An American in Poland, Anno 1983: On the Road (Part I)
What were the impressions during a trip to Poland of students who were members of the Protestant student community in Bonn, Germany, in April 1983?
- The government put out a propaganda film against the aid transports from West Germany. The film was about how a family had received dog food in a package.
- At the border, we learned that we were not permitted to travel through Czechoslovakia with our buses without paying a "security fee" of 35,000 DM (about $15,000!).
- The poverty in Poland is real, he says, and there seems to be no way out of it. The children do not have enough vitamins.
- In this area, the Catholics have started the practice of taking over Protestant churches.
April 11-12, 1983. We left Bonn, then still Germany's capital, at midday in seven VW buses, filled with heavy baby food, medicines and some other supplies.
We drove via Würzburg, Erlangen, Nürnberg to Flossenbürg, very close to the Czechoslovakian border.
At the border, we learned that we were not permitted to travel through Czechoslovakia with our buses without paying a “security fee” of 35,000 DM (about $15,000!). So we turned back to West Germany to figure out what to do.
We sent a telegram to our contacts in Warsaw and to Cologne (where the Polish embassy is located). After a few hours, we return to the border. The border guards had received the telegrams (though they did not mention them), since they "let" us through for just 3,500 DM.
They added a condition — that we had to leave the medications in West Germany. One never gets by totally with these border people. The medications, of all things, are what the Poles need most.
Regardless, the border personnel is peeved that we are getting through, so we spend about seven hours there — for no reason. On the walls of the border station — outside and inside — are posters advocating peace.
One poster shows missiles, hands crossed and a large "No!" And all that in face of the soldiers everywhere around us, and especially the "baby soldiers" as I call them — they are so young.
After they are finished with us, we drive quickly through this beautiful country — green and mountainous.
My traveling companion, Jörn, is a Protestant chaplain, serving the Bonn University student community. Organizing these trips had been his initiative — and I, as an American exchange student who had come to Germany on a Ph.D. Fulbright grant to write my thesis on a Holocaust poet — was more than ready to be one of the students supporting this aid mission.
We reach the Polish border shortly before 10 P.M. Here, the game starts anew. All the packages — every single one — checked once by the Czechs and two times by the Poles. We are busy with this mind-numbing procedure until 3 A.M.
By the way, they laughed when we showed them the receipt and asked for the 3,500 DM security money. The bank was closed (the soldiers at the other end had said it was always open).
We dozed off in our light transport trucks, uncomfortably. At 6 A.M., the bank is supposed to be open. It is, but they don't have enough West German money and must send off to Prague for it!
At 8 A.M., we finally get the security deposit back. At 11 A.M., we arrive in Opole at the house of friends, exhausted, and sleep until 1:00 P.M., when we are served soup and bigosh, a typical Polish dish, a stew of meat, carrots and sauerkraut.
I can't say much for it, but if you are hungry enough… Then we travel on to Pisz, in northern Poland, now called Masuren, formerly East Prussia (under the Germans).
We arrive in Pisz at 10 P.M. and fall onto the floor to sleep.
We unload three trucks in Pisz — into the pastor's house. The children of the village hang around us. They have "older," pale and thin faces and bad teeth. They ask us for bonbons and chewing gum.
We decided not to give them anything, but to let the people of the church distribute everything. Some of the kids got feisty when we did not give them goodies. But they need so much more and different things than bonbons.
What good would it do to give them candy? While we were gone during the day, some of them drew swastikas on the dust of the trucks.
When we unloaded the next trucks in another village, we formed a line and threw boxes of "Hipp" baby drink along the line. It was fun — and funny. Other supplies, too. Sanitary pads, oil and shoes.
The countryside in this area of Poland is beautiful: unspoiled fresh lakes, birch trees, rolling hills. Farms from the 19th century. Horse-drawn wagons of wood. No tractors.
In the village of Gizycke, we visit pastor Janosh Jagucke. Dagmar gives three children chocolate, apples and sausage (there were only three of them this time, as opposed to 30 before, and she couldn't stand it). They did not say anything. They just smiled and stared at the trucks.
We drove on, with the pastor leading the way in his old Mercedes. Our midday meal was with him. He serves an area where 210,000 people live. About 200 are protestant. A theology student helps him.
Together, they service six churches during the week. In this area, the Catholics have started the practice of taking over Protestant churches.
We unloaded another truck at yet another Protestant church in the countryside. The pastor there said his congregation is growing now, to 400 members. He wants to establish a protestant center there, but he is on the whole pessimistic about the situation of the Protestant Church in Poland. He was somewhat bitter.
The poverty in Poland is real, he says, and there seems to be no way out of it. The children do not have enough vitamins. The mothers in his area whose children have gotten West German baby food have healthy, well-fed babies. The transports have been a big help.
There was a case of the government putting out a propaganda film against the food and medication transports from West Germany. The film was about how a family had received dog food in a package. The pastor laughed and said the government got so much flak from the Poles that it had to withdraw the film.
We travel toward the Russian border and visit a boating place on a huge lake. The wind was cold and fresh. It must be unbelievably cold here in the winter. Then we drove back to Pisz, where we got a good supper served by the women of the neighborhood.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series. Read Part II here.