Obediently I hand over my currency, coins, watch, pen, and keys. The taller man says something, and gestures. I remove my belt. My belongings are put in a small cotton sack and tagged with what must be an itemized list of the contents. I am told to sign the list, and I do. I am ushered through another door and am motioned to remove my shoes. I am then led down a corridor to the second of three heavy metal doors, which is opened on my behalf. It is locked behind me and my bicycle tour of Europe has decidedly taken a turn for the worst. I am in jail, in Poland.

Tuesday, September 25, 1984 4:45pm

I’m back at the Auschwitz train/bus station for the bus ride back to Krakow with almost an hour to kill. I’d just walked the grounds of the infamous concentration camp. It was a pretty moving experience -- perhaps more so because it’s a cold, damp autumn afternoon, and the summer tourists are gone. I check out the station's cafeteria, but lose my confidence upon entering. After five days in Poland I am successfully eating only by frequenting cafeterias and restaurants where I can point out the items I wish to eat. This particular eatery isn't laid out in such a manner, and the food I can see doesn't look particularly appetizing. I elect to eat after returning to Krakow, where my bicycle and baggage are crammed into a $4/night room in a private home.

After my failure at the cafeteria I decide to walk around. I wander out to the train platform, then along it to its end. There may be a photo opportunity here and I take my camera out of my bag. Dusk is rapidly approaching and it's hazy, but perhaps the spaghetti of grayish tracks and power lines fading into the distance is worth an exposure. I take a photograph, not really thinking about the two railroad personnel in the adjacent train watching me.

Wandering back up the platform I notice a pedestrian walkway overhead, linking the station-side of the tracks with the neighborhood on the far side--I'm pleased -- there's bound to be a shot from up there. As I cross above the tracks, I stop to consider a few potential photographs, but I move on without shooting. I hate to waste film.

Almost across the walkway I notice steam rising from a locomotive moving slowly along the tracks a few hundred meters up the tracks. Great -- it’s an old steam engine and I have my camera ready and at least a half-hour to kill. I hurry down the stairs on the far end of the crosswalk and jog up the dirt path toward where I'd seen my steam locomotive. By the time I'm in position, the engine's standing still and emitting none of the distinctive steam needed for an attractive shot. The locomotive seems to still be idling, however, and I take in my surroundings, recheck the settings on my camera, and decide to wait it out. Sure enough, five minutes later the engine begins to move and steam billows forth. I snap a shot and move for a different angle. The engine stops again, a short way down the track, and I wait again. The lighting's definitely borderline, but I really have nothing better to do. The engine starts up again and I shoot one more exposure as it heads off. I wait. A different steam engine heads into view. I take one more photo. It's too dark for photographing with the long lens now, and I decide to call it quits. The shots really aren’t that great, I admit, but I did have fun. I recross the overhead walkway to the station platform. I drift back inside, rechecking the cafeteria, but I’m still not in the mood to deal with trying to order something. Heading back outside around the end of the building I pass a faded sign painted on the wall which at first I don't recognize. Then I realize that it's an old bellows-type camera with a red line though it--"No Photos." Oh well, too late now. I hadn't even thought about that--the Eastern Bloc's general prohibitions on photographing railway stations, military installations, even bridges and tunnels. I still have 20 minutes to use up and wander back to the station's information kiosk to verify my 5:40 bus. I don't understand a word the woman says, and I wander over and sit down in a waiting area.

Someone says something and I look up to see a uniformed man addressing me. He gestures for me to come with him and I stand up, my mind beginning to race. Something’s going bad here. I show him my ticket and repeat, "Krakow, Krakow." I follow him through the doors out to the train platform, then down along it to its far end. He glances behind us and I turn my head with the same motion. We are not alone; another uniform is tailing me. I now realize that I've been neatly removed from a crowded train station without anyone noticing. We're nearing the end of the platform now and approaching a large weed-strewn lot. "I'm going to get hurt!" I suddenly realize, and my mind races faster still.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute!," I plead, but we suddenly cut back around a fence and toward a side entrance of a building adjoining the station.

