Remarkable account of British writer’s 1934 journey across Poland on a bike called George is published for first time in Polish
A fascinating book and photo diary documenting a British author’s journey across inter-war Poland on a bike called George has been released in Polish.
Filled with countless anecdotes, photos and personal observations, ‘Rowerem przez II RP’, ‘Pedalling Poland’ recounts Bernard Newman’s 3,000km route from Gdańsk to Kraków in 1934.
Written in a conversational style, the book offers a fascinating documentary glimpse of Poland and its people, from peasants, ordinary men and women, politicians and intellectuals, all observed and captured through the eyes of an enthusiastic outsider keen to discover a country little known to him, but which he prophesised could soon be ‘a great power’.
Talking about his experience, Newman said: “In England, we know surprisingly little about Poland, even though it’s a country that could, in a moment be considered a great power…We only heard about Poland at the end of the First World War, since whilst Russia was our ally, all talk of Polish independence was forbidden.”
Newman’s extensive route, which can be seen in its entirety on the book’s cover, took him from the port of Gdańsk, then still part of Germany, from where he and his trusted bike disembarked a boat from England and began their journey, visiting the major cities of Poznań, Warsaw, Łódź, Częstochowa, Kraków and Zakopane, Vilnius and Lviv amongst others.
Newman’s remarks and photographs from his trip, are all the more fascinating for their point in history, a mere five years before the outbreak of World War II, capturing a Poland which would soon cease to exist in the form in which he saw it.
In this context, one interesting account is that of Newman’s visit to Kraków’s Kazimierz District and his observations of the thriving Jewish community life he finds there.
Walking through its narrow streets he remarks on seeing no one else in the district but Jews and is struck by the busy scenes and vibrant hubbub of the Jewish market.
He also recounts amusing anecdotes about the reluctance of his Jewish subjects to be photographed or when he is continually stopped and offered a price by market traders for his particularly admired English raincoat.
Other anecdotes amongst Newman’s largely sympathetic musings and apt observations about people and places in Poland, include comments about the leisurely pace of the Polish railways, but also their similarity to other railways in Europe.
He found that a small town where people’s disregard for any dictates of time and where no one wears watches, is a source of surprise and admiration to him, as is his appreciation for colourful highland dress or his surprise at the abundance of bungalows in smaller towns where he observes one girl’s reaction to seeing stairs for the first time.
A fascinating aspect of the book is Newman’s ability to collect conversations and opinions of a wide cross-section of society.
He shared his time almost equally between modest lodgings as well as grand hotels and conducted conversations with peasants and ordinary people as well as aristocrats, intellectuals and politicians.
Being a recognised lecturer and writer, in some places he was treated like a celebrity, whilst, almost simultaneously, his travels by bike through smaller towns enabled him to be treated without special honours and record natural conversations with ordinary people.
Speaking to Radio Poland, Newman’s grandson Simon Hipkin said: “Because he did a lot of his trips by bicycle, he would get the opinions of normal people as he cycled round the guest houses and the farms and then when he’s up to a big town, because he had a little bit of fame as a lecturer and an author already, he would get welcomed as some sort of…a famous person and get interviews with politicians and poets.”
At first known as a historian and lecturer, Newman delivered around 2,000 lectures in Europe between 1928 and 1940, at one point even meeting Adolf Hitler.
But he was also a prolific traveller who visited over 60 countries in the inter-war period, many of them by bike and wrote about his experiences.
The great-nephew of 19th century author George Eliot, Newman wrote over 100 books across a range of genres, including a novel ‘Spy’, which, due to its first person narrative, led to accusations that he had been a spy, which he categorically dispelled in a later interview.
‘Pedalling Poland’ is one of several travel books Newman wrote, and also one of several he wrote about Poland, with ‘Pedalling Poland’ being the one to start his enduring fascination with the country.
After WWII, he led a series of radio shows telling the story of the Polish Resistance and his subsequent titles about Poland were: ‘The Story of Poland’ (1943), Portrait of Poland (1959), The New Poland (1968) and a novel ‘They Saved London’ in which he championed the Polish Resistance and which later became a film.
Published by Znak Horyzont and translated from the English by Ewa Kochanowska, it is the first time that ‘Rowerem przez II RP’ (‘Pedalling Poland’) can be read in Polish since its publication nearly 90 years ago.