February, 1919: Return to Warsaw

The armistice that officially ended World War I was signed on November 11, 1918. Just a few months later, in February, 1919, Leo and his parents returned to Warsaw from Moscow.

Leo describes the circumstances:

“The problem was how to travel from Moscow to Warsaw. You had to hire your own wagon and a horse – or two horses – to pull. At that time there were no trains going in the direction from Moscow to Poland, which would be westward. And you couldn’t get a good horse *, so they had some lame horse. When they came to the frontier between Russia and Poland, the width of the tracks changed. Russia has wider tracks than western Europe. So you had to physically change trains. So when they got to Vilnius, Lithuania, they took a train.” **

The distance as the crow files between Moscow and Vilnius is around 800 kilometers (close to 500 miles). However, driving distance today is around 950 kilometers, or close to 600 miles. Supposing that the horses could travel 30 miles a day (which could be a stretch given winter weather and probably rough roads***), 600 miles would have taken 20 days!

Why did they undertake this journey in February (when temperatures would generally not get out of the twenties Fahrenheit and the roads would probably be covered with snow), rather than wait a few months for warmer weather? They were afraid that the borders could be closed if they waited too long. In addition, Leo has been quoted as saying, “My father was convinced, I think rightly, that if he stayed in Russia, he would have trouble with Lenin.”

Adek was (or at least had been) a Menshevik. Wikipedia’s article on Lenin states that when Lenin returned to Russia in 1917, he “publicly condemned both the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries – who dominated the influential Petrograd Soviet – for supporting the Provisional Government, denouncing them as traitors to socialism.” After Lenin took power, the Mensheviks suffered the fate one might expect based on Lenin’s views: “With Lenin’s support, the government also succeeded in virtually eradicating Menshevism in Russia by expelling all Mensheviks from state institutions and enterprises in March 1923 and then imprisoning the party’s membership in concentration camps.”

The Hurwicz family members who remained in Moscow (Max, Sara Lea and their four daughters) were ultimately unable to leave Russia – although it may be that their intention was to remain in any case. Leo said that there were two stories about why the others didn’t return to Poland:

“One was that it was too dangerous to travel with girls, because there were marauding Bolsheviks and soldiers of various kinds, you know, they were likely to attack a family with girls. The other story or comment that I heard, you know, but very much third hand, is that they felt, especially Max, that the Poles were so anti-Semitic, that he really preferred to stay in Russia. I don’t know, there were probably some elements of each.”

February, 1919, was certainly not a particularly safe or easy time for travel in that region. The Russian Civil War was raging. Leo talks about marauding soliders, mentioning Bolsheviks specifically. Apparently, Polish soldiers could be just as bad for Jews:

There was no thought of mercy. Russians butchered Polish soldiers, though officers were first tortured before being killed. The Poles behaved likewise. As always, the Jews were victims: Polish and Russian troops both continued their traditions of looting and murdering them at will.

“How Poland Saved the World from Russia” at nationalinterest.org

However, later periods might well have been worse, due to the Polish-Soviet War (including the Battle of Warsaw), the Lithuanian–Soviet War, and the Polish–Lithuanian War.

* The Wikipedia article on the Russian Civil War says that the number of horses in Russia declined from 35 million in 1916 to 24 million in 1920.

** Videotaped interview with me, November 20, 2007: See https://leonidhurwicz.org/interview/

An article in the Economist (December, 2015), “The Gauge of History,” speculates on the reason for the different tracks sizes:

It is partly for defensive reasons, one theory goes, that Russian railway tracks have a wider gauge than European ones: whereas Russia could transport its troops to its borders, a train with foreign troops would not be able to roll into Russia. (To this day, a train journey from Russia to Europe involves a change of wheels.)

However, a Wikipedia article argues that the change in gauge was not related to defense: “It is widely and incorrectly believed that Imperial Russia chose a gauge broader than standard gauge for military reasons, namely to prevent potential invaders from using the rail system.”

*** Even today this route is not known for its great roads.

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