If one discounts the evasive zigs and zags the merchant boat, crowded with refugees, made in order to avoid being sunk by Soviet aircraft during the trip from Ventspils, Latvia to the seaport city in Danzig, Germany back in October 1944 the distance was a conservative nautical 500 kilometers. Most of the pre-war generations did not dream that this was the last time they will see their homeland. Once on German soil it was mostly travel by foot for months, plus a train ride on a couple of occasions, from Danzig to Greiz, Germany, the Google distance is another 786 kilometers. Since that time Danzig has had its name changed to Gdansk, now a part of Poland.
I’ve written on LOL before about my WWII refugee experiences to escape the repeat onslaught of the soviets occupying Latvia, as my mother, having lost relatives during the first soviet occupation, did not wish to experience another “Baigais gads.” Most of you are familiar with the physical and psychological scars Stalin’s war machine left on Latvia during the first occupation. In order to escape the Soviet army pressing down from the east we mostly walked and endured: masses of refugees, bombing, strafing, civilian casualties en route, eating (when skimpy food was available) with the aid of a roadside campfire, scrapping for potatoes in open fields, otherwise starving and sleeping on the side of the road, in a barn or in the woods. And all that, included the winter months.
Despite the countless business, vacation trips and living in Europe, Greiz was one town in my past experiences I’ve never had a chance for a return trip, primarily because it was East Germany. So, I placed it on my list this time.
On this trip, 67-years later, the distance to Greiz was longer, 1,657 kilometers, as Daina and I took an all-land route with our VW minibus; starting in Riga, heading south through Lithuania and its EU’s border opening between Russia’s Kaliningrad and Belarus, with Poland. It’s a mere 103 km land connection with the EU to the south for the Baltic countries. Keep in mind that Poland once shared a border with Latvia prior to the Soviet occupation. This time it took three days instead of months even with a heat wave that was sweeping through Eastern and Central Europe.
Passing through Poland
Upon crossing the border into Poland we encountered hilly, twisting and curving roads that where jammed with trucks. These were no super highways. They were just single lanes each way. The truckers were aggressive, relentlessly riding the tail of the front vehicles. One could not help but notice that the area was a trucker’s paradise with trucker’s hotels/motels, beer joints, casinos, etc. set up roadside to reap the hard earnings from this rowdy bunch.
In traveling North to South through Poland, from Lithuania to Saxony (part of former East Germany), there were no expressways most of the way, making driving somewhat more torturous. Those expressways that they do have go from east to west. Besides fixed radars that were all over the place and Poland has more rotary circles than there are found anywhere else in the world. Like in Latvia, they also skimp on directional signs.
Finding a hotel/motel to stay was not a straight forward task in Poland, as not every place was acceptable and then most do not take credit cards. We did explore the resort town of Augustow, once part of the disputed territory between Lithuania and Poland. The infrastructure vestiges of WWII and Poland’s one time captive nation status of Soviet Union were still noticeable. We moved on. Eventually, just outside of Grajewo, we came across a countryside three star hotel with a restaurant that met our prerequisites.
The next day we endured more of Poland’s traffic that weaved through the many closely clustered small towns. Heading southwest we bypassed Warsaw, then Lodz and zeroed in on Wroclaw (German: Breslau). This was former German territory evident by the infrastructure, the country homes along the way were no longer clustered like in northern Poland. Also, there was a shift from wood structure to stone structure. Many parts of the city looked damaged and dilapidated. At the city’s gateway, however, was a high-rise four star hotel, Town Hotel, which was worth every star, and we settled in for the night. It was the one we choose from among 6 that we had checked out along the way. Most did not accept credit cards.
Destination point – Greiz
Early in the morning, having traversed Poland, we finally connected with expressway E40, which had previously un-encountered speed limits of 140 km/hr! We crossed the border into Germany, zipped passed Dresden and Chemnitz and then through back roads arrived in Greiz in no time at all. Well, it was much faster than we had been able to cover distance before in Poland.
Greiz is not found on most maps, yet it’s called a “city of princes,” a small town with 23,000 inhabitants nestled between rolling hills with a castle on most of them. Back in 1945 an estimated 150 Latvians individually and in family groups sought out Greiz as an end destination to escape the Soviet juggernaut. Apparently they had information that the area would be occupied by the American forces. Sure enough in April 1945 the Americans and British units pushed themselves past Greiz to Chemnitz. But that was where the Western Allied military ambition and FDR’s political appeasement of Stalin differed and the Western Allies were required to withdraw their forces and let the Soviets reap the unearned spoils. Greiz became part of East Germany.