Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia Trip
by John Fuhring
Crossing the German border into Poland.
I really couldn't see much difference in the way buildings or the landscape looked as we crossed the border into Poland from what had recently been East Germany. We bused rather rapidly through Poland and saw only what could be seen from the window of the bus. While traveling through the Polish countryside, I noticed that many of the farm vehicles were horse drawn wagons. They were usually pulled by a single horse, had car type tires and had a ‘V’ shaped bed. Some of the apartment buildings in the towns we passed through were the most incredibly shoddy things I have ever seen. I couldn't believe that people could safely live in such structures, it's a good thing earthquakes are so rare in this part of the world. Looking back, even the amateur made brick apartment buildings of Egypt didn't look as shoddy as these Polish apartment buildings looked. I wonder if by now all these horrible places have been torn down and replaced with more modern buildings?
By the way, we took the same rout that Napoleon and later the German Wehrmacht took on their ill-fated invasions of Russia. The country we saw was flat and, at times, swampy looking for hundreds of miles. I assume it is pretty productive farm land although I'm sure it lacked the efficiency of scale and the large modern machines of the typical American farm of our Midwest.
Our first stop in Poland was Warsaw where we stayed only one day and two nights. By Order of the Central Committee of the newly liberated Polish Government, all tourists must be lectured so that they know what the people of Eastern Europe went through during W.W.II. The very first thing we had to do when we got to Warsaw was to be herded into a theater where we watched a film about the destruction of the city narrated in French. I didn't understand a word of the French, but I clearly understood the emotion of the narrator as image after image of total and wanton vandalism were shown. Warsaw was left by the Germans a flat and featureless plain without a stone standing on a stone. As complete as the destruction was, immediately after the Germans were defeated, the Communist Government rebuilt the city to look exactly as it had before the war and in an amazingly short period of time too. The only trouble with this kind of rebuilding is that the reconstruction was done too fast and with inferior materials and after all these years, much of it was starting to crumble. What was made to look like original stone work is really stucco covered wood. When I looked closely at many of the buildings, cracks, flaking, slumping and peeling were showing.
While in Warsaw, we visited the site of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto (never rebuilt and today is a city park and a memorial to the innocents that died at the hands of the Germans). We also toured several areas around Warsaw. The old central part of town was rebuilt to look exactly as it did before the Germans absolutely flattened everything during W.W.II. I asked Peter if Old Town Warsaw really looked the same as it did before W.W.II and he said yes, it's as he remembered it except it is now a lot cleaner.
Everywhere in Eastern Europe the Germans destroyed cities, statues, memorials and other cultural features, but afterwards the local people rebuilt them exactly as they once were to show the world, the Germans and themselves that, for all their barbarism and vandalism (the Vandals were a German tribe), the invaders had not the power to permanently destroy them or their culture. This rebuilding sometimes had a very ironic twist to it. I remember one huge bronze Napoleonic War monument to Czar Alexander commemorating some great victory or another. The Czar was on a big horse and wearing a helmet with two eagles on it and looking very 'noble' with his nose up in the air. The peasant soldiers were bowing and cringing bareheaded in the most pusillanimous way to this SOB. Naturally, the Germans destroyed the original when they came through and melted the bronze down to make ammunition. I thought to myself, how odd it was that a Communist government would order an exact reproduction of this monument especially when you consider how it showed the common man cringing to a czar in such an unflattering manner. If this monument had been in the U.S., I would be all in favor of replacing it with a monument to the common soldier sans the czar, but there were more forces at work here than what meets the eye.
We stayed at the "Grand Hotel" in Warsaw. It was built as a showcase of Communism many years ago. It was quite impressive in terms of size and outward appearance. The elevators were a thrill to ride as there was a palpable sense of danger when inside them. The compartments were incredibly small and could only hold maybe five people - max. When they stopped, they never lined up with the floor and sometimes they would buck and pitch. Mary Ann was freaked out on one ride and literally crawled out on her hands and knees when it stopped between floors and would not ride it again no matter what. Am sure that it would be against the law to use elevators like those in the U.S.
I felt very comfortable walking around by myself in Warsaw. People seemed friendly and happy. I was wearing this old crumpled up fedora hat, had on old clothes and being small of stature with ancestors that came from a nearby region (formerly called East Prussia), I looked just like a native. I was gazing into a store window when this Polish guy came up to me and starts jabbering something at me in Polish. I looked at him very gravely and nodded at all the right cues. Finally he looked exasperated and repeated something. At that point I smiled broadly, threw up my hands in a shrug and said in English " Sorry, but I don't speak a word of Polish." The guy was completely taken in and we had a good laugh and a handshake. Perhaps things have changed by now, but Warsaw couldn't hold a candle to Berlin in terms of interesting places to visit.
By American standards, I found things were cheap in Poland, but when I went to a sporting goods store to check out their horse equipment, I found the workmanship very poor indeed. I bought a big bar of Polish milk chocolate, but it took me a long time to finish it - it was awful, the worst chocolate I've ever tasted. From what I saw, the Poles were trying very hard to become Westernized as fast as possible and it showed in their stores and in their friendly manner. I really liked Poland and what I saw of the Polish people.