Harry Alverson Franck.

Vagabonding through changing Germany online

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no use for this new Zionism — except for the other fellow — ■



unless you take seriously the aspirations of a few impractical
young idealists" — a statement, by the way, which I heard
from Jews of all classes in various parts of GermsLny.

"We Germans lifted the Poles out of their semi-savagery.
We brought them Kultur. Do not be deceived by what
you see in Posen. It is a magnificent city, is it not?—
finer, perhaps, than you Americans found Coblenz? Yet
everything that gives it magnificence was built by the
Germans — the well-paved streets, the big, wide boulevards,
the splendid parks, all the government buildings and the
best of the private ones, the street-cars, the electric lights,
even the higher state of civilization you find among the
masses. There is not a Pole in the province of Posen who
cannot read and write. Do not make the mistake of
thinking all these things are Polish because the Poles have
stolen them. Before you leave, go and compare Posen
with the Polish cities outside Germany. That will tell the
story. In non-German Poland you will be struck by the
appalling lack of schools, roads, doctors, hospitals, educa-
tion, culture, by the sad condition of the workmen and
the peasants — all those things that are included in the Ger-
man word Kultur. In Galizia, where Austria virtually
allowed the Poles to run themselves, the houses are only
six feet high, and you could walk all day without finding
a man who can read and write, or who can even speak
German. Their cities are sunk in a degradation of the
Middle Ages. Posen will fall into the same state, if the
present Municipal Council continues in power. There are
already frontier troubles between German and Russian
Poland, and quarrels between the different sections that
confirm what we Germans have always known — that the
Poles cannot govern themselves. Warsaw does not wish to
keep up our splendid system of workmen and old-age
insurance because there is none in Russian Poland. Galizia
complains that farm land is several times higher in price



in the province of Posen, without admitting that it is
German railroads and German settlers that have made
it so. That advantage will soon disappear. The Poles
will make a mess of the whole province and wiU have it
sunk into the degradation in which we found it by the
time a real ruling nation takes charge of it again."

Just how much truth there was mixed in with the con-
siderable amount of patent nonsense in the ex-chairman's
declamation only a long stay in Poznan, or time itself,
would show. The fact that the Poles allowed many of
these statements, particularly the protests against the sud-
den change of language, to be published in the local Ger-
man newspaper speaks at least for their spirit of tolerance.
Though the new government was visibly making mistakes,
and had not yet settled down to the orderliness that should
come from experience, no one but a prejudiced critic could
have discovered immediate evidence that it was making
any such complete "mess" of matters as the German
Volksrat testified. Even if it had been, at least the mass
of the population showed itself happy and contented with
the change, and contentment, after all, may in time result
in more genuine and lasting progress than that which comes
from the forcible feeding of German Kultur.

I dropped in at the Teatro Apollo one evening, chiefly
to find out how it feels to see a play without understanding
a word of it. An immense barnlike building, that looked
as if it had once been a skating-rink or a dancing-pavilion,
was crowded to suffocation with Poles of every class and
variety, from servant-girls in their curious leg-of-mutton
sleeves to colonels in the latest cut of Polish uniform. The
actors — if they could have been dignified with that title —
had recently been imported from Warsaw, and the alleged
play they perpetrated could scarcely have been equaled
by our silliest rough-and-tumble "comedians." The herd-
like roar with which their inane sallies were unfailingly





