Poland From the Inside.

On tour in Poland

Travelling in Poland is extremely interesting. But it is not like visiting one single country. The tourist who sees Poland is experiencing a tour through a number of lands, and this was what one Englishman I met in Gdynia liked most. In the Polish Corridor, in Upper Silesia, and, to a slightly lesser extent, in the Province of Posen, it is like visiting Germany - but with the difference that it is rather old-world, and that the officials are Polish. In Warsaw, as well as in the broad territory East of the capital, it is like pre-War Russia to some extent; in the South-West it is like pre-War Austria with some variations. There are also other different territories, but these are the three most notable. One could trace the former map of Europe by 'taste,' strange as that may seem. For example, we may take three cities - Posen, Warsaw and Cracow. In Posen, the food is much the same as in Berlin to this day. Even the vegetables are cooked with flour (a method I detest), just as in Prussia. This, of course, is a matter of taste - but the tastes of Posen and Berlin agree. Warsaw has very good cooking. One must go to a good restaurant, the smaller ones [61] being none too clean. But the cuisine is good. There is the excellent cooking of Czarist Russia in the main. Cracow has good pastries, like Vienna, and the coffee is served with a big portion of whipped cream, as customary in Austria.

Of course, the cuisine is not conclusive. I merely mention it by the way. But the character of each part of Poland varies in the same manner. To abide by these three cities as examples, Posen is clearly German by origin. The Exhibition Building of which the Poles are so proud was built by Germans - but the Poles told me that they had kept it in repair and added to it. They agreed that the main building was German, however. The main hospital is German - but they hastened to inform me that they had added a wing to it. The famous Poznan (Posen) Fair is held in a building mainly built by the Germans. In fact, a drive in a cab through the town of Posen will convince anyone who knows Germany that the architecture is the same. The flats are much the same as in towns of corresponding size in all parts of Germany. The people speak as much German as Polish. In fact, I failed to discover a single adult civilian who did not speak German, and I purposely addressed scores of people in the streets, asking the way or the time. Children, however, did not understand in many cases, and several officials were unable to grasp what I meant. One hears more Polish than German in the streets, but many of these people speak German when alone. [62] I know this because, once they had chatted with me and seen my British passport, they told me openly that they found it better not to speak German in public in view of the trouble which might result. Most remarkable of all was a purely Polish cab-driver who told me with tears in his eyes of what the town was like before it became Polish. He spoke fairly good German, had enthusiastically greeted the establishment of modern Poland, but has been disappointed. "It is not as it was," he repeated again and again. The hotels were empty. I could choose rooms of any desired size and on any floor. These hotels were built when the city was German, and were to accommodate more guests than ever arrive nowadays, excluding the time of the Fair.

Warsaw has what I consider to be a real Polish atmosphere, but with a close resemblance to pre-War Russia as I remember it as a child, when my father once took me there. The streets are full of horse-drawn cabs. True, many taxis have also appeared, but they have less custom. In Warsaw there are also minorities, of course, but the Poles really predominate. It is mainly Russian-built, but the population is chiefly Polish. The Jewish minority is large. The Jews do not, as a rule, mix much with the Poles (there are naturally numerous exceptions to this rule) but live in a ghetto. This ghetto must not be compared with Whitechapel, for the latter is modest in contrast. Warsaw's ghetto is a pre-War Russian ghetto in [63] character. The men are to be seen with beards, the youths never appear to begin shaving at all, both wear long black coats (even in the hottest weather) and black skull-caps. They speak more Yiddish than Polish, and I discussed different topics with a group of them at one street-corner, using the best Yiddish at my command. I may remark that I understand this jargon well, but speak it haltingly. I cannot, however, read it when it is written by hand. It is read from right to left, and is inscribed in Hebrew characters. It contains very little Hebrew, beyond the religious expressions, contrary to popular belief.

Religious ceremonies are not only held in the many synagogues, but also in make-shift rooms, often in the basement, but with the windows open. From the narrow lanes one can often see the Oriental ceremonies. I watched two such ceremonies from outside the windows.

There are many splendid buildings dating back to the days of the old kings of Poland. In former days the Poles clearly erected excellent monuments to their age, but it is remarkable that little has been accomplished in this respect since new Poland has existed. The very presence of these old buildings lends Warsaw a real Polish atmosphere, which differs so much from the Corridor, Upper Silesia, Vilna, Posen, White Russia and Olsa. For the real Poland was of moderate size, while the present State is the fifth largest country in Europe.

[64] Cracow was once the capital of Poland, and is the oldest and most beautiful city in the country. Most of the people know German, and there are several big minorities. One can accost any passer-by in German and the chances are ten to one that he answers in the same language. But when I went into the official Polish Tourist Bureau at Cracow, I found no one spoke a single word of English or German, and only one girl knew French. A guide speaking any one of these languages could not, I was told regretfully, be obtained, no matter how much I paid. Of course, I was informed, in another month, or a week later, something might be done, but not on that day. As there was no object in engaging a Polish-speaking guide (for if I had to use my bad Polish I could talk with the keepers and watchmen just as well), I made my tour alone. But it was strange in a town formerly part of Austria, and where thousands of unemployed are seen in the streets, that no one speaking any language but Polish could be found as a guide. I am unable to believe that this is really the case. My belief was later confirmed at Kattowitz, where I went into the Polish travel bureau, and no one was, even after I showed my passport, prepared to speak anything but Polish, while in the streets more people understand German than Polish. Indeed, the town is almost entirely German - but officially only Polish is understood.

