My Six Weeks with The Comrades
This young Canadian went to a “peace” rally behind the Iron Curtain with a Communist-front group. Now he tells the strange story of exactly what he did and what he saw
“YOUR NAME AND COUNTRY, please.” the fat little man in the Vienna office of the Communist Youth Organization asked politely.
“John Lofft, Canada,” I told him. He shuffled through a huge stack of red, green and brown passports until he came to a blue one.
“Your transit visa for Hungary and your visitor’s visa for Rumania are inside,” he said. “They are on separate pieces of paper, not stamped in your passport, you understand, for your protection in case your country does not approve of this visit.
“Your train leaves from the Vienna East Station. You should buy a ticket to Brück on the Austro-Hungarian frontier. Beyond that all arrangements have been made and there will l>e no ex|>ense. Food will be provided once you have entered Hungary. A pleasant journey, comrade.”
Only three hours before, I had left my passport at the Youth Organization office in this grim greystone building at 12 Prinz Ugendstrasse in the Soviet zone of Vienna. Now' I possessed not merely permission to enter Rumania, but an invitation to be the guest of a country which for more than five years had l>een virtually closed to Westerners. Pi ven diplomats had had difficulty getting in. I remembered the warning given me by a young British attache I had met on the train to Vienna: “You could wait indefinitely l>efore they let you in. Why, it took me, diplomatic status and all, eleven months to get clearance to Bucharest after I received a transfer to the British Embassy there.”
A BONUS-LENGTH FE ATURE
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE
LOFFT'S CAMERS GLIMPSES PEACEFUL BUCHAREST BEFORE FESTIVAL OF PEACE
I could only conclude that a rather furtive little Toronto organization called the Canadian Youth Festival Committee had more influence at the frontiers of the Iron Curtain than the British diplomatic service. At any rate, last summer that committee opened the door for me into the most remarkable and revealing six weeks of my lifea month and a half in the Communist satellite cities of Bucharest, Warsaw and Cracow, and traveling through Hungary, Rumania, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The key to that door was my registration as a participant at the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship, held in Bucharest from August 2 to August 16.
When I entered the Vienna East Station it looked as if a carnival was in progress. Hundreds of young men and women, many in gaudy national costumes, were milling about, singing and dancing. Loudspe kers blared songs in Italian, French, Spanish and languages I did not recognize. I had been told in the Youth Organization office that there would be delegates from Italy* France, Africa and South America on the train, but I was not prepared for this animated mob scene. I pushed my way to a window and paid sixteen schillings sixty-four cents for a ticket to Hegyeshalom. Then I let myself be carried by the tide toward the platform. The sides of all the carriages were chalked with “peace and friendship” slogans in half a dozen languages.
I watched a group of Italian boys and girls greeting an embarrassed Russian soldier who was obviously not accustomed to being vigorously embraced by he cit izenry. He also did not quite know how to cope with having his hat and his coat buttons removed as souvenirs. He was obviously relieved at the cry of “all aboard.” There were no signs of other Canadian delegates, so I accepted the invitation of a group of Chileans to travel with them.
My journey into the other half of our divided world had properly started in Toronto last spring when I booked passage on a ship sailing for Germany at the end of May. I did not have enough money for the trip, but I made the booking just in case my finances took a turn for the better. Then one day in April a classmate in third year medicine at the University of Toronto a boy we knew to be a “progressive” (the polite term for Communist among “progressives” themselves)spoke to me after a lecture.
“I hear you’re going to Europe this summer,” he said casually. I told him I was doing some wishful thinking in that direction. He said it might be interesting to see something of the Eastern European countries. “You might be able to go to the World Youth Festival in Bucharest,” he suggested. “We hear SQ much about these countries that it would be interesting to find out the truth.”
I said it would be interesting, but impossible.
“Perhaps not,” he said. “If you like I’ll have someone telephone you someone who knows how it might be done.”
Sure enough, a few days later a telephone call informed me that the first meeting of the Canadian Festival Committee would be held the following night at an address on Walker Avenue. When I knocked at the door at the appointed time I was greeted by a bespectacled girl who told me she was Mrs. Shirley Cook. Later I learned that she was the (laughter of Dr. James Endicott, leader of the Communist-front Canadian Peace Council, who had recently won the Stalin Peace Prize.
In the small living room were seven or eight young men and women listening raptly to eerie sounds coming from a scratchy phonograph record. Shirley motioned me to an empty chair. The girl in the next seat whispered that we were hearing a chorus of Chinese school children sing about their homeland.
I looked around the room. Over the mantelpiece hung a cardboard sign with a peace slogan written in Latin. I recognized only one of the company. He was Stan Linkovitch, tall and lean with a boyish face under an overgrown brush-cut, with whom I had gone to school five years before in London, Ont . I had heard that he had come to Toronto and joined some “progressive” organization.
