A Pole Apart – Hubert Hurkacz: Many Happy Returns At Wimbledon

Polish sport, much like the country itself, has historically been overlooked due to its much larger neighbors that have dominated international competitions such as the Olympic Games. Germany and Russia have had many more champions in both individual and team sports compared with Poland. This is not surprising since Poland has a much smaller population. Plus, Germany and Russia have given a great deal of financial backing to sports. Nonetheless, Poles have had many great sporting achievements and sportsmen. In football, Poland’s national team was a force to be reckoned during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, coming in third place on two separate occasions. Currently, one of the best football players in the world, Robert Lewandowski is Polish.

Moving forward – Hubert Hurkacz

A Run For The Ages – Taking Home A Title
Besides football, Poland has really made a name for itself in professional tennis over the past two decades. This has mainly come on the women’s side due to the exploits of Agnieszka Radwanski who made it all the way to the Wimbledon Final in 2012 where she lost to the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, in three close sets. Radwanska attained a number two world ranking and won over $27 million dollars in prize money during her career before retiring in 2018. The only thing Radwanska did not achieve was winning a Grand Slam title. Poland would not have to wait long for another native daughter to send the nation’s tennis spirits soaring. At the pandemic delayed French Open last autumn, 20 year old Iga Swiatek went on a run for the ages.

The 54th ranked Swiatek had never won a tour level title in her career. In the 4th round, playing against Romania’s Simona Halep, she served notice that greatness had arrived. Swiatek thrashed Halep who was ranked #2 in the world at the time, 6-1, 6-2. What made the victory even more stunning was that Halep had beaten Swiatek 6-1, 6-0 the year before at the French. Swiatek continued her dominance in her next three matches, surrendering no more than five games to a single opponent. She ended up winning the title without the loss of a set. In the process, she became the first Polish woman to win a Grand Slam singles title. The question has now become when a Polish man might accomplish the same feat. The chance of that happening has become much greater since another Polish player is excelling at Wimbledon this year. Hubert Hurkacz has just become only the second Polish male to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. The question is whether he will become the first to make the final and/or win the most coveted championship in tennis.

Always in style – Wojtek Fibak (Credit: Bert Verhoeff/Anefo)

The Art of Tennis – Wojtek Fibak
Polish professional tennis is now enjoying some of its better days. It cannot be called a resurgence because that implies Polish tennis once had a golden age. Besides Wojtek Fibak, pickings were extremely slim throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Fortunately, Fibak represented Polish tennis well. He was an excellent player who won 15 singles and 52 doubles titles, there was really no one other than him to represent Poland in the upper echelons of men’s professional tennis. Fibak’s closest confidante on tour was Ivan Lendl. The two often traveled together throughout Europe, competing in tournament after tournament. They were accused of being renegades who were out to win as much prize money as possible. Ironically, they were both from communist countries, but knew how to make a mint out of the bandit capitalism that pervaded pro tennis at the time. Fibak faded long before Lendl. He then went into business, making another fortune and becoming one of Poland’s premier art collectors.

After Fibak, Polish tennis went into a deep freeze. The Cold War may have ended, but there were few potential pros rising through the ranks. The thaw would only come after the turn of the 21st century. The highlight occurred at Wimbledon in 2014 when two Poles faced off in the quarterfinals. Jerzy Janowicz defeated Lukas Kubot to become the first Polish man to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. He then took the first set off eventual champion Andy Murray before losing in four close sets. Janowicz’s future looked bright until knee problems darkened his horizons. At Wimbledon, he had achieved the tennis equivalent of a false summit, getting close to the pinnacle of glory only to fall backwards. Fortunately. there was another Polish hope on the way. It arrived in the form of Hurkacz. Hurkacz is not only the second Pole to make it to the Wimbledon semis, but he also has to be the only player in history who lost his last six matches prior to arriving at the All England Club. He had displayed better form earlier in the season when he won a Masters 1000 event in Miami.

Many happy returns – Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon 2021

A Wave of Confidence – Beating The Best
Coming into Wimbledon, Hurkacz did not have many expectations. He just wanted to break out of his recent slump. The grass at Wimbledon was as good a place as any to do that since Hurkacz plays a power game. On grass he can more easily impose his game on an opponent. He sailed through his first three matches without the loss of a set. In his 4th round match against second seed Danil Medvedev, Hurkacz lost two of the first three sets. His hopes of a comeback looked bleak since he was only 1-4 in five set matches. Improbably, Hurkacs managed to beat Medvedev by winning 12 of the last 18 games.

This set up a match against Roger Federer on center court. Federer is probably the best grass court player of all time, but he was no match for Hurkacz who rode a wave of confidence after Federer made a couple of costly errors in the crucial second set tiebreak. Hurkacz then became the first man to ever win a 6-0 set against Federer at Wimbledon when he closed out the match in straight sets. Like Swiatek’s run at the French Open, Hurkacz has been a surprise. Whether his run will continue all the way to the championship remains to be seen. The hopes and dreams of Polish tennis have fallen on Hurkacz’s broad shoulders. Can he carry the load? We will find out.


Rescue Mission – Herberta C Hoovera: An American On Behalf of Poland (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #30)

Hoover. Unless you are into vacuum cleaners, the name is synonymous with failure. This is due to the surname’s most famous namesake, Herbert Hoover. A man who was unlucky enough to be the American President when the Great Depression struck. That cataclysmic economic event ruined Hoover’s reputation, both then and now. Because he was unable to stabilize the American economy, Hoover will be forever labeled as a failure. Sadly, this is a very narrow view of the man. One that only looks at Hoover through the prism of his presidency from 1929 -1933. Many never realize that the popular image of Hoover as a failure is a false one. Herbert Hoover was a success in everything he did other than the American presidency. He was a man whose ability to organize and facilitate aid for the needy was unprecedented. Those skills saved countless lives, including in Poland.

Hoover led large scale relief efforts for those left destitute by war. Most famously, in establishing and leading the Commission for Relief in Belgium that provided lifesaving assistance to Belgians after the German invasion of the country in 1914. Just as important, but much less well known were Hoover’s efforts after the World War I ended. President Woodrow Wilson made Hoover the point man for one of the largest relief efforts in human history. Hoover was charged with leading the American Relief Administration (ARA) in Central and Eastern Europe. Nowhere was Hoover’s work appreciated greater than in Poland. A newly reconstituted nation whose citizens, especially children, would forever be indebted to Hoover for feeding and clothing them in the years after the war.