I'm taken up a short flight of stairs to a room with two more uniformed men in it, apparently police. I'm trying out my horrible rendition of the German language, repeating that "I'm a tourist; I am visiting Auschwitz; I'm a tourist."

I'm gestured to open the bicycle pannier that I’m using as a day-bag, and I lay out my possessions: my Canon F-l and zoom, a Michelin guide book to the Auschwitz concentration camp, a Polish-English phrase book, the chapter on Poland, torn out from the latest Let's Go: Europe, a paperback, my diary, two rolls of unexposed film, and my windbreaker. There's some talk between the four of them as they sort through my possession, then they smile, say something, and gesture for me to go.


"Yes, go," they indicate with a roll of their heads.

Startled by their sensibility, I delay a precious second, then begin to repack my gear. Meanwhile two more militia enter the room and a conversation ensues as I finish packing my bag.

I don't get to go. Instead I'm escorted out of the building and across the driveway to another office, where still another policeman is briefed on my crimes. My bag is laid in front of me and I'm gestured to open it. I repeat the process of laying out all my possessions and this time notice a small Solidarity lapel pin I had been given a few days earlier. The pin is lying in the bottom of the pannier and I swiftly shove it in a seam in the bag. I repeat my routine.

"Ich bin ein American tourist. Auschwitz. Ich hapt bicycle in Krakow." I open my diary to a page on which I've taped a snapshot of the loaded bicycle and pass it around for inspection. One of the younger men seems genuinely interested, but the older man behind the desk seems unamused. As the younger man flips through my journal, the boss behind the desk fondles the two rolls of unexposed film, then begins to pull the film out of one of them.

"No! No!" I burst out -- "Feelen gelt!" Much money! The remainder of my film is saved, at least for the time being. I'm asked for my passport and I try to explain that it's back in Krakow with my other baggage. "Krakow Hotel," I repeat, and make a sleeping gesture with my hands and head. I'm motioned to pack up my pannier and have a seat. Three of the militia leave; the boss behind the desk stays.

I sit for 15-20 minutes. The phone is ringing constantly and I gather that we're waiting here till somebody decides what to do with me. I look around the rather bleak office. On the bulletin board to my left are photos of cars crushed by trains and one particularly graphic photo of a luckless drunk who fell asleep across one of the rails.

It's well after 5:40 now, and my bus ticket is no good. Two men enter the room from outside and motion me to follow them. I thank my host, grab my pannier, and follow them to a waiting car--it looks like I'm getting escorted back to Krakow by a car full of cops--what a story to tell my friends!

It's not a ride home--a few minutes later we pull over somewhere in the downtown area of Oswiecim and I'm escorted into another building -- I guess police headquarters.

We pass a sign-in window where I'm logged in, then an open area with desks; I'm guided up two flights of stairs, past a door heavily padded on the outside (strange...) to a third-story room. I'm left in the custody of a detective of sorts who speaks some German -- a lot more than I do at any rate. Our conversation, basically me trying to explain in German and pantomime what I was doing at the railway station, doesn't proceed very smoothly, and we fall silent. We seem to be waiting for something. I am offered a cigarette. I'm not a smoker, and I don't accept.

Some minutes later there is a knock on the door and a tall man with glasses enters and exchanges a few lines with the detective. I'm staring at the new face--he looks exactly like the actor Christopher Reeves. He introduces himself to me, in English, and asks me to recount my afternoon at the railway station. I recite my tale--in English--and I'm feeling pretty up. My sins are minimal--I've taken photographs at a railway station while chasing steam locomotives, and perhaps, more unwisely, I've traveled 60 kilometers from my passport, still in Krakow. I explain that I thought it would be safer to leave it in the room in Krakow and the two detectives laugh, chat with each other, and laugh again.

After an hour of interrogation I've given my name, address, place of birth, parents’ names, employment history, educational background, and specific details on each of the perhaps four photos that I've taken at the tracks.

As one of the detectives begins tidying up the notes that he had been taking, I am told that I will probably need to wait around for three or four hours while the police pick up my passport in Krakow and deliver it here. The detectives laugh again at my twisted logic of leaving my passport in a private residence rather than taking it with me. Asking again how I met this woman whose home I am staying in, I reiterate that she was standing outside the tourist office offering inexpensive rooms. The detectives add one note to my growing file, then escort me downstairs to the main room.

