On the Road, Part III: Białowieża

A hell of a time we’ve had getting here. Łódź to Warsaw in the late evening, train packed because of the holiday, ten in a compartment designed for eight, and every one a Polish type: one drunk and ineffectual looking male; one stiff and long-skirted mother who crossed herself at every church we passed; one tall, stout, and homely girl of twenty, headed probably for a convent, who also several times crossed herself; one fat Polish mother with an equally fat male child of eight or ten, who clung to her as if he was three; one gorgeous Polish girl of eighteen, engaged in reading a Polish translation of some American bodice-buster novel; one male Polish peddler, who snored.

Then dead time in Central: grime and crime; smelly waiting rooms, smellier toilets; trash cans full of trash, benches full of drunks. The same unintelligible voice over the same crackling loudspeakers heard in train stations around the world. The odor of urine.

The ride from Warsaw to Białystok, local all the way and a real trash train: windows black with pollution, upholstery tacky with spilled beer, soda, juice. Ash trays jammed to overflowing with bags, bottles, banana peels, and apple cores. Stale cigarette smoke seeping into our non-smoking compartment from the outside aisles. The heat on full blast (in Poland, conductors control heat, and that thermostat in your compartment is irrelevant), and the window latch refused to lock down: after newspaper wedges, curtain rod struts, and two-boot weights all failed, I finally removed my belt and tied the window handle to the ash tray, much to the amusement of several Polish women. I tried unsuccessfully to snooze; then joined Michelle in the aisle conversing with other travelers—she is much better at this than I—using a combination of German, English, Polish, French, even Italian, and Latin to share ideas.

It was just as well I did, for I finally witnessed one of those slip-the-conductor-a-five-spot-and-ride-for-cheap payoffs my students are always talking about. As the conductor entered our car somewhere east of Warsaw, one fellow moved out of his compartment to the aisle, slouching against the window and lighting up a cigarette, tucking five thousand złotych in his closed fist for the conductor to snatch as he moved down the car. If I had blinked my eye, I would have missed the exchange, but there it was: instead of a 10% commission on a ticket he would have written himself, the conductor had himself 5,000 złotych; the passenger had himself a half-price ride.

Between Warsaw and Białystok constant acceleration and deceleration, as the train slowed—sometimes to a dead halt—for red signals and amber, for bridges and track junctions, for local stations, for unguarded crossings, for crossings where a guard was supposed to have been lowered but was not, for a crossing where a guard was supposed to have been lowered and was. At one point I think the engineer stopped the train, climbed down out of his engine, walked over to a remote tower, picked up a few papers from the yardmaster, and returned to our train.

Then more dead time in Białystok—no bar, of course, and in the restaurant only tea, soda, crackers, moldy sandwiches, congealed bigos, crusty mashed potatoes, and cold fried patties of ground meat—before the ultimate Polish local, Białystok to Białowieża via Hajnówka, no heat at all on this puppy, but precious few passengers either, and time at last to stretch ourselves full length on a second-class compartment seat (those arm rests fold back, but be careful to remove your shoes, or the conductor can and will fine you). Wrapped in one sweater and two jackets, using a roll of two or three T-shirts as a pillow, I catch a few Zs. Jesus, what a trip!

At 7:30 a.m. the train again shudders to a stop.

I awake and check my watch. About the right time. I pull down the window, poke my head out, and stare stupidly at the depot, a low wooden building elaborate with gingerbread ornamentation, more a hunting lodge than a train station. Ahead, the tracks end in tall grass and a stand of trees. On all sides, forest: beech, spruce, birch, oak. A sign reads “Białowieża Towarowa.” Somewhere in the distance a rooster crows.

“I think this must be it,” I tell Michelle, who is already pulling her backpack from the overhead rack.

Five minutes later we are stumbling down a gravel road toward the village, a double row of peasant homes—each with barn and long, narrow field—flanked by a stone, vaguely Norman structure at one end, and, at the other, a red brick Victorian edifice out of Mary Poppins, all cornice and ornament, its roof a forest of chimneys, a stork’s nest on one of them. The long night on the trains from Łódź has muddied our thinking, even in the crispy country air.

