The cigarette was the best -- almost the only -- currency in defeated Germany just after the war. Thirty-six years later the same thing is happening here in Poland.
"No one wants money," a young member of Solidarity who is also a Communist Party reformer observed bitterly to this writer. "You get most things these days -- food or services -- in exchange for vodka or cigarettes, not otherwise."
Any Pole confirms it. Craftsmen -- electricians, plumbers, carpenters, TV repairmen -- who used to go to a house to do jobs costing a mere 50 or 100 zlotys will no longer do so. Now they insist on payment in tobacco or alcohol -- also high priced and rationed.
Food is also available for this "currency." Eggs cost 7.5 zlotys each (about 20 cents at the artificial tourist rate). On the free market where they are more abundant and of better quality, they are 15 zlotys. But for two or three packets of cheap cigarettes, you can buy a dozen.
This is the sorry background to an economy that is staggering unhindered toward bankruptcy. The problems are daunting, and that may explain why -- except for a handful who did not get much of a hearing -- Solidarity delegates chose to wage "war" against the government over this month's doubling of cigarette priceS.
Government ministers were reduced to explaining to them that the price hike was due, at least in part, to cigarettes having become almost a national currency.
One has to understand the human factor in all this. "Putting up the prices was economically sound enough," the party member said. "But the way in which the government did it has nullified its whole purpose."
No matter how justified the process of letting off steam against the government might seem, Solidarity delegates wasted long hours wrangling over resolution after resolution on subjects that had nothing to do with the stark realities of the present economic situation.
It is highly questionable whether Poland can avoid economic collapse without massive international aid. Where will it come from?
The Soviet Union has given considerable help this year, providing more raw materials than trade agreement quotas called for, evn though Poland will be 4 million tons of coal short, for just one example, in its own contract deliveries to the Soviets. But the Soviets are telling the Poles this lopsided trade cannot last indefinitely.
Two small items in the papers this week revealed that both East Germany and Czechoslovakia are beginning to put trade with Poland more or less on a strict one-for-one barter basis.
Still more seriously, Foreign Minister Jozef Czyrek, returning from the UN General Assembly and other Western visits, told an interviewer Oct. 7: "I gathered a diminishing willingness -- even openly declared -- over granting [us] aid."
One of Solidarity's advisers, Prof. Witold Trzeciakowski, a leading expert on international trade, brought a more precise warning from a meeting at Washington's Wilson Center attended by representatives of the Reagan administration, Congress, and US banks.
"The position of the biggest US banks over aid for Poland is negative," he said. "Further credit will be possible only under condition that Solidarity will find an agreement with the government and when the first symptoms that we are getting [ourselves] out of the crisis begin to be visible."
His statement was prominently printed in the union's weekly, Solidarnosc, on the eve of its convention as though the moderates and the realists wanted to ram the lesson home. If that was the intention, it seemed to have had little effect.
Conversations reflected a naive belief that somehow, finally, the West "will help us." There was an unrealistic note in delegates' applause for statements that Poland must renegotiate allm its trade agreements, with communist allies as well as Western capitalists, and a demand for further rescheduling of that $27 billion worth of debts to the West.
It takes two to make an agreement, of course. The cigarette issue is banal and peripheral. But the government's handling of it upset many ordinary Poles who want Solidarity to keep its sights on the real objectives.
Following arbitrary price rises for fruit and fish, it was seen as yet another blow to "social trust" and another failure to honor the promise of full consultation on all matters affecting the standard of living.
As a result, the authorities face another strike threat unless they start talks with Solidarity immediately to find quick accord on future price policy, linking it to a general speedup of the economic reform and giving adequate compensation to Poland's poor and lower income workers.
The strike will be only a brief, token one. But even that will do some damage in Poland's present plight. For, when all the recriminations and polemics are laid aside, a better work performance and government concentration on Poland's two main priorities -- helping the miners dig more coal and providing enough tools for the private faremers -- are the only things that can start to pull the economy around. It is a closed circle, with all factors interdependent.
Both West and East would probably prefer to offer more aid than see a final collapse. But aid alone will not solve the Pole's crisis.
Both sideS, moreover, are signaling pretty clearly that whatever is done will be determinded by the way the Poles themselves tackle the job.
And the only institution that could throw a stronger lifeline belt -- the Intenational Monetary Fund -- would want them to meet the same criteria.