My pannier is placed on a counter and I am asked to unzip it. They pick out items one by one and list them on a form.

"Please empty pockets."

I comply. They're not impressed with my handkerchief and I'm allowed to keep it.

I'm motioned to show my waist area and I lift up my bulky sweater. They point to my belt and I remove it.

Now I'm scared again. Really scared. Why can't I have my belt if I'm just waiting around for three or four hours. The cotton sack with my smaller possessions is placed inside my repacked pannier, which is zipped up. The itemized list of my possession is handed to me to be signed and I comply. The list is entirely in Polish, so I have no idea what it says, but that seems unimportant. The radio playing in the background is actually playing a western song now, John Lennon's voice:

Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These
Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These
Strange Days Indeed!
I am led through a door to a corridor where I am motioned to remove my shoes. The second of three gray sheet-metal doors is opened. I enter, and it closes behind me with a crisp reverberation. Two faces are staring at me.

I hear the outer door leading to the office area slamming shut and a rush of quiet activity takes place in our cell. Someone knocks a few times sharply against the other side of the wall and the younger of my two cellmates returns the knock. A whispering voice reaches us and the same man who returned the knock presses his mouth against the peep holes in the cell door and whispers something back.

Pointing at myself I indicate "American." I get no response. They seem a pretty nondescript pair as they stare at me, one early 20s, one later 20s; one in dress jeans, sweater, and beat-up sports jacket; one in old dress slacks, sweater, and a dark, well-worn dress jacket. They're both sitting on one of the two wooden benches built into the wall of the cell and after a short period of mutual evaluation the younger one fires off a few questions in Polish.

I gesture hopelessly.

He responds by firing them off faster, in a different order.

Eventually the quieter man seems to catch on, repeating back to me "USA." I resign myself to this unlikely ending to a Tuesday afternoon and curl up on one of the benches to get some sleep as one of the Poles resumes a tapping and whispering conversation with one of the other cells. As I fall asleep, the Poles are pacing sharply back and forth on the other bench. They remind me of animals trapped in a cage.

I woke up a short while later to the loud clanging of the steel cell door being opened. One of the Poles hops up, and returns with two thin pads and two blankets. The Poles crowd on one bench, sharing a single blanket and pad; I fall back to sleep on the other bench, my knees drawn up to my chin in the fetal position. It is cold, and I can see my breath.

A loud clanging--I hear my cell door opening. The Poles have hopped up and are rolling their pad and folding their blanket. "The hell with it." -- I drift back to sleep and am left alone.

Clanging again. It's breakfast being served and I roll up my mat, fold my blanket, and grab my breakfast--a steel cup with some thin tea in it and three pieces of bread glued together by some butterlike substance. I eat. The Poles offer me a cigarette, and I pass. I remember that they were smoking while pacing back and forth last night and it doesn't make sense, since I was relieved of everything but my handkerchief. They do seem to avoid smoking in front of the guards though. The metal cups are collected, along with my blanket and mat, and the Poles resume pacing. I’m pissed -- where the hell are the police with my passport? I should have been out last night! I curl up on the bare bench and manage to fall asleep again.

I wake up again. Time is crawling. The younger guy acquires a sweater at some point when the guard has opened the door and I gesture for something similar. On the wooden shelves at the end of the corridor are the blankets, pads, and metal cups, but no sweaters. I take a blanket and return to the cell.

A while later the door opens again--to take out, or bring back -- I don't remember which -- the older of the two Poles. The guard is laughing about the sleeping American. Time is crawling...what's going on? Why am I still here?

There are just two of us in the cell -- the older guy with the l960s sideburns is gone again. The kid is smoking and pacing. I join him in the pacing. Just like caged felines, yet somehow satisfying. What the f**k is going on? I'm a goddamned tourist! Now I'm in prison! For how long? F**k! I'm talking out loud. The kid is smiling understandingly. "Bang on the cell door," he gestures.

