September 19, 2012

A Trip Report from Poland

by Waymon Meeks

Photo of Warsaw curtesy of www.kurma.net.


During my vacation, I was invited to be a special guest at a blues concert in the city of Chorzow. I guy I know who runs a couple of radio stations invited me to the concert. On the bill were Corey Harris, Harmonica Shah, and Ike Coose. One thing I found out, from the various people who felt comfortable enough with their skills in English to speak to me, was that the old Communist government did not allow them to listen to jazz/blues. They were allowed to listen to some western music but jazz and blues had an unsavory element that the government did not want to permeate society.

Chorzow is not a `tourist' stop. It is an old industrial town with a small historical center but a fairly large population. It is about a 20 minute drive north of Katowice. After the concert, a man explained to me that most of the people here do not understand the words you are saying but they could understand the emotion and how those feelings were being conveyed through the rhythms in each song. They could feel the power of the music without understandthe lyrics. The Poles too had `the blues' for many years and they are just being allowed to express them in their art, music, and literature. This was the only city where I met another African-American (or in this case, she would an African-American-Pole) since she was once a nAmerican but now full Polish citizenship. Otherwise the population is pretty homogeneous.

I want to convey my first in a series of vacation reports. I am not going to tell you things that you can read in tour books, but I will share some of the `special' things I encountered while traveling. I just recently returned from spending two weeks in Poland. I visited the cities of Krakow, Chorzow, and Warsaw.


While I was in Krakow, I took the opportunity to visit Auschwitz (1.5 hours outside of Krakow).What I experienced inside this concentration camp made this one of the most special moments of the trip. I will preface this by saying that Poland is made up of 96% Poles so a large black man stumbling around really draws attention. While touring this concentration camp, the older gentleman walked up to me and asks me where I was from. I told him Florida (he was from Tennessee), we exchanged the standard tourist greetings, and I went on my way. About two minutes later, this gentleman approached me again and made a statement. First he told me that his mother and father were killed at Auschwitz in 1941. Before I could respond to that statement he then said that he escaped from the camp and was a survivor. Looking at the gentleman, he looked to be in his mid/late 60's. Then he said that he escaped when he was age 5 and lived on his own during the war for four years on the run. No one dared to help an escaped Jewish kid during those days without fear of being killed by the occupying army.

I still had not muttered a word yet and then he pulled up his sleeve to show me his tattoo which consisted of a Star of David and a number. Next he told me something that would stick in my head the rest of my life. He said, "I guess God had other plans for me. You see, twenty years after I escaped Auschwitz, I found myself at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee during the 1960's." Standing there before me was a man who lost both parents in a horrible way, escaped the Nazis, survived four years on his own, immigrated to America after the war to live in an orphanage, and then eventually took the time to help others during the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually we exchanged contact information and parted ways. About an hour later,we met again in the crematorium. We just looked at each other. This was the only way out of the camp for most.

Peasant Food

While I traveled through Poland, I took time out to seek out the`peasant food' for each region. Small family run restaurants were the key in doing this. In central Europe you will usually find a meatdish and lots of starches and lots of uses for cabbages. Being the case, there is not a whole lot to report on this front. One thing to note about Poland are the `milk bars' you will find throughout the country. These are government subsidized places that people can obtain a quick, cheap meal. I was told that these places were set up by the Communist government 40 years ago and they have survived after the fall of the government. Mainly students, pensioners and people down on their luck use these places. This is basic food at bargain prices with the most expensive dish around being 15zl. There is a huge yellow menu on the wall which lists the current prices. These were good places to go if you wanted to meet the `salt of the earth people.' So if you ever get to travel to Poland, stop by one of these places and have a meal and strike up a conversation with the people you will find there.