greeted testified that the audience found them entertaining.
But it may be that Poznan was in a particularly simple-
minded mood during its first months of relief from a century
of bitter oppression. I hope so, for I should regret to find
that the startling contrast between this Polish audience
and the German one at the artistic Stadttheater the following
evening fairly represented the difference between the two
races. I believe I am not prejudiced by the fact that the
Volksrat presented me with a free ticket when I say that the
latter performance was one of which any manager might
have been justly proud. The audience, too, resembled the
other about as a gathering of college professors resembles a
collection of factory hands. There was a well-bred solemnity
about it that could not, in this case, have been due merely
to hunger, for there was no munching whatever between
the acts, none even under cover of the darkened house,
except here and there of candy, a luxury so long since for-
gotten in Berlin that the happy possessor would never
have dreamed of giving his attention at the same time to
the merely esthetic appeal of the theater. There may have
been Poles in the house, but at least the new army was
conspicuous by its absence. Not a uniform was to be
seen, with the exception of three scattered throtigh the
"peanut gallery." Two crown boxes, destined only for
Hohenzollem royalty or its representatives, sat empty,
with something of the solemn demeanor of the vacant chair
at the head of the table the day after the funeral. Who
would occupy them when the Poles had taken over the
playhouse? What, moreover, would they do toward main-
taining the high standards of the stage before us? For the
most indefatigable enemy of the Germans must have
admitted that here was something that could ill be spared.
If only they had been contented with bringing the masses
these genuine benefits, without militarism, with more open
competition, without so much appeal to the doctrine of



force — ^but it has ever been Germany's contention that only
by force can the mass of mankind be lifted to higher levels;
that only an army can protect the self-appointed mis-
sionaries of a loftier civilization.

Armed with what those who read Polish assured me was
permission to do so, I set out on foot one morning to the
eastward. Beyond the last group of guards wearing the
silver double-eagle on their threadbare German uniforms,
I fell in with three barefooted Polish peasant women. They
were barely thirty, yet all three were already well-nigh
toothless, and their hardy forms and faces were plainly
marked with the signs that testify to grueling labor and the
constant bearing of children. The German they spoke was
far superior to the dialects of many regions of purely Teu-
tonic population. Their demeanor was cheerful, yet behind
it one caught frequent glimpses of that background of
patient, unquestioning acceptance of life as it is which
distinguishes the country people of Europe.

The most energetic of the trio showed a willingness to
enter into conversation; the others confined themselves to
an occasional nod of approval, as if the exertion of keeping
pace with us left them no strength to expend in mere words.
It was plain from the beginning that they were not enthusi-
astic on the subject then uppermost in the city behind us.
They greeted my first reference to it with expressions
that might have been called indifferent, had they not been
tinged with evidence of a mild resentment.

"What does it matter to us people of the fields," retorted
the less taciturn of the group, "whether Poles or Germans
sit in the comfort of government offices, so long as they
let us alone? Things were all right as they were, before
the war came. Why trouble us with all these changes?
Now they are breaking our backs with new burdens, as
if we had not had enough of them for five years. First they
take our men and leave us to do their work. I have not a



male relative left, except my husband, and he is so sickly-
that he is no longer a man. He is paid twelve marks for
eight hours' work; fifteen for ten. But what help is that
when he cannot work ten hours, or even eight ? They offered
him the iron cross. He told them he would rather have
something to feed his family with at home. They asked
him if he was not already getting forty marks a month for the
support of his family. How could I feed four children,
even after the other two had died, with forty marks a
month ? For three winters I had nothing but dried potatoes
and salt. I coiild not have bread for myself because the
flour for the children took all the tickets. Now the war is
over, yet they are still taking away what we have left.
The same soldiers come and drive off our horses — for the
silver eagle on their caps has not changed their natures.
Pay for them? Ach, what is eight hundred marks for a
horse that is worth six thousand? And how can we culti-
vate our fields without them? Who started the war?
Ach, they are all arguing. What does it matter, so long
as they stop it? Will the Germans sign? They should,
and have done with it. If they don't, all the men over
fifty, including the Germans and even the Jews" — there
was a sneer in this last word, even in the country — "will
be at it again. We have had enough of it. Yet if the
soldiers come and tell my husband to go he must go, sick
though he is."