The road crosses some railroad tracks and turns left, away from the distant village. We opt for the tracks, which head in the general direction of the Victorian chimneys. “We must have missed the town,” I say.

“I was watching. I don’t think we missed anything.”

The rails rattle. Looking over my shoulder, I see a train—our train, the only train around—coming slowly toward us. We step aside and it rumbles on by. A pair of storks stand motionless in the marsh beside the tracks.

Ten minutes later the train is back, backing up now toward us from the village. The storks say nothin’. “This is goofy,” says Michelle.

This is Białowieża, edge of the country of Poland, end of the line for the PKP—no crossing here into Mother Russia to the east—a tiny village of some 2,000 farmers, foresters and border guards set in the midst of the Mazurian-Podlasian Natural Forest Province, adjacent to Białowieża National Park, 5300 hectacres of virgin forest, one of only three such areas in all of Europe now included in the UNESCO register of “reservations of the biosphere.” (The other 6,000 hectares now lie in the Soviet Union, land once part of Poland. The national boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe are written in sand). Because this area has been under protection for well over sixty years, it offers a nearly unique environment for biological and ecological study, attracting scientists from all over the world. Others come to study, photograph, or hunt the wildlife: European bison, foxes, red deer, wild boar, lynx, eagles, storks.

Hotel Iwa dining room

Others like us come for a weekend in the country, a hike through pristine forests, a walk along country streams—well, drainage ditches mostly—and through a country village. 150,000 visit the Park each year, including 5,000 foreigners. Most stay at the Hotel Iwa, a modern building of cement, wood and glass built in the late 1960s with unusually courteous service in both restaurant and reception area. Foreigners pay $20 a night for room plus breakfast; Poles pay about $2. The Iwa is set inside a “Palace Park,” surrounded by ancient oaks and soaring spruce, overlooking a pair of artificial lakes, and across a very picturesque wooden bridge from the new railroad station Białowieża Pałac, built in the late sixties at the end of a spur line constructed for tourists. It was down this spur that our train had huffed after somehow turning around at Białowieża Towarowa, pausing in Pałac just long enough to pick up passengers and mail before backing down the spur for Towarowa, there to head out to Hajnówka, thence to the World. (Thus, we discover on our departure, this train covers the seventeen kilometers between Białowieża and Hajnówka in slightly more than an hour, the first twenty minutes of that trip spent backing up that long spur. Thus station Pałac, by far the cleanest and comeliest I saw in Poland, serves only three trains daily. And that a bottom-line lesson in East Bloc resource allocation).

We spend our morning of the first day in Białowieża checking into Hotel Iwa, exploring the Park Pałacowy, photographing the village, discovering that visitors in the National Park must be accompanied by guides licensed by the PTTK, and hiring such a guide for the morrow. Finally, seeking more territory to explore, we strike out for the old railroad station, tending inexorably toward the end of those steel tracks now lost in the high weeds. We have nothing particular in mind, just a couple of Americans alone in an adventure on the eastern edge of Poland this Easter holiday season.

The tracks do not end. They extend through the grass, through a cut in the woods, to the east, toward Russia waiting mysteriously two or three kilometers away.

“You know,” says Michelle, “these trains did not always end here. When that land was Poland, the trains continued east, and the tracks continue east right now. If we followed them through that break in the woods, we would find ourselves at the Russian border…”

He is on us in an instant, roaring out of nowhere on a motorcycle, white letters on his khaki helmet (abbreviations I do not recognize), a red star on his uniform. “Paszport, proszę,” he demands. We have no passports, we explain; they are with our other papers at the Hotel Iwa. Noticing Michelle’s German Army jacket, he speaks in German. “Hier ist Grenze. Verboten. Die Grenze ist verboten.” Lazer beams flash from both eyes; there is not a soft muscle in his body. Probably he eats tourists for breakfast. Shaken, we raise our hands as if in surrender. After a minute of further warnings, he disappears to wherever he came from, and we return hastily to the gravel road, north into town, making excuses to each other. At dinner we are still cracking nervous jokes. Even sleep comes fitfully here on the edge of the Evil Empire.