Helping Hands – A Nation In Need
Several years ago, I was walking around Warsaw’s Old Town, fascinated by its immaculate post-World War II reconstruction. There was nary a stone out of place. The buildings resonated Old World charm. It felt as though the clock had been turned back several centuries in this part of the Polish capital. Perhaps that was why I took notice of something that was much more modern, a name that evoked the new rather than old world. On a sign I saw the words, “Herberta C. Hoovera Skwer” (Herbert Hoover Square). This could mean only one thing, that Herbert Hoover was honored with a square named after him in the Polish capital. At the time, I had no idea how important Hoover’s efforts were at helping fight off starvation in Poland after World War I. And this was not the only time Hoover assisted Poland. He was one of the few Americans who visited Poland both before and after World War’s I and II. Hoover’s visits in 1913, 1919, 1938 and 1946 endeared him to Poles. Of those visits, none was more important than the one in 1919, when Hoover witnessed an outpouring of adulation, the likes of which has rarely been seen before or since for a foreigner visiting Poland.

With World War One at an end, many parts of Europe were in dire need of food and clothing. Nowhere was this problem more acute than in Eastern Europe, where low level warfare still raged and new nations struggled to keep their citizens healthy and fed. Poland had hundreds of thousands of malnourished citizens. This problem was particularly bad among children. As head of the ARA, Herbert Hoover facilitated the shipment of provisions to Poland. This also included organization and setup of 10,000 kitchens during 1919-1920. It was estimated that some two million children gained much needed nourishment as part of this program. Hoover’s organization skills and administrative acumen became the stuff legends are made of, at least in Poland. In the summer of 1919, he decided to visit the country to see firsthand the fruits of the ARA’s labors.

An American in Warsaw – Herbert Hoover visiting Polish war orphans in 1946

Ultimate Honors – The Barefoot March
Hoover arrived in Warsaw on August 14, 1919. By this time, the ARA’s efforts had resulted in half a million Poles being fed each day. Among the most grateful were children who decided to pay Hoover the ultimate respect during his visit. At a horse racing track in Warsaw, tens of thousands of barefoot children, marched past Hoover. Many of the children waved small American flags. The procession lasted from the early afternoon into the evening. This outpouring of gratitude moved Hoover to tears. It also motivated him to even greater action. After what he saw in Warsaw, Hoover ordered that 700,000 pairs of shoes and overcoats be shipped to Polish children in need. At the same time, the ARA continued to provide meals. Their work saved innumerable lives. It is estimated that the kitchens they setup may have served as much as 500 million meals. While that number was astounding, it pales in comparison ti its result. None of this would have been possible without Hoover’s efforts. The Poles could not think him enough, but they certainly tried in the years to come.

In 1922 Hoover became the first foreigner granted national citizenship by the Polish Legislative Assembly. That same year Herbert C. Hoover Square was also designated with a Monument to American Gratitude erected in the square. The sculpture did not directly reference Hoover. Instead, it was of a mother holding a child on each of her shoulders. Hoover would have approved. He came from modest circumstances, growing up in a Quaker household. His greatest satisfaction came from helping others in need, something he would do once again for Poland after Germany invaded it 20 years later. Hoover once again spearheaded a relief effort. He led the Commission for Polish Relief to assist a population ravaged by war. After the Germans declared war on the United States in December 1941, Hoover focused his efforts on helping Poles who had fled to other countries.

Destined For Greatness – Herbert Hoover in Warsaw with Prime Minister & famed pianist Ignac Paderewski and military leader Jozef Pilsuski

A Necessary Corrective – Do No Wrong
After World War II ended, Hoover came back to Warsaw for a final visit to help organize yet another relief effort. It was a fine example of Hoover’s tireless efforts to lead by action. His four historic visits in twenty-seven years were the public face of an effort that required incredible administrative skills. The upshot was that Hoover probably saved more Polish lives than any foreigner in 20th century Polish history. His work was based upon kindness and generosity. Hoover’s Polish relief efforts were a masterstroke of soft diplomacy, winning over the hearts and minds of Poles through humanitarian efforts.

In turn, the Poles helped provide a bulwark against Bolshevism, which they would beat back in the Polish-Soviet War in 1919-20. It is questionable if the Poles would have been successful without the American Relief Administration aid that was sent to them. That aid made Hoover a legendary figure in the country. It is little wonder that his name can still be seen in Warsaw today. To Poles, both then and now, Hoover could do no wrong. A necessary corrective to his historical image in America of a president who could do no right. Herbert Hoover was one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century. His work on behalf of Poland is one of the great unknown legacies of an astonishing life.

Click here for: Live Targets – The Assassination Of King Alexander I In Marseilles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 31a)



Declarations of Independence – Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #29)

If a visitor to Krakow does not know who Tadeusz Kosciuszko was, I am sure they will after they visit Wawel Castle. Outside the royal castle stands a statue of Kosciuszko on horseback. The pose is highly charismatic, with Kosciuszko gazing off into the distance as he waves his hat. The steed he is riding prepares to rear upwards. The bronze statue is a delightful work, one that adds to the royal ambiance that pervades the Castle and accompanying grounds. It is fitting that Kosciuszko’s statue retains a prominent place at Poland’s greatest national shrines. He fought for Polish independence at a time when all hope seemed lost. Kosciuszko’s life was coterminous with the partition of Poland between the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian Empires during the late 18th century. Though Kosciuszko’s efforts failed, he kept alive the flame of Polish liberty during some of its darkest days.

After a failed revolt against Tsarist Russian rule in 1794, Kosciuszko was imprisoned in St. Petersburg. In 1796 he was released from prison and sent into what would turn out to be permanent exile from his beloved homeland. Unlike other exiled revolutionaries, Kosciuszko held citizenship in another country, the United States. He had earned citizenry through meritorious service during the American Revolution. Kosciuszko had performed feats of engineering that helped the American colonists defeat the British. The Americans never forgot Kosciuszko’s invaluable assistance to their war effort. I realized this when I discovered another important site dedicated to the memory of Kosciuszko. This one could not have been more different from the equestrian statue in Krakow. An ocean away from Poland, in another place synonymous with freedom, stands the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia. It preserves the boarding room where Kosciuszko spent part of 1796-1797 before he returned to Europe.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia (Credit: Victoria Staffenberg/NP Gallery)

Poetic Justice – The Freedom Fighter
The National Parks have been called America’s best idea. They are also said to be a uniquely American idea. While this is true, in many cases they also tell stories of immigrants, including those from Eastern Europe. The most famous of these is the Ellis Island National Monument in New York harbor. Conversely, one of the least known is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. That might have something to do with its size. The National Memorial is the smallest of the 425 units that makeup part of the National Park System in the United States. It is easy to overlook. Though it is only a five minute walk from one of the most visited National Park units in the nation – Independence National Historical Park (NHP) – few are aware of its existence. With the site only open on weekends, it can be difficult to access. My wife and I were lucky enough to visit it on a summer afternoon.

