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“Papers! Papers!” Shouts of armed soldiers wake me as they tromp through my train in long coats and helmets. So this is East Germany, 1972. We scramble for our passports, watching passengers exit under machine guns aimed at our train from atop nineteenth-century iron catwalks arching above the tracks. One blond, Nordic-looking woman is pulled from her seat in our car at gunpoint, crying and pleading in German, broken English and some other language I cannot understand. She looks to be twenty, the same age as me. With my American small-town naiveté, I wonder why having a passport problem is such a huge crime, and clutch my return ticket. I’ve heard that “police states” exist, but the phrase hadn’t meant much until now. I remind myself to breathe.
It’s April. My boyfriend Jim and I had taken a break from our London acting school to travel to Poland to experience Jerzy Grotowski’s theater. His “Plastiques” method is visceral, explosive, dangerous – quite unlike the classic British acting methods we’re studying. Jim is a directing student from Chicago obsessed with theater; I am an actress-cum-escapee from Vietnam War protests that had overrun my Ohio college near Kent State, where National Guard troops had killed four students during riots. We’ve both traveled widely and are supremely confident we can handle whatever comes our way, though we know little of actual life behind the Iron Curtain.
We bring pounds as well as dollars, in case one might prove more valuable than the other, and take a ferry to Calais and a night train across Europe. We have some food with us but at 5pm – as is routine when I travel on US trains – I set out to meet the locals. Jim goes the opposite direction so we’ll have tales to tell at the end of the night. But I find neither observation car nor dining, just cars of five cabins connected by long hallways. Everyone seems to have their own food, and there are no extra seats to sit for a conversation.
I am approaching the last car of the train, disappointed not to have met anyone, when I hear boisterous laughter and the clink of glasses. Now this is more like it! After a trainload of identical compartments, the very last car beckons. Rich polished wood panels replace plastic and metal; instead of long hallways of blank glass, hall windows are framed by tied-back white curtains, and each compartment is thickly upholstered in red cushions. No other car is so inviting. But as soon as I peer into the first cabin, four jovial men freeze and one barks, “You go! Russian only.” An armed guard appears from nowhere and hustles me out of the car. I later learn that since Russians are not trusted to transfer without trying to escape, the entire car will be detached from our train somewhere in Germany and reattached to a Moscow-bound train, as if the passengers are potatoes.
I return to our empty seats, find Jim is still out reconnoitering, and am disappointed again that there is nothing to do but eat alone and try to sleep upright in a cabin full of strangers, none of whom speak English. Their collapsed forms are reflected in the window through which I can see only the black silhouettes of trees flashing by a shale sky. The countryside is still. We are heading east, just hours from being wakened for our papers in East Germany.
After being roused again by armed guards in East Berlin, this time around 3am, it is almost a relief to enter Poland. There are still soldiers everywhere, but somehow the place seems more human. Maybe it is the moneychanger, a genial Polish man in a blue uniform with a large brown leather satchel. He explains in Polish, German and English that we will not be able to use foreign currency when we arrive, and that he will give us zlotys for our currencies according to where we are traveling, and for how long. Those staying with their Polish families will have the least expenses, so they exchange the smallest amount per day. Those staying at hotels will need a larger amount, and Americans are expected to exchange the most, even if they are students like us staying at a youth hostel. It’s not fair and seems silly to exchange so much money for a three-day stay when we have no intention of spending it, but the official assures us that if we don’t spend it all, we can get our money back on our return train. The armed soldier behind him convinces us it is pointless to argue.
“Honey, get up,” Jim shakes me awake. “This guy wants to buy us breakfast while we wait for our train to Wroclaw.” We are in Poznan, the nearest large Polish city to the German border. Jim had spent the night using his rusty high-school German to talk with an affable Polish man in another car, who explains over breakfast at a nearby hotel that he no longer speaks with his son, who is Jim’s age. I am taken aback by his sadness, and wonder what could have gone so wrong.
“So that’s why I talk with you,” the man concludes in German, “and I show you Poles can make a beautiful breakfast like in the US, yah?” It is nice indeed – fresh orange juice, strong coffee, thick slabs of yeasty local bread, savory sausages and eggs, served on elegant china at a table graced by fresh flowers and gleaming heavy silverware. I think it good but unremarkable, since it is what you’d get in any Hilton in the States, and wonder why it makes him so proud.
