My arrival at the Holiday Inn was a hoot! It was what I expected and could have been anywhere. And it was funny. Until about two seconds after I walked in and loudly said “Hello??”, there was nobody in sight. Then, there were clerks and bellhops coming around every corner and popping up behind every counter. I think they thought a tour bus had arrived unannounced. Once they figured out it was just one person, all but the desk clerk and bell captain were soon gone again. It was 6:00 in the morning eastern By God Standard Bloc Time! Too early for business!
I got some zlotys with which to pay the cabby, who said the fare was 20,000 zlotys (a little less than two dollars). According to the hotel clerk a couple of minutes later, the correct fare was between 5,000 and 6,000 zlotys, but I wasn’t about to catch up with the cab and hassle with the guy over seventy-five cents. All I wanted was a hot, refreshing bath and something to eat. SoI went along with the petty larceny. Besides, I’m always prepared to get cheated or over-tip a little before I get a handle on exchange rates and lifestyles. And I’d seen worse in Honduras and Brasil!
ORBIS brochures listed Holiday Inn as one of their resources. The freight, I knew, was $71.00 a night and included breakfast. I could handle three days of that! I would have to pay for my breakfast that morning, the clerk told me, but that was fine with me. The main things I wanted were at hand. And I had made a good choice. There were two double beds and a long, deep tub waiting for me in room 723. As soon as the bellboy was gone, I drew a nice, hot bath and jumped in. Thirty minutes later, I put on a clean t-shirt and then went out to explore this new old-world kingdom. Food first, of course!
Boy, was I in for a surprise! The breakfast buffet seemed more like a July 4 picnic spread. There were deviled and plain boiled eggs, several cheeses, fruits and melons, six kinds of cold cuts, four different breads, bacon, bean and pea salad, sausages, butter, juice and more. Plus coffee. I took a bit of this and some of that and a little of this over here and went to a table of my own. In five minutes, I was back for another plate full, except I decided to pass on more of this over here. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven! At least, I felt that way on day 1and somewhat on day 2. Not so much on day 3, though. And not at all on day 4. By then, a change of menu was very much needed.
Next in the order of business was sightseeing. I had to figure out how I was going to get to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Brzezinka(Birkenau) and back. Tours were out of the question. ORBIS wanted $99.00 for a half-day tour of both places plus a couple of other places. Oswiecim was an hour’s drive by car. And that counted as part of the half a day! How could they get away with that? I certainly wasn’t buying it! I also felt that to be on someone else’s (or a state’s) schedule meant seeing what someone else wanted you to see (and I was proved right). I had fifteen rolls of film and didn’t want to be rushed. But what to do?
I decided to wait for the ORBIS booth in the well-lighted lobby to open at 8:00 and took a seat in one of the sofas near an ashtray. Other guests had already started coming and going and the Holiday Inn staff were either on duty or gearing up for the day’s operations. Some guests arrived And some checked out. Taxis and buses came and went as I sat and watched through the glass lobby doors and adjacent windows. Concessionaires opened their little shops that fronted on the lobby and which supplied guests with snacks, souvenirs, magazines, film, amber, haircuts and goodies from Adidas. I got a chance to chat with a couple of the other guests as I waited.
One guy I met was a Marine Guard from Germany. The ambassador’ sown! He had two weeks leave and he and a couple of buddies were taking a three-day tour of camps and cathedrals. They had chosen a three-day tour because it covered a lot of ground quickly. Ain’t that just like a Marine? The guy I talked to was motivated by the knowledge he may never get another chance after his tour ended in six months.
Others I met were Israelis and Jews from The States. Some were taking the same bus tour and some were on independent travel as I was. Those not taking tours cited the same concerns I had. They didn’t want a canned presentation. They also had come for the reason I had come – Tomorrow could be too late. Looking back, I’m surprised at how many vignettes I went through from a little before 8:00 to a little after 9:00when the ORBIS booth next to the lobby doors opened. An ashtray can draw a crowd, it seems.
