The "Grapes of Wrath" has come to the new Europe.
The promise of the good life amid bountiful fresh fruit that attracted the great migration of Dust Bowl residents to California appears to have had a similar effect on financially strapped Eastern Europeans who dream of a better life in Western Europe.
A small article published recently in Polish and Czechoslovak newspapers only briefly mentioned the possibility of temporary jobs picking grapes in France during the upcoming fall harvest. Response to the article, however, has left French wine chateaux and grape growers associations flooded with unprecedented requests for employment from Eastern Europeans, many of whom are free for the first time to travel in the West.
One association alone, the Conseil des Vins du Medoc, announced Tuesday that it has received more than 10,000 letters in recent weeks.
"We are still getting about 50 to 60 letters a day," said the Medoc association deputy director, Claudine Izabelle. "Most of them say they would like a job to earn some money, because in their country they can't make enough to live."
The massive appeal for work at grape picker wages of $30 a day reflects the economic imbalance of a changing Europe in the first year after travel restrictions were lifted in most of the former East Bloc. The 15-day grape harvest, called les vendanges in France, is expected to begin in late August for white grapes and early September for red grapes.
One man, 28-year-old Krzysztof Korycki, wrote that he works 70 hours a week as a teacher and photographer in his native Poland but can still only afford basic necessities for himself and his wife.
"We are a young household, starting at zero," Korycki wrote in a letter typical of the poignant requests for help. "We have no chance to buy an apartment, furniture, refrigerator or television. . . . I don't know how to live. I dare to hope for a favorable response from you."
Another writer, Roman Gregus of Czechoslovakia, said: "We are not afraid of hard work under high temperatures. We are not afraid of blisters on our hands."
Some of the letters requested work for large groups of the newly liberated Easterners. "The new political situation in Czechoslovakia permits all citizens to travel anywhere," wrote Andrej Zboran. "We are 14 men and 11 women looking for seasonal work from August to October."
Many of the letters detailed personal financial difficulty at home. Bogustaw Hoscilo, 22, described himself as a Polish karate champion and "Red Beret" parachutist in the Polish army who needs money to help support his widowed mother living on the family farm.
But some related a desire simply to enjoy the new freedom of travel and earn a little money on the side.
"We come from countries where only the big masters had the possibility of travel," noted one such writer. "But the great changes at the end of last year have made it possible to satisfy this natural desire to travel for each man. One of our desires is to be able to work in sunny France."
Although moved by the plaintive appeals of the Eastern Europeans, French wine producers say there is little they can do to help them. Grape picking is now highly mechanized, and preferences for employment must be given first to residents of the 12-nation Economic Community.
Most of the chateaux employ only 20 to 40 people for the handpicking. Even the bigger ones, such as Mouton-Rothschild, seldom hire more than 100 workers.
Hiring workers from outside the Common Market is often a nightmare of bureaucracy. According to a spokesman from the French Ministry of Employment, chateaux owners who hire Poles for work in their fields are required to pay 660 francs (about $120) to the government if the employment lasts less than two months. In addition, they are required to pay the cost of return transportation to the border. The fees make the short-term employment not very attractive for the producer.
Some chateaux owners, however, say they will bend the rules to hire at least a few of the Easterners. The owner of the Chateau d'Arsac, whose grandmother was Czech, has promised to hire some of the Czechoslovaks.
Others remained cautious.
"I got 30 letters from Czechoslovakia," said Paul Haustin, owner of the small Chateau Peyrond Lagravette in the Medoc region of Bordeaux. "It is the first time I've ever received a letter from the Eastern countries. I hope to employ a few, but I have to wait for the directives of the government."