The Polish experience #2

I arrived in Poland by train from Czechoslovakia via the Tatra mountains to picturesque Zakopane. Eva Bal had arranged that I should stay with her elderly aunt who was a gynaecologist.  Aunt Monica spoke only French and Russian because in the 70s Russian was obligatory. Only the younger generation spoke English but I was meeting older people who all spoke French; the language of culture. Everyone I met hated the Russians who had invaded their beloved country bringing Communism.

Aunt Monica made a strange proposal despite having a sister living in Scotland and a nephew visiting her at the same time as myself. She trusted me to put £100 in her sister's bank account when I got home a month later and offered to give me three times the rate in Zloties. It was the first and only time I would come across 'The black market.' The only problem being you had to spend it all in Poland and in the early 70s £100 was a lot of money. Looking back I should have bought amber or garnet jewellery but at that time I was ignorant of semi precious stones and non ethnic jewellery only thinking of arts and crafts. I had not yet got involved in the world of antiques and antique collectibles. So I shopped until I dropped mainly buying colourful handwoven wall hangings. I was not even into fashion. This was the era of bell bottom trousers and midi skirts made of Indian patchwork from colourful patterned scrap pieces of cotton. This was the age of the musical 'Hair', the hippy age of Aquarius and Flower Power.

Next I moved on to Krakow to rest my weary head with a contact at The British  Council and then later to Eva's cousins. First stop was an Englishman called David, perhaps a friend of a friend of a friend. I must have sent him a blue aerogramme. David agreed I could stay in his flat for a few nights but when I arrived, he had fled back to England. I explained my predicament to his replacement and asked if he could put me up. After all I was a lowly paid TEFL teacher at St Giles school of languages in London,  in those days earning a mere £32 a week and taking home a net £28 after tax.  Thankfully he agreed.

I asked why David had left in such a hurry and Tony explained that his predecessor had discovered a bug the Russians had put in his flat concealed in the lights and ripped it out. He had then received a sinister phone call that if he did that again, he would meet with a fatal car crash! He left immediately. Tony went on to tell me that the Russians had taken over the fifth floor of the Art Deco Bristol hotel and bugged all the restaurant tables to listen to foreign business conversations. I was fascinated. Tony told me more Russian stories and explained his work in Poland at The British Council.

I had to think seriously about going with him by car to the most famous concentration camp of all : Auschwitz. Finally I agreed as it was nearby and a Must destination. It was a grey drizzly day I recall. Even greyer when we arrived and saw the famous black metal sign over the entrance gate. I was shocked to see a hotel and a post office at the entrance to the camp. Once inside the entrance hall, i observed it had been refurbished as a monument to the Polish people who had met their fate.  Notices were in Polish and Russian. I am sure that today, there will be notices in English. Tony translated as he spoke Polish.  There seemed to be no reference to the Jews!! How could that be when 6 million Jews perished in WW2? I recalled walking outside to some of the nearer dormitory blocks where the skeleton inmates had slept. I saw the bare bunks and the gas chambers, all grey, eerie and silent. I could almost hear their screams as death approached the victims as they were hoodwinked into to taking a shower. We didn't stay too long as, being Jewish, the atmosphere of the camp's horrific past had a sobering effect on me. Our family, of Polish origin called Loeb, meaning lion, generations before, somehow came by boat to Swansea on my mother's side, changed to the name of Lyons. We never knew if great grandfather Abraham Lyons had been a captain or a cook!

Later I moved to a Russian concrete block where Eva's cousins lived. They fed and watered me telling me to go to a special hidden Art Nouveau cafe in a former library. It was there I met the only other clients in the intriguing cafe, namely a Danish couple from Copenhagen. We eventually sat together exchanging our Polish experiences at a small round table in the centre of the room. There was only one waitress who did not speak much English. We had coffee and homemade cake and I decided to impress the couple with my story of David and the flat being bugged. In my stupidity I thought I was being clever but I ate my words when the waitress brought over the bill on a tray. With the bill was a note saying, 'How dare you talk untrue shit about our country.'  I asked the woman where the note came from as there was no one else in the room but she shrugged her shoulders. and walked off. We were astounded realising our table had been bugged too. Obviously the Russians would know we were off to a nearby Jazz Club.

The three of us were walking abreast down a street in search of the jazz club when an ordinary looking man slithered alongside me. Were we lost? Could he help? He said he was Belgian but when I spoke to him in French, he continued talking in English saying that he, too, was going to listen to the jazz and would show us the way. But how did he know where we were going? Obviously a spy from the cold or the KGB.

When we arrived at the venue, he insisted on paying and sitting next to me on uncomfortable benches. He asked me where I had been in Krakow and my impressions. Stupidly I spoke of Auschwitz with no English captions or mention of the Jews only mentioning homosexuals, political dissidents and gypsies. In my opinion the camp was a shrine to the fallen Polish people!  He coughed and said he had to make a phone call. He never came back!!! I was frightened, sure that the Russians were going to hound me. I got the Danes to accompany me to a taxi near where I was staying. I preferred to walk a block so the taxi driver did not know where I was staying. I became paranoid! Of course if persons unknown wanted me, like in the movies, they would have bundled me into a black car. I fled Krakow the next day. The only time in my life that I have felt fear of the unknown.

My final destination was Warsaw to stay with Jacek's parents. However I had to go by train via Poznan. The depressing train was very crowded with crowds of people standing outside my compartment. Eventually a young female student spoke to me in English asking questions about life in England. After all I think they were forbidden to speak to foreigners. The Poles could only go on holiday to Cuba or other Eastern Block countries holidaying at The Black Sea with permission from those in control. Life was tough for the would be adventurous youth who were eager to see the outside world beyond The Iron Curtain. Few tourists ventured to Eastern Europe as tourism was almost unknown in the 70s and currency and accommodation controlled by Orbis. If you stayed, like me, in private homes, you had to register with the police within 24 hours.

Barbara, on hearing I loved the Polish art of the poster, invited me to stay the night in her home in Poznan as her mother spoke French and was a known local artist, having exhibited in Paris when she was young. Well, why not? I accepted her kind invitation and got off the train into the unknown. I recall taking black and white photos of her mother's artwork who was not even surprised by my impromptu appearance. I recall the next morning she even made me sandwiches for my onward train journey to Warsaw.

It took me about two weeks to get to Warsaw entering another phase of my adventure. One thing I do recall back in London. I ran into Doctor Abel in Hampstead village one day. He was a French Jew but had grown up in Scotland. I told him I had visited Auschwitz. Smiling, he looked me right in the eye saying, "My parents too."

Written at the Premier Lounge at Pafos, my last day in Cyprus. January 2017.


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