Saturday we meet our guide for the National Forest, a retired ranger with forty years of experience, most of it managing the bison herd, first in Wigry National Park (also in northeastern Poland) and then in Białowieża. His name is Wojtek, and he speaks fluent English, having served, he says, as a fighter pilot in Britain during World War II. I’m not entirely sure he really belongs to the few to whom so many owed so much, but it’s a good story, and we are off to a friendly beginning, chatting amiably as we leave Hotel Iwa and head for the park.

Michelle and Wojtek

“Please to stop here a moment,” he directs Michelle and me. “This is new Hotel Iwa you are looking at. There was old hotel, all wood, beautiful building. Nazis burn it in 1944, night before Russians came. Our new government told us not to worry, we build new one. Then they build this. We told them we like old hotel better, old style of building. Cement is not so good as wood. In city, people get headaches, sickness from chemicals in cement. Wood is for health very good. So people come here for health, and what they get? More cement! You know, is crazy!”

I nod in agreement, and we walk further. Wojtek must be seventy—he was 24 in 1944—but having lived a lifetime in this healthy environment, he sets a stiff pace. We pass through Park Pałacowy, toward the gates of the National Park, looking at trees, sites, buildings. With a sweep of his arm, Wojtek indicates another modern concrete lodge, Dom Myśliwski. “This too was lovely old building. Then came one time Khrushchev and Brezhnev and whole bunch of Russians. Secret Police came four, five days ahead of time, before big fish arrived, get building ready for big chiefs. They clear it up some, making plenty of plans, playing the cards and drinking the vodka. Finally came Brezhnev and Khrushchev in these big black cars, and there is more playing the cards and drinking the vodka and who knows what. Well, that night whole place catches fire. People from village, they come quickly, but milicja tell them, ‘Do not go near there, you will be shot, you crazy.’ So whole place just burns down. Next day, Brezhnev and Khrushchev get in their big black cars, go back home to Russia.” He laughs. “Germans, Russians, they burn place down. Poles, they build it back up.”

Crossing an open field, we approach the wooden gate which marks the park entrance. The fence is supposed to keep unaccompanied strangers out, although its wooden lattice is broken enough in one place to admit Michelle and me walking side by side. It’s also supposed to keep animals inside, although the bison herd lives in the grasslands. “They do not like forest grass,” Wojtek says; “it is too bitter.” The real reason for the fence, and the guides, is to keep people under control, away from the border, away from fragile elements of the biosphere.

And to tell the story of this place. Wojtek is good with stories, some of which concern the Park: statistics on size, fauna, flora, history. “And insects. Such mosquitoes. In two, three weeks come such mosquitoes, you cannot imagine. Last year one of these women comes with such a short skirt, and the high heels, and in half an hour her legs are all bitten. ‘Well, what you expect?’ I tell her. One year comes this bunch of American professors, one so large as this. He walks half an hour, cannot go on. What am I going to do? So I send him back with a friend, tell him, ‘You just walk a little, then you rest a little, then you walk.’ I got to go on with tour. Why such people come here for?”

“There is an American author who writes a lot about National Parks,” I respond, “named Ed Abbey. He believes motor vehicles should be banned from all national parks. People should hike in and hike out. If people are too feeble to walk, that is just too bad, because they should keep in shape. If you are too sick to walk, that is also too bad: you should exercise more. If you have a physical handicap, that is just too bad period.”

Michelle asks about the yellow plastic bands around some of the trees. They indicate the sites of tape-recordings of bird songs. Forest birds are territorial and mark their own turf, which may be only a few hundred square meters. They keep to the confines of their territory, defending it from outsiders. You just leave a tape recorder, monitor what was said all night, and then come back in a month, in a year to repeat the process at the same point, the same place. Then you study what you hear.

“This tree here. I was working in the park when it fell. I was called King Jagiełło Tree, a huge tree, growing since probably 1410. In that year the King came hunting in this forest, rounded up all the animals, a huge hunt, plenty of game. They drove a lot of it off still living. Then came the Battle of Grünwald.”