Stan was the chairman for the evening, but Shirley did most of the talking. In an eager voice she explained that the Youth Festival in Bucharest would be attended by delegates from a hundred nations. There would be cultural presentations of songs and dances, including, she hoped, Canada. There would be Friendly meetings, Friendly discussions, Friendly sports competitions.
The only qualification for eligibility to attend, she said, was a desire to build peace and friendship. That seemed to me a modest requirement; but, faced with money problems, I enquired the cost of the junket. Shirley assured me that the only costs would be a thirty-dollar registration fee to be paid to the Canadian committee, and two dollars a day for the fourteen days of the festival in Bucharest. Apart from that, from the time a registered delegate or observer arrived at the border of any of the Soviet bloc countries all expenses would be “arranged for.”
After the Bucharest Festival, Shirley added, the Canadian delegates would probably be invited to visit various People’s Democracies—all expenses paid. She said she was expecting additional details on those invitations from her brother, Steve Endicott, who was working for the World Federation of Democratic Youth in Budapest. Later she told me that I might be interested in going to Wgfrsaw after the festival to attend the International Union of Students’ congress.
“Perhaps,” she said, “the Students’ Administrative Council of the University of Toronto might accredit you as its official observer. If not, you can still go as an independent observer.”
I never did learn the sponsorship, if any, of the Canadian Festival Committee. It seemed to have heen formed for the sole purpose of promoting participation in the Bucharest festival by any Canadian group that was actually or potentially “progressive.” Most of those who attended meetings were members of the Canadian Peace Council and the Canadian Youth Friendship League, which I realized were Communist-front organizations.
A Very Mature “Youth"
After the first meeting the committee rented a small office on Spadina Avenue, and Shirley was installed as secretary. Meetings were held each week, and Shirley usually opened them with a pep-talk on the matter of registration fees. Unless these were paid she could not carry on. Moreover, she pointed out, in anticipation of a good registration she had reserved fifty passages on a transAtlantic ship sailing early in July. Each week Shirley also reported the replies of various organizations across Canada she had contacted.
Some strange issues arose at the meetings. The Bucharest affair was called a youth festival, and we had to decide how old was a youth. Shirley announced that a thirty-eight-year-old worker had applied for registrat ion. I felt that the meeting was about to vote him down, when Shirley applied a powerful argument :
“He has been ousted from his union for being too active.”
This changed the attitude of the meeting. For his martyrdom the mature youngster was given the
honorary status of “youth.” Then there was the matter of the color in which a small brochure advertising the festival should he printed.
Continued on page 54
AFTER THE FESTIVAL, TANKS, BAYONETS AND MILK LINES FILLED THE STREET
My Six Weeks With the Comrades
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 9
“Red would he nice,” I suggested innocently. A small dark girl sitting near me shuddered. “Too suggestive,” she said. “People might get the wrong idea.”
Shirley said she wanted to use some of our names in the brochure. Shirley asked one of the girls present if she might use her name. The girl shook her head. Shirley looked hurt. Then she turned to me and 1 shook my head. Shirley looked so pained that 1 offered the lame excuse that I wasn’t very well-known and my name wouldn’t mean much, i The incident brought home to me the fact that 1 had a decision to make. I genuinely wanted to see at first hand conditions behind the Iron Curtain. 1 do not deny, too, that the prospect of j a unique trip at a nominal cost was attractive to me. But in order to go 1 had become involved with a Communist-front organization.
I had to ask myself, too, why the Canadian “progressives” were inviting me on this virtually free trip. I knew that my fellow medical student had “recommended” me, hut on what terms I did not know possibly as a woollyheaded Liberal and therefore potential “progressive material.” 1 also got the impression that the Festival Committee Nvas anxious to send a large representation from Canada, and it was probably not easy to find delegates who could afford to finance themselves to where the “free ride” began—at the Iron Curtain.
J had no leanings whatever toward Communism. I am politically a Liberal
with leanings toward some of the GCF’s social legislation policies. And now I had to think realistically of what 1 might be getting into. What would he the attitude of Canadian officials? Of my friends? Would I be barred from visiting the United States henceforth? I weighed all the pros and cons, and the lure of getting into “forbidden” countries won. I decided to go.
At any rate, I did have some measure j of non-Communist official status as fatas the Warsaw conference was concerned. I persuaded the Students’ Administrative Council of the University of Toronto to name me its official observer at the Warsaw congress of the International Union of Students.
I should explain that immediately after the war the I US was a fairly representative international student organization. Canada and the United States did not join, hut Britain and a number of Western European nations did. It soon became apparent, however, that the Communists had taken j over control. The last straw was the union’s ousting of Yugoslavia, after Tito’s declaration of independence, on charges that Yugoslav students “had Fascist tendencies.” At that point the remaining non-Communist student organizations pulled out of the union. Since then they have only sent “observers” to the union’s annual meetings.
