - A Country of Doubts
David Russell

On day 9 of our 12 day Poland trip, with our bus headed for Poznam, my wife asked me a question I’d been asking myself, "Why are we here? Why, with a world of travel alternatives, had we picked Poland?"

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 an easier city life, leaving behind aging parents to run farms many weren’t able to do. And farm parents reluctant to give up their actually valuable land.

Too many "left-over" former Soviet hacks still controlling little fiefdom’s within the government. And, overwhelmingly, much too much Church influence interfering in everyone’s 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 decide.
These extra two days were deliberately planned. Reviewing the tour company’s 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; we’d been in our teens in the 1940’s 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.

Unbelievable. Tears 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 wasn’t 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.

Wednesday, –
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 -- Poland’s # 1 industry (though Tourism’s fast catching up), mostly grains and apples, both export cash crops. Except, roads are so bad they keep truck transport at a snail’s pace with many long hours of stalled waiting, causing a percentage of the crop to spoil.

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 in tourism.
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 own.

Thursday – Lecture on "Recent Polish Politics".

By 1993, Communism’s influence was on the wane. Lech Wallensa’s 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 they’d win 65% of the vote and the Presidency. They won just 1 parliamentary seat. Wallensa’s victory was Central Europe’s 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 worker’s rights. And, since they had not converted to the Euro limiting their continental trade, Poland had become one of Europe’s 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 it’s not very deep; only ten percent is considered deep water. Amber was Gdansk’s first export, going to Rome. In the following Hanseatic period, merchants shipped mainly timber and grain. By the 17th century, Gdansk was the Baltic’s largest seaport, with its major export cash crop being grain. Though the Baltic representing 1% of world shipping water, it carried 10% of world’s 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, it’s cost in markets is almost as much as imported beef.

Today’s major Bulk cargo: oil, coal, natural gas and grains. About 20 international tour ships sail yearly, plus many daily ferries to Sweden. Gdansk’s newest terminal raises it to the Baltic’s 2nd largest port. But, "feeding" the ships remains a continuing problem because of Poland’s horrible road system + its antiquated rail capabilities.

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 Poland’s 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 1100’s by Genghis Kahn’s invading Tartars. That, in the 1600’s, 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.

Wednesday, – 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 didn’t 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). Spielberg’s "Schindler’s 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." How’s that for negative apples?

That afternoon 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 wall.

Immediately outside the synagogue was a street we visited twice. First, on a "Schindler’s 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

Friday, – Our guide, sans notes, told us the history of Jews in Poland.
9th century - Jewish merchants first arrived to begin trade, some settled.
10th century - Spain’s 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 – Jew’s 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" Jews.
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 Europe’s 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 l900’s – Hassidism on rise; Polish Jews created the first Kibbutz.

1939 - Many factions supported diverse ideas, mostly anti-Jewish. Hitler’s 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 night’s world famed JEWISH Music Festival performed everywhere. We heard many different languages, including a lot of Polish.

Saturday - Walked through the town center to Wawel Hill, to visit the Castle and Gothic Cathedral where Poland’s kings were once crowned. Today its sub-basement is lined with royal burial chapels, keeping it Poland’s 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.

Sunday, – This 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 world’s most photographed man.

Later 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 Heritage Site.

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 Kupinski’s, 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 everyone’s 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 Kupinski’s 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, it’s 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 Jan 2009

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