It is poetic justice that a site dedicated to Kosciuszko is administered by Independence NHP. His life spanned the fight for freedom on two continents. What better place than a site synonymous with liberty for the Kosciuszko National Memorial to be associated. While the National Memorial may be small, the place it protects tells a much larger story. Kosciuszko’s life represents the pursuit of independence, something he never stopped fighting for, even when he was half a world away in the United States. Kosciuszko’s second and final journey to America in 1796 was met with great fanfare. When he arrived at the harbor in Philadelphia, he was met by chants of “Long live Kosciuszko” from an adoring crowd that had come to welcome a returning hero. The crowd was so enamored with Kosciuszko, that they unhitched the horse that was supposed to pull his carriage into the city. They then pulled the carriage themselves. Only a few months earlier, Kosciuszko had been a prisoner in Russia, now he was being feted as a national hero in America. Such were the extremes of life for this Polish patriot.

Enshrined in Bronze – Kosciuszko Statue at Wawel Castle (Credit: Poeticbent)

Preserving Polish Patriotism – A Memorial To Memory
Once he settled in at his lodging, Kosciuszko used his contacts in Congress to arrange a meeting with the French consul. Kosciuszko wanted to arrange a meeting with Napoleon when he returned to Europe. The French were the Poles’ best bet when in creating an alliance that could advance their interests. Kosciuszko’s stay in Philadelphia was not for long. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most famous physician in America, advised him to leave the city to avoid a deadly epidemic of yellow fever. After visiting friends and colleagues from his service in New Jersey and New York during the American Revolution, Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia after the epidemic subsided. It was during this time that he rented a room on the second floor of a Mrs. Relf’s Boarding House on Pine Street. The room could only hold a handful of people at one time. I can vouch for its small size. While the room may be small, it is also quite intimate.

To think that one of the greatest Poles in history spent several months here is mind boggling. The fact that the room has been preserved as a National Park unit is heartening. Whomever decided the site was worth preserving had their heart in the right place. Kosciuszko may have been at the wrong place at the wrong time in Poland, but in the United States he was in the right place. He bided his time here, collecting backpay that Congress had voted for his service during the American Revolution. He then sailed back to Europe in 1797. Kosciuszko’s American adventure was over, but never quite forgotten. In 1972 Mrs. Relf’s boarding house became a unit of the National Park system. It brought much needed attention to a man whose name had been lost to American history.

Leading the Charge – Thaddeus Kosciuszko (Credit: Juliusz Kossak)

Life Everlasting – An American Honor
Kosciuszko would live another seventeen years after he left America. Unfortunately, he would not see the resurrection of Poland or freedom for its citizenry. He died in Switzerland at the age of 54, never returning to his native Poland until his remains were sent to Wawel Castle. The fight for Polish independence would outlive Kosciuszko, finally being realized at the end of World War I. As a Polish patriot, Kosciuszko would have been proud. He would also have been proud to know that the National Park system was preserving his former residence in perpetuity. It is said that nothing lasts forever, but the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial just might.


A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

The Bezdany Raid came to me as a gift, falling into my mind on a mid-winter’s day. Like the most fascinating aspects of history, it left me wanting to learn more. The raid was Eastern European history at its finest, shrouded in obscurity, a lesser known mystery. I knew the main man behind it, Jozef Pilsudski, that great Polish patriot and founder of modern Poland. What I did not know was how the raid at Bezdany brought Pilsudski and several others to prominence. It had also led to the development of a viable Polish military force. All this from the robbery of a single treasury train on the frontiers of the Vilna Governorate (present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). This information came to me, as so many things do, while I was reading about something entirely different. The path to Bezdany started with Ekaterine “Kato” Svanidze (Joseph Stalin’s first wife). Svanidze’s story led me to the famous 1907 Bolshevik Bank Robbery in Tiflis (present day Tbilisi, Georgia). Then the Tiflis robbery brought up the subject of other famous turn of the 20th century robberies in Eastern Europe. That was where I stumbled upon the Bezdany Raid.

The Power of Place - Bezdonys Train Station

The Power of Place – Bezdonys Train Station (Credit: Aleksandrs Timofejev)

Staying Power – Living On The Edge
My path to the Bezdany Raid was short and serpentine, simple and sublime. I had not planned on reading about anything other than Stalin’s first wife and her death from typhus. In the process, I found a reference to the Tiflis Bank Robbery which Stalin helped mastermind. This landmark historical event provided the Bolshevik movement with badly needed funding. The robbery was also illustrative of the extremes to which men like Stalin would go to in support of their ideological values. Little did I know that Pilsudski would do much the same thing. The difference is that Pilsudski and his fellow Poles’ actions are viewed as supporting a worthy cause, an independent Poland free from foreign occupation. Maybe that was why I found the raid so fascinating and decided to write about it. In my opinion, Pilsudski and the Poles were the good guys, lovable underdogs who risked their lives for an admirable ideal – the Polish nation – which is still with us today.

Speaking of today, the sleepy little village of Bezdonys, Lithuania (in Polish it is known as Bezdany thus the name of the raid) is still there awaiting rediscovery. While the village is within an easy of commute of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, the size and scale of the place looks to have changed little over the past century. It also has one attraction of interest to anyone intrigued by the life and legacy of Pilsudski, its railway station. The station’s exterior has changed since the early 20th century, but it is likely the same sub-structure and stands in the same place as its predecessor. The fact that a railway station still operates in Bezdonys is worth noting. If nothing else, it is a symbol of staying power. This despite massive geo-political upheavals that have seen Bezdonys change from Russian to Polish to Soviet to Lithuanian territory in little over a century. Lithuanians and Poles have a litany of historical grievances, but what happened with the Bezdany Raid is not one of them. Throwing off the Russian imperial yoke was in both their interests. As for the village today, it remains forgettable and obscure. That, along with its historical value, put it on my travel radar.