And so late last July, after several pleasant weeks of hitchhiking through Germany and the Scandinavian countries, I boarded a train literally jumping with young comrades. It Nvas only a short trip to the Hungarian border, and there was no doubt when Nve crossed it. Physically, the Iron Curtain consists at this point of triple widths of barbed Nvire fence and plowed strips on both sides of the barrier.
Across the border, in the small Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom, a terrific reception awaited us. When we left the carriages Hungarian men, women and children surrounded us. Barefooted little hoys darted about collecting autographs. Young girls with braided hair rushed up to us with flowers. Other girls in white smocks handed out sandwiches and food packages. Old men gave us bottles of soft drinks. Loud music blared from an army truck equipped with a loudspeaker, and the natives and visitors joined in dancing.
The Hungarians, peasants to judge by their dress, showed an almost childlike curiosity about the visitors, particularly those of unfamiliar appearance. One Ceylonese delegate remarked ruefully to me: “1 don’t mind every-
body wanting to shake hands, but when they lick their lingers and rub my arm to see if the brown color will come off . . .”
Similar receptions greeted us clear across Hungary and into Rumania and
as the train neared Bucharest they increased in frequency and intensity. I admit I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the people who had come out to greet us, both in Hungary and Rumania. But then the Communists had to overplay it and expose the whole thing as a farce. At three o’clock on the last morning of the journey, when the train pulled up at a little station, there in the semidarkness of this unearthly hour was a huddled group of men, women and even children. They even managed the usual chorus of “pace si pretenie!” — “peace and friendship!” A small sleepy-eyed Italian nudged me as we stood on the platform. “Can you imagine people coming to greet us like this in our capitalist countries?” he asked.
I couldn’t Imagine it, either. Later in Bucharest when 1 was able to get on confidential terms with a number of Rumanians I made a point of enquiring about those turnouts of people along our route. A medical student with whom I became friendly laughed when I asked him about the receptions. “We could follow your train’s progress stop by stop through the radio instructions given to various groups: ‘The workers of X shoe factory . . . the workers at Z collective farm, with their wives and children, will greet the Youth Festival delegates’ train at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time.’ ”
The train pulled into Bucharest on a Saturday morning, and a guide whisked me into a waiting car. We stopped in front of a large brick-and-sandstone building with a Canadian red ensign hanging beside the door. My guide explained that it Nvas a veterinary college, hut the students were away for the summer vacation and it would he the home of the Canadian delegation.
I dragged my packsack to a large dormitory on the second floor. Stan Linkovitch, who had taken a leading part in the Toronto meetings, was there. He gave me first-name introductions to a number of the other Canadian delegates. I recognized about ten of them as having attended the meetings of the Festival Committee in Toronto. Stan handed me an identification card, good for rides on any streetcar or bus and for admittance to theatres and stadiums. Joe, a tall softspoken boy from Toronto, handed me a small green maple leaf Nvith Canada lettered in yellow, the official insignia of the delegation. Another hoy gave me a book of meal tickets, good for lunch and dinner at Restaurant No. 41, situated two blocks from our residence and normally a students’ canteen. Breakfast, I Nvas told, Nvas to be served in our dormitory.
And at that moment breakfast arrived. We were each handed a paper bag containing a small loaf of white bread, a quarter liter of thin milk, butter, a piece of preserved meat and a small pot of very thick, sweet apricot jam.
During the day 1 met delegates in stages; there were thirty-four of them, ranging in age from sixteen to one thirty-eight-year-old “honorary youth” from St. Catharines. Boys Nvere slightly in the majority. Their affiliations were varied: a number were members of national groups in Canada, such as the Finnish, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian Youth Leagues; others Nvere members of the National Federation of Labor Youth and of the Canadian Peace Council. Many were sponsored by organizations with names indicating they were sports clubs or “cultural” groups. A hoy from Hamilton told me that lie belonged to a Hungarian society which kept away from politics and concentrated on organizing an insurance scheme for members.
In much the same category as myse'f were Barbara Grant and Bill Wilmott, observers for the Student Christian Movement of Canada, a branch of an international organization to promote Christianity in universities. Most of the delegates were from the Toronto area, hut some were from St. Catharines and Hamilton, with a few from Saskatchewan and British Columba. One of the girls handed me a number I pins proclaiming “Pul Canada First” which 1 was supposed to distribute as gifts to other delegates I might meet during the festival. “You must explain,” she pointed out carefully, “that the motto on the pins does not mean we are nationalistic in spirit, hut that we are trying to get out from under the American yoke.”
On Monday morning Stan Linkovitch called the first meeting of the Canadian delegation. He outlined the plans for the opening ceremonies of the festival, to he held that afternoon: a mass march through the streets of t he thirty thousand visiting delegates, plus twice that number of Rumänien “youths and students.” There would be mass demonstrations for peace and friendship, gymnastic displays, dancing and singing by the youth of Rumania. Prime Minister Gheorghe CheorghiuDej of the Rumanian People’s Republic would deliver the opening address.