We stop in front of another huge oak, 400 years old, 17.5 cubic meters of timber, an enormous tree. But some of the old ones have fallen, and recently: a wind storm five years ago, a spell of bitter cold and wind more recently that snapped trees off just above the roots. Wojtek talks about his daughter Ewa, degree in biology, teaching at the Białystok branch of the University of Warsaw, now home for the holiday. About acid rain losses in the surrounding commercial forests, about the timber industry in Hajnówka, about a woman who lost her way, alone, in this park and died, apparently of a heartttack induced by fright, “It was two days before we found her. By then wolves had attached. Police were all over—a tremendous inquiry.”

In the old days, Wojtek says, he was visited by the police after every tour given to Westerners. “Well, they might be spies,” the police told him.

“Spies in Białowieża? Spying on what?”

“Still, they might be spies.”

“If they are spies, they are your problem. They are not my problem. Leave me alone, thank you.”

Wojtek indicates a memorial in the forest, a stone marker, a cross, a wooden shrine covered with patches left by school children, each patch bearing the number of a school and a city name. This elicits another somber story: “Here the Germans killed about 200 old people during the war. The story is this: they had taken a bunch of children prisoner. Maybe these children were running contraband for the underground. Maybe these children were being children, you know? So old people came to Nazis and said, ‘Look, these are just children. They have their whole lives ahead of them. We are old people, we have lived our lives. We will be your prisoners. You trade these children for us.’ Germans said that this was okay. Then they brought old people here and murdered them all. What made it especially awful was that they left their bodies for the animals. When school children visit this place, they leave school badges as a thank-you.”

In the forest, now suddenly quiet, Wojtek turns oddly defensive of the Germans: “But you know, they were sometimes merciful. They kill people very quickly, did not make them suffer. One time long ago Cossacks tied a prisoner to a tree and just took his clothes away. They ask questions, eh? When he did not give them the information they wanted, they did nothing at all. Just stand there, do nothing. Then came these ants from below and started eating. Bite, bite, bite. And then these mosquitoes. In four hours he was crazy. In eight hours he was dead, no blood left in his body.

“It was Göring who saved this forest. This is true. He thought he was hunter, and this would be his special forest. One German pilot, maybe it was an accident, I do not know, he bombed the church in town. Of course people could do nothing. But after a year they got to talking among themselves, and finally they complain to officials. ‘Well it would be very difficult to help you with this problem, because this land belongs all to Herr Göring.’ So the people wanted to know where is this Herr Göring? ‘He is in Berlin.’ So some people went to Berlin, they sent a little delegation, and told Göring that a German pilot had dropped a bomb on this church on his land. Göring gave them 150,000 German marks to rebuild their church. That was in 1944.”

Not all of Wojtek’s stories are so dark. As a forester he was often called upon to search out animals for visiting photographers and movie-makers. A French team once came for one day of camera work, intent on all kinds of action shots. “One day they have. I told them they must be crazy. But we go out looking, and what we see? Two bison bulls fighting in front of a group of cows. You cannot see such a thing in ten years. These Frenchmen take such pictures, make whole lot of money.”

“One time I sit in tower one hour with this Dutch fellow, and he photographs the little foxes playing below. Very valuable pictures.”

Many visitors, of course, are hunters. They bring big guns, and they bring big bucks. “One man from Texas, he is showing me pictures of his house, of his own museum. This man makes a museum of all things he is shooting. I am noticing these things in the back of one picture, and I ask him. Yes, yes, these are elephant’s feet. So I ask how many of the elephants he is shooting. Eighty. Eighty! Can you believe this? Eighty elephants? Two, three, maybe. But eighty…!”

He continues. “One German comes here, is very rich fellow, I know him. He wants to hunt the elk. So he gets this male elk, very big one. Huge elk. You know, you pay for these trophies by the gram. One gram increases the price of a big elk. So this is very expensive. $15,000 he pays for this elk! I hear him on the telephone to his wife, ‘Stop the remodeling the house,’ he tells her, ‘I spend all the money on the elk.’

