“The White Baton” by Stanley Laudan

Here’s a book you haven’t read.  Published in England (only) in 1959, it is the memoir of musician Stanley Laudan, Polish by birth, who eventually wound up in England.  His journey was a unique one, starting in the industrial city of Katowice in southern Poland, where in 1939, the 26 year old Laudan was a happy go lucky leader of a western style band playing at the Bagatelle Night Club.  And it was truly a night club, with the music starting at 11, the crowds beginning to grow at midnight, and the band continuing until 6 in the morning, when the club would close and the band members would play poker until noon and sleep until 9 p.m.

Germany seemed much further away than it was until late August 1939 and rumors of a possible invasion spread, creating panic for some, and complacency for others.  The average Pole really did seem to believe that the Polish army would rout the incoming hordes of Germans.  In fact, when all the young men were called to report for military duty, the lack of weapons did not seem an overwhelming problem because, after all, they were going to take them off the bodies of dead invaders.

Called up for duty after the September 1 attack, and sent to join a second defense group (they were only to see action if the first responder defenders could not stop the Germans, something that was deemed unlikely), Laudan saw the Polish lines crumble and soon was hightailing it away from the front, and trying to avoid even the “Wasser Poles”, Polish residents of German ethnicity who were clearly supporting the western attackers.

Not only was Laudan a musician, and clearly a likeable person, he was a clever individual who knew that the army was not for him, and who (even though he was Catholic, not Jewish) thought that a Nazi controlled Poland would not be the best place to live, he and a Jewish friend and band mate decided to try to get to eastern Poland, that part of Poland now occupied by Soviet troops.  They succeeded in obtaining false papers, and were able to take the train from Cracow to near the border and arrange a way to cross into Soviet controlled territory.

Then making their way to Lvov, under Russian domination, they quickly figured out that Soviet occupation was not going to be benign.  The Jews were not being singled out, to be sure, but the capitalists were, and all sorts of people were deemed to be capitalists.  And this large and lively city was beginning to take on a very drab coloration.  They realized that only “cooperatives” were being allowed to flourish and decided to form a “cooperative nightclub”, again with papers that looked like, but did not actually, authorize them to do so, found space, and went into business (so to speak), being left alone, and sometimes meeting as customers, the Russian occupiers.

Until one day there was a raid, as the Russians were rooting out people without permission to live within its territory, something that Laudan had never obtained.  People were being rounded up and transported away, but to where?  Siberia?  that was the rumor.

As luck would have it, Laudan came into contact with a White Russian who had been told to look for musicians and entertainers who might be appropriate for careers throughout the Soviet Union, and this led to Laudan becoming one of the leaders of a band that played in Bialystok and then Minsk, and then to become a performer on stage in Russia proper, first in Moscow and then all of the republic and the other Soviet SSRs, always of course under threat of exile if he, or any of his group, stepped out of line.

A visit to some of the prison labor camps near Archangel (as an entertainer, not a prisoner) convinced Laudan that Russia was also not the place to be, as luck again played into his hand with the USSR declaring an amnesty for certain Polish prisoners and residents as Poland and the USSR eventually became allies against Germany and the Axis.  Getting permission to rejoin the Polish army (remember, he had deserted), Laudan was in fact able to leave the Soviet Union.  (Although this is where the book stopped, he wound up in England where he lived for several decades, still playing music for his living, marrying and fathering several children).

This is the bare outline.  The book itself is short (under 200 pages), and gives a rather different perspective of life in pre-war Poland, of the German invasion, of the Russianization of eastern Poland, and of life as a traveling musician (with privileges, to be sure) in a society where even privileges do not make up for the poverty and backwardness of the people and the tyranny of the state.

Worth reading (if you can find it).

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