All Canadian delegates, Stan emphasized, were expected to take part. The Rumanians had provided us with large Canadian ensigns and outsized green maple leaves to carry in the parade. I could only conclude that there were no maples in Rumania; our “maple leaves” looked rather like oak leaves.
1 still had several hours before the parade, so I decided to look the city over. 1 hoarded a brand-new streamlined streetcar, showed my pass to the woman conductor, and she waved me through. The car NVHS crowded, as Bucharest streetcars always seemed to be at all hours. It took a little while for the reason to dawn —there were practically no automobiles on the streets. 'Traffic consisted of army trucks, a few taxis, an occasional car—and ever-jammed streetcars and buses.
Bucharest, a little smaller than Toronto, was gay with paint and flags. Every lamp post was entwined. Maypole-fashion, with the flags of Rumania, Russia, the United States, Britain and France. (Later a United States delegate complained to me that the Rumanian version of Old Glory contained sixty-four stars.) At street corners loudspeakers blared folk music and news programs. 1 heard a ringing voice that sounded familiar. It was Paul Robeson’s.
I got off the streetcar at a crowded square. At every corner there were outdoor cafes, now filling with the lunchtime throngs. 1 saw a vacant chair and sat down to look at the passing crowds. The Rumanians seemed to me very Latin, dark - haired, swarthy and medium-sized. The men seemed to wear a standardized uniform bright short-sleeved cotton shirts, no coats, sandal-type shoes and, almost invariably, carried brief cases. The women wore cheerful print dresses that looked cheap and homemade, but there was a certain Latin chic to them.
It Had Its Effect
1 found my way back to Restaurant No. 41 for lunch. It was a huge room which served not only the Canadians but the Australians, Brazilians, Algerians, Arabs and others. 1 sat beside a big colored boy who said he was from Accra, in the Gold Coast. Rumanian girls dressed in white served us thick soup, followed by slices of pork cooked in corn oil, sweet cabbage and rice. E'or dessert there were pears and cake with chocolate icing and a rum-flavored tilling. After the meal I sat with the Gold Coast boy drinking sweet brown beer. 1 asked him what he thought of Bucharest. He answered eagerly: “I have never seen such a luxurious, beautiful city in my life. Compared to Accra this is a metropolis. And the food—we had heard that there was a shortage of food in (he Communist countries, but obviously that was false propaganda.” He smacked his lips in memory of the huge meal he had just eaten.
A few days later 1 was to remember 1 lie African’s wonder at the plentiful menu when a Rumanian medical student told me that for two months the city’s rationing had been tightened so that there would be plenty of food, not only for the delegates but for the residents, so that there would be none of the usual queues in front of stores.
I returned to our residence much too late to take part in the opening ceremonies. When the Canadians came in later in the evening they were full of enthusiasm for what they had seen and heard. They were disgusted at me for being absent. Stan took me aside and asked me curtly where I had been. I told him I was sight-seeing.
He frowned and said: “You’re expected to follow ( lie program set by the committee you’re part of the delegation and our hosts expect us to do things together.” 1 told him that was not my understanding when 1 left Canada.
'There was never an open rift between the other delegates and myself, but I am afraid that I was a disappointment and sometimes an embarrassment to them. In Bucharest, as in Toronto, their talk was on the peace and friendship theme and politics specifically were not discussed with one notable daily exception. Every morning the latest copies of the Daily Worker arrived from London and were eagerly read. In the discussion of the news—or the Daily Worker’s interpretation of the news—most of the Canadian delegates fell easily into the familiar party-line jargon.
On the third day of the festival Stan announced that the Canadian delegation was going to a social hour of peace and friendship with the Free German Youth Organization. We went by bus to a handsome white mansion surrounded by a high iron fence. Our interpreter said it was now a home for young authors and journalists. “In former times,” he added, “it was the residence of a rich speculator. He is no longer here.” A wave of laughter went through our group. Behind the house was a formal garden with numerous chairs and tables, and here, in groups of three or four each, we held our fellowship session with the German youth. They arrived looking very natty and efficient in identical clothes
the boys in grey suits and blue shirts, the girls in light blue blouses and skirts. One boy confided to me that the clothes were the gift of the Elast German government.
At my table were three young German editors and two Canadian girls, Ruth, a short dark girl with patient eyes, who came from Saskatchewan, and Eleanor, a tall, quiet, striking redhead from Toronto. A Rumanian girl acted as our interpreter.
One of the Germans asked how life was in Canada. Ruth told the interpreter to answer that although conditions were generally prosperous, there was much unemployment. The interpreter opened her mouth to answer when I objected. The interpreter looked amused; the Germans looked puzzled.
“1 hat’s hardly fair,” I said. “What unemployment?”
“During the depression, in Saskatchewan there were thousands of unemployed,” said Ruth. I argued with her that the depression had been twenty years ago and for many years there had been as little unemployment in Canada as anywhere in the world.
