A Cold War Tale

Written by  Bea Tobias February 3, 2011

This is a story of international humanity.


We were two Canadian students, travelling by train across East Germany to Berlin in 1969. Armed with machine guns, Soviet soldiers marched up and down the train, young stony-faced men, stiff, starched and puffed up as porcupines. 

It was the era of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, Communism, and the Soviet Union.

Our compartment mates were four strangers who appeared to be feeling as nervous and intimidated as we were. One of the passengers was an elderly Polish woman who had been allowed to leave Poland to visit relatives in West Germany.  She told us in German (my husband translated) that only the elderly were allowed out of her country and only for family emergencies. I heard her say “zlotys” quite a few times as she gestured toward her paper shopping bag.  She was telling us how expensive and unavailable things were in Poland—a hair ribbon for her granddaughter cost 12 zlotys, or about $8 in Poland. Fruit was almost non-existent, and prices were out of reach, but she was taking back some special treats—a dozen oranges, bananas, ribbons, and other simple things.

As we rode, this grandmother observed that I was not feeling well. I had one of those horrible head-colds that seem to happen on vacations. She offered me one of her precious oranges. I refused, trying to tell her that I couldn’t accept it, but she insisted, and would have been deeply hurt if I did not. I ate it there under her caring supervision and felt much better.

I often remember the generosity of this woman who had been deprived of so much that I take for granted, and who had no reason at all to share with me, except as one human being concerned for another. I tell this story of true goodness, which was I honoured and humbled to receive, and hope that it will be an inspiration to others, as it still is to me 41 years later.

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