Pilsudski's & Poland's Past - Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Pilsudski’s & Poland’s Past – Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Back To The Start – A Product of the Imagination
A bit of research showed me that I could visit Bezdonys to relive or reconstruct the robbery. Following the trail of this obscure and important history would be a trip to remember. Such an immediate undertaking was out of the question, but that did not stop me from imagining a trip to Bezdonys. My eventual goal would be to stand where Pilsudski and his accomplices made the heist that was integral to creating a free and independent Poland. It was worth a visit, if not in the flesh, at least within the realm of imagination. And let’s face it, every journey starts somewhere in the imagination. Making imagination into reality is as much a matter of belief as it is of having enough time or money for travel. Would I really spend several thousand dollars traveling to Lithuania to visit a railway station in a non-descript village halfway around the world just because something historically important happened in and around there? Absolutely.

The railway station that stands today in Bezdonys looks much the same as the one that preceded it a century ago, a one-story structure that stands adjacent to railroad tracks. The present station has a much more striking exterior than the earlier iteration. Most of it is painted a dark yellow, with brown trim around the bottom and topped by a bright red roof that has two chimneys protruding from it. The rustic looking station fits well with the area. This is a land of deep forests, serpentine watercourses and small lakes. The kind of terrain that lends itself to hiding out. It is also land that has not changed much since the early 20th century. The landscape is as important as the station in understanding how Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators were able to escape from the authorities.

Those looking to get an idea of what Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators experienced on the historic night of September 26th, should focus their energies on the surrounding area as much as the railway station. While the station is obviously important, it has also been revamped. Pilsudski spent less than an hour at the station, whereas he spent the rest of the night and early morning hours making his way through the forests back to safety. The woods offer people like me a path back to the past. I could see myself traveling to Bezdonys on a late autumn evening in the future. It would be best to visit at the same time of year as when the raid occurred, this way I could experience the woods and waterways just as Pilsudski did. Standing within sight of the train station, I could listen for the whistle of an approaching train then plunge into the woods. From there I would attempt to make my way back to the outskirts of Vilnius.

Train Spotting - Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

Train Spotting – Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

A Mad Enterprise – The Trackless Trail
Of course, following the trackless trail of the Bezdany Raid is a mad enterprise.  By turns, insane and inane, the kind of passion pursued by a person who knows plenty about the past except what it really felt like. A passion that only a delusional and devoted history buff looking not only for accuracy, but also authenticity would care to undertake. The idea of traversing Lithuanian woods at night, wading through watercourses and stumbling through the backyards of people who could not begin to fathom my objective would be foolhardy in the extreme. Then again so was the Bezdany Raid and look at how that turned out.

Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

It is one thing to commit a crime, it is quite another to get away with it. With the gift of hindsight, most historians view the Bezdany Raid/Train Robbery by Jozef Pilsudski and his 19 fellow conspirators as a justifiable crime. There was no other way for the future father of modern Poland and his fellow Polish nationalists to find the funding necessary to support development of a military force that might one day free Poland. Historical perspective shows the raid as a great success, but nothing was assured at the time. As soon as Pilsudski and his men disappeared into the darkness of the countryside surrounding Bezdany (present day Bezdonys Lithuania), Russian authorities and Cossack soldiers were hunting for them. Escape was not inevitable for the Poles, while the consequences of getting caught would likely result in death. Pilsudski knew he and his co-conspirators faced long odds of survival, let alone ultimate success. Nonetheless, as they scattered into the night each hoped to live and fight another day. It is amazing how many did.

From beginning to end, the train robbery in Bezdany was supposed to last no longer than 45 minutes. The signal to take the money and literally run occurred when the next train – an hour behind the treasury train – due to arrive at the station came within earshot. When Pilsudski heard its whistle blowing, he called his men off. It was time to make for the exits, which in this case consisted of woods and wilderness, marshes, rivers and two tracks. The Poles melted away into the countryside. It was easy to get out of sight, not so easy to get out of mind. Soon there would be Cossack soldiers scouring the roads and paths in an all-out effort to capture the conspirators. Some took a boat to Riga in Latvia, others found their way through the darkness to safe havens, miraculously nearly all the men – save one – evaded capture that night.

Impenetrable - Forest on the edge of Bezdonys

Impenetrable – Forest on the edge of Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

A Harrowing Escape – The Flight To Safety
Robbing the train at Bezdany was much easier than getting the stolen money to a safe place. Some of the robbery’s proceeds were taken away on horseback, but the majority were carted away by Pilsudski and a veteran of his movement. They made their way slowly along the poor roads. The two wheeled cart buckled under the weight of over a thousand pounds of silver coins. The horse pulling the cart was moving incredibly slow. Pilsudski and his colleague were not far behind. Their ultimate destination was a cabin where Aleksandra and another woman awaited. The two men fought fear, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion the entire way. If Cossack horsemen located them, there would have been no escape. It would have been a virtual death sentence for Pilsudski. Fortunately, the Cossacks went in the wrong direction when setting off for the Poles. This mistake likely saved Pilsudski’s life. That did not make his ordeal any easier.

After several harrowing hours in the darkness well before dawn, they made it to safety. Seeing Aleksandra must have been a great relief for Pilsudski, but this also meant much more had to be done. Several holes were dug where the proceeds were hidden away. Then Aleksandra and Pilsudski took a train toward Kiev. They were lucky to get out of the Vilna Govenorate alive. The Russian authorities were casting a wide net in trying to capture Pilsudski, who was fast becoming one of the most wanted men in Russia. From there it was on to Krakow and the relatively liberal lands of the Austro-Hungarian ruled part of partitioned Poland. It would not be until winter that Aleksandra, but not Pilsudski, returned with several others to dig up the buried treasure outside of Vilno (present day Vilnius Lithuania). It was a long trip that proved emotionally and physically exhausting for Aleksandra. The ground was frozen solid, causing no end of difficulty with the excavation. Then the coins and currency were packed and hidden in luggage that miraculously was transported all the way back to Krakow. When all was said and done, the money proved to be enough to support the development of a Polish military force. Ironically, the money taken during the robbery may well have been worth less than the publicity.

Into the wild - Landscape around Bezdonys

Into the wild – Landscape around Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

Fame & Misfortune – Polish Patriots & Prisoners
Sensational news reports of the robbery went out across Russia and Europe. Many of these were grossly exaggerated, providing Pilsudski and the Polish cause free publicity. While the monetary total of the robbery according to Pilsudski’s own accounting was 200,000 rubles, newspapers inflated that figure by a factor of five. Pilsudski quickly achieved superhero status, both at home and abroad. He became the face of Polish nationalism and resistance, living proof of what could be achieved through grit and guile. Those in the Polish Socialist Party who had questioned his courage and credentials were silenced. From this time forward, Pilsudski became the main figure in the movement to overthrow Russian rule. The image of a Polish David standing up to the Russian Imperial Goliath fit a narrative that had many in Europe cheering for the underdog. None of this would have been possible without the Bezdany Raid.