The Germans spoke to the interpreter, who by now was enjoying herself immensely. “They want an answer,” she said. “They cannot understand why you disagree.”
Eleanor suggested that we compromise by saying that there was some unemployment in seasonal occupations like lumbering and construction, and I agreed to that. A German wanted to know if Canadians didn’t speak French, and one of the girls answered:
“We are sorry that there are no French Canadians in our delegation -some of them wanted to come, but the authorities in Quebec threatened that if they did. they would lose their jobs.”
All in all, the “peace and friendship” session with the German youth was not a success, at our table at any rate.
'That afternoon we gathered in an auditorium behind our residence to rehearse our program of Canadian culture. it was to be presented
seven times in the next ten days at theatres all over Bucharest. Olga, a talented little brunette dancer from 'Toronto, tried to teach a group of us a dance. She finally gave up on me. When I told her 1 danced like a horse, she did not disagree.
1 was demoted to the singing group, under Fanny Gruber, a large bespectacled girl from Toronto. We worked away on O Canada, including a verse in F’rench. Following this was a dreary song about peace, entitled Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream. The theme was someone dreaming that the leaders of all nations drew up a peace declaration, then everybody threw down their weapons and stamped on them. The sentiment was excellent, but the melody was awful. Next we rehearsed Red River Valley and a mournful Indian ballad, My Bark Canoe. I could visualize our audience long since asleep, but worse was yet to come (lie “progressive” songs. One, Oh Lovely Land, was a dirge-like lament that “though the rich have ravished you (Canada) we swear to make this dream come true.”
For part, of the program we were given the services of a first-rate Rumanian symphony orchestra. They were given the score of a composition by a Canadian whose name I never did learn. It was a disjointed “modern” composition full of discords, awkward phrases and little meaningless trills on the flutes. The conductor and his musicians wore expressions of great distress as they ran through their rehearsal of “representative Canadian music.”
There developed an increasing excitement among the Canadian delegates over something that had nothing to do with the festival. The Canadian general election was imminent, and I had to listen to discussions on the rising significance of the Labor-Progressive Party in Canada. For the first time the party was running one hundred candidates, and expected to win several seats. “Watch the LPP,” the delegates kept telling me.
At breakfast on the morning after the election our interpreter came into our dormitory. He said a Rumanian paper had an item about the Canadian election. “How did the LPP do?” someone asked.
“LPP?” pondered the interpreter. “It won twenty-three seats.”
There were deafening cheers. “What about the CCF?” some moderate leftwinger wanted to know.
The interpreter looked confused. “CCF’ . . . LPP,” he turned the initials over in his memory, then smiled brightly. “It was the CCF that won the twenty-three seats . . .” There was a long, deafening silence.
There was another event which disturbed the delegates. Two more Canadians turned up. They were Charles Taylor and John Hallward, non-Communists from Montreal. They had come from Istanbul, Turkey, by way of Bulgaria and had made their arrangements through the British delegation and the Canadian group had not been informed. Taylor was a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford. I knew him by reputation—he is regarded in university circles as a resourceful, quick-witted student leader who had done an excellent job of holding up the Western viewpoint at various international student gatherings.
He was on his way to Warsaw to act as official observer for the National Federation of Canadian University Students at the International Union of Students’ congress. He had grown a huge beard, which lent him a Biblical appearance. John Hallward was also studying at Oxford, and both were seasoned travelers on the Continent. Taylor and Hallward were assigned a separate room, and I moved in with them. I explained to them why I had undertaken this trip, and that I had already interviewed a number of Rumanians. They were interested in much the same program, and we agreed to pool information and to team up in interviews.
So far, we had seen no Russian delegates. But finally we were told that the Canadians were to meet a group of Russians at the same mansion where we had met the Germans. In the garden Taylor, Hallward and I sat with a tall blond Russian boy named Nikolai and a pretty girl violinist from
After walking the aisle with a fisherman type A woman should show no surprise When she finds that the gaze she had thought was for her Is a faraway lake in his eyes.
the Moscow Academy named Maria. Nikolai spoke good English and acted as our interpreter.
Charlie Taylor, whose approach can be decidedly forthright, asked Nikolai how it was that if Russia was eager for peace and friendship the Soviet satire magazine Krokadile was permitted to publish savagely anti-American cartoons. I knew what he meant. A few days before in that same building I had seen a copy of Krokadile with a cover cartoon showing a pair of hands packing an American food package for East Berlin. The top layer contained eggs, cigarettes and biscuits, but in the bottom layer were Nazi saboteurs carrying hand grenades and Napalm bombs.
When Charlie’s question was translated to the Russian boy I thought he was going to choke with surprise at being addressed so bluntly by a delegate to the festival. I poured him a glass of red wine to help him with his answer. He replied in an offended tone that Krokadile was a clever satire magazine which pointed out the inefficiencies in Soviet government offices. Charlie mentioned the cartoons of a year before during the germ-warfare charges, cartoons that had represented Americans as beasts.
