Eastern European Chronicles
by Debra Roberson (webdivad) | Aug 13, 2020 | Literary
I was excited. This was my first time coming this far east and I couldn’t wait for the adventures I was sure to face. After going through customs and exiting the airport, I checked the piece of paper I held in my hand. Everything was so different from Western Europe but thanks goodness at least here some people spoke the Queen’s tongue. I went to a person standing in the customs are and showed them the paper. They pointed to the bus area and said 22. I boarded the bus and got off after 8 stops. That’s what the nice gentleman said. I looked around for the name of the place and I didn’t see it. I had a moment of fear- what if I was in the wrong area on the wrong side of town. I squashed those thoughts and began to walk around looking at each door I passed. After about ½ of a block there it was. A non-descript building with the words written on the door in several languages- Youth Hostel. I went inside and checked in. No problems whatsoever. I took that as a good sign. I was put in a room with 2 twin beds. I was tired from packing my luggage and I laid down to rest. I woke up to keys rustling and the door opening. The young man stepped in the room and said hello. I spoke back. I was a bit confused. I didn’t realize that I would have a roommate and much less a male one. He went about his business bringing in his bags and sitting on the side of his twin bed. He then asked if I was American. I responded, “yes.”. He told me he was Canadian. He was a talkative and chap and the more he talked, the less tense I felt. He eventually talked himself into a nap. I took my room key and headed downstairs to the front office. I had all my papers, visas and passport except 1. I needed a visa to enter Poland and I was due to arrive in 2 days. I was told it was easier to get this visa in East Berlin. I asked the guy at the front desk about my visa issue. He gave me the address on where I needed to go in East Berlin and what train and stop, I needed to get there.
I walked around taking in the sights and sounds of Berlin. I stop for a while at the Tiergarten in West Berlin and climb the Victory Tower. I wondered how it must feel for the people living in W. Berlin to look over the wall into E. Berlin and yearn for their family members there. And how it must feel for people in E. Berlin, to climb a tv tower and look over that same wall into W. Berlin, yearning for the freedom of W. Berliners- surrounded by memories and haunted by reality. It didn’t matter to me-the view was the same and I couldn’t imagine being so close to freedom and not being able to attain it. I felt compassion and thanked God that I was free. But was I really free? The ghettos of America came to mind-there are so many impoverished people who are in tandem with the people of E. Berlin. They look around them and see opportunity, upward mobility but are unable to grasp it. It’s not meant for you because of your cocoa brown skin and your dilapidated living conditions. The ghetto is slavery of another kind. There are sweeping plantation surrounded by run down slave quarters. No more fields for you to work-just welfare and the shackles of prison. America is a vast nation-rich and plentiful but I found myself questioning.
After an hour, I proceeded to get something to eat and I noticed it was 9 o’clock and the sun was shining brightly as if it was high noon. It was the middle of June in 1988 and it seemed as if I was in a time loop. I went back to the hostel and asked about this phenomenon. It seems that Berlin experiences long days and short nights during this time. The shades were blackout shades. I drew them together and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke up, got dressed and left for East Berlin. I caught the train and we passed the Berlin Wall- That famous structure I heard about most of my life. I got off at my stop and went through customs. They grilled me, searched me thoroughly and finally let me enter. I saw many people walking around- with sad eyes and dejected spirits. This was certainly different from West Berlin. I looked for the office where I would get my visa. I didn’t see it at all. I called the number for the embassy on a pay phone and someone answered in German. I asked if anyone spoke English. They kept speaking in German. I was starting to panic. I repeated, “English, Anglais” I finally got someone on the phone who knew French and he told me where to come. I got my visa and I was so ready to go back to West Berlin. The next day I was to travel to Poland, and I was terrified. The people I saw looked so blank by the eyes and they avoided my look. The soldiers told them to keep walking. There were so many guards around holding firearms. I couldn’t get out of here fast enough.
I lay in bed and these thoughts just wouldn’t go away. I was frightened to go to Poland. There was so much bad press on Eastern Europe that I actually didn’t know what I was going to face. At some point, I fell asleep.