The basket each of the trio carried contained the midday
lunch of her husband in the fields. I turned aside to the
grassy slope on which two of the couples assembled. The
men insisted that I share their meal with them. It was
more nourishing than a ten-mark repast in a Berlin restau-
rant, but the absence of bread was significant. When I
gave the men each a pinch of tobacco crumbs they an-
nounced themselves delighted at the exchange, and mumbled
halting words about the well-known generosity of Ameri-.



cans. As I turned my kodak upon them they greeted it
with a laughing "Oh, la la!" There was no 'need to ask
where they had, picked up that expression. It oriented
their war experiences as definitely as it will distinguish
for years to come the Americans, in whatever garb one
finds them, who were members of the A. E. F. in France.

The men were less indifferent to the recent change of
government than their wives, but even they could not have
been called enthusiastic. What struck one most was the
wider outlook on life the Germans had been forced to give
them in spite of themselves. Had they been left to till
their farms, these plodding peasants would probably still
have swallowed whole the specious propaganda of their
erstwhile rulers. Now, after four years of military service
that had carried them through all central Europe, they had
developed the habit of forming their own opinions on all
questions; they took any unverified statement, from what-
ever source, with more than a grain of salt. It would be a
mistake nowadays to think of the European peasant as the
prejudiced conservative, the plaything of deliberate mis-
information, which he was five years ago. In the light of
his new experiences he is in many cases doing more individ-
ual thinking than the average city resident.

Yet, I must admit, the conclusions of this well- traveled
pair did not boil down into anything very different from the
consensus of opinion, even though they reached them by
their own peculiar trains of thought. Germany, they were
convinced, had the full guilt of the war; not the Kaiser
particularly — they call him "Wilhelm" in Posen province
now, and even there one detects now and again a tendency
toward the old idolatry he seems personally to have enjoyed
throughout the whole Empire — but the military crowd,
"and the capitalists." They disclaimed any hatred of the
Germans, "until they wanted to rule the earth" and sought
to make the peasants the instruments of their ambition.





They, too, charged Wilson personally with delaying the
conclusion of peace — on the fate of Danzig they seemed to
be supremely indifferent.

"It's all politics, anyway," concluded one of them.
"They are all playing politics. If the Germans don't sign
they will be divided up as Poland was a hundred and forty
years ago. But this new government in Posen is no better
than the old. What we need is something entirely new
— a government of the peasants and of the working-classes."

The women had from the beginning tried to lead their
husbands away from "arguing politics," chiefly with ludi-
crously heavy attempts at coquetry, and at length they
succeeded. I regained the highway. On either hand lay
slightly rolling fields of fertile black soil, well cultivated
as far as the eye could see, with only a scattering of trees.
Miles away an abandoned Zeppelin hangar bulked into the
sky. There were more women laborers than men; several
gangs of them were working with picks and shovels ; another
group was slowly but patiently loading bricks. Horses
were to be seen here and there, but oxen were in the ma-
jority. Farm-houses showed a rough comfort and a toler-
able cleanliness, villages a passable neatness that may or
may not have been due to German influence. Certainly
the architecture, the farming methods, the communal
customs, were little different from those of Prussia or the

The dinner served me in the chief tavern of a village of
some two thousand inhabitants was nothing to complain of,
either in variety or price. A general-shop keeper stated
that "with the exception of a few semi-luxuries, such as
cocoa and toilet soap," his grocery department could still
meet the decreased demands made upon it. In the clothing
lines everything was scarce or wholly lacking. Worst of
all, there was nothing fit to drink or smoke. The strong
spirits that had once been his chief trade had become so