What became of the other men involved in the train robbery? In the early morning hours after the raid, one man was caught. An intense interrogation followed his arrest, but he could not provide very many helpful details to the authorities. The plan had kept many of those involved nameless, compartmentalizing the damage and keeping the conspirators mostly anonymous to one another. Eventually 5 of the 20 people involved would be apprehended. They were sentenced to an icy exile in Siberia which would not end until after the Russian revolution. Three of the conspirators – Tomasz Arciszewki, Aleksander Prystor and Walery Slawek – went on to become Prime Ministers of Poland after the nation was reconstituted following World War One.

Complete Focus - Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Complete Focus – Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Springboard To Power – The Legacy Of Bezdany
As for Pilsudski, he was blessed over the coming years with more successes than setbacks. He lived to first see an independent Poland reconstituted and then ruled over it as a virtual dictator. The Bezdany Raid was the springboard that elevated Pilsudski to a position as the most powerful Pole in modern history. It is quite possible that no other figure in modern history ever benefited as much as Pilsudski did from armed robbery. His role in the Bezdany Raid created a legend and eventually a nation.

Click here for: A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

Making Out Like Bandits – Pilsudski’s Hoard: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Two)

Waiting is supposed to be the hardest part before undertaking acts of subterfuge. That was not exactly the case for Jozef Pilsudski when it came to the train robbery that he and his fellow co-conspirators (operating as a bojowki – small combat organization) planned to carry out in 1908. The daunting logistical challenges of procuring people and weapons, as well as planning everything down to the last detail led to a series of delays. This was understandable because the operation was going to be a matter of life and death. Life for Polish nationalism or death for the conspirators. With so much on the line, the timetable shifted from spring to summer then to autumn. Unspoken was the fact that Pilsudski, sequestered in the countryside outside of Wilno with Aleksandra, was enjoying the love of his life. He was not in any great hurry to see the plan through. After a succession of delays, Pilsudski and his closest colleagues decided to move forward with their covert operation at the start of autumn.  Unfortunately, things did not quite go according to plan.

Freedom Fighters - Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Freedom Fighters – Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Shrouded In Darkness – Learning From Failure
Without the benefit of modern street lighting, it is easy to forget just how dark it can be in the countryside at night. Just try to imagine finding your way along a marshy road in the Lithuanian countryside during the early 20th century. On the night of Saturday, September 19th, there was only the sliver of a waning crescent moon to guide the way. It is not surprising that many of the Poles involved in the first train robbery attempt got lost. They were traversing a landscape shrouded in darkness with little more than their senses to guide them. A deliberate decision was made not to use torchlight due to the fear of being discovered by Russian police. Along the poor roads they lost their way, wandering down a shadowy path to nowhere. Many of the conspirators were at a loss on how to find their way to the marshaling point near the station.

To make matters worse, a cart transporting bombs that would be used to disable the train got bogged down in the muck. There was no chance that it could get close to the station in time for an attack. Pilsudski made the wise decision to abort the attempt and try again a week later. In retrospect, the aborted attempt turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It helped Pilsudski and his co-conspirators refine their plan. They learned that traveling at night was difficult at best. Plans were made to start moving towards the staging areas during daylight hours. The cart, which was to carry the bombs and take away the loot, was reinforced to hold a heavier load. Everyone now knew exactly where they needed to be and how much time to allot for travel. The conspirators had also been fortunate, no suspicions had been raised during the aborted attempt. In the failure of the first attempt, lay the seeds for a successful second one.

Wanted Man - Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Wanted Man – Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Waiting On A Train – Bombs Away
All the conspirators were ready and willing to carry out the plan once again. As it had been envisioned, six men would take over the station and hold those inside at bay while four men would attack the train with bombs and disable the postal car where the money was held. Four were to get money out of the postal car. Another man was in charge of driving the one horse, two wheeled cart. Finally, three women including Pilsudski’s beloved Aleksandra were to ensure the money was stored in a safe hiding place. To say the operation was complex, did not do it justice. Pulling the robbery off would take courage and a lot of luck. It remained to be seen whether Pilsudski and his team were up to the challenge.

A week after the first failed attempt, Pilsudski and his conspirators were back at it on the evening of Saturday, September 26th. At 10:30 p.m., just as the train was pulling into Bedzany station, the Poles sprang into action. A couple of bombs were thrown at the postal and escort cars, immediately shattering the windows and knocking out any artificial lighting inside. Three of the conspirators were already in the station. They, along with a couple of other colleagues who soon joined them, subdued police and kept control of the stunned crowd of bystanders. The escort car held Russian troops that were unable to react in time. Shots were fired by the Poles as they entered the car. Amid the chaos, several Russian soldiers were wounded with one killed. Pilsudski was part of a small team that forced their way into the postal car with a combination of bombs and threats. They then made their way to where the money was stored.

Steel Will - Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today

Steel Will – Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today (Credit: Sarunas Simkus)

Hard Cash – Getting Their Money’s Worth
Stepping inside the room was akin to entering a bank vault. Pilsudski immediately noticed numerous bags holding coins, there would turn out to be fifty in all. The only problem was that these bags held silver coins much less valuable than gold ones. To make a financial windfall on the robbery would mean having to carry off a couple thousand pounds of silver coins. There was no way the lone two wheeled cart could hold this heavy of a load. Easier pickings, such as bank notes, were problematic as well.  Those that were discovered had the cashiers signature missing. It had been trimmed off the notes, making them useless other than for the deposit in the Russian treasury.

The Poles luck was not all bad. In another part of the postal car, they discovered some metal boxes with the proceeds from ticket sells. Several of these were opened with the help of small bombs or dynamite. Best estimates of the value of coins and currency stolen during the robbery was 200,000 Russian rubles, the equivalent of 10 million dollars in today’s terms. Pilsudski and his team had not stolen as much as they hoped. Nevertheless, the total would be enough to provide a great deal of financing for the development of Polish military forces, but first the conspirators had to elude arrest in a countryside that would soon be crawling with Russian troops.

Click here for: Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part One)

Try to imagine that after Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch carried out one of their successful train robberies in the American West, they had then used the stolen money to go into politics. Their political careers rise as they make their way toward the American presidency. Cassidy, Kid Curry and other outlaw luminaries then pass the presidency among themselves for many years. Such a tale seems far-fetched, to the point of fantasy. While this never happened in the United States, something similar did occur in Poland. In 1908 twenty Polish revolutionaries, including three future prime ministers, organized and carried out a train robbery in what was then the Russian Empire (present-day eastern Lithuania). The Tsarist government labeled the perpetrators as outlaws and failed to hunt most of them down. The successful raid supplied the revolutionaries with financial resources to help build a Polish military force that could liberate Poland from foreign occupation. At the same time, it helped the group’s leader make a name for himself while establishing his legitimacy as a man who would back up his words with action. The leader of this group was none other than the one man most responsible for the creation of an independent Poland exactly a decade later, Jozef Pilsudski.

