Long-forgotten National Geographic article recounts extraordinary tale of US woman who biked across Poland just three months before outbreak of WWII
In June 1939, just three months before the outbreak of World War II, National Geographic Magazine published a unique article and series of photographs by an American woman who had just cycled across Poland by herself.
Entitled ‘Pedalling through Poland: An American Girl Free-wheels Alone from Kraków and Its Medieval Byways, Towards Ukraine’s Restive Borderland’, the article by photographer Dorothy Hosmer details her travels from Kraków, to the Polish Tatra mountains and through territories of present-day Ukraine with an infectious spontaneity and curiosity towards everything around her.
Memorable episodes included a ride across the rapids of the Dunajec river with some highlanders, an initiation into Kraków’s student culture and the locals’ love affair with mead, the warm hospitality of everyone she meets, and her amazement at an informal chance encounter with one of the three fathers of Polish independence, Roman Dmowski, at a Polish sanatorium.
In 1936 and at the age of 26, Hosmer quit her job as a secretary and set out for Europe at a time when travelling alone by a female was seen as highly unusual. Indeed this was the reason given by one editor of National Geographic for refusing Hosmer’s initial request to publish her first article about her travels in 1937, a decision overturned by a second editor.
Hosmer would eventually have four articles printed in the National Geographic between 1938-1941, all from her solo travels, mostly by bike, through Romania, Poland and Italy and Greece.
Having initially not planned on visiting Poland at all, she changed her mind on the ‘spur of the moment’ after receiving a letter from a friend called Jack who was visiting Kraków and urged her to join him as he thought it was a great place to photograph.
“I felt as if I had stepped into another world. The feeling that it was all part of an operetta persisted when Jack handed me into a shiny black Doroshky”, Hosmer wrote of her initial impression of arriving in Kraków and being transported to her accommodation by horse-drawn carriage (still a popular tourist transport in Kraków today).
She continued: “Everything seemed unreal, from the soldiers whose caps were squared on the top like motarboards to the long-bearded Jews who slipped about silently.”
Her observations of Kraków included the numerous street musicians, the majority students, who, together with the bugler playing from the Mariacki church, who helped to preserve the medieval character of Kraków.
She also commented on the Krakovians' love of drinking ‘amber miód, a fermented honey drink (old English mead)’ and her surprise at the city having several old taverns devoted entirely to the drink.
In the Jewish district of Kazimierz, she visited a Synagogue and remarked that “everything remains essentially as it was in the 14th century” whilst her walk through an “incredible market” lead to over-zealous market traders wanting to buy her camera and pursuing her relentlessly through the market.
In Kraków, Hosmer lived ‘the life of a Polish student’ before buying a bicycle, specially made for her on the advice of a man who completed a cycle tour of England, which she used for her journey to Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains.
In the mountains she was entertained by live music from the highlanders who played mazurkas, oberek and a traditional zbójnicki fire dance and was surprised to find out that many highlanders had worked in the United States before World War I and responded to her in English.
Another memorable moment was a raft ride down the river with her bike across the rapids of the Dunajec river on a makeshift, but sturdy raft made of hollowed out logs and steered by the highlanders.
Arriving in Lwów [present day Lviv], she described the city as the “gayest city I ever saw in Poland” with its lively promenades filled with people in the evenings and the atmosphere outside the Café George where she sat and observed the unusual “Polish vodka-and-kanapka combination”, where people alternated vodka shots with “the most complicated-looking canapes imaginable”.
Her stay in Lwów ended with her being mistaken for a spy after an innocent offer by a Polish officer in the Air Corps to take her on a flight in a government plane ended in suspicions about her from his superiors and a policeman.
Another boat trip, this time down the Dniester river saw Hosmer landing in Niżniów and passing through Kołomyja, travelling on to a famous sanatorium town of Kosów where she bumped into “an old man with the most exuberant good humor”, who she found out to her surprise to be Roman Dmowki.
She recalls how Dmowski asked her if it was true that she had come all the way from America on a bicycle and was astonished at finding an “American girl venturing alone on a cycle into the ‘wilds’ of Poland’s mountains” and who, reminiscing, told her an anecdote from when he was a representative at the Paris Peace Conference:
“I shall never forget the Tatra Góral peasant in embroidered white lamb’s wool trousers who wound his finger around President Wilson’s coat button to hold his attention while pleading Poland’s cause”, Hosmer quoted Dmowski as saying.
Hosmer’s article also includes stories about the warm welcome she received from the Hucul ethnic minority and a Ukrainian family who took her in before her journey towards the border crossing of Sniatyń and on towards Romania.
Her final night in Poland was eventful due to a mouse under her pillow, which turned out to be read as an omen by the family, interpreted by the old granny in the house as a sign that “there would befall me many strange things and events”.
Hosmer was a passionate and tireless traveller throughout her life. After spending four years in Europe and returning to America in 1940, she later travelled for a few years in South America, before settling down with her husband and taking up travel again after 1971.
She continued to photograph and her photos were published in many major newspapers and journals. In 2000, she was featured in a special edition book by the National Geographic entitled “Women Photographers at National Geographic”.
Hosmer died in 2008 at the age of 98. Her over 6000 photographs and 40 publications are now part of a collection at the Sweeney Art Gallery in California.