I do, nothing. I do again, then again. Until a guard comes.

"I want to phone the American consulate. American consulate--me--telephone."

I act out using a telephone.

The guard chuckles good-naturedly at the American who sleeps so much, and begins to leave, lingering only after I raise my voice and wave my arms frantically. He points to his watch, then moves his finger around it, thoroughly confusing me. I draw an invisible clock face on the wall and ask him to repeat what he's trying to show me. He circles my imaginary clock twice with his finger and says few things in Polish. I ask him if he means 24 hours and he nods agreeably, not understanding a word I've said.

What have I learned? First, I've tried and failed to reach the consulate. I've learned the time (which is inexplicably important to me), and finally, I know that something will either happen in 24 hours or not happen in 24 hours. But what does that mean? Am I free, or do I simply proceed to the next stage, perhaps with the American consulate being duly informed. Although I really do not know much more than I did a few moments ago, I do feel a bit more under control. Now the unknown at least had a milestone--something would be happening in 24 hours.

I can't sleep anymore. It was a great idea -- to sleep away the time -- but it's not going to work anymore -- I'm all slept out. There's no one I can talk with, nothing to read, nothing to do. I've got to figure out how to use up time, and my mind wanders to articles that I've read on the subject.

I remembered a Reader's Digest-type article on the imprisonment of General Dozier by the Red Brigade. What can I remember about how he kept busy? Maybe it’s not the same story, but I begin to remember something about creating routines...an exercise routine and a personal hygiene routine come to mind. It makes sense, and I decide to begin a personal hygiene program.

Using one fingernail, I proceed to carefully clean the others. Then I clean the cleaner. Yeah, that felt good. And I've used up at least two minutes. Hmmm. The rest of the cleanliness program's going to be a problem. I have no other clothes. I need to wear everything I have at the same time to keep from freezing to death. The toilet/sink facility is located at the end of the corridor, where the blankets are stored. I review in my mind which tools exist there that can be incorporated into my new hygiene program -- one toilet, one sink, one very used hand towel. The tools that are not there include hot water, paper towels, soap, razor, toothbrush, and toilet paper. I recall seeing a sheet of newspaper on the floor and I now understand why the corners of it were torn off.

During my brainstorming, the older of the Poles is returned to the cell and I use the opportunity to visit the toilet and wash up. I scrub my face with my hands, then dry myself with my sweatshirt sleeves. My cleanliness program is in gear and I return to my cell to consider an exercise program.

Though my self-discipline has never been overwhelming, I realize that I will have few such excellent opportunities to begin such an exercise program and I choose to start with a set of 50 pushups. I think about it for a moment or two. These guys are going to think I'm crazy, and I decide to hold off on the pushups. Instead I do a set of 100 toe raises and no one notices a thing. I decide to do pushups later.

I look around the cell for other things to do. Except for bumming a cigarette and gaining a new vice, there's really not much to do. I decide to memorize the details of the cell. I pace it off --it's 13 ½ "foot-lengths" long, and seven and a bit of my "foot-lengths" wide. The ceiling is about 1 2/3 door-lengths high. The door is of normal dimensions, but surfaced with sheet metal, pockmarked with rivets, and complete with a 2x6 inch viewer made by drilling a few score holes through the sheet metal in a tight rectangular pattern. The outside of the "viewer" has a plastic shield overhanging it, perhaps to protect the eyes of any observers.

The cell's only furnishings are the benches -- two large wooden coffin-shapes built flush with the side walls and extending more than 2/3 the length of the cell. More than a yard wide, these two benches really are the cell. Pacing, sleeping, eating -- everything takes place on the benches.

For entertainment, besides looking out the peephole into the empty corridor, we have a filthy window on the wall opposite the door, protected on the inside by a heavy mesh screen and on the outside by a sturdy set of bars. Through the dusty, cobweb-covered, mud-splattered window can just be seen a small area of unkempt grass, a wall, and a few buildings in the distance. Roosters can be heard outside every so often and sometimes a few scrawny chickens can be seen scratching in the dirt outside.