I woke up, packed up my things and went to the Europa Center since I had about 6 hours before the train left for Poland. I just walk, look and listen to the sounds around me. I see a lot of paraphernalia depicting Russia and the USA in a battle for power. I get the feeling that most Easterners don’t care for America. It is viewed as materialistic and greedy. I caught the train to the train station. I once again went through customs but this time they did a quick check of my bags to made sure I wasn’t bringing and contraband into Eastern Europe. I passed the Berlin wall again and, in the gaps, I could see East Europeans standing at the wall with those blank stares. I got off at the same stop as yesterday and had to look for the train to Poland. I got on that train and relaxed in my seat. I was in an area with private seating-there were 3 others in there who sat on the opposite side from me. They just stared at me and I looked back. Eventually I fell asleep and woke myself up and startled my fellow seatmates when I screamed out, “In the name of Jesus.” I’m sure they probably thought I was crazy, and I have no idea what I was dreaming about but I guessed I needed God’s protection. Not soon after, the conductor and an officer came to take our tickets, check our visa and make sure we had everything in order. I don’t remember how many hours to Warsaw, but I slept most of them. The next morning, I arrived in Warsaw. I got off the train with my bags and walked outside and around the corner to the bus station. I was glad of that convenience. I looked at my paperwork and the first work camp was in Lublin, Poland. I walked up to the attendant and said in English, “Can I get a ticket to Lublin (pronounced like Dublin), Poland?” He stared at me and said a barrage of words to me in Polish. I looked back and I just didn’t know what to do. There was no one else there except him and me. I looked around, my mind thinking and voila, it hit me. Write the name down big on a piece of paper. I held it up and his eyes lit up, “Lublin (pronounced Lube-Lin). He wrote me a ticket and I presented my hand with money in it and he picked the coins out. I waited for the bus and once it came, he yelled out and pointed to the bus. I got on and had an uneventful ride to Lublin. Once I arrived, I took the local bus to the workcamp (They sent me specific direction on this).
Once I got to the work camp I was greeted by the hosts. They were all local young adults form Poland. The place was huge, and I could see the kitchen ladies cooking up a lunch for us. Agnes and Alex (2 native Polish young adults) took me to the area I was to sleep in. I put my stuff down and chose my bed. I met the others-Gail, Lana, Colin, Slovak, Dorota and JC. J&J were from the US and JC was from Paris. The rest were locals from Poland. I gravitated towards Agnes and she took me under her wings. When it came time for lunch, I was given a set of utensils and told to keep up with these for the duration of the time I was here. I sat down with the rest of my group and the kitchen ladies came by with our meal and drink. One of the things I noticed about Eastern Europe was the lack of ice. The drink we had was water with fresh strawberries in it. It took a little bit for me to get used to it. I was craving ice, but none was to be found. We retreated to the room and sat around seeing if other workcamper would show up. After we ate dinner, we knew that we were the only ones participating in this work camp. Agnes and Alex told us the logistics of the program. We would work at Marie Curie University doing landscaping and we would Also have time for field trips. The work we did at the university paid for our food and lodging. We were hot in that room-no AC so we drank hot tea. At first I couldn’t wrap my mind around it but after drinking the tea, I actually cooled down.
At some point that night, someone said the bathrooms had no toilet paper. The two leaders, Agnes and Alex left on a hunt for this precious commodity. After a long while, they came back and said we had none. I remembered that I had purchased a paper in West Berlin, and I pulled it out my bag. There was a gasp from the locals, and I said, “What?” Apparently, I was not allowed to bring this paraphernalia into Eastern Europe, and I should have been denied entry into Eastern Europe. They were mesmerized and wondered how I was able to get this past the guards. I said it was rolled up with my clothes. No one passed this vital info on to me. I told them it’s a good thing they didn’t find it. I striped a page out of the newspaper and I held one hand on one side of the page and another hand on the other side of the page and began to rub it until it softened up. I told them this will work in a pinch until we could go to the store and get toilet paper. I reminded them to not flush it in the toilet.