Jozef Pilsudski - Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Jozef Pilsudski – Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Career Moves – Working On The Railroad
Bezdonys stands 30 kilometers northwest of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Bezdonys is what it has always been, a small rural village (population 743) where the slow pace of life matches the pace of progress. Even as Vilnius has grown and crept closer, Bezdonys has remained little more than a wide spot in the road. In the early 20th century, the village was a wide spot on the railroad, inhabited by peasants who worked the land around it. There was nothing especially notable about the village except for the fact that the Warsaw – St Petersburg Railroad ran through it. Built forty years before, the railroad brought a bit of modernity to a traditional society. The railroad also brought an opportunity for bojowki – Polish combat teams created by Pilsudski – to commit robberies that could help fund an independent Polish military force.

In 1908, the cool autumn air of Bezdany (as it was then known by its Polish name) was pierced by the shrill whistle of locomotives on Tuesday and Saturday evenings. The whistle came from treasury trains stopping at Bezdany station while on their way to St. Petersburg. The trains, which also carried passengers and the postal mail, were transporting tax revenues and other money out of Poland back to the Russian capital. One bojowki unit led by Pilsudski began to formulate a plan to rob the train and acquire a financial windfall. This was an exceedingly dangerous enterprise. If it was discovered, the Poles would either face exile or execution. Pilsudski knew the dangers that he and his force faced, but he was determined to try for another reason besides the money. There were questions within the Polish Socialist Party whether he would be willing to risk his own safety. In the past, he had always recruited other Poles to carry deadly missions in support of his dream to end Tsarist Russia’s suffocating rule over Vilna Governorate (a Russian administered region of partitioned Poland roughly coinciding with present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). Pilsudski was now willing to take matters into his own hands.

Jozef Pilsudski - The Young Revolutionary

Jozef Pilsudski – The Young Revolutionary

Months In The Making – Suspicion & Surveillance
Trying to rob a train in the Vilna Governorate was not easy. The Russian Empire’s Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) were constantly on the lookout for revolutionaries. They had good reason to keep a vigilant eye on the Poles. There had been several mass uprisings – most prominently in 1831 and 1863 – by Poles against Tsarist rule since the Russians had established control over the area following the Napoleonic Wars. Polish nationalists like Pilsudski were constantly under suspicion and surveillance. He had already been sent into Siberian exile for helping lead protests. Pilsudski knew that if he were caught trying to coordinate and carry out a robbery to help fund military activities that it would almost certainly cost him and his co-conspirators their lives. Fear was not enough to stop him. His critics in the Polish independence movement stated that up to this point, Pilsudski had not personally put his own life on the line for the cause. Pilsudski vowed that he would rather die for the cause of Polish independence then to live as a virtual slave under Tsarist rule.

The coordination and planning of the treasury train robbery was months in the making. Twenty Poles would be involved, three of whom were female. This included Pilsudski’s mistress, lifelong love and eventual second wife, Aleksandra Szczerbinska. She would prove crucial to the robbery’s ultimate success. The first decision was where to attempt the robbery. The most likely place was somewhere close to Pilsudski’s hometown of Wilno (present day Vilnius). Attempting the robbery in the city was out of the question due to the presence of Russian troops. Instead, it was decided to ambush the train at its second stop beyond Wilno, at the village station in Bezdany. There were only a handful of police for the entire village. Taking over the station and disabling the telegraph and telephone lines was of paramount importance. This would make it difficult for anyone to call for help. Even after a call for help went out, Russian soldiers would not be able to respond immediately. Pilsudski and his team then selected the 1908 as the best time to carry out their plan.

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find - Aleksandra Szczerbinska

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find – Aleksandra Szczerbinska

Risk Management – The Importance Of Luck
The where and when of the robbery was comparatively easy to decide. A more difficult challenge would be to coordinate everyone’s involvement. Pilsudski and his closest colleagues were careful about who they selected for the robbery. Because there were twenty people involved, this meant that there would be many potential suspects for the Russians to interrogate if anyone was caught. Information was compartmentalized and many of the conspirators had no idea who was involved or their identities. This way there was less chance that someone could sell the entire group out to the police. While Pilsudski and his confidantes minutely planned every detail, they were taking a massive risk. Success and failure in such an enterprise was a matter of execution and timing. And there was always the element of luck. Fortunately, luck was with Pilsudski and the Poles.

Click here for: Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train (Part One)

The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow To Budapest (Part Four)

Frantic, nervous and beside myself with a mixture of fear, worry and anger I found the attendant, a young man from Polish Railways who could not have been more than thirty years old. In extremely bad English he asked if we locked the door. I shook my head. He twisted the lock open and shut several times showing me how it worked. He finally left it at open and said, “Public.” What he meant was that if the door was not locked the compartment was open to the public. He was spot on. I felt angry for being so stupid. The attendant left. We continued to search, but less frantically. Our hope of finding the wallet was waning. Then the attendant suddenly reappeared and asked me to follow him to the area at the end of the corridor. This was where it led into the next train car. On the floor was my friend’s wallet, as though it had been tossed there by the thief. The money was gone (between $200 and $300), but his driver’s license and credit cards were still there. We both felt another wave of relief, at least all had not been lost. The money was not that big a deal compared to finding the wallet. Unfortunately, the incident marred the unexpectedly pleasant overnight train trip.

Compartmentalized - Sleeper Train Corridor 

Compartmentalized – Sleeper Train Corridor

Who Done It – Casting For Blame
It was only later after the initial shock wore off that we began to try and figure out what exactly had happened. In the absence of any other suspects, our suspicion fell on the attendant in our train car. This may not have been fair, but we had no one else to blame other than ourselves. The attendant had been the one who found the wallet, but that raised the question of if he was the one who also took it. His compartment was next to ours. He would have heard us coming and going to the bathroom throughout the night. One time during the early morning hours I glanced into his compartment. At the time he looked to be resting. That could have been a ruse or reality. He would have woken up long before us. What if he saw us sound asleep or knew when my friend was using the restroom and I was in a deep sleep. This would have been the most advantageous time to make a move for the wallet. Especially if he heard the door fly open.