When we finally get to Wroclaw by mid-day, it is a relief after so many dreary brown stations to find a large market square surrounded by handsome five-story curvilinear buildings – they look Dutch to me – painted in different pastels with geraniums in flowerpots on every windowsill. I relax in anticipation of a charming jaunt. But as we traipse through town to pick up our theater tickets, concrete Soviet apartment blocks loom over us, desolate and soulless. I cannot imagine having to live in such a place.
I’m used to London’s nineteenth-century brick buildings fronting streets full of Carnaby Street Mod fashions: bright colors, polka dots and shiny boots. But I live there like every other student in a small apartment, known as a flat, decidedly not up to American standards. Our handsome 1860s townhouse flat comes complete with ancient wiring (each room has one outlet) and coin-metered gas heat. One night we run out of shillings and can’t get change – everything in London closes at 11pm then, including pubs – and in the morning, the wall next to my bed oozes damp cold. The shower is hot for five minutes until the 20-liter water heater, hanging above the tub, runs out. There are no bananas or oranges for breakfast because stevedores are on strike. Electricity sometimes goes out for no reason. All this, to a student like me, makes London a grand adventure compared to the States, but London is the Ritz compared to Wroclaw.
Our hostel is minimalist, small and grey, like so much there, but I really sense we are walled off from the world, behind some kind of curtain, when we eat. All the metal in all the cafeterias is tin – hollow, thin and bent – from the coins you pay with, to the rack that supports your battered tin tray along the steam counter, to the “silverware” we eat with. One morning, I bend my spoon just stirring my coffee. Thinking of the fabulous breakfast we’d been treated to in Poznan, I realize the ruling class still reserves the best for themselves, and think, What is all this poppycock about a classless society that some American students still spout? At least the food is plentiful, although it’s the heaviest I’ve ever eaten. The first night, I have to abandon half my meat-and-potatoes dinner. The next night I start with an appetizer and never get further: The bland chicken-salad-like substance swathed with mayonnaise on a hard, pink tomato is plenty. I am used to some imported food scarcity in London due to strikes, but in Poland, the only fresh produce I see are scrawny root vegetables – onions, potatoes, carrots, beets – and some apples. No greens, no juice, no imports. This paucity of fresh food, the ubiquitous flimsy tin, and the clean but patched faded clothes of no particular fashion that everyone wears all reinforce the feeling that we have stepped into a postcard from the past, of peasantry, poor and parched.
While it surprises me to see such poverty in a large city – Wroclaw is home to over 400,000 people – I am amazed, in the midst of so much hardship, to find full houses every night at multiple theaters offering Shakespeare, Polish and other plays, plus a gilded Rococo Opera House with ballet, opera or symphonies most nights. I am very impressed that this impoverished population thinks so highly of their culture that they willingly support the hundreds of actors, musicians, set/costume/lighting and other tradesmen that make it possible. Only later I learn from a disaffected Polish professor in the States that the audiences are assured by requiring every worker to attend X number of performances a year. Free tickets are handed out by your supervisor and if you skip, he’ll know, and you could be jailed for defying the State once too often. What an awful price to pay. Yet the price we Americans often pay for our insistent independence – demanding that all culture compete in a popularity contest for support – can spur a herd mentality that lowers the bar so much, it reinforces ignorant insularity. Neither one is right.
The night we attend Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theater, spare but well-equipped for tourists with programs and synopses printed in seven languages, we see Apocalypsis Cum Figuris, featuring Ryszard Cieslak in the title role. Cieslak is a riveting actor who uses movement as his primary form of expression, a human Gumby. Using his body as if it were a trampoline – elastic yet exactingly precise – he becomes, in his words, “almost without skin, pure discovered nerves.” I’ve never seen a physical performance so focused and intent. Jim thinks the work inspired, and talks my ears off afterward.
On our second day, looking for a bakery, we round a corner into a sudden deconstruction zone. Workmen are carefully removing carved limestone lintels from doorways and windows of a three-story wall remaining from an old building. At first, I think, Oh good, at least they’re not destroying everything historic when they tear down a building. But then I look closer.
The building behind it, and the one across the street, and the one down the street, are just hollow historic facades fronting rubble. They are still cleaning up from WWII bombings, twenty-seven years on! I reel from the enormity of the destruction these people had faced (the city, then known as Breslau, had been part of Germany). I am floored by the ineptitude of the Communist system. London had been badly fire-bombed too, but the East End and other areas had been completely rebuilt years ago, with brick Council Flats occupying obvious spots between Georgian terraces. But here, they haven’t even finished removing the destruction. And what they did build is so ugly: hard, grey, frowning. Surely the powers-that-be can do better? I start to realize what it could be like to live under a system where the State makes all the decisions, and the people make none.