The next morning after breakfast, we went to the Marie Curie University and cut some hedges. We were done by 12 noon and headed back to the work camp for lunch. The rest of the day was ours to do what we wanted. I ventured out to find toilet paper. Most stores were closed and the open ones had long lines. I couldn’t get into the stores that day. So, I said I would wake up early and try in the morning. Day 2 of the toilet paper debacle, I went out to the stores and the lines were wrapped around the corners. I kept walking and I saw a store that had a shorter line. I joined this line and waited. They only let 1 or 2 in at a time. After a 3 hour wait, it was my turn. I entered the store and I looked down each small aisle. There was no toilet paper. In fact, the store only had 1 item- a small box of cereal. I walked out highly disappointed. I went to the work camp and ate lunch with the other work campers. I told them I had no luck. The newspaper was almost gone and there were no newspapers in Poland. In fact, we didn’t have televisions at the camp. The bathrooms and sleeping arrangements were co-ed. We all slept together in that one room. We were told that we were going to a restaurant for dinner so we could get some fancy Polish food. We took a bus to the downtown area (I paid all of 2 cents for my bus fare, which was 7 ½ zloty). Poland is very poor and their money is severely devalued. When we were seated at the table, I couldn’t believe the prices. I had changed some of my money to zloty. For each dollar I got the equivalent of 450 zloty. Most 4 course meals cost me about 4 dollars or 1800 zloty. I was floored. I could eat and live like a queen here with my American dollars. I later learned that these meals cost the locals a sizeable portion of their salary which is 40, 000 zloty or $95 ). Most people have to save up many years to get a flat (apartment) and consequently many family members stay in 1 apartment. They say hindsight is 20/20. I should have bought the meals of each of the local young adults in our group. I had never had so much food in my life and in fact I couldn’t eat it all. That is probably how American got the reputation of being wasteful. There was music and dancing at the restaurant. We had a lot of fun. Afterwards we walked around town. I noticed that most of this place was industrial. We caught the bus back to the work camp and spent the rest of the night doing what we did every night- singing Simon and Garfinkel songs. It was a good thing that I was already a fan so I knew most songs. They would throw the Beatles in there and I wasn’t as versed in Beatlemania but I knew songs like, “Hey Jude,” Here Comes the Sun,” “Penny Lane,” and “Twist and Shout.” We sang our hearts out each night. It was our common bond, our common language.
Day 3 of no toilet paper and we were desperate. We took a bus to Warsawa (Warsaw) and went to museums and learned some general history of Warsaw. Poland was a country that was damaged by both world wars. They are a resilient people who never gave up. We talked about schools and industries. There are factories that manufacture sugar from beets and other industries that manufacture machine. They are proud of their heritage and consider it an honor to work at these factories. That night we had a party to attend. It was a welcome party at Alex’s house. His parents held high positions in the KGB. I was curious and wary at the same time. When we arrived, they introduced us all and I was the only Person of Color. Most people seemed to flock to me-I guess because I was a phenomena. The best part of the night was when someone gave us toilet paper. They heard we had none and the KGB presented us with some. How generous! We went back to the camp on a high. The one thing money couldn’t buy in this country, we had just been given. I think I sang especially loud that night- after all my heart was full with the prospect of being able to take a proper shit.
The next day after breakfast, I was taking a shower and I heard a lot of noise in the hallway and then in the bathroom. The language sounded Slavic but I wasn’t sure. I had learned to bath and dress in that same shower stall. When I pulled the curtain back, I was met by at least 10 butt naked young Soviets. They all said, “Privet.” I didn’t know much Russian but I learned this from my best friend at Dartmouth College. It means “Hello” in Russian. I was a bit taken aback by all this naked maleness that I just said, “Hello” and rushed back to my room. I told the others in my group what had happened and the two other Americans (J&J) from Oregon suddenly felt the need to use the bathroom. We all went to the dining room and ate together. The Russians were in a particularly good mood. They were on their way back to Russia after fighting in Afghanistan. They invited our group to the game room for drinks. There were pool tables and dart boards. Those were ignored as the Soviets gathered around the women in the room. They offered us Stolichnaya (Russian Vodka) and played music on the radio that one of them had. The young Russian that sauntered over by me was trying to teack me phrases like, “Shto eto?” (what is it?) and “Kak vas za vut” (What is your name?”). He laughed hardily at my attempts at Russian. I tried teaching him some English and it was just as funny to me. We drank and laughed throughout that night. The Russian young man next to me was named Pietre. He was looking at me intensely as if I was sharing something deep. He put down his drink on the table we were leaning on. He grabbed me with hands on each side of my face and kissed me deeply. I was shocked and immobile. After he let go, the Russians all shouted, “Ura” (Yay!). Then they burst into song. I’m pretty sure, I was blushing because I felt flush. He wanted to kiss some more but I kept him occupied with vodka. When I got the chance, I escaped to my room. Mostly everyone in my group did the same thing. When we were all changed for bed, someone said, “That was quite a kiss.” We all laughed when I responded, “Hell, yah.” No Simon and Garfunkel tonight. I think we were all spent and tomorrow we were going to visit a concentration camp. I didn’t know much history on concentration camps-I just knew it was places that held Jews and a lot of them were tagged like cattle and a lot of them died there. I always felt that Jews should understand Slavery because of the things they went through at the hands of Germans.
This was a free day. We went to the pool and just relaxed and had fun. There was music playing- it was mostly American music with some French and Spanish music thrown in. There is much solidarity here. There are statues of prominent citizens who were important after the Soviet invasion and the establishment of the People’s Republic of Poland. There are war memorials and flags all over the place. Everyone must serve duty in the army. Most students serve one day each week for 6 months. Afterwards, the men serve 1 year in an officer rank position. They are duly reminded of their heritage and embrace it as a badge of honor. Holidays often have parades where the history of Poland is retold through song and dance.
