In the early 1990s we made two trips to Poland of which the one along the Czech and Slovakian borders all the way to the Ukraine was the most interesting as well as the most picturesque.
We stopped making trips to Poland when we heard not only rumors but also got firsthand information from friends about how they had been subject to highway robberies.
Our friendsí car was stolen with all their camping gear, and several other people we spoke to told us of how armed thieves had entered their tents at night. In the late 90s several Danish truck drivers were killed when their trucks were abducted in open highway robberies, the last one only a couple of months ago, so the robberies have far from stopped.
Even before we went we'd heard rumors of irregularities, so it's fair to ask what drove us to Poland in the first place? The answer is simple: curiosity. Before the wall and the iron curtain fell, we had been cut off from the East, and we wanted to see the countryside and what life was like in these European countries before it was too late.
We didn't go to show off as wealthy, Western European tourists (in the East we usually travel lightly), on the contrary we tried to appear anonymous, not attracting attention to ourselves.
But we soon found out that the absence of the former ubiquitous (secret) police was not an absolute advantage: we did feel safe in the sense that we never thought of being arrested and put away in some dungeon, but the police we did see acted as if they had to base their income on tourists. We narrowly escaped being fined for a violation of the traffic code - a violation we didn't commit - but we heard other tourists tell of arbitrary "summary courts" on the highways, the fines always to be paid in foreign currency.
At the border we (and many other cars) waited for several hours while the police stood idle talking among themselves. When they finally decided to start working, we knew as experienced travelers do that complaining about the waiting time would only mean risking a thorough search of the whole car.
Once inside Poland we couldn't help noticing the generally bad condition of the roads which isn't a crime in itself had it not been for the many cars that overtook each other on every other hill. When the Poles go on an outing they take the whole family, so the many small Fiats were packed with family and thus couldn't make it going uphill.
Posted police were monitoring this, but they only stopped tourists, not the local drivers who were playing Russian roulette in crossroads and bends.
Once in a while we would pass a medieval horse and cart, and later in the afternoons and early evenings we would pass a cow grazing at the roadside. The "shepherd" would be reading the evening newspaper while riding his bicycle - obviously he had but the one cow and no land, so this was grazing time.
We were told that the Russians had literally shipped whole herds of livestock to the Soviet Union and that that was why only a few cows were to be seen. On the other hand it seemed that the world's population of storks had found a habitat in Poland since we saw hordes of storks including the rather rare black stork.
The further we got into Poland and the further south, the narrower the roads and the more contact we got with the locals since we had to ask for directions quite often due to a general absence of signposts. Most of the people we asked were very friendly, but they only spoke Polish. And when we motioned to them that we didn't understand much, they only spoke faster. Sometimes we managed to read the sign language or recognize a few of the names of places we had heard before, but most of the time there was no real communication.
Campgrounds were scarce in Eastern Europe back then, and most often they were just a field or pasture with no facilities such as electricity, shower rooms, good toilets and wash basins for washing up - some times there was no water, only a lake. The few people vacationing in RV's had most of these facilities inside their campers, but those in tents (like us) felt the absence of such facilities. Still, since we were on equal footing with almost everybody else, we had no trouble accepting the conditions.
Due to the special circumstances in Polish history and Polish economy the Poles are fixers, always prepared to fix things themselves. Once we were in need of a helping hand, or rather a jack, and the first person we spoke to took us to his car (an ordinary passenger automobile) and opened the trunk. Inside was a variety of tools close to what you would find in a shop, and we later learned that this was standard equipment in most cars. Many Poles drove old, run-down West European cars and had to be prepared for repairs. (I'm writing this in the past tense as I don't know if conditions have bettered since then. While we were waiting at the Polish border, we had ample time to look around, and every other Polish car was pulling a trailer with a (West European) written off, wrecked car. They were obviously towing the junk to a resurrection in Poland.)
Market economy had recently been introduced, and one of the ways it was effected was by setting up shop by means of a card board box in a street crossing from where were sold T-shirts, nylon stockings, sunglasses, or what else had recently been "imported".
In one of the campgrounds we camped next to a rather large tent, and we were struck by the number of visitors they received in cars and small trucks. When we had a closer look, we found out that all the trucks unloaded boxes of electric kitchen appliances such as mixers, coffee percolators, and microwave ovens. The many visitors then each loaded their cars with a number of boxes and drove off. This took place mostly in the evenings (after working hours) and seemed to be the way to avoid taxes and inspection from the authorities. Clearly illegal, but nobody reacted.