Shortly after 9:00, a slight, short, light-haired kid in his twenties opened up for ORBIS. He spoke English, but not very well. It took some time and the intervention of a Polish cabby fluent in English to get across the idea that I wanted to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau on my own and wanted advice from him. Once that was clear, the cabby and he consulted in Polish and the ORBIS kid asked if I wanted a driver. I asked how much. He asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to go and stay until I was ready to come back.
At that, the cabby went out and got one of the other hacks who was standing around in the foyer between the inner and outer lobby doors. The guy he brought back also spoke fluent English. The second cabby and I then talked for a few minutes and I got an offer of 500,000 zlotys (about $55.00) for as much as I wanted to see, provided we were back at the hotel by 5:00. Done, I said, and, after I bought a bottle of Polish water, we headed for his cab, which was a white and well-kept late model Audi.
I was glad to have an English-speaking driver. There’s nothing worse than riding through new territory and being unable to ask what’s that or where are we now. And I had lots of questions as we drove out through city streets, down village roads and out on the four-lane highway. There was so much to see. Of course, we started with the small talk. I learned he had gotten his Audi used three years before for $5,000.00 through a friend in Germany. He didn’t believe me when I told him I drove a 1979Pontiac. He thought Americans bought a new car every other year. I told him that some did, but not me.
As we grew comfortable with each other, my questions turned to the land and the houses and the other things we passed. In each of the villages we went through were log homes, barns, and sheds and masonry homes and some homes of both logs and masonry. There were few totally stick-built houses. Some homes had shingled roofs and others had red tile or slate roofs. A few even had thatched roofs and I saw one with a sod roof. Nearly every house had flower beds out front and many had fenced yards.
Everything I saw excited me and I learned a lot. The well-maintained and decorated log homes, for example, were a hundred or more years old and many had been in the same family for generations. Newer homes tended to be drab, concrete stuccoed affairs with splashes of color on doors or shutters. As families had grown over generations, additions had been built and some homes had been expanded two or three times, which accounts forth mixed construction.
Signs of joy in life were everywhere. Each home had its particular flavor and some were truly unique. There were flowers and bushes and vines and trees in the yards. I saw colorful Catholic shrines in front of some houses, placed, I was told, in remembrance of loved ones or in thanks for fortunes preserved or simply out of piety. And get this. Two of the houses had Soviet Migs on pedestals in the front yard, red star and all! Just like you’d see at any self-respecting air force base and put there in remembrance of or homage to some villager’s military service or, possibly, as political statements. On the way out, we passed a lake with a small marina which, in the gray light of a damp and overcast morning, reminded me of a scene in Polanski’s Knife in the Water.
There wasn’t much to see in the farmland along the uncrowded concrete highway except for the occasional gallery forest or other stands of hardwoods and soft. But the driver and I talked about it anyway. He asked if we have similar trees in the States and I said I thought yes, but couldn’t name them. I asked what crops would be grown and noted that we rarely used horses or oxen for plowing these days, as some farmers were doing as we passed. My comment got me a lesson in primogeniture and socialism.
It seems that before Moscow Nights descended, laws of inheritance had the effect of carving family farms into ever smaller plots as they were divvied up among sons. Sales and shifting family alliances had also caused once adjacent family plots to best badly separated that one family’s individual plots might be an half-mile or more apart. Soviet land reform had made things even worse by redistributing land among the citizenry, including city dwellers. By now, the fragmentation was so bad and the plots so small that there was no point in using tractors. Change was coming slowly, the driver said, as families pieced together larger farms by buying out plots owned by neighbors, relatives, and people in the cities.
Outside the villages, I saw no barns or equipment sheds or utility buildings other than a scattered few shanties I first took to be rock bottom in Polish housing (there are no homeless). I also saw no fences or hedgerows or property markers. But I was wrong about the shanties. They weren’t homes. They were weekend houses for the landowners. Mostly, they belonged to city dwellers or villagers who would come out on weekends to plant or harvest or hoe.
End of Part III