If I would have woke up while the theft was taking place, he could have said that he was closing the door. How would I have known any better? There was also the fact that he discovered the wallet. It was lying in the open on the floor just outside of the bathroom. Close to where the entrance was into the next train car. Had it really been in that same place all morning? Many people woke up before us. Surely someone would have seen it and either taken the wallet or turned it in. The chance that it was lying there for an indeterminate amount of time, untouched less the cash, seemed slimmer than the attendant placing it there himself. Quite conveniently, as soon as the attendant came to get me and then led me to the wallet, attention was distracted away from him.

Strangers On A Train – Opportunistic & Ominous
The relief we felt when finding the wallet made us forget all about the attendant’s potential culpability until we got off the train. There was a moment of mild euphoria. Only after we exited the train at Keleti Station in Budapest did we begin to cast our suspicions towards the attendant’s role. There was not much we could have done, even if we were pretty sure it was him. He spoke broken English at best. We only spoke English. Neither of us spoke Polish or Hungarian. We were now in Hungary not Poland. The only way we would have been able to find out whether the attendant was guilty would have been for the police to search his belongings. There was not enough evidence for that to be done. Plus, there was an insurmountable language barrier. And what if it was not him? The thought was chilling.

There was a distinct possibility that someone came into our compartment. An opportunistic thief who made his way from one of the other train cars or was sleeping in the same car. This was more frightening because it would have been someone we would not have known and never would know. A total stranger. When getting off the train at Keleti I wondered if the culprit might be walking among us. No matter who did it, we had to live with the losses. In the overall scheme of our trip it was a violation, but relatively benign compared to what might have happened. My friend had his wallet back. His credit cards were all there. He could use them at any ATM and soon did. I had my wallet and our passports were safe. In sum, we had been lucky. It was a hard lesson learned.

The Mystery Never Ends - Keleti Station in Budapest

The Mystery Never Ends – Keleti Station in Budapest (Credit: Dwight79)

For All The Wrong Reasons – Out On The Edge
Now I knew that night trains were more than noise, nuisances and sleeplessness. The compartment was not isolated from the darker aspects of society. Safety and security were illusions that could easily be stripped away just as fast as my friend’s wallet. There are thieves everywhere and nowhere. People steal for a variety of reasons including to get by or top up their wages. In Eastern Europe, many people with professional jobs live on the edge economically. Several hundred dollars can last someone more than a month. For them it was worth the risk. The crime was likely committed not out of malevolence, but need or at worst greed. As Americans we were targets. Seen as cash machines and tourists. I would never consider myself or my friend as wealthy, but someone saw us as that, sometime late in the night or early morning. Our misgivings about the return trip turned out to be true. We were able to sleep, but we also got robbed. Our overnight train journeys from Budapest to Krakow and Krakow to Budapest had been memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Click here for: The Whole of the Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow to Budapest (Part Three)

 

 

 

 

The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three)

I just could not let it go. Throwing the equivalent of sixty dollars down the drain was too much to stomach. I urged my friend to take the night train back with me from Krakow to Budapest. I did not want to surrender half the cost of a ticket no matter how minimal the loss. It would also mean an entire day spent in transit, wasting a precious day of sightseeing. These two factors made me overlook the painful memory of what had occurred just two days before on our trip from Budapest to Krakow. Surely if we survived it once, we could do so again. I tried to console my friend with the idea “that this would be the last time we ever had to do this.” Such flippant logic only went so far, because we were still going to endure it one more time. And that one time had been one too many. My friend was not happy about the thought of suffering another sleepless night or that “terrible banging noise”. Neither was I, but as much as I hated that first trip, it made for a hell of a story. In the pursuit of adventure and a good yarn I was ready to suffer it all over again.

That lonesome whistle - Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

That lonesome whistle – Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

Getting What You Pay For –  Train Games
There was one caveat though. My friend wanted to see if we could change the ticket from a six bed to a two-bed berth. In a spirit of guilt ridden magnanimity I approached a woman at the international ticket window in Krakow Glowny who spoke horrendous English which was matched by her terrible attitude. The only words I was able to understand were her increasingly loud exhalations of “no refund”. My desperate protestations were no match for her willful indifference.  She was too busy waiting to go on break or perhaps she was already on one. I returned to my friend with the sad, but not surprising news that we would still be bunking with four strangers. He recoiled at this idea. I tried to soothe his nerves by uttering a few useless analogies about how “it couldn’t be any worse than the other night” and “what difference does it make how many people are in the compartment, the banging will be just as loud.”

After a period of tense silence and a pensive stare, he said “I am going to see if I can buy us a two-berth compartment.” Back to the window he went. A little while later he came back looking relaxed and holding a ticket for the two of us in our own compartment. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief. At least we could suffer the return trip by ourselves. I offered to pay my share of the ticket. He was so elated by this small victory that he would not hear of it. We did not enter the train until just past 10:00 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Our compartment seemed a bit roomier than before. That was because the third bunk was not pulled down. In effect, my friend had paid for our berths as well as a vacant one. We both expressed a sense of foreboding as the train began to pull away from the station. I was prepared for another nightmare scenario. Our lone hope was that we were in a different railway car. It was from Hungarian railways, rather than the Polish one we took to Krakow.

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks - Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks – Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Thief In The Night –  Dreams & Nightmares
Our expectation of cracks, pops and bangs failed to materialize. The first few hours turned out to be a relatively smooth journey. In comparison to our first trip it was a dream, but as the train crossed over into a Moravian countryside cloaked in darkness my apprehension grew. At any moment the train might start belching forth those tortuous noises. I settled my nerves with a special melatonin drink to help me get a few hours of sleep. Soon I was in a trance, followed by a daze and then I fell asleep. Every hour or so I would awake. At one point I felt the train stop and heard voices outside the window. Peeking through a thin curtain I noticed we were in the small city of Breclav, a major railway junction in the Czech Republic which sits close to the Austrian and Slovakian border. I did not see a single potential passenger on the platform, only border guards walking back and forth. It felt like a dream.

A couple of hours before dawn I got up and went to the bathroom. When I reentered the compartment, I failed to fully shut the door. It swung outward and banged against the compartment exterior. I pulled it closed, but forgot to lock it. I then fell into the deepest  sleep I have ever experienced on a train. When I awoke, it was nearly eight a.m. and we were nearing Budapest. I felt totally refreshed from a good night’s rest. The train ride had been close to perfect. I mentioned this to my friend who was already dressed. His reply sent a shock wave through me. “My wallet is gone.” He was frantically searching his pockets, suitcase and the berth. I began to search as well. He had made the mistake of putting it in the netting hanger just above the bed. I had done the same thing on the first trip, but without any problems. I should have known better.