“Hunters want big males, trophy animals. What they leave? Little males. Little males are left. Little males make little babies. Trophy bucks get fewer and smaller all the time.”

Białowieża countryside, 1990

There have been softer moments in the forester’s life: “One day I am coming home in the car, and this line of bison is crossing the road. It is spring, and there are little ones with their mothers. This little one comes with his mother to road, and he is afraid of crossing pavement. His mother has him locked between her front two feet, pushing him across road, and he is looking out so frightened…”

There are moments of humor: “A few years ago is coming this British man. He is staying here a week, at the Hotel Iwa, a friend of a Pole who lives now in England. I know he is here for some reason, but he is saying nothing. Several days he stays here. So this man on Easter telephones my house, wants to see me. My wife says to me, ‘Wojtek, what you see him for now? It is Easter. You stay home, talk with this man tomorrow.’ But I say I will visit with this man, find out what it is he wants.

“Well I go see this man. We talk. We drink this tea with some honey, and finally he tells me, ‘Wojtek, I am here on a mission,’ he tells me. I tell him this I know. He tells me he has friend in England, and I tell him this I know also. He tells me that his friend sent him to dig up some gold he left buried on his land from before the War, in this town nearby. I say, ‘But this is not Poland. This is now Russia!’ He tells me yes, he knows, but he wants to go get it. I tell him, ‘Get out of my house, you crazy. I do not want to hear anything about it.’ He tells me the owner will keep 70% of the gold, and he will get 30% and I will get half of his 30%. ‘Get out of my house, I do not even want to hear this.’ This man, I tell you, he must be crazy.”

“The gold buried in Eastern Europe would probably pay the Polish and American national debts twice over,” I muse, “but it is going to remain buried forever.”

So our 50,000-złotych tour spins out until Wojtek must leave to spend Easter with his daughter. “Maybe the police will come calling, now that you’ve been talking to two American spies,” I suggest as he left. He just laughs. We tip him in hard currency—but not gold—as a thanks for the stories, and head toward the hotel, dinner, and an afternoon bus ride to and from Hajnówka. (What else are you going to do on the Saturday before Easter in a sleepy farm village on the Polish-Russian border?)

That night an odd thing happens. At midnight, the village of Białowieża literally explodes. Jolted from my sleep by the first loud explosions, my first thought is that these must be fireworks… although I’d seen no fireworks for sale during the day, and friends who warned of Easter pranks—mostly involving water, and mostly on the Monday after Easter—said nothing about Easter Eve or fireworks. But the loud explosions sound like fireworks, maybe cherry bombs. I look out of the corner of my eye for streamers of sparkling red and blue and white coruscations. There are none.

I listen for merriment in the street. Nothing at all.

And then an instant of real terror, vague but palpable as it is irrational, a terror Michelle later confesses to having felt as well, as if the hotel, the town, the pair of us as foreigners, are all under attack. A scene from Empire of the Sun flashes across my mind, the first shelling of the hotel, the attack which signals the coming revolution. Is Białowieża under attack? Are the Soviets finally clamping down on Poland? Will I find myself a Russian prisoner come morning? Is this the reason the border was so carefully patrolled? I listen for chaos in the halls, some kind of response by the hotel staff. There is nothing.

An hour or more I listen fearfully, then fall back into an uneasy sleep.

Next morning Michelle and I discover fragments of aerosol cans scattered along village streets: the cherry bombs of the night previous. Easter Sunday has arrived after all, with excited children dressed in their very visit-the-old-folks Sunday best, with crowds of faithful headed toward Easter mass, with a church wedding for one young couple which has waited impatiently all through Lent, when weddings and other festival masses are forbidden. But it has not arrived without anxiety, an anxiety derived, I suppose, from the border patrol and the tales of Nazi terror in the dark forest, from subconscious acknowledgement of the Soviet proximity, from the strangeness of this world.

And from my sudden realization on the bus from Hajnówka to Białowieża that Michelle and I are in unfamiliar terrain indeed, and lightyears from home.

Białowieża countryside, 1990