On our third day, Jim and I decide there is so much yet to see that we go to the local ORBIS office to extend our Visas one more day, a process we think might take an hour. But the office is full, with multiple lines snaking around, worse than any US government office, and no one speaks English. We stand for an hour in one line, only to have Jim learn in German that we should have been in another. After hours of waiting, only to be directed to stand in a fourth line, with no sign of real help, Jim blows up, a typical American (the kind we deplored when we saw them in London), loudly proclaiming to no one in particular that he would let our Embassy know about this when we get back. Miraculously they find someone who speaks English, and by late afternoon our extended Visas are finally approved.
But we are fuming. We had wasted an entire day. No one bothered to tell us ORBIS is swamped because it’s Easter. Everyone wants to visit relatives, and since you need an official permit to travel anywhere at any time, without fear of arrest – I thought of that poor girl hustled off our train in Germany – thus the lines. But being up front about a situation is not, apparently, the apparatchik way.
After another day of sightseeing, our four days in Poland are over. We are at the Wroclaw station, hard-sided valises in hand, but it is not at all clear which train goes north to our connection in Poznan. None of the townspeople speak English or are willing to speak German, there are no framed maps on the platform, nothing but Polish names we do not recognize, and no official who can help. We stride up and down the platforms, calling out “Nordlich? Poznan?” and pointing to each train. When at last several people nod, we hope for the best, and get on. So do everyone else.
There are no seats or standing room in the filled cabins, so we stand in the hallway, wedged together so tightly spoon-style that Jim cannot turn around to see me behind him as the train rumbles out. The crush of bodies is so intense that at one rural stop, a thin old woman, desperate to get off and not strong enough to push through the crowd, squeezes her cloth bag and then herself through the only narrow window that opens in the hallway. As she arches her upper body out, a crowd of upraised arms on the platform pulls her lower half out, as if this is common.
We ride for over an hour, squeezed together in the middle of our jostling car, our feet aching, before Jim recognizes a city name. “Shit, Opole?” Jim leans over me. “That’s on the way to Cracow, we’re going south. We’ve got to get off this train.”
My heart sinks. I know we can’t cram ourselves through a window to escape like the tiny old lady. It will be another two hours to Cracow. If we don’t catch a northbound train soon, we’ll miss the last cross-Europe train in Poznan, and if we can get a hotel at all with these crowds, we don’t want to have to pay the top dollar we’ll be charged as Americans to stay overnight. Plus, our classes back in London start in two days.
At the next stop, the train waits at the station at least fifteen minutes with no one getting off when a large man somehow crushes past us. We grab at the chance to move out in his wake, hoisting our suitcases over our heads as he has done. But it is nearly impossible. The train has been waiting at the station so long that no one at the end of the car is willing to step down to let anyone off for fear the train will start up at any moment and leave them. All we can do is push and plead, “Aus! Bitte…We need aus! Please… Danke.” We had moved several feet when I feel my purse catch behind me, but with both hands supporting my luggage, I can only squirm to pull it free.
Though my head is down, I can see outside light flicker from the end of the car, only a few feet away, as the Pole pushes through with Jim right behind him. But my strength is flagging. I am desperate that the train will start up with Jim off and me on, traveling to God knows where, with no ability to make myself understood. People around me sense my fear and start pushing me forward. But my outstretched arms give way under the weight of my suitcase, and as people push my shoulders, I fall forward over my case, can’t stop going down, I see nothing but bundles and rough clothes and worn shoes, I’m choking, almost crushed to the dirty floor, sobbing, “Please let me out! Stop pushing! Stop it! Jim where are you? Stop it!” when someone pulls me up and out as I gasp for air.
Miraculously, the train remains still. People pull and push me again and again until I stumble down the steps and collapse on my case, shaken like a hen pulled from a fox’s grim grip.
A north-bound train, when it comes, is not nearly so crowded which is a huge relief. We find seats and I rest under Jim’s wing; by the time we reach Poznan, I am calmer. While waiting for our cross-Europe train, I distract myself by watching the enormous black nineteenth-century locomotives start up. I have never witnessed such creatures before; Western European trains are all modernized, but here little had changed since the 1930s. I watch, fascinated, as soot scatters in all directions and steam hisses, the iron bar connecting colossal discs shudders into life as the great slabs of steel shake, snort and strain to coax wheels taller than me into urgency, slowly then faster and faster and faster and faster until the muscular machine clatters away from me in rhythmic momentum. The sheer force of the Industrial Revolution is still alive! My eyes are teary from the smoke but I cannot stop myself from walking, then running, with one enormous iron horse after another until I am left breathless and exhilarated at the end of each platform, looking for the next train to run with, like a racehorse chomping at the bit.