Another night another train - Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Another night another train – Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Relief & Recrimination – Lost & Found
It suddenly struck me that my friend had almost certainly been the victim of theft.
He believed his wallet was stolen when we were both in our bunks that night. My friend had distinctly heard the door to the compartment close loudly. It woke him up. He recalled looking at the door and then at me laying there asleep. This made him wonder if he had imagined it.  Whatever might have happened, one thing was for certain, someone else had entered the room that night. This violation made us suddenly vulnerable, feelings of fear, menace and anger descended on the compartment. Usually reserved and rarely prone to cursing, my friend spewed forth an expletive. We were both approaching crisis mode. I began to wonder what we were going to do.

At least I had my wallet, or did I? I checked my suitcase, unzipping one of the pockets. It was empty. Panic flew straight from my mouth, “My wallet and passport are gone too?” I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. My heart was pounding, hands shaking. Frantically I checked another area in my suitcase. That is where I found my wallet and both of our passports. A feeling of instantaneous relief passed through me, followed by guilt and shame. My friend’s wallet was still missing. I was the one who had left the door unlocked. He blamed himself, I blamed myself. None of this did either of us any good. We tried to recall what may have happened. He had gone to the bathroom as well. The theft could have happened while he was out. We both believed it had happened in the last couple of hours while I was fast asleep. He remembered hearing the door shut, I remembered nothing.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest to Krakow (Part Two)

Click here for: The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow to Budapest (Part Four)

A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind Of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

Four in the morning is a terrible time to be awake, especially if you have not slept a wink. The Budapest to Krakow overnight express was rattling its way through Moravia. Hideous sounds came from beyond the walls of our small, rattle trap compartment. Sounding like somewhere out there in the deep, dark night an army of industrial workers was tearing the train apart while it hurtled into the unknown. When the banging momentarily subsided, the merciless sensation of the train shifting from side to side would take hold. The rails were supposed to be straight, but I imagined them as shiny strings of steel spaghetti leading the locomotive through a foreign land.

The train was supposedly headed to Krakow, but it felt like a voyage into an unknown abyss filled with sharp bends and precipitate drops. One minute we would be roaring downhill.  Then the brakes would suddenly scream out in a piercing shriek. The sound effects emanating from the rickety bowels below us were more frightening than anything I had heard in a horror film. Once in a while my friend and I commiserated in our misery. “This is insane” “something must be wrong with the train” and always we came back to the same exasperated question, “What was that awful banging?”

Enter at your own risk

Enter at your own risk (Credit: Man In Seat 61)


Beyond The Grasp Of Reason – Nightmare For A Memory

There was no sane explanation for what was wrong with the train. For that matter, there was no logical reason it stayed on the tracks. All we could do was hope for dawn and then Krakow. Out of sheer exhaustion I finally fell asleep. When I awoke, my friend was already dressed for arrival. He had slept even less than I had. His first overnight train trip had been horrific. It was as though we had been placed in a cage that had been beaten all night with iron bars. I looked out the window at a pastoral landscape covered in mist. This was Poland. It was hard to believe that we were close to Krakow. The previous evening was now a nightmarishly unforgettable memory. We were late for our arrival, but it hardly mattered at this point. Our only thought was getting off this train. I had a distinct feeling of unreality. Having survived this dangerous odyssey was beyond the grasp of reason.

Emerging from the compartment, I met several others in the hallway who looked the worse for wear. A bleary-eyed mother and her teenage son were standing slump shouldered while arguing amongst themselves. They conversed in English and turned out to be Americans. I struck up a conversation with them. They were traveling around Europe on a multi-month journey. I asked them their opinion of the train trip. The mother said this had been their first overnight trip on a train.  She was glad to have the experience, but never wanted to go through a night like that again. Then the inevitable question, “Did you hear that loud banging? What was going on?” Of course, I had no idea what had caused that nightmare of noise. I did not say it, but I disagreed with the mother. I would have gladly traded this trip for a pleasant daylong railway ride to Krakow. I had the feeling that everyone else felt this way as well. Every passenger who filed out of their compartment looked to be in tired disarray. It had been that kind of night. This journey had given me and my traveling companion a hangover without a drop of alcohol.

No Room For Comfort – Suffer The Night
The best we could say about the trip was that it had been an adventure. The exact opposite of the relaxing, sleep filled, smooth ride we had hoped to experience. A few weeks prior to this trip I had written a blog post expressing dismay that the Hungarian National Railways planned to cut overnight train services. This was part of a trend on many European railway lines. I still hope overnight European train travel survives, but I must admit that in its current form the days of romance, comfort and leisure on these trains has long since passed into history. The problem has as much to do with the passengers as it does the service. We live in an age of mass travel. To be affordable and competitive, night trains must pack many people within the wagon. Three and six bed berths do not leave much room for comfort. Space is extremely limited. The niceties of comfort have been largely done away with. Fine dining has been replaced by an improved version of the tv dinner. Forget a decent bathroom, these are barely above the level of rudimentary. I have begun to wonder if overnight train travel has survived in Europe only because of government subsidies and traditionalism.

The price is not right either. Overnight train travel is scarcely competitive with buses. These days it may actually be cheaper to fly. A traveler can fly between Budapest and many European cities on low cost carrier Wizz Air for a mere pittance. Bus rides between Budapest and Krakow can be had for as little as 10 Euros, about a fifth of the cost incurred by someone booking an overnight train between those two cities a day in advance. Admittedly flying is a hassle and long bus rides are exhausting in the extreme, but the cost and convenience are still tough to beat. Of course, on a train the passengers get to see the countryside. That is except for overnight trains, where they only see darkness. They can always pass the time as I did, trying to read by a very bad light, then tossing and turning restlessly on a ride through railway hell. Fortunately, I did not have to do this with five strangers, but that option had also been available. One could attain a level of discomfort scarcely sufferable, all for a bit of romantic nostalgia.

Arrival time - Krakow Glowny

Arrival – Krakow Glowny

Stoicism & Quiet Agitation – Mourning Arrival
My lone companion had suffered the trip much the same as I did, with stoicism and quiet agitation. When the train pulled into Krakow Glowny there was a sense of beleaguered relief, we had somehow made it. We were not rested and ready, only tired and weak. The first thing that came to mind was getting to our accommodation as soon as possible and sleeping the day off. This thought kept us going. Along with the idea that we could not possibly do this trip again. We had just two and a half days to change our minds

Click here for: Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Click here for: The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three)