The walls of the cell are plain. The lower half is a dark mud color, designed, I would guess, principally to hide dirt and graffiti. The upper portion is a dirty beige, apparently painted often, since all the dated graffiti seems to be from this past month.

My examination of my surroundings is interrupted by the cell door opening and lunch being served. I steal a glance at the guard’s watch and note it's only 1:30 in the afternoon. It seems like I've been here a year. Lunch is a metal bowl of soup and two slices of bread per person. Though the soup is a pretty watery affair, sitting in the bottom of the bowl is a slice of fatty sausage. I'm not yet hungry enough for it to taste good, but needless to say, nothing is left in any of our bowls.

It is sometime after lunch, and I've been in custody for twenty hours. I decide to try again to communicate with my cellmate. I point at myself and repeat "Bill" a few times, sort of rhyming it with "steel" to give it a European flavor. The taller of the two, the one in the old bellbottom dress slacks, repeats my name, and then points to himself and he responds, "Jacque."

Jacque points to our other cellmate, who is not really following what was going on, and identifies him as Joseph. I then point to myself and indicate my age with my fingers -- 25. Jacque understands and indicates that he is 32 and Joseph 20. Jacque, apparently the more talkative (if that's the right word) initiates the next exchange with "Reagan-Tomahawk." Then with a wild gesture of his hands, "Ka-Boom!" We were off on a political bent and for the next half-hour I attempt to explain American foreign policy using pantomime. As this conversation threatens to die, I point to Jacque with a handcuff gesture, gesture around the cell, and shrug "Why?" Jacque seems to understand that I'm asking why they are in jail, and talks to Joseph for a moment--they both respond in turn with a grabbing and running motion. With gestures they ask why I am here, and I make a photographing gesture, then the sound of a locomotive as I mention "Oswiecim." They both get a kick out of this and Joseph knocks on the cell wall a few times. A few seconds later the story of the foreigner in their cell is shared with the two other cells.

I press to find out more about Jacque and Joseph's "crimes" and learn they are here for similar offenses. Jacque, the 32-year-old, had attempted a "grab-and-run" on a good radio--value: 20,000 Polish zloty. Joseph likewise had failed at a grab-and-run--he grabbed 17,000 Polish zloty from the till of a disco, but failed to get away. Jacque had apparently just been sentenced to three years in jail and Joseph has earned two years for his transgression. (Later I convert these zloty into dollars using the black market rate. Jacque who has apparently been in jail before, has earned a three-year sentence for grabbing a $38 radio, and Joseph will be spending the next two years in jail for snatching the equivalent of $32.)

As the conversation draws to a close, time threatens to drag again. Picking up a few of the match sticks lying about, I convince Joseph to join me in a game similar to pitching pennies--the object being to toss the matches onto the other person's bench so that they touched the wall. This proves adequately entertaining and the three of us take turns playing as the light from the window slowly fades and the glow from the single wire-shielded bulb gains prominence. Twice we are interrupted and hide the matches as first Joseph, then Jacque, are taken in turn for fingerprinting and photographs.

Shortly after Jacque is returned to the cell dinner is served--two pieces of bread and something vaguely resembling watered-down hot chocolate. (A matter of semantics, I suppose, but technically we are not served bread and water. We are served bread and flavored water!) Jacque offers me one of his pieces of bread. Thanking him, I gesture that I am full. Dinner ends with the cell door opening as cups are collected. Then we're back to waiting.

As boredom sets in, I make one more attempt to keep us active. Twisting my unconfiscated handkerchief into a cord, I proceeded to tie a series of knots in it, eventually creating one large knot. I toss it into the air for awhile, intermittently bouncing it off the walls (knotted-up handkerchiefs don't bounce back very well) then toss it to Jacque, who, sitting on the opposite bench, is watching, idly curious. Jacque tosses it back and in no time at all we're attempting to score goals on each other. If the match-flicking was an amusing pastime, this is a high-energy sport--sitting cross-legged on the bench, it's similar to water polo goalies facing off five feet apart. For the first time since being jailed I'm warm--I remove my sweatshirt, then my sweater. Our breath leaves little clouds in the cold air. We soon stop, but we're all smiling. For me the afternoon has been a success. We have communicated, and the two different games have helped the time pass, bringing us into the evening. Now we quiet down a bit.

