Copyright © 1998 David C. Hay
I. Warsaw in the Spring
In the autumn of 1972, I got a job with New York University which involved
my being in charge of a computer program called "The Management Game".
This was a simulation that allowed graduate business students to pretend
they were running multi-million dollar corporations. It seems that even
then, Poland was interested in decentralizing the management of their
enterprises, but their
managers needed training in how to deal with a market economy. For this
reason, a management training institute there, the Instytut Doskonalenia Kadr Kierowniczych (or, simply, IDKK) made a deal to have NYU provide this program to them. I spent the winter in New York working with Andrzej Kisiel, a Polish fellow, and then in the Spring and Summer I traveled to Warsaw, in the heart of Eastern Europe.
So, in the Spring of 1973, at the ripe old age of 26, I made my first trip to Warsaw for one week.
When I arrived in the Warsaw airport I found myself in a large room where the baggage arrived. It was actually a very communal room, with Polish citizens on the balconies above and around us, looking down and waving at returning friends and relatives.
The Warsaw Airport
When I had gathered my bags, though, I had to squeeze through a formidable-looking passage with a window on one side, behind which was a glowering passport clerk. This was a little intimidating.
But there was no problem. My passport was stamped and I moved off into the waiting area.
Here I was greeted by Andrzej and his adorable six-year old daughter, who
offered me a bouquet of flowers. Flowers from a small child! I was going to like this place.
The only hotel room available that week was in a very modest but elegant facility behind the Russian Embassy. Apparently the Hotel Klonowa was where visiting diplomats stayed. It was not exactly posh, but it was very comfortable and very pleasant.
For this trip I had brought with me a magnetic tape containing the
program I was to test on Polish computers. The program only ran on
IBM 360 and 370 machines. In Warsaw at that time, thanks to the embargo
on American technology, there were exactly two (2) very under-powered
360's . It seems that American companies were not allowed to ship their
newest and best products to the East. I was given time on one of the
machines — to the tune of exactly one hour per day for five days. Which
wouldn't have been so bad, except that apparently the alignment on the
tape drive of the one I was using was just a teensy bit different from
that of my machine back home.
It couldn't read the tape.
And there was nothing we could do about it.
So basically I had a one-week, all expenses paid, vacation in Warsaw.
Which turned out to be wonderful!
Everywhere I went I met people who were incredibly friendly. I met quite a few young people who had chosen English as their third language. (Everyone learned Polish and Russian.) Indeed, one of my new friends spoke eight languages. I met one young woman on the tram, and we had some lovely times together. And there were the two girls from the States. A young Canadian fellow showed me some of the sights. By the end of the week, my various friends assembled a party in my honor. Where I learned the glories of vodka.
The architecture was an interesting combination of things. The entire city had been erased by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War, so everything I saw was less than thirty years old. Much of the city was stone buildings, reproducing what you would find elsewhere in Europe — some attractive and some less so. There was also a lot of dreary modern architecture, especially as you got further from the city center — although there were bits of the latter that were quite interesting. On an outside wall of one of the university buildings, for example, was a periodic table of elements formed from concrete — several stories tall.
The most prominent structure in the city was Palac Kultury i Nauki. The
"Palace of Culture and Science" is a thirty-something storey tall
collection of theaters, cinemas, a concert hall, and tv stations. It
also has space for a variety of cultural events, including art exhibitions,
fairs, and shows of all kinds. While it is clearly a major cultural
center for the city, its architecture is, well, distinctive. Decorated
like a giant wedding cake, it was a gift from Josef Stalin in the early
fifties. (Well, ok, it was built with Polish labor and materials, but Joe
had the idea, you see.) It was the eighth in a series of buildings, the
first seven of which surround Moscow. The symbolism was not lost on the
Poles, who viewed it with considerable derision. The standing joke was
"Where is the best view in Warsaw?" "The Palace of Culture, of course."
"And why is that?" "Because it's the only place in the city where you
can't see the Palace of Culture."
The Muranow District and the Palace of Culture
(This picture of the Palace of Culture in the distance is not mine. It is by Edward Hartwig, from the
book Warsaw, published by "Sport i Turystyka" Publishers in Warsaw.)
The square it stood in the middle of seemed to my American sensibilities
like a giant parking lot. In fact the square was the site of May Day
parades and other public occasions. While the Palace of Culture was
taller than other Warsaw structures, starting at about the time I was
there, they were beginning to build other tall buildings around it.
(They wanted to camouflage it.) A new hotel was being built by a
Scandinavian company, for example, that was quite attractive.
The most impressive part of the city is Stare Miasto — Old Town. This has
been completely recreated since the war, in all its Renaissance splendor.
This was a labor of love, with people consulting old paintings and notes that had been carefully
hidden away from the Nazis — to try to reproduce exactly what was there before.