The kids in the pool are inquisitive. They look at me in stolen peeps. When I look back-they look away and giggle. I can only assume that I am the first Black person they have seen. I know the adults are staring but I like playing with the kids. It’s fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I do get tired of being pointed at and feeling self-conscious.
Day 6 turned out to change my life. We traveled a longs ways-almost 5 hours. The bus pulled up to a place called Auschwitz. We got off the bus and the first thing I was greeted by was an eternal flame and surrounding this flame were dog tags and clothing worn by the Jews. There were so many tags and clothes that my mind couldn’t fathom the death that took place. I just stood there thinking about the hurt, pain and injustice they faced at the hands of others. I though of my people who survived the slave trade in the bowels of slave ships in derelict situations only to be branded, sold off, separated, raped and lied to. I just stood there and cried. Why is there so much ugliness in the world. What gives one group of people the right to treat another group of people as animals, not worthy of life? why, Why, WHY? Who died and gave you life taking permissions? Only God can give life and take it away. But we in our horrendous Pride feel that we are equal if not more righteous than GOD himself. I had never seen anything like this. I could only imagine what a place like this would look like in the USA that showed the horrors of Black slavery. We have many plantations and people like to visit them ans even spend the night. They take tours now that talk about the workers of these plantations. Our history is erasing before our eyes. They were NOT workers but slaves. When the slaves were freed-where could they go. Most owed so much money to the Master’s stores that they had no way to leave. We were promised 40 acres and a mule and then that was reversed when President Andrew Alexson took office. Sounds familiar? Yes, the Native Americans were promised land that was taken from them too. It amazes me that people deny that Jews were put in concentration camps and decry the reparations that they were given. I was looking at it-thousands upon thousands of people who had their lives snuffed out. The eternal flame stuck in my head and I tucked that memory away next to the atrocities of Slavery and The Trail of Tears of Native Americans. I continued with the tour but I don’t remember much else. As we rode back to Lublin, it was very quiet on the bus- no singing as we did coming there. I guess we all were in our thoughts-mulling over the things we saw and trying to wrap our mind around it.
We had today to do what we wanted. I needed to travel to Warsaw to get my visa for Czechoslovakia. We missed the bus by six minutes. We went to the post office to call the embassy to see what time they close. There ere no phones on the streets. You have to go to government places to rent the use of a phone. Agnes and I went walking. One thing I noticed is that people visit the cemeteries each day and place fresh flowers. Agnes and I ended up in a cemetery and it was full of people. I didn’t notice any parks around so I guess this is where people congregated. As we walked, she told me some Polish history. This land was once ruled by Princes. It was beautiful land and very unified. The land was big- it spread to the Baltic Sea. The Germans wanted this land as it was strategically placed between Russia and Germany. The Germans, Russians and Austrians invaded Poland and were successful. For 120 years there was no Poland. They were not allowed to speak Polish but the snuck and did it anyway. They don’t like the Russians nor “Uncle Gobechov” very much. Their desire is to once again be independent.
Agnes asked me about my family. I told her I had 3 brothers and 1 sister, and I was the middle child. She asked me if we all lived in the same house. I told her that my two younger brothers and my cousin Cynt lived with my parents. I was away at school so I stayed on campus. Agnes told me that her grandmother, parents, 2 siblings and their spouses all lived with her in an apartment with 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. I just couldn’t imagine that. After a few minutes of quiet walking, she asked me a weird question. “How many tv’s do you all have in your house? I counted in my head and said, “4.” I told Agnes earlier that I came from a poor family. My dad was disabled and my mom took care of us. When I answered her question, she spoke barely above a whisper, “you are not poor.”
After our walk, we went to Agnes house. I met her grandmother and she doted on me. Hugging and kissing on me. I was happy to take a bath as the camp only had showers. After I got dressed, I sat in the living room which was a bedroom with one chair and a b/w tv. Television was governed by Russian rule of Poland. When they turned on the tv, I was shocked. They had 1 channel and it was playing “Roots.” I watched a few minutes, it was the scene where Kunta Kinte raised Kizzy in the air and spoke words over her life to the ancestors. I was called to dinner and we ate strawberries and noodles. That was a bizarre combination to me but I enjoyed it very much. Before I left, Agnes grandmother begged me to stay in Poland with them. Agnes translated. I told her I had to go home to my family. She just cried and cried. I felt bad but I didn’t understand why she wanted me to stay.