Of the many towns and cities we visited, the former capital of Krakow is especially worth mentioning. Beautifully situated on a bend in the Wisla river, guarded by the old fortress, its many fine, old buildings create a medieval atmosphere. The Exchange is famous for its architectural beauty and rightly so. Placed in the middle of the huge town square and market place next to the old Gothic cathedral (from 1359) the Renaissance Exchange is a living example of how things were in former times when the farmers would come to market and display their goods in front of the exchange, while the stalls inside would be for the more refined trades. The building is still in use and in its former capacity. What luck it survived WW2.
In the adjoining streets many fashion boutiques were proof of the number of tourists coming this way, but in other parts of town the general poverty showed through. Outside the city itself were many villages in which time and life had stood still for centuries, but here the people were markedly less well of than the merchants in the capital.
The nearby industrial city of Katowice was known for heavy pollution to such an extent that the smog was usually so thick that the sun couldn't shine through, and the workers and inhabitants of the area were frequently sick, and many died.
We met some of them in a campground and had a few vodkas together, even danced in the night to the music from a cassette tape player. Communication was extremely difficult, but we managed to exchange a few thoughts, mostly on trade marks, though, like: "German cars good, yes?" "Yes, very good."
But they wanted to make contact, and one of them told us several times that he had a satellite dish and thus knew about our world, and when we asked them about the nearby concentration camp of Auschwitz, they couldn't understand why we'd want to go to such a dismal place.
Auschwitz (and nearby Birkenau) was probably the thing that made the deepest impression on us. Before entering the camp and its buildings that now serve as a museum, we knew many of the facts about the camp from pictures and books, but it was, of course, a very special experience to be there and see for ourselves the many signs of atrocities committed against the prisoners. The story of Auschwitz and the way people died there is too well known for me to comment on - cp. Spielberg's Schindler's List from 1994 - but I strongly urge everybody to visit the camp. Although the visit will most likely be an unpleasant one, the camp tells a story of human degradation we should not forget and help prevent in the future.
When we reached the Ukrainian border we couldn't find a place where they were willing to let us enter, so we had to turn back; and on our way back from the Ukrainian border through Poland to the former East Germany, on to West Germany and finally to Denmark we experienced in rapid succession several changes of lifestyle that made the whole trip worthwhile.
With the new Schengen Agreement between the member states of the European Union (effective from 25 March 2001) movement between states will be swift and unhindered, but judging from the our impressions of regional differences it'll take more than a while before Europe is anywhere near a uniform standard of living.
Like Alex Haley's "Roots" cleared the streets in the US and elsewhere when the TV-serial was shown in the 1970s - in part because it presented the Blacks with a past and a history that was unknown to many - Claude Lanzmann's 503 minutes Holocaust documentary called "Shoah" kept people up when the serial was on in the evenings for a whole week in the mid-1980s.
The history it told was less known than that of the German atrocities since it dealt with anti-Jewish reactions of people in the countries occupied by the Germans during WW2.
The evidence was overwhelming in amount and detail, and the uniform story was that in all the occupied countries overt collaborators and anti-Jewish prejudice walked hand in hand in Hungary, Greece, Latvia and Poland (to name a few). In short: the natives of the occupied countries simply thought "Good riddance" when Jews were arrested and deported, and they certainly didn't want the Jews back since in most cases they had taken over the Jewish property.
Although the serial was much talked about (in Denmark and elsewhere) the indignation petered out, perhaps because it put most of the world on trial (and not just one mad dictator - the easiest way of explaining away the shame).
But now we've once again been confronted with alarming evidence that Holocaust was not an isolated event due to the arbitrary whims of a mad dictator. In his book "Sasiedzi" Polish born Jan Thomas Gross tells the world about the massacre of the village Jedwabne in eastern Poland. Contrary to the general image presented by Poland and endorsed by the great powers after the war, German soldiers didn't kill one thousand six hundred Jews in that village. Poles did. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
When on 23 June 1941 German troops defeated the Russians and conquered the village, the Poles were given free hands to do whatever they wanted with the Jewish population. On 25 June 1941 the killings started: in the beginning Jews were killed one by one, beaten or stoned to death. Others were just stabbed to death after their eyes and tongues had been cut out. Children were decapitated. Some Jewish mothers drowned their babies to save them from a more cruel death and committed suicide themselves. The remaining Jews were taken to a barn and burned to death.
The details of the Polish atrocities are told by survivors and other Poles who helped Jews hide from the pogrom, which means that not all Poles took part in the killings; but it is significant for the hushing up of the events that a Polish wife who helped hide a Polish family didn't dare confide in her husband for years for fear of his reaction.
The story of the killings of 1600 Jews in the village of Jedwabne has been known for years. What's new is that up till now the killings have been ascribed to German soldiers - even the monument for the massacre bears an inscription blaming the Germans.
The new thing is that the Poles were more than innocent bystanders. In fact, they were the executioners - and willingly so.