At this Nikolai lost his temper. “How else can you treat a nation that uses such barbaric and inhuman methods against the innocent Chinese?” he demanded heatedly. Ruth, the member of the Canadian delegation with whom I had been at cross purposes the last time we were in this building, overheard the discussion and rushed over. Her eyes, no longer patient, blazed at Charlie. “Is this the way to build peace and friendship?” she shrilled at him. Charlie looked nonplussed at this unexpected attack, and Nikolai seemed grateful for the support. Further discussion was cut short by the beginning of a program of Russian culture.
Another girl from the Canadian delegation came over with important news. “A Russian delegate has just given me the inside story of the Beria case,” she said excitedly. “What happened was that to carry out his plot against the Soviet regime he ordered thousands of farmers in the south to plant cotton instead of wheat,” she said breathlessly. “The result was naturally a horrible failure and many farmers starved to death. Thousands of letters poured in from all over Russia denouncing this act of sabotage. An investigation was started and Beria was unmasked. It took thirty years, but they finally got him.” The story seemed to restore Charlie’s good humor. “Yes, it took a long time,” he agreed with a grin.
The Canadian delegation also met with representatives of China, North Korea, Hungary and Rumania, but these gatherings were without incident —a formal mass introduction, exchange of gifts, some platitudinous mutual expressions of goodwill, and the “hour of fellowship” would end in a buffet lunch.
At the end of the second week the festival concluded with another huge demonstration. The next day the Canadian delegation gathered to draw up an official statement to be issued to the press in Canada. Everyone agreed on the first three paragraphs, which factually outlined our activities, including the shows we had performed and the concerts we had seen. The fourth paragraph declared that the festival had been a terrific success and had promoted peace and friendship by bringing people of all nations together.
Charlie Taylor said he thought there should be a mild reservation in the last paragraph -that although the opportunity for personal contact was potentially beneficial, the good effect would have been increased if there had been more frank discussion and the presentation of important points of view which were hitherto little heard.
This caused great distress among a majority of the delegates. One of them objected: “The big papers will make
it appear that the Canadian delegation had some doubts as to the success of the festival.” Someone else suggested that the “progreasive” papers could leave the reservation out. In the end, Charlie’s suggestion was rejected. The report was approved with three “nay” votes. John, Charlie and I found it unacceptable.
The festival ended, hut our passports were still tied up somewhere in the midst of the slow-moving Communist bureaucracy. Our contacts told us that the Rumanian officials were anxious to get all foreigners out of the city by August 22, since on the following day there was to be a gigantic parade of military and workers to celebrate the liberation of the city by the Russians in 1944. Many of the Canadian delegates were whisked off to a holiday camp to await their passports and be spared the sight of a display of militarism. But Charles, John, myself and a few other delegates were going on to Poland, and waited in Bucharest.
Already the appearance of the city had changed. The flags of the Western nations disappeared overnight and big red stars went up on all public buildings. Now Soviet and Rumanian flags hung from every window, gigantic posters of Soviet and Rumanian leaders appeared everywhere, with lettering proclaiming the solidarity of SovietRumanian friendship.
On the day of the parade John Hallward and I watched as waves of goose-stepping infantrymen marched by, followed by squads of sailors and airmen, then cavalrymen on beautiful horses. Next came t he rumble of tanks, then guns of all sizes drawn by trucks and tractors. Overhead formations of MI Os roared by.
The workers’ part of the parade followed. I have never seen such a mass of workers in my life. They came in torrents, divided into factory groups each carrying a float demonstrating its production, and huge posters with pictures of every leader of international Communism—including Tim Buck.
John and I slipped into the parade. Nobody tried to stop us. Group leaders wearing armbands were organizing cheers of “traiasca (long live) Gheorghiu-Dej!” We joined in with “traiasca Eisenhower!” The effect on the marchers near us was amusing. They could hardly believe their ears. After several blocks I tried to step out of the parade. Two soldiers and a civilian wearing an armband closed ranks on me and pushed me back into the street, crying “tovarisch, tovarisch.”
A liitle farther on I again made for the sidewalk. Again I was pushed back. 1 yelled at the soldiers in Emglisli and they let me through, looking rather sheepish for having treated a foreigner in this manner.
The day after the parade our passports were at last returned, with Hungarian, Czech and Polish visas. Our train was to leave that night for Warsaw.
After the hectic weeks in Bucharest, the Warsaw conference of the International Union of Students was tame and businesslike. The sessions were held outside the city, at the Academy of Physical Education, a large group of modern buildings forming a square. About a thousand students had assembled from seventy-seven nations. We listened for two hours to the report of the executive committee read by Giovanni Berlinguer, the Italian general secretary of the International Union of Students. I listened with very moderate interest until, under the heading of “The Right to Education, Untroubled Studies and an Ensured Future.” I heard the name of Canada. Mr. Berlinguer was citing Canada as an example of Student Action:
“Canadian students used a spectacular campaign to protest against the rise in Montreal tram fares last year. Four thousand, five hundred of them marched through the streets with banners threatening to boycott the trams. The National Federation of Canadian University Students supported the students’ representations to the City Transportation Commission.”
