Lockdown, But of Another Variety in Poland
These events go back to early 1960s, almost 50 years ago that is. I, an engineer, was an officer onboard a merchant navy ship which had just docked in Poland’s biggest port. Poland was under the Soviet Union then. In other European ports the merchant ships’ personnel could walk down the ship’s ladder and go out onshore with just their passport in their pockets. Even that identity proof was rarely checked. Well, not in Poland! As soon as the ship docked and the ship’s ladder (a wooden staircase basically) is lowered, an armed would stand guard at the entrance. Any one stepping onshore would have to present his passport details to the soldier, who would check and also note the time of going out. The soldier would recheck the person’s time of return, which essentially had to be within the same day. Apart from this precaution, there used to be armed boats patrolling the harbour to check on anybody sneaking onto the ship. In short, Poland, like other Soviet Bloc countries, was completely shut off from outside world, except for strictly official work. Yet we, the off duty officers and crew, used to go out to the port city for sightseeing.
The rate of exchange of the US dollar was 1200 polish currency (unofficially). So, everything was cheap. We felt rich in the city since one US dollar could buy us so much of everything. Compared to other ports, the ship used to dock for many more days (a fortnight at least) in the Polish port. The problem was, nobody spoke English. In fact, there were hardly one or two students who could speak anything other than the Polish language. We had to pick up something of the Polish language, which we did. A few of us - ship’s officers - were invited to a university social (a party), where we found that one student could speak English fluently. He acted as the interpreter between us and the other students. We became friends. The general public was very friendly with Indians and no security/policeman bothered us once we are out of the docks.
I was invited to lunch the next day (being a Sunday) by one lady student. Her family members comprised one elder brother and a widowed mother. I was off duty till evening on that day. So I reached their residence at about 11 AM. Everyone seemed to be in bed still. I was ushered very politely into the elder brother’s bedroom and found him lying in bed but fully awake. Without any formality he received me fondly. We chatted in his room till we were called to the dining room.
A simple menu, the main dish being brown bread, was laid out. At that time, the general population of Poland were allowed to eat brown bread which was cheaper than white bread. No white bread was baked. Though the food was not much to rave about, there was no dearth of affection and courtesy from the hosts. Any meal in the company of people in Poland is a long drawn affair, with a lot of discussions and merry making. After the food was consumed and a reasonable time had elapsed, I begged permission to leave. Hearing this all of them burst out, “But what about having lunch?” I mentioned the meal that we had some time back. “Oh! That was only breakfast,” was the indignant reply! Sunday’s lunch time is apparently not before 3:30 PM to 4 PM. It was then that I understood why everyone was in bed even at 11 AM.
Soviet Russia ruled Poland very harshly. Food was available to each person, but it was of very poor quality. We could sense the resentment against Soviet domination among the people we came across. No wonder each of the non-Russian countries broke away from Soviet Bloc one by one. Czechoslovakia was first to revolt in the mid-1950s. The revolt was brutally squashed by tanks and armed troops even though the protesters were unarmed. I remember as far back as in 1961 whenever my polish friend (the elder brother) saw Russian soldiers, he used to spit but of course without the Russians’ knowledge. Such was the feeling they harboured for the Soviets. Finally, a decade later, Poland also broke off from Soviet rule. It was evident to us that the whole of Poland was shut off from the outside world. No wonder, hardly anyone could speak English.
On our second trip to Poland our ship docked and as usual a number of Polish officials came onboard for various checks – customs, immigration, security, medical etc. As luck would have it, one of the crew was detected with a tiny red swelling on his skin. Te Poles thought it was small pox. Immediately, the whole ship was put under lockdown in a hospital for us. All expect the Captain, Second officer, Chief and Second Engineer and a few essential crew who were to maintain the idle ship, were taken to the temporary lockdown hospital. The hospital was run by an all female staff except for one male chowkidar-cum-gardener-cum-boiler man. The director of the hospital was a lady, her second in charge, a doctor, was also a lady. Besides, there were 3 lady nurses, one young girl who was a laboratory assistant and two lady cooks. The doctors and the nurses, when inside the hospital, used to be covered from head to foot in protective clothing. We could see only their eyes. We did not know where they slept or stayed when not on duty. For 40 days we were locked down - officers in one part of hospital and the crew from Sarang down to (khalasi) in another part. Doctors made their rounds late in the mornings. Except for the Director who could speak a few words in English, none else could do the same.
Slowly, some of us including me picked up the Polish language and we made friends. By and by the cold March month rolled to sunny April. We started playing volleyball in the compound wearing our sleeping suits. All the clothes that we had come wearing had been confiscated, taken away for sanitizing. All the days that we had spent in that lockdown hospital we tried to make the best of our time. We could see only the eyes of our nurses and the doctors. The doctor gave us only a few minutes of her time per day. They were very nice indeed. We, however, knew that what they had diagnosed as pox in our one crew member was only a skin eruption. But who would convince the Polish authority? We went through the whole 40 days of the isolation period so that we would not infect any of their citizens with the “pox.” Their people had never seen what a pox infected person looks like. It was a lot of fun getting a paid holiday, even though we were confined. Finally, when not a single other crew member or officer got a similar eruption, the Polish authority released us. We put on the clothes in which we had come in. The entire hospital, including the cooks, lined up fondly to bid us farewell.
(The author is a retired engineer of merchant navy and is a resident of Guwahati)
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