Poland is hungry. As hungry, many older Poles say, as in the first years after World War II. There has been one hunger march. More are planned for this week.
Events like this are without precedent in the rest of the East bloc, but not in Poland. There was a first hunger march in Poznan in 1956, but real wage cuts were the chief issue then.
Some form of international "first aid" seems essential to help the country through this immediate, increasingly dangerous stage of its crisis.
Without it, the hunger marches and present tensions over food could easily erupt into something more serious as autumn comes and turns to winter. The latest 20 percent cut in already meager monthly meat rations underlines the gravity of the problem, as does Solidarity's protest July 26 against proposed price rises of as much as 400 percent for some food items.
From towns all over the country comes the same report: no meat. Now, even the top hotels show the pinch. A restaurant manager in the biggest hotel here says meat dishes with the best cuts cannot be served; that food inspectors have said hotel menus must be curtailed and portions reduced.
Breakfast comes with three sugar lumps for tea or coffee. Often there is no fresh milk. Butter is a shrinking pat. Bread rolls are scarce. There is not fresh fruit, sometimes not even ice cream as a dessert.
A foreigner records this, not in protest, but to make the point that, if it is like this in hotels with hefty charges in hard currency, it must be much worse for ordinary Poles. It is particularly bad for the 2 million living on or below the official "social minimum" subsistence line of little more than one-third of the average monthly wage, which is 6,000 zlotys (about $150).
The shops are empty, but people often queue for hours in the hope that something may arrive.
On busy Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street there is a well-appointed fish shop. For more than a year, only the sign rybym (fish) and almost mocking silver foil cutouts in the window have shown what its business is supposed to be.
Ironically, Poland has one of Europe's finest fishing fleets. But these days there is no fish for Poles, not even herring, a traditional favorite.
Most of the fleet is far away in the western Atlantic, and its catch goes mainly to the American market for hard currency. It is all part of the vicious economic circle here.
"It's like "war communism,'" says a longtime member of the Communist Party who recalls the immediate postwar years. "The country was completely ruined. You can imagine the food situation.
"But we had something.m There was UNRRA [the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration]. We didn't have very much but we could depend on getting the necessities. We can depend on nothing these days."
By mid-1946, UNRRA had provided Poland with more than 2 million tons of supplies, worth nearly a half-million dollars. The bulk of it was food, fertilizers, seeds, livestock, medicine, and welfare items.
These are in almost as short supply today, but UNRRA no longer exists and no other international agency has taken its place.
Yet some sort of concerted response to Poland's plight, with both East and West lending a hand -- through the UN or through the European Community and its East-bloc counterpart, COMECON, in some kind of tacit understanding of mutual interest, seems the only option open to help the country begin to struggle back to its feet.
At Kutno, an old town of 70,000 in a traditionally rich agricultural region, people have been queuing for as long as 14 hours outside empty shops. Some hundreds marched Saturday under banners saying: "We are tired of being hungry." "We are tired of queuing."
At Torun, where militant internal party feeling alarmed the leadership a few months ago, at least two big factories are threatening strikes. A shipyard rally at Szczecin demands that any price rises to be tied to effective economic reforms. . . .
In Warsaw, where several factories are threatening action, talks with the union are going on in a desperate government effort to calm feelings down. The question is: How they can do so unless they first can get some food into the shops?
The sole glimmer of hope is the harvest. It will not be a record, but it should be a good one -- provided the weather (which was cruel to Poland last year) does not turn extraordinarily bad in the next two weeks.
A better-than-average potato crop should take some of the pressure off bread, which has been as scarce as anything else recently, and not only feed people but also leave a good margin to feed more pigs. But it will be a year before the pork shows up in the meat markets.
The sugar beet prospect is good, too, but will there be enough coal for processing the sugar?
Government and economic experts have been discussing the reforms for nearly a year. Only now are specific plans beginning to evolve. The government wants to put the restructured price system first but knows the dangerous social conflicts that could burst into the open under present conditions.
It may have to content itself with dealing first with producer prices, which have a deadline of Jan. 1, 1982, and defer any serious change in food prices while they strive over the next few months to get at least a little more into the market.
Only some immediate help from outside will get the country through without more trouble than peaceful hunger marches or win yet a bit more patience from a population whose patience, as well as its hunger, has already reached any reasonable limit.
Longer term, the time may have come for the government seriously to reconsider returning to the International Monetary Fund -- with all that would imply -- and for the Soviet Union not to stand in its way. During the cold war the Soviets forced Poland, a founding member of the IMF, to withdraw.