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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Toszek, Poland | On a Wodehousean trail

At a bookshop in Delhi Airport, I had bought P.G. Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing to read on a train journey I was going to make a few days later. It wasn’t my first choice of reading material. I would have preferred Money in the Bank, a sequel to Money For Nothing, but unfortunately it is no longer in print. The reason I had been hunting for Money in the Bank is that I had made plans to travel to the place it was written in: a Nazi camp in Poland for civilian prisoners of war, where Wodehouse had been imprisoned in 1940 and 1941.

The story begins in May 1940, a time when Wodehouse was living in Le Touquet, France, a decision he had made to avoid exorbitant rates of taxation in both the US and the UK. On 10 May, the Nazi regime launched its invasion of France and the Low Countries, and Wodehouse found himself living in a country at war. By 22 May, the Germans had reached Le Touquet.

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P.G. Wodehouse writing in his New York home. Photo: F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images

It is to Tost where I am headed now, but things have changed since the time Wodehouse was imprisoned there. To begin with, it’s no longer called Tost, but instead bears a Polish name—Toszek; an outcome of the region’s cruel history.

The Silesia region, spread around the valley of the river Odra or Oder, lies between German, Czech, and Polish speaking regions. Over the centuries, it has passed from one regime to another—whether Bohemian or Prussian monarchies, or German or Polish republics. Even before World War II broke out and Germany invaded Poland, most of Silesia was under German control as the provinces of Upper and Lower Silesia were inhabited by both German and Polish speakers.

Today, almost all of Silesia lies within Polish borders and its residents are predominantly Polish speakers. During the Nazi occupation, the Jewish residents of the area were massacred. Less than a 100km from Tost, the Nazis were constructing an extermination camp at Auschwitz. After World War II, when Poland and East Germany came under Soviet occupation, Silesia returned to Polish control—and the new regime expelled German speakers in retribution for past German wrongs.

P.G. Wodehouse’s birthday is on 15 October

But from whatever I can see of the region as a tourist who can’t understand Polish, nobody seems overly concerned about the scars of the expulsion. Everyone is getting on with life, and the memorials I’ve seen on the streets are largely dedicated to the Polish victims of the Communist purges, rarely to the victims of the Nazis, and almost none to the expelled German speakers.

My hunt for Wodehouse’s prison started in Delhi, where I first learnt of his wartime imprisonment. My journey brought me to Munich, Berlin, Wrocław (the capital of Lower Silesia), and Opole, the capital city of a new province recently carved out of the historical Silesia. At every waypoint, my means of transport have become steadily less fancy. I started with an Airbus A340 to Munich, and had to take a regional express train from Wrocław to Opole. Now, in Opole, I’ve caught a passenger train to Gliwice. Toszek, which lies along the way, is so small that the only way to get there is to take the slow passenger train that halts at every station on the line.

Toszek is also so small that practically nothing inside the village is marked on the map, especially not the psychiatric hospital. My hunt for Wodehouse’s camp will have to be conducted without a map—and without any knowledge of Polish. But I’m up for the challenge.

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A train leaving Opole, from where the writer travelled to Toszek. Photo: Aadisht Khanna

Toszek is also so small that whoever planned the railway line couldn’t be bothered to make it deviate enough from its straight line run to come close to the village, and so the village is at least 2km from the station. I pass by a school with huge sunflowers blooming outside, grain fields, Catholic shrines, small ponds, and country houses, almost all of which have gardens with flower beds and pear trees that have the fruit hanging ripe off their branches. Everything is most picturesque, except when I pass by a compound where agricultural machinery is kept. It looks more scrapyard—and badly organized scrapyard at that—than storage yard for running machinery. The buildings and the roads are all well-maintained, but the tractors and combine harvesters aren’t, as though this region has taken to industrialization with great reluctance.

It’s only when I reach Toszek that I realize that the walk has been an uphill one, although very gently so. I’m now very hungry, but it’s Sunday in a European village, and I can’t find anything open. Ten minutes, I finally turn into a street that to my great relief has an open restaurant, the Złota Kaczka, where I flop into a seat and tear into a sausage soup and black beer.

Lunch done, I approach the waitress, who speaks no English, and ask her the one phrase I’ve memorized: “Psychiatryczny szpital?". She looks at me with a questioning look, making it clear that all my memorization can’t make up for my abysmal Polish pronunciation, but immediately introduces me to the one diner around who can speak English. I explain that I’m looking for a psychiatric hospital that was used as a prison camp during World War II.

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The psychiatric hospital in Toszek where P.G. Wodehouse was held as a prisoner of war by the Germans

We reach Gliwicka, and at the entrance of the hospital, we find a memorial plaque in Polish and German—dedicated not to Wodehouse and his fellow civilian internees, but to the prisoners of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, who had been housed there in 1945 in far worse conditions than the British internees. More than three-fourths of the 4,500 prisoners housed there died of starvation or worse.

But apart from that memorial plaque, there is nothing in the hospital complex to point to its ugly history. It’s ridiculously calm, even happy, inside. It’s the beginning of autumn, and leaves have started to fall from the tall trees that are all over the compound. The red brick buildings that Wodehouse had talked about are still there, but there’s nothing reminiscent of the white building where Wodehouse got a cell and a typewriter to work on his novel. Instead, there’s a more modern hospital building, outside which some recovering patients are playing badminton. I try to take a photograph, and immediately an official rushes over to scold me in Polish, presumably for violating the patients’ privacy. I delete the photo, satisfy him that I now have photos only of the hospital buildings and memorial plaque, and leave.

This is my fourth day of the travel, and even at the journey’s end, I haven’t found anything that is connected more substantially with P.G. Wodehouse. And yet, even after discounting for wishful thinking, there’s something about Toszek that reminds me about his writing. Evelyn Waugh had once said of the Wodehousian world that there had been no Fall of man, and that his characters were still in Eden. In the past two days, Silesia hasn’t really met my expectations of paradise, but seen from a tourist’s eye, it is astonishingly close to a Wodehousian rural idyll. It’s clean, pretty, and filled with happy people, who have forgotten, moved on from, or never been tainted by the horrors this region has been through.

The Toszek castle is the least forbidding castle I’ve ever seen. It’s on top of a hill, which does provide it a defensive advantage, but that is offset by how small it is. It’s the sort of castle that would make Maharana Pratap of Chittorgarh or Chhatrapati Shivaji of the Maratha empire smile condescendingly. And that’s before they would have seen the windows in the gatehouse, which have been decorated with flowerpots.

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Inside the castle, I find a depression that could possibly have been used as a moat, and a courtyard that is now being used as a picnic area, complete with a designated area for bonfires. The local tourism authority has apparently been trying to market it to corporations as a destination for offsites. Right now, though, there are only families and young people out on a Sunday jaunt.

I enter the castle’s gift shop to see if I can get some postcards, and find that it’s making a half-hearted attempt at keeping up the military theme by selling action figures of crusader knights, plastic helmets, and plastic swords. The clientele, though, is far more interested in ice cream and beer. I’d stay for an ice cream myself, except I’m now worried about catching the last train to Opole in time.

And then I see Toszek’s final surprise for me. Here, in an unspoiled village, in a castle that is saying it with flowerpots, there is a piggy bank on sale in the gift shop. And not just any piggy bank, but a smiling ceramic pig, cheerful and plump enough to remind me of the most famous pig to ever live in a castle, Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings. I purchase the piggy bank along with the postcards, and name it Kaiserin von Tost.

That done, I dash to the railway station, carrying along a pig, and memories of a place that has overcome its past.

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Updated: 11 Oct 2013, 04:44 PM IST
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