Old Town's centerpiece is a square surrounded by restaurants, arts and crafts stores, and on one corner, the Museum of the History of Warsaw. The neighborhood then extends for quite a few blocks from there in every direction. Old town is unique in one respect: In most European cities, their old towns are, well, old. Here, it's new and in good condition. This is the only one that really looks as it probably did in the Renaissance during its heyday.
There is an exquisite park in Warsaw, named Lazienki Park (pronounced
"Wa-zhen'-ki"), with expanses of trees and lawns, several small palaces,
and a beautiful lake decorated with swans.
In an open area of the park, near the main street, is a wonderful Monument to Chopin. He's sitting under a willow tree, with the wind pulling it in horizontal lines. His long hair is being pulled by the wind in complementary lines. The sculpture has an energy and passion about it that powerfully invokes the feeling of a man consulting his muse — to help him create what has been simply the world's most beautiful music.
For a country I had known nothing about, it turned out that Poland has quite an interesting history. In the seventeenth century it was one of the most powerful countries in Europe. Its people have always been noted for being a bit cantankerous, though, which they demonstrated by always hiring kings temporarily from abroad, rather than having permanent native ones that might get too comfortable. Everyone in the gentry was a member of parliament, and each of them had veto power. This meant that it was hard to get anything done, and the country's power waned dramatically over the succeeding years.
But it was Poland that produced Copernicus, Fryderyk Szopen
(better known by the French spelling of his name, Frederek Chopin),
Mme Sklodowska Curie, and Joseph Conrad, to name a few. (The picture below is of Maria Sklodowska's house, before she became Marie Curie.)
The Home of Maria Sklodowska, Before She Became Marie Curie
I discovered that Poles had roughly the same kind of apathy towards
politics that Americans do. They found politicians annoyingly incompetent,
and delighted in saying so. This, contrary to the American image of the place,
they have always done quite freely. They have nothing against Americans,
and welcomed the opportunity to get to know me. It's true that they think American foreign
policy is singularly stupid a lot of the time, but then I was hard-pressed
to disagree with them. In 1973 we were just finishing up proving this
point in Viet Nam. (Of course in subsequent years the Poles became politically
They recognized that the Soviet Union was very large and very much there, but to many Poles I met the Soviets were nearly as alien as they were to us.
It was the Germans, however, who received the greatest antipathy, at least from the older people. The predominant thing you saw was not a reaction to the presence of the Soviets, but a reaction to memory of the presence of the Germans during the war. After what they had experienced during the Nazi occupation, the Soviets were simply annoying.
Except for Old Town — and the individuals I met — there was a kind of
gloominess about the place, both in the buildings and in the faces of the
people. The people were friendly to me, and could certainly have a good
time in a pub, but life here was clearly difficult, and there was a
definite solemnity about the place. This didn't really affect me, since I
was on an adventure, but it was distressing, nonetheless.
It was interesting to see a place which had been industrialized without American influence. They made many decisions about their way of life that were not what we would have done in America. The aesthetic was quite different. In other cases, though, modern industrialization took its course without regard for politics, and there were many elements common to our version.
(One interesting bit of irony: they were just beginning to build their first freeway. I was wandering around across the river near where it would cross and found one of the streets to be eliminated by the project: Aleja Stanow Ziednoczonych — United States Avenue.)
One night when I was out late, I got disoriented. After wandering around lost for a bit, I looked up and saw on the corner of a building what I would swear was a relief sculpture of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet! Beneath the figures was the inscription "Ulica Kubusia Puchatka" The next day I inquired about that and was told, oh, yes — that's Winnie the Pooh Street!
Not exactly what I expected to find in bad old Eastern Europe.
Winnie the Pooh Street
And wouldn't you know it? During my first week in Warsaw, I didn't meet a single goblin or anyone who ate children for breakfast.
I returned home by way of Berlin. From Warsaw, I flew to the East Berlin airport and took a bus to West Berlin. I didn't get to see much of East Berlin because the airport is near the gate we went through. Before crossing through the wall, the bus was stopped for close to half an hour as the young guard scrutinized each passport and looked each of us in the eye. I was struck by how young and fragile he looked. It was hard to be afraid of him. The route through the wall started with a slow zigzag path through a set of brick baffles.
The East Side of the Berlin Wall
As we were crossing no-man's land, I could see from the distance that on the western side was what looked like a large billboard facing west. I was curious as to what it was advertising, and if it had any political significance. It was a bit of a let-down when we finally arrived in West Berlin and I discovered that it was the back of a drive-in movie theater!
As I looked at the wall, I had to wonder: What was stranger? That I should be able to smash all my psychological walls to travel east – or that my new friends were prevented by real walls from traveling west?