Good old Montreal streetcars, I thought nostalgically. They had made the grade at an international conference representing seventy-seven nations. I thought the committee had missed a bet, though, in failing to note an even more spectacular aspect of the Montreal “student action”—the plan of numerous students hoarding streetcars and all tendering five-dollar bills for the conductors to change.
Stalin’s Books Useful
Warsaw was a city of vivid impressions: The most bombed city I had ever seen—and 1 had been in most of the German “saturation raid” targets. The tragic Ghetto near the centre of the city was still acre upon acre of weedgrown rubble. The bookstores with vast offerings of Stalin’s works at subsidized prices: l paid eighty cents
for a London Times, but a thick volume by Stalin on The Problems of Leninism could he had for fifty cents. A foreign diplomat I met told me: “I’m thinking of heating my house this winter with hooks by Stalin—pound for pound they’re cheaper than coal rn Warsaw.”
Vladis, our guide and interpreter, was a resourceful man, a former Polish officer who had spent six years in a Nazi prison camp, where he learned English from captured British officers. On our own initiative, we went to a “grey market” in a vacant lot, where Nestle’s cocoa was on sale at twenty dollars for a pound tin, nylons were thirty dollars a pair, and sugar sold for a dollar and seventy-five cents a pound. Later \ve went to see the carefully preserved buildings of the Nazis’ notorious Auschwitz Prison Camp, where four million victims were said to have perished in gas ovens.
It was Vladis, too, who doled out our allowance of spending money—three dollars and fifty cents a day each. 1 thought this was very generous of the Poles, since in addition they were providing transportation—train, bus, taxi and tram—feeding us, lodging us in a comfortable students’ residence, and giving us free laundry and opera and theatre tickets.
There was one man I wanted to meet in Warsaw. He was Professor Leopold Infeld, one-time professor of physics at the University of Toronto. Infeld ! had left Poland before t he rise of Hitler. He had taught at Princeton’s School of Advanced Studies and had collaborated on a book about relativity with j the great Einstein himself. He had been at the University of Toronto for ¡ several years when, in the late ’forties, j he decided to return to Poland. This decision created a sensation at Varsity, j As I recall, Infeld said he was not a Communist—in fact not even sympaj thetic toward Communism. He had, however, been asked to reorganize the j Polish university system, and he could i not pass up this opportunity to serve his native land. I wanted to find out how he thought and fared five years later.
He Wasn’t Subdued
Vladis willingly agreed to arrange the interview. Then he reported that Infeld had been taken seriously ill with a gastro-intestinal illness and had gone to a spa in South Poland. A few days later I passed a large building housing the Academy of Science. I entered and asked a functionary if that was where Dr. Infeld was in charge. He nodded, but said that Infeld was away at an important scientific conference in Vienna. I never did learn the truth about the former Toronto professor.
One evening the Canadian delegation attended a reception at the Canadian Legation and then had to hurry on to a reception given for delegates by the Polish government The chargé d'affaires for Yugoslavia, who was at the Canadian reception, offered to drive us over to the palace of the presidium where the Polish party was being held. He was a very young man in a job which I imagined was very uncomfortable. But he was certainly not meek or subdued. When one used the term “Communist” in referring to the Poles he became quite offended. “Only the Yugoslavs are Communists,” he said. “The Russians, Poles and other nations in their group are Cominformists.”
We asked him how he got along with the Poles. He replied bluntly that they were always trying to frame him. “One man came to the Plmbassy and offered to sell me plans for a motorcycle factory,” he related. “I suspected a plot which would result in my being accused of stealing ‘vital Polish blueprints,’ so I told him Yugoslavia wasn’t sufficiently industrialized to make cycles. Another time a student came in and said he had organized an underground movement and needed ten thousand dollars to finance it. We told him our dollarmaking machine had broken down.
“The favorite trick of the Polish secret police is to send an agent to a diplomat’s home with the story that he is hiding from the police and would like to leave some secret documents for safekeeping. Invariably the secret police are waiting outside, ready to march in and nab the diplomat with the documents in his hand.”
The reception at the presidium was most lavish. The refreshments can be covered by the statement that just about every luxury in the line of food or drink was set out on table after table. Glasses in hand, and replenishment never far away, we wandered pleasantly through the palace. At a big table in a small room a slightly tipsy North Korean was toasting some Russians and Poles. They invited us heartily to join them.
