Warsaw as it once was

I seldom read an article about Poland in the papers these days

Anwer Mooraj February 18, 2017

I seldom read an article about Poland in the papers these days. But there was a time during the Second World War when I was a youngster in a boarding school in India when Indian papers were often describing the destruction being perpetrated by the Nazis on Warsaw and some other cities. A writer in The Times of India attributed the main cause of Poland’s misery to her location, sandwiched as she was between Prussia in the west, Austria in the south and Russia in the east — three powerful neighbours two of which appeared to be determined on either occupying the country or partitioning it.

It wasn’t really until the break-up of the Soviet Union, that colossal monolith that spread across eight time zones that the Poles tasted the kind of independence they enjoyed before 1939. After that there was Solidarity, elections, a little less Solidarity, more confusion and more elections. But they have never looked back. One doesn’t know just what it is about Poland and her people—but that old photograph I once saw of men on horseback brandishing their lances and swords and firing on tanks with shot guns and trench mortars still brings a tear to the eye.

The first time I came into contact with a citizen of the land between the Oder and the Bug was during my boarding school days in Panchgani — a hill station in the western ghats of India. There were five plateaus, known as tablelands, and the place had five boarding schools for boys and three for girls. There was a camp not far from our school which housed young Polish refugees of both sexes who had been evacuated when the Nazis first started to invade their homeland. In summer the place was bathed in soft focus sunlight and in the four-month monsoon it was hosed down by torrential rains.

We were at once struck not only by the cheerful and positive attitude of the Polish youngsters, but also by the many talents they displayed in the fields of carpentry, embroidery, music, painting and the culinary arts. They were an exceptionally gifted bunch of teenagers. However, one night one of the senior boys sneaked out entered the camp and so began one of the great love affairs of the hill station between a dashing young prince from one of those obscure Indian Muslim states and an exceptionally beautiful dark haired Polish girl from the wooded foothills of the Tatra Mountains. One hastens to add, the romance had a happy ending and the Indian state inherited a Polish princess.

Years later, when I went to London University I occasionally dropped in to the White Eagle Club, a sanctuary for Polish exiles, where they served mushroom-stuffed beefsteak rolls in sour cream served with boiled buckwheat. There was a grand piano in the place and on a good day a Polish pianist would play a Chopin Nocturne. For a month or so I became a paying guest with a Polish family whose patriarch had the familiar clean shaven head and huge handlebar moustache associated with the Central European military, and had once been a colonel in Marshall Joseph Pilsudski’s Territorial Army. It was here at the residence of Colonel Charnetski that I heard my first Polish tango Scrawawione Cerce {my bleeding heart}.It certainly wasn’t my last.

Many years later in 1984 I made a trip to Warsaw when Poland was still a part of the socialist block. The taxi driver taking me to my hotel asked me how many dollars I wanted to exchange for zlotys and offered me the rate of six to one. Then at dinner in my hotel the waiter as he presented me the menu which consisted of six ways you can serve cabbage murmured in a conspiratorial whisper in English ‘I am offering eight to one. How many do you want?’

Published in The Express Tribune, February 19th, 2017.

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