17 243


weak no one but boys would drink them. If only America
would send concentrated alcohol they could doctor the stock
of liquor they had on hand so that no one would know the
difference. Then if they could only get some American
tobacco! Life was not what it used to be, without a real
cigarette from one month's end to the other. The German
rule, on the whole, had not been so bad as many of the
Allies seemed to believe. They got along, though it was
rather pleasant to be relieved of the arrogant fellows, or
see them crawl into their shells. No German resident in
the village had given any sign of intending to move away.
The communal school was still teaching the German lan-
guage — two or three hours a week now. No one had
noticed any other change of any importance. The French
prisoners confined in the province during the war had been
brutally treated. There was no doubt about that; he had
seen it himself. But on the whole the German authorities
had not been much harder on the Polish population than
upon their own people, in Prussia and elsewhere. It was
all part of the war, and every one in the Empire had to bear
his share of the burdens. Happily, it was over now, if only
the new Polish government did not grow ambitious for
military conquests also, with the millions of soldiers, some
of them patriotic to the point of self-sacrifice, under its

My hope of walking out of Posen province suffered the
same fate as my plan of tramping into it from Germany.
In the end I was forced to return to Poznan and make my
exit by train over the same route by which I had entered.
In the third-class compartment I occupied there were five
German residents who had renounced forever their right
to return, for the privilege of leaving now with the more
portable of their possessions. Two of them had been bom
in the amputated province; the others had lived there most
of their lives. All spoke Polish as readily as German.



One masterly, yet scholarly youth, who had served through
the war as a lieutenant, was a school-teacher by profession,
as was the uncle who accompanied him. They had taught
six and twenty-six years, respectively, but had been dis-
possessed of their positions and of their government dwell-
ings by the new rulers. Up to the time we reached the
frontier all five of my companions laid careful emphasis
on the statement that they were going to seek re-estab-
lishment in their civilian professions in what was left of the

At Wronki the Polish authorities were far more inquisi-
tive than they had been toward travelers from the other
direction. One by one each compartment group was
herded together, bag and baggage, and strained through
the sieve of a careful search-and-questioning bureau. The
soldier who examined my knapsack glared at the half-dozen
precious American cigars I had left as if nothing but the
presence of his superiors could have prevented him from
confiscating them. Only sufficient food for the day's
journey was allowed to pass. In some cases this rule was
interpreted rather liberally, but no one got through with
more than ten or twelve pounds to the person. The amount
that was confiscated easily sufficed to feed the garrison of
Wronki for the twenty-four hours before the next west-
boimd train was due. An old woman, riding fourth class,
who resembled one of India's famine victims, was despoiled
of almost the entire contents of her trunk-sized chest —
several sacks of flour, a dozen huge loaves of bread, and a
generous supply of sausage. The fact that she spoke only
Polish did not seem to impress the searchers in her favor,
who silenced her wails at last by bundling her bodily back
into the coach and tossing her empty coffer after her.

When at last we were under way again the Germans in
my compartment took to comparing notes. One, a doctor,
was bewailing the "plain theft" of a surgical appliance of



rubber which the Poles had confiscated in spite of what
seemed to be complete proof that it was his private property
and not part of the German army supplies. A foxy-faced
country youth, who had carefully changed from shoes to
high boots just before the arrival at Wronki, changed back
again now with the announcement that there were some
four thousand marks concealed between the boot soles.
The younger schoolmaster threw off the disguise with
which he had covered his real thoughts and announced,
vociferously :

"You drive me out to work for my livelihood! I will
work for my Fatherland at the same time. I will go to
Bromberg this very evening and join the army again.
We shall see whether the Poles can keep Posen."

The two other young men asserted that they, too, had
left with exactly that intention. An indignation meeting
against the Poles raged for an hour or more.

"I could have remained and kept my position," went on
the schoolmaster, "if I had wanted to turn Polack. Both
my parents were Polish; I spoke it before I did German;
but I shall always remain a true son of the Fatherland,
no matter what happens to it."