Lying back on my bench, I stare at the intricate pattern painted across the ceiling by the solitary bulb protected by its mesh screen. Smoke drifts up from Joseph and Jacque's cigarettes and adds to the pattern. Periodically the stillness is interrupted by a tapping on the walls by one of the two neighboring cells. Typically Joseph responds, after first checking the corridor for people. Apparently these exchanges are simply another way to use up time; individuals learn who has just been fingerprinted, who has been photographed, and other such gossip. Not able to understand the whispers, I drift into my own thoughts, longing for my friends back home.

Steps in the hallway, the door opens, and Joseph runs out to grab two pads and two blankets from the rack at the end of the hall. We lay out our beds, and I spend my second night in jail.

A loud clanging and I'm woken by the cell door opening. The three of us jump up, still more asleep than awake, and roll up the pads. Something is going to happen today--I have been here two nights. No one is up for another game of handkerchief handball so I toss it into the air myself, waiting. A little while later breakfast is served -- three small pieces of bread (the end of the loaf, evidently), and tea. I decide that the tea is better than the hot chocolate. Following breakfast, time drags, and I decide to do a set of 100 toe-raises on the bench. I think about doing pushups, but continue to procrastinate. The door opens and Jacque is taken away. Once the hallway is clear, the wall-knocking begins again--the cell on our left wants to know what happened. Joseph returns the knock, then speaks into the cell door crack. I shrug and Joseph indicates the possibility that that is it for Jacque--he may be off to the real prison.

Time drags and I pace off the cell again. It's still the same size. I think about Jacque a bit--he was a good man. An hour ago, during breakfast, he had been given a sheet of paper and a pen. He had written only two or three sentences before handing the pad back to the officer. As the policeman left, Jacque had shown me a small black-and-white photo of an old woman--his mother. He had been allowed to write her a letter and it had been a short one--probably just explaining that he wouldn't be home for the next three years...

My pensive mood was interrupted by the cell door opening again. I am motioned to come out and I do, hurriedly shoving the matches I had been playing with into my pocket. Is this it? I have no chance to say good-bye to Joseph as the cell door is closed immediately behind me. The guard gestures me to put on my shoes and as I do a quick conversation takes place in the corridor. Two plain-clothed individuals escort me outside to a car. We take a short drive to still another building and I am escorted through a rear door, and up a narrow stairwell. I am led to a second-story room where a young man greets me in English, asking whether I would prefer coffee or tea. He orders his accomplice to fetch me a cup of coffee, then closes the door, inviting me to sit down. He tells me that he has to straighten out this problem so that I can continue my travels. "Everything will be OK."

Tears form. I'm embarrassed by my emotional reaction, but I can't hide it. For two days I've been in limbo, not knowing what lay ahead. I am dirty, cold, and hungry. Now I've just been offered a choice of coffee or tea.

I straighten up and at my host's bidding once again recount my entire story, including the specific sites where I shot the railway photos. As I am speaking, my interviewer is flipping through the file on me. I'm asked for some more details on my past, including the names and addresses of summer jobs I've had. Then I'm asked to list professors that I studied under at U.C. Berkeley. This is a trip! My interviewer (still no name, but about 30 years old, short, with a mustache--sort of a Tom Selleck in miniature) excuses himself from the room for a minute, calling in a matronly woman to silently keep an eye on me. My Tom Selleck lookalike is soon back, though, and we are once again on the subject of U.C. Berkeley.

"Do you know anything about the Slavic Studies Department at Berkeley?"

I mention that I heard something about a Hungarian poet from campus winning a Nobel Prize in literature this past year.

He mentions a Polish-sounding name--I don't recognize it.

He mentions the name Gross. I toy with it -- it rings a bell somehow. I mention this to him and he makes a note.

He mentions the name of a building, "Moses Hall."

I tell him that I'm sure that it is the name of a building at UCLA, where I had spent my first two years of college. He is under the impression that it is the location of the Slavic Studies and Eastern European Nations Department at the Berkeley campus, but makes a note.

