Fearing stiffer visa controls, Poles swarm Berlin stores TTC

October 02, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- As though driven to bring in the harvest before a storm, thousands of Poles have been pouring into Berlin in search of consumer goods.

Their fear is tomorrow's German unification, when West Germany's strict visa requirement will apply in West Berlin and East Germany. Afraid that the "visa wall" will end their livelihood as nascent capitalists, these Polish entrepreneurs have been working at breakneck speed to buy hard-to-find goods and lug them back home.

Scores come on each train from Poland, head for discount hi-fi stores, load up on Japanese stereo systems and take the next train back home, where they sell the goods to support themselves and their families.

Tomasz Mlecko, a 45-year-old insurance salesman from Gdansk, said the trips were more than a chance to make money quickly. For him the trips are crucial.

"There's no work for me in insurance in Poland," Mr. Mlecko said. "This is in the only job I can think of. It's very hard work, but I can support my family."

Looking tired after the 12-hour train ride from Warsaw and another two hours of waiting and fighting for six stereo sets from a discount store, Mr. Mlecko hauled his wares on a luggage carrier back along Kant Street. Berliners dub the street "Poland's western border" because it seems at

times as though everyone on it is Polish. Stores even have signs in Polish.

The street ends at the Zoo train station, where the hustling and bustling rises in a crescendo of fast-talking Polish beer salesmen, entrepreneurs trying to wrestle their stereos through the crowd and furious police officers who can't keep order.

At the station, Mr. Mlecko met his two colleagues, who had been waiting to buy cosmetics and beer from discount shops. One of the men, Andrzej, already was hawking beer on the train platform, deftly hiding the cans when porters or conductors walked by.

"German unification? It's not good for me," Andrzej said. "I don't care about what the Germans do, but why do they have to keep us out? They should thank us that our Solidarity started the changes." Many Poles would agree that instead of being shut out they should be welcomed for the influential role that the Solidarity trade union played in changing Eastern Europe. Others simply don't understand why the Germans want them to leave when they are here to spend money.

"Aren't we good for the economy?" asked Jerzy Lebkowski, who was waiting for the Warsaw train with four stereos. "We buy stereos and take them home. I don't see how that hurts anyone."

Many Germans, however, see it differently. For them, the Polish "consumer tourists" mean overcrowded sidewalks, inaccessible stores and the perceived threat of petty crime. In response, the West German government requires an entry visa and proof of having 50 deutsche marks ($32) for

each day of the stay.

But until now Poles have traveled relatively freely into East Germany and then over the open border to West Germany. Most go to the closest Western city, West Berlin, which is only about 50 miles from the Polish border. This last route into the rich neighbor will be closed on Oct. 3, when Germany unifies and West German laws, including the visa and money requirement, apply across the entire country.

In response to West Germany's plans, the Polish government announced last week that Germans wanting to enter Poland would need a visa beginning tomorrow with unification. In recent weeks, thousands of East Germans have gone to Poland to buy cheaper clothes and food.

Some people see a disturbing trend in German-Polish relations.

"It seems a real pity that our relations are getting worse," said Anzey Wirga, Solidarity's representative in West Germany. "We don't want a wall along our border!"

Polish Foreign Minister Krzystof Skubiszewski also said in a recent television interview that German unity should improve rather than harm the countries' relations.

Both countries have pledged to work on a friendship treaty next year, and Mr. Skubiszewski said he hoped that visa-free travel would be part of the package. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl also said he favored a treaty "as soon as possible" next year, but he has not commented on the issue of travel freedom.

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