A few hundred yards from Kreuz station our train halted
for more than an hour and gave us the pleasure of watching
the Berlin express go on without us. Though it would have
been a matter of twenty seconds to have sprinted across the
delta between the two lines, armed boy soldiers prevented
any one from leaving his compartment. To all appearances
it was a case of "pure meanness" on the part of the German
authorities. Our wrath at being forced to wait a half-day
for a dawdling local train was soon appeased, however,
by the announcement that we were the last travelers who
would be allowed to enter Germany from the province of
Posen "until the war was over." The frontier had been
closed by orders from Berlin. It is a long way round from


« w


Poland to Holland, and amid the turmoil of gloomy men,
disheveled women, and squalling children who had been
turned back with their goal so near I found cause to be
personally thankful, particularly as I succeeded in eluding
during all the afternoon the glassy eye of the cantankerous
dyspeptic, who buffeted his way now and then through
the throng.

Some things are still cheap in Germany. A twelve-word
telegram from Kreuz to Berlin cost me nine cents — and it
was delivered in telegraphic haste. The hungry passengers
from farther east with whom I shared a compartment that
evening eyed me greedily as I supped on the supplies I
had brought from Posen. One man wearing several dia-
monds leaned toward me as I was cutting my coffee-brown
loaf and sighed, reminiscently, "What beautiful white
bread!" When I offered to share it with him, however,
he refused vigorously, as if his pride would not permit him
to accept what his appetite was so loudly demanding.
Unable to find a place in the section to which my third-
class ticket entitled me, I was riding second-class. The
train-guard on his rounds confiscated my ticket and ignored
my offer to pay the difference, with a stern, "It is unlawful
to ride in a higher class." On the Friedrichstrasse platform,
however, instead of conducting me to his superiors, he
sidled up to me in the darkness and murmured, "If you
have a five-mark note with you it will be all right." Ger-
many is changing indeed if her very railway employees
are taking on these Latin characteristics.


slip granting permission to walk the streets until two in the
morning. A bedraggled hotel directly across the way-
spared me that necessity. The information its registry-pad
required of guests was more exacting than its interior
aspect, but neither here nor at the station exit was there
any demand for proof of identity.

Toward midnight, as I was falling asleep, a score of
erratically spaced shots and the brief rat-a-tat of a machine-
gun sounded somewhere not far away. Their direction
was too uncertain, however, to make it worth while to
accept the permission granted by the red slip. In the
morning the city was thronged with the business-bent
quite as if disorders had never dodged in and out of its wide
streets. The main hotels, however, had been partly taken
over by the staffs of the newly arrived troops, and pulsated
with field gray. At the doors very young men in iron
hats leaned their fixed bayonets in the crook of an elbow
while they examined the Ausweis with which each civilian
was supposed to prove his identity. I entered several of
them in the vain hope that the flash of my American pass-
port would "start something." The youths in uniform
handed it back each time without so much as a flicker of
curiosity on their rather dull faces. Inside, another boy
volunteer ran his hands hastily over me in quest of concealed
weapons; but not even the most obviously harmless Ba-
varian escaped that attention.

The staff evidently had no secrets from the world at
large. At any rate, I wandered into a dozen hotel rooms
that had been turned into offices and idled about undis-
turbed while majors gave captains their orders for the day
and lieutenants explained to sergeants the latest commands
from higher up. What had become of that stem discipHne
and the far-famed secrecy of the German army? The
soldiers of democratic America were automatons in the
presence of their officers compared with these free-and-



easy youths in gray; over in Posen the Poles were many-
fold more exacting. Had I been a spy, there were several
opportunities to have pocketed papers strewn about tables
and improvised desks. When at last an officer looked up
at me inquiringly I explained my presence by asking for
written permission to take photographs within the be-
leaguered city, and it was granted at once without question.

Berlin had been sinister of aspect; Munich was bland,
a softer, gentler, less verboten land. Its citizens were not
merely courteous; they were aggressively good-natured,
their cheerfidness bubbled over on aU who came in contact
with them. It was almost as easy to distinguish a native

Online LibraryHarry Alverson FranckVagabonding through changing Germany → online text (page 20 of 29)