We are waiting for my bag with camera and other personal possessions to arrive. It does, and I check the contents--everything is still there (including the Solidarity pin, still hidden in the seam). We talk for a few more minutes, then I'm escorted out of the room by a uniformed officer. We drive back to the previous building where I sign for my returned possessions. Minutes later we're back with the English-speaking detective. Another quick conversation issues, then four of us head outside to a car for the ride to Krakow. Halfway there we pull over for lunch (the Poles don't understand my "I'll have just bread and water" joke) and I learn that the police had visited my "landlord" the night I was first locked up, and that the family had denied any knowledge of me. Now I'm worrying that perhaps all my possessions will have mysteriously disappeared when I return to this address, and I share this worry with "Tom Selleck." I mention that I can describe the inside of the home perfectly if push comes to shove, but the detective tells me that they were probably just frightened by the police, since they are not a registered room renter. With no introduction in sight, I ask the detective what his name is, and he explains that I can call him John. As we finish lunch, I ask John what the story is on my film--will I get it back? I am told that the film has been sent to Warsaw for processing, but that I may have it back as long as nothing "unusual" appears on the film. Confident that the film will support my claim to civilian status, I pursue my line of questioning: "How do I get the film back?"

"Well, you are free to continue on to Prague, as you were planning, but I don't think we can mail the film to you. If you want the film, you must come to Warsaw and wait for it--it won't be ready until next weekend."

As we approach the outskirts of Krakow, I ponder this situation -- get out of Poland immediately, but without my film, or wait around Warsaw for a few days until it is developed. I'd already spent two days in jail for that damned film and I wasn't about to leave it behind now. I tell John my decision--"I'll wait for the film."

I recognize the road we're on and I give directions to John--it's about two more blocks, up on the right. We ride right past my place.

"We'll need backup," I am told, since apparently she is due to be raided. I am told that there is a train to Warsaw this evening at 6pm and am asked if I have enough money for a Warsaw hotel, which will probably cost $20 per night. I ask why I can't just stay at my place here in Krakow since I'll need to pay them for the day anyway, and John consents. Mentioning that I'm not too excited in staying in a home that has just been raided, I'm assured that nothing has happened yet and that it is just "small" trouble.

We continue driving, eventually going through a guarded gate to a massive police complex, the main building at least 12 stories tall. I spend most of my time waiting for John. Even in this fortress, whenever John leaves, someone was assigned to keep me company.

John still hasn't seen my passport, and that becomes the next objective. The two of us leave the complex and head back to my room by public train, disembarking a few blocks short of my address. John suggests that I go, wash up, fetch my passport, and return to the station to meet him in an hour.

Somewhat incredulously I ask him if he doesn't think the family will wonder where I've been for the last few days.

"Tell them nothing," I am told.

For some reason I don't think this will go over too smoothly -- I left for an afternoon trip to Auschwitz two days ago and now upon returning I'm supposed to go about my business as if nothing happened. Given that the police have already been asking about me, I'm not convinced that this will work.

I tell John that I will tell the family that I met some friends and stayed with them for two days. At one point we were asked for passports and I had shown the police their address. Not at all appreciating what was lacking in the approach he first suggested, John consented.

I returned to the private home where my baggage was. My story worked out. The mother was relieved. Apparently she thought the worst--jail or hospital--and her daughter had almost phoned hospitals for a missing American.

I didn't know what to do. I had to warn them about the trouble I had brought, but I know they would not be able to conceal their forewarning when the police came if I told them what had actually happened the last two days. I hinted at it, questioning whether the earlier police visit could not still cause problems for them, but I’m not sure I got through.

Washed and in clean clothes, I head back to the station to show my passport to John. He hands me a train ticket to Warsaw, for 6:30am the following morning, and indicates that it had cost 400 zloty ($0.66 black-market-equivalent). I pay him and leave him there at the train station. He’s going to Warsaw tonight, and will meet my train tomorrow at 9:30am.

I walk the town, drifting casually past the American consulate to see if anyone is still there. The place is quiet and I walk on, eventually stopping for a large dinner. I buy some postcards, go back to my room and pack, and try to write a few cards. It’s after midnight when I fall asleep. I wasn’t able to write a single card.