The North Korean, one of the Russians and some of the Poles could speak English. The North Korean proposed a toast to peace and friendship. Then everybody else had to propose the same toast—and each time our hosts insisted that our glasses be drained. The party became a bit blurred. Charlie proposed a toast to “Poland’s greatest musician, Chopin.” The Poles refused to drink. Not for any political reason, they explained, but it was not their custom to toast dead people. The Korean called for a “progressive song.” “We Canadians will sing our progressive songs,” Charlie announced. We gave them the McGill song, the University of Toronto song, and ended with the Engineers’ song: “We are, we are, we are the
engineers, We can, we can, demolish forty beers. Drink rum, drink rum, drink rum and follow us. We don’t give a damn for any damn man that don’t give a damn for us!”
With this finale we departed with all the dignity we could muster.
After the students’ conference, the Canadian delegates were invited to visit Cracow. John Hallward and 1 decided to go. Cracow turned out to be a city as different from Warsaw as it is possible to imagine. Warsaw, almost entirely destroyed during World War II, consists of buildings eight years old or less. Cracow has scarcely changed a stone in seven hundred years.
Jail for Americans?
We were taken to visit Wawel Castle, a many-towered pile atop a hill overlooking the Vistula River, * which is Poland’s great public museum. The guide droned on about collections of King so-and-so and paintings of this school and the other. I was listening none too intently. Then we entered a series of empty rooms. What the guide said then woke me with a start: “In these rooms at one time were kept many of Poland’s greatest art treasures—tapestries of priceless value and paintings beyond price, armour of gold and precious stones, manuscripts and arms and objets d'art that were Poland’s heritage. These treasures were sent to Canada for safe keeping, and have never been returned.”
In Cracow we met our first Uniter! States delegates. It was not surprising, I suppose, since there were thirty thousand foreigners in Bucharest, in Warsaw a thousand, but in Cracow only fifty. And we all ate in the same dining room. There were five Americans. At first their manner seemed furtive, and they would give only their first names. Later when we got to know them better they told us that if their government found out they had traveled behind the Iron Curtain they might be sentenced to five years in jail. 1 doubted that, but it was their story. They were pleased with the arrangement which eliminated stamped visas from their passports.
One of the Americans, by name Teddy, dubbed John Hallward and myself “the doubting Johns” for our lack of enthusiasm over the Communist way of life. One day in the dining hall Teddy nudged me and pointed down the table. “See that North Korean student with the medal on his chest?” he asked. “During his vacation he flew for the North Korean air force. He’s only nineteen, but he shot down ten enemy planes. Then he went back to school.” It was with considerable shock that I realized that “the enemy” Teddy referred to were his fellow Americans.
Throughout our stay in Poland Charlie, John and I continued our plan of interviewing individuals on conditions. Before we separated we compared notes. In all, in Rumania and Poland, we had been able to interview at some length almost exactly one hundred men and women. Of these, ninety spoke against their governments. Not all condemned every action and plan of their rulers many objected principally to the lack of freedoms—freedom of speech, of movement, of the restrictions imposed on a man’s running his own life and business in his own way. Many others were more concerned with the end products of Communism: shortage of food, of proper housing, of consumer goods. Most just didn’t like living under totalitarianism.
The most incongruous incident of my six weeks was an encounter with a spy—at any rate, with a man who told me he was a spy. He was leaning against a tree outside our Bucharest residence one morning when I came out, a tall thin man with thick curly hair. He winked at me, so I walked up to him and asked abruptly: “Do
you speak English?” He nodded.
“Are you an interpreter with the festival?” I asked. “Not exactly,” he answered, “I am a spy.”
1 was, naturally, taken aback. The only answer I could think of was: “Oh, well, I’ve never met anyone who said he was a spy. Come to think of it, I’ve never met a spy.”
We walked down the street and he explained the duties of a spy:
“On a tram a French delegate will ask a tired workman if things are good with him. The worker, forgetting where he is, will mutter, ‘no, terrible.’ One of my jobs is to interrupt such a conversation and make the workman apologize for giving misleading information. What am I to do? The poor devil speaks only the truth. The authorities expect me to report such incidents and who the people are. This I cannot do, so I must fabricate my reports to make the committee think I am working efficiently.”
He paused and looker! behind him. “Even I have to be careful. There may be people watching me.”
He told me he knew he could trust me because I had been identified to his festival committee as a “reactionary.” I asked him who had given that information. He said it was a member of the Canadian delegation. “But do not trill your people I told you this,” he said. “Then they will tell the committee that I told you and I will be in trouble.” I decided that the whole chain of “telling” was too complicated, and assured him that I would not give him away.
When the time came for our return to the West from Warsaw, our way lay through Czechoslovakia, the most prosperous looking of all the lands we had visited or passed through. At Cheb, near the West German border, the train was practically deserted. Only a handful of fortunate passengers who had the right to pass through the Iron Curtain stayed aboard.
But we had a long wait at the border. Czech soldiers went systematically through the empty cars. They prodded behind and under every seat with long, stiff pieces of sharpened wire. Only when they were sure that not a single poor devil had hidden his way into freedom did they let the train proceed. Slowly, slowly, the train crossed the frontier into the free world. ★