Our train out of Poznan has barely started when, “Pieniądze proszę,” the moneychanger is back. Only this time he speaks only Polish as he collects zlotys from our cabin mates without exchanging anything. Oh no; have we been intentionally misled again? My heart sinks as I fume, You can’t trust anyone in this country. No one knows anything or will tell you what’s going on.
“No, we were told we could exchange these zlotys for the British pounds we exchanged four days ago, coming into Poland,” Jim tries to explain in his rusty German.
“Przykro mi, ale nie rozumiem, mówię tylko po polsku,” says the moneychanger.
One of our cabin mates translates in German, “Er sagt, er spricht nur Polnisch, kein Englisch, können Sie verstehen?”
Through this spontaneous three-way translation, Jim finally understands what’s up and explodes, “Nur Geld?” The moneychanger smiles apologetically and opens his valise to show nothing but zlotys.
I pipe up, “So how do we get our money back? We exchanged way more money than we needed, and now we’re going to lose it all?” The Pole promises to keep our money for us, for when we came back on another trip. Sure, I think, like it would be waiting for us, no problem. We’re never coming back after all this…
Jim tries to explain that we are just students and need that money, it’s ours, not yours, and besides my girlfriend here has been robbed of all her zlotys plus pounds and dollars from her purse on the Cracow train. I show him, no wallet.
Finally, after going back and forth many times in three languages, the money collector asks for paper but no one has any, so from somewhere he tears off a piece of cardboard and writes something in Polish, and tells us to take it to the Moscow Narodny Bank in London, and they will give us our money, but now he has to collect our zlotys. With his armed guard vigilant behind him, we have no choice but to give him all our Polish money for a cardboard sign we cannot read.
We’re glum – especially me – about the prospects of ever getting our money back, but at least we get safely on the cross-Europe train heading west. This time I do not gallivant through the train looking for random conversation, and we make it back to class on time.
Now it’s mid-June, and term has almost ended. Jim will be leaving in a few days to return to the States, and we still have not been reimbursed, almost three months after we got back. I’ve given up hope of ever seeing our money again when we get a message to come to the London branch of the Moscow Narodny Bank.
“This’ll just be another waste of our time,” I exasperate. “Why do they put us through hoops?” But, just in case, I join Jim at the bank.
It is a beautiful yet imposing building, full of marble and nineteenth-century British pomp, completely unlike anything we saw in Poland. Typical, I sniff to myself, the top brass commandeer the best for themselves. But from history classes, I know better. Poland and the USSR once had plenty of nineteenth-century pomp, most of it completely destroyed in the war, so there is little left now to commandeer or save. And how well would we have fared, I reflect, if bombing had obliterated Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans? What would be left of those places without the old districts that make them unique? Would all our cities now be full of cheap soulless monoliths, built quickly to house multitudes without money?
After another long wait, my cynicism melts as I watch the teller hand Jim a fat packet. “Look at this!” he exults. “That crappy cardboard sign actually got through to a person! I think they gave us everything back! I told you this would work out!” We count the cash – nearly $500, a fortune to students in 1972.
I am flabbergasted the scheme worked, and wish somehow we could have kept that torn bit of cardboard. What did those magic words say? In a country full of rules, doublespeak, switchbacks and scarcity, what can a functionary like a moneychanger possibly write to cause the great grey faceless State to reconsider its usual heartless policy? Has someone been bribed along the way, or did we happen upon a bureaucrat courageous enough to bend the rules? Has he been punished for showing us some humanity? Did they reimburse because they’re ashamed I was robbed on the train? Are we tokens of leniency in some cold war game in the middle of Vietnam? Or are we simply lucky?
One thing is for sure. Though rude, brash American tourists still embarrass me in London, and I try to appear as quietly British as possible – adjusting my accent, my clothes, my hair, so I won’t be seen as one of them – I realize for perhaps the first time what it means to be free. The old WWII song sings in my head: “There’ll be bluebirds over / the White Cliffs of Dover, tomorrow just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”
I have to admit – pacifist and lifelong Democrat that I am – that some things really are worth fighting for.