In early December 1946, I arrived in Warsaw at midnight after an arduous train journey from Prague. In their retreat, the Germans had nearly destroyed Poland’s railroad system, and our train with its few passengers took four times as long to reach Warsaw as it had before the war.

The train halted for hours in vast tracts of snow. Inside the cars, the glacial air kept us motionless on hard wooden benches in a silence broken only by the faint whisper of our shallow breathing. Sometimes we halted in villages so small, they barely disturbed the surface of the snow. At these stops, seemingly purposeless, some of us went to stand on the ice-coated train steps and leaned out as any travelers might, looking for a sign of life. Once three women emerged from several hovels clustered near the track, kerchiefs binding their heads, and ran heavily toward us, holding up mugs of burning tea and pressing them into our frozen hands.

There were moments when I thought we might never feel again those grinding lurches forward that had marked the hours since we left the Prague station. I began to imagine that we would simply fade away, that we would remain only a memory to some peasant who had once seen our train moving sluggishly through that forsaken landscape.

But we did arrive at last at the temporary Warsaw railroad station. Behind it, in almost total darkness, a few droshkies waited. Horses snorted and stamped their hooves, and the drivers were huge and shapeless in their greatcoats and scarf-wrapped faces. In one of those small carriages, I rode into the silent city. Here and there, like the glow of banked fires, light shone from out of mountains of rubble and revealed the black ruins snow had not covered.

We entered the walled courtyard of a hotel I had been directed to by an acquaintance in Prague. A guard wearing straw boots, carrying a rifle, stepped out of the shadow of a portico, spoke a few words to the driver as I paid for the ride with zlotys I had bought in Prague, then watched me closely as I walked into the narrow lobby. There was no one there.

Carrying my one suitcase, I walked down a long corridor. I could smell fresh plaster. Suddenly I heard the opening measures of a Chopin étude. The source of the music was a small loudspeaker attached to the ceiling above the threshold of an immense dining room. I found out later that the hotel had been constructed with miraculous speed to accommodate ministers of the soon-to-be-elected Polish government, the first since the end of the war. The dining room too smelled of plaster and paint, but still it suggested a kind of faded splendor like that of the salons of grand hotels I had seen in other European cities but which were now nearly deserted.

As I stood there, bewildered by the brilliance of the lights, staring at the white columns that supported the high ceiling, I realized I was not alone.

Leaning against a circular food bar in the center of the room was a Polish officer, one black-booted foot in front of the other as though he might leave in an instant. He heard me put down my suitcase, turned toward me indolently, nodded, and went on eating a hard-boiled egg he held in the fingers of one long pale hand. No waiter appeared. We remained alone, the officer, the music, me. I had the sensation of being in a dream that belonged to someone else. Later, a clerk found me half-asleep at the table and led me to a room where I fell into bed with my clothes on.

The next morning I moved to a cheaper hotel, the Centralny, where among other less affluent members of the press corps, I stayed until the middle of February.

Most of the people who came to Warsaw that winter were journalists sent to observe and report on the election. There were other foreigners, relief experts, economists, architects, embassy personnel, and the various technicians who follow upon disasters. The journalists represented all shades of political opinion, and they wrote their stories for every kind of publication from the Times of London to Midwestern agricultural quarterlies. There were stars among them like Dorothy Thompson and Ralph Ingersol. Some were stringers like me with tenuous ties to wire services in Paris or London or New York. But there were a notable few whose presence remained mysterious and who, apparently, represented only themselves.

Such was an Indian from Kashmir, frequently observed hurrying through the ravaged streets, his coat flapping open in that terrible cold, looking for bridge partners for himself and his friend, an elderly Polish countess who lived in the cellar of a bombed pastry shop. Another was a very young Englishman always wrapped in a rusty black ulster, who waited patiently and shamelessly for invitations to meals, who was rumored to be a spy, a morphine addict, not English at all in fact but a member of a Hungarian fascist youth group, and who, it was said by some, was stark naked under his coat. There was the Irishman from Limerick who strode through the rubble and snow in shabby riding boots, smacking one gauntleted hand with the quirt he always carried in the other, and who had distinguished himself by remarking that the wreck of the old Warsaw railroad station was the most aesthetically satisfying bomb site in all of Europe and England.

The cold was so intense that like many others I took to wearing sheets of newspaper under my coat. There was hardly any public transportation, a few streetcars to whose sides people clung like flies on a lump of sugar, two or three buses, a few tiny cars with no windshield wipers and perpetually fogged windows, and some motorbikes with strapped-on wooden seats from which, after the shortest ride, one toppled like a stone.

Most of us walked or, when we could afford it, hired a droshky. In its chilled depths, weighed down by mangy, foul-smelling bearskin rugs, one fell into a snow-bound trance as the droshky, drawn by a horse whose head hung disembodied amidst the vapor of its own breath, made its way down a street or across the bridge over the frozen Vistula River.

Late at night, Warsaw was dark except for an infrequent kerosene lamp glimmering amid the debris where a room, or a less defined space, had remained intact. The wind that blew through the city came all the way from Lake Ladoga far to the north, and it was often so fierce that I wondered why it didn’t dislodge the fire escapes and bathtubs hanging from the shells of blasted buildings.