The next morning I’m up and out of the house before most of the family is awake. The daughter, who speaks English, sees me off. As I carry my loaded bike down the hallway stairs, I once again hint that maybe the police will return.

Struggling to get my bike off the train in Warsaw, I'm given a helping hand--it's John, my personal detective. It is Friday, and John has a few suggestions for my itinerary--check the bike in the train station, extend my Polish visa (which is about to expire), find a place to stay, and meet with him at 3pm so that he can see how things are going.

We go our own ways, and meet at the appointed hour near the LOT airline office. John notes where I am staying, then suggests a few tourist sights worth seeing during the weekend. I am told to be at the same corner at 3pm on Monday to retrieve my negatives. I agree.

It is now Monday, 3pm, and this strange twist to my bike tour is about to end. John walks into view just minutes after 3 and suggests that we go somewhere to sit down.

Over lunch at Hotel Orbis, the last hurdles appear. John is Polish counterintelligence. He spies on spies.

John has my negatives, but before I can have them, I must write out and sign a "confession" of sorts. John reads to me what he wants me to write:

1. "I acknowledge that I broke Polish law by photographing in a prohibited area." (Well, it's true -- I write it down.)

2. "I oblige myself to keep private my contacts with the Polish Secret Police while in Poland." (I choose to interpret this as excluding my behavior once outside of Poland and thus do not object. I write it down.)

3. "I acknowledge that I will be contacted by members of the Polish Secret Police if I choose to visit Poland again and I will be questioned about anti-Polish activities at the University of California Slavic Studies Department."
I express amazement at this last condition for the return of that damned film. John assures me that it is not really such a big deal.

"Don't worry, Bill, we don't want to know the location of American missiles or submarines, just political activities directed against Poland."

I laugh. My only knowledge of U.S. missile deployment is what I read in Newsweek.

Ignoring my interruption, John continues by assuring me that I won't be contacted in America, only when and if I return to Poland.

My mind flashes on an image of four men in dark trench coats parked outside my house -- a party pad in the Oakland hills, shared with three other guys. I laugh out loud again at the absurdity of it all.

"Do I get a free airline ticket to Poland for this?"

"No. You do expect to be traveling again in Europe, though, don't you?"

I laugh again and press the point. I’m moments from being able to continue my trans-Europe trip, and I’m starting to feel good. I ask what specifically constitutes anti-Polish activities. Is support for Solidarity an anti-Polish activity?

I'm told that that's not what they're looking for. I’m perplexed, but I don’t think this last condition is going to cause problems for me. So what if I’m agreeing to spy! I write out the third statement.

John asked me to sign and date the sheet, but I continue writing.

4. I will be assured safe passage out of Poland.

John looks, grins, and lights up a cigarette. He offers me one and I accept.


I hopped a train that evening to Prague. Although I toyed with the idea of cutting short my tour of the Eastern Bloc, after a few days of R&R in Prague, I elected to continue riding south and eventually made it through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey.

While in Prague I visited the U.S. Embassy and confessed to my new role as Polish spy. The staff were interested in my experience, but not at all surprised. During our session, my debriefer explained that spy relationships almost always began with requests for easily available, "non-secret" information. Gradually the hook was set, with requests for additional information that was a little more sensitive. By that time, it was too late for the "spy" to admit to his country that he had been approached earlier, complied, and accepted restitution.

Months later I made it back to the U.S. Soon after, the F.B.I. office in Oakland contacted me. Invited down to a nondescript building beside Lake Merritt, I was instructed as to what to do if I was contacted by foreign agents here in the U.S.

Four years later, the Eastern Bloc fell. Thirty years have passed. I’ve never been contacted.






The famous gate to the concentration camp -- "Arbeit Macht Frei"
Visiting in late September, the tourists were gone, and the air was still...
The train station a mile away had the same ageless feel to it.
Fifty years had passed, but the rail yards seemed to be frozen in time...
2008-2014 by Bill Fridl  ( billfridl@gmail.com )
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Thanks for understanding.