Wieliczka is an especially good example. This is a [65] small town about 10 miles from Cracow, and contains what are probably the largest salt mines in Europe. It is true that tradition says that the mines were started on the initiative of a Hungarian princess, but this town is now mainly Polish, and in no case Hungarian. The salt mine is much advertised. In any Polish travel bureau, whether in London, Paris or New York, one obtains booklets on it in English. But on arrival, one finds that not a single guide there will speak any language but Polish. I tried every guide present. Only Polish answers were given. In this respect Poland is unique. No other country in Europe advertises its sights in several languages but provides no interpreter-guides. Only a minority complex could lead to such a state of affairs. Incidentally, the mines contain vast halls with salt floors, walls and roofs, with carved salt figures, mainly of religious subjects. One chamber is over two centuries old, while another, named after the late Marshal Pilsudski, is nearly 450 feet below the earth.

Gdynia contains mainly Polish edifices. This was a small place in 1920, but the Poles have turned it into a port, apparently in order to prevent their trade from passing through Danzig. This is the one city of Polish and modern design. If the Poles intended to adhere to their customs union with Danzig, it was unnecessary to build this new port at all. Obviously they considered that this customs union would cease to exist sooner or later. It is interesting to note that [66] this city was built by the Poles long before the National Socialists came to power in Germany, so that they obviously had nothing to do with it. Gdynia's population, according to "Poland," a booklet published in 1937 by the Liga Popierania Turystyki (League for Promotion of Tourism) at Warsaw, increased from 2,000 to 110,000 in the course of the ten years preceding the issue of this booklet. Most of the 108,000 new inhabitants are 100 per cent. Poles. Almost all the 2,000 were Germans. The building of a port here thus served a second purpose - it provided a majority of Poles in the town previously all German, and it increased the percentage of Poles in the Corridor artificially. To balance this, other building has been sadly neglected in Poland. The Corridor is still predominantly German, and even such big-scale attempts to settle Poles there have had little effect on the general position. But the experiment is interesting and enables Poland to point to one Polish-built town on the Baltic.

I saw little evidence of big shipping. Indeed, the Poles are not enthusiastic seamen, which one readily understands. They have always been an agricultural nation, all through history. They have some industries, mainly intended for supplying the home market or their immediate neighbours, but agriculture is their main stand-by. Unlike the British, Dutch, Germans and Spaniards, to mention but a few, they never participated in overseas trade. Who has not read [67] in books - or learnt at school of the Spanish merchant ships or the Dutch fleet, or the vessels which set out from Hamburg and Bremen? Who has not also heard of French, Portuguese, Norwegian, and other ships in early days? But no one can find a single trace of any Polish seafaring activities. The reason is that there were none. Polish seafaring began after the Great War, and has developed very little since. The Polish navy is one of the smallest in Europe.

On paper, the Poles have everything. But I soon discovered that it was only on paper. For example, I was told I could conveniently fly from Warsaw to Gdynia in about 1¼ hours. One can, there is no doubt, when one has an aeroplane at one's disposal. But when I went to Cook's, they said I should have to wait till the next day. I could, however, fly the next morning. They noted my name, my hotel, worked the price out for me in English money, and I began to pay. The clerk then had an idea. He said he would just phone to make sure that accommodation was free. It was not. We changed the time. I was to fly on Sunday afternoon. After all details were arranged, he had another idea, and consulted the timetable, only to discover that there was no service on Sunday afternoons. We fixed Monday, but the seats proved to be sold out. I ultimately reached Gdynia, but it was only by good luck.

This is not an isolated example. I could quote dozens. There is the famous Torpedo, the railcar [68] between Warsaw and Cracow, which travels 362 kilometres (some 225 miles) in four hours. It seats between 50 and 60 people, and has several stops on the way. I was told I should have to pay extra for a reserved seat. I did so, but when I got in I found there was no seat at all, reserved or otherwise. On the contrary, everyone had such a ticket, and dozens of people were standing, particularly ladies and older people. On another occasion I watched this train start. There was what might almost be described as a free fight to get in. Porters blocked one door putting the luggage in the small compartment in front, while men and women fought to get in first. The weaker had to step back and the stronger reserved seats for themselves.

The aeroplanes exist, so do the railcars, but it is the exception rather than the rule if one is able to make use of them.

The Warsaw authorities are trying to abolish the one really adequate and interesting means of locomotion in the city, the old-fashioned cab. The people oppose this strongly.

In summer, 1939, I found the Poles had very little change; this came to my notice on my first day in Warsaw, when 12 zloty were handed to me when I paid a bill for 8 zloty. I received 24 small coins. The Poles asserted that the Jewish minority had collected all the silver coins, especially the 5- and 10-zloty pieces, so that they had no coins except those [69] of the lowest denomination. I was told that the best way to deal with this hoarding would be to withdraw all silver coins from circulation, and some said that this was already planned, and that 10-zloty notes were to be printed. Rumours of various kinds were rife, and there was talk in the middle of July of inflation.

While tourists are invited by prospectus to visit Poland, they are taxed when they arrive. A visa costs 25 zloty, and there is a daily tax. Motorists are taxed 1 zloty per day for the upkeep of the roads, although certain motoring associations have secured exceptions for their members. I met a Scotsman and his wife in Warsaw, and their car had suffered considerably, they told me, owing to the bad state of the roads. Between Gdynia and Warsaw, and around Plock, they assured me the roads were among the worst they had ever seen in their lives.

I saw no signs of any foreign tourists in any of the smaller towns, not even in Cracow, where the ancient buildings and city walls might be expected to attract visitors from all parts of the world.

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Poland From the Inside