Kay and I passed through Gdansk for the first time about ten years ago on our way north through the Baltic States in an attempt to beat the summer heat further south. On that occasion, we stayed only a couple days to admire the old city and ogle the amber jewelry in the shop windows.
This visit was more comprehensive. During scheduled excursions from our annual two-week literary conference held at a nearby resort on the Baltic Sea, we revisited the beautiful old town’s center, overflowing with summer tourists, and spent some choice hours in two museums that hadn’t existed at the time of our first visit.
In addition, our guided excursions took us to other historical sites in the district. The fortified, medieval cathedral at Frombork on the Vistula Lagoon is a rare sight while even rarer is Malbork, the huge 13th-century castle built by the German Teutonic Order of Knights. These destinations belong on everyone’s best-of lists for northern Poland.
The city of Gdansk (German Danzig) has existed for more than 1,000 years, and has there been any other city ruled by so many foreign powers? It was by turns a part of Poland, an independent duchy, Poland again, the Teutonic Order, Poland once again, Prussia, a free city, Prussia again, the German Reich, again a free city, Nazi Germany, and finally once again part of Poland.
It has seen wars and conquests galore. The last of these, World War II, was arguably the most devastating. Large parts of the old city were destroyed or badly damaged, and it’s amazing to see how beautifully they have been restored to their original appearance. And what an appearance!
To answer the question of why Gdansk got to be the way it was, it’s good to remember that during the 14th and 15th centuries it was one of the premier cities of the Hanseatic League, the “defensive and commercial confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns.”
Gdansk was an important port and shipbuilding center that made many of its city fathers rich. It is said that at one time Gdansk was the wealthiest and most important city in Poland. The restored, historical city is evidence of that importance.
One visit took us through the 17th-century Golden Gate and along Dluga Targ (Long Market), the wide main street leading to the shipping canal.
This street, for pedestrians only, contains the great Town Hall and the highly decorated facades of many buildings.
The quality of the buskers we encountered was excellent, too. We heard some fine music: a string quartet of young women under an archway performing short selections of popular classical works, a duo of fender bass and guitar playing syncopated alternative rock, and a trio of vibraphone, drums, and guitar playing a jazz arrangement of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Gdansk’s large, new Solidarity Museum clad in Corten steel is dedicated to the history of the 1980s’ Solidarity movement and the period of martial law that ultimately led to the end of the Communist regime in Poland in 1989. It’s an excellent museum with some very moving detailed evocations of that turbulent period in Polish history.
In front of the museum entrance stands a monument of three tall silver crosses that memorialize earlier shipyard workers killed when their protest was brutally suppressed by the Communist government.
Museum of World War II
Telling the story of WW II in a single museum is a large-scale undertaking. Kudos to team that planned and executed this one. They’ve done a brilliant job of presenting a very complicated subject.
This is not a museum of battles and military exploits. It focuses on the destruction of cities and people.
There is particular emphasis on what happened to the Poles, but also exhibits on the Spanish Civil War and on what happened in Italy. A film showed Mussolini bombastically orating to a crowd. Other photos showed his mutilated corpse and that of his mistress when his day of reckoning came.
By in large, the ways the atrocities against the Poles and other racial groups targeted by the Nazis were presented left no doubt about the ugliness and the cruelty, violence and inhumanity of the Nazi regime. There were times as I read and looked at the horrors perpetrated by the Germans on those they conquered and occupied that I nearly cried. So many innocent lives were ruined and ended. The sadness is overwhelming.
The museum’s structure is noteworthy. Its galleries are located below ground on three levels. Once inside we followed a marked route along a maze of corridors and rooms that took us from the post-WW I state of Europe until the end of World War II. Every exhibit was interesting and well done. I was pleased to see that explanations were given in both English and Polish.
An exhibit about the secret protocol between the Nazis and Stalin’s Russia explains how Europe would be divided after the war. When the Nazis violated the agreement and attacked Russia, we saw what happened to the people of Stalingrad during the siege lasting more than 800 days. More than a million Russians starved to death. An associated exhibit illustrates and explains in detail what happens to the human body as it starves.
I could have spent an entire day in this museum. As it was, our tour lasted only a couple of hours, and I had to skip much toward the end. Oddly enough, the museum has no restaurant or café. Nor is there a museum shop. Perhaps these are still to come.
Exiting the museum, we were led on foot quite a long way through drizzling rain in order to board what was described as a pirate ship. It turned out to be a scaled down replica of a tall ship painted black. On board, the passenger deck was enclosed with side curtains, whose plastic windows were fogged and rain streaked. Nevertheless, it was part of the tour and we were dutifully taken along the canal past historic shipyards and warehouses to a peninsular landing at Westerplatte whose significance is that it was there that the first shots of World War II were fired when the German army attacked and occupied a military outpost manned by an outnumbered Polish garrison.
To get to the cathedral at Frombork our bus took us roughly fifty kilometers from Gdansk through a flat uninspiring landscape that was a relief to be quit of.
By contrast, the site of the 700-hundred-year-old, hill top cathedral complex is very pretty. Below it, across a highway, there is a small village and a tiny port at the edge of the wide Vistula Lagoon. In the planning stage is a short canal to be dug between the lagoon and the Baltic that will allow ships to enter the lagoon directly, thus avoiding the waters of Russian Kalingrad at the end of the lagoon. When that happens, the port at Frombork will be enlarged and deepened.
Frombork is fortified by high walls, and, like the cathedral, made entirely of red brick. It was built to defend itself in medieval times. Inside, along one wall there are
still wooden catwalks for soldiers to stand and fire their crossbows through loopholes.
The cathedral has an unusual façade in two parts and a separate tower that our friend Jenny and I would climb later to get a wonderful view of the church from above along with the village, the lagoon, and the port.
Frombork’s singular claim to fame is that Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) lived there for thirty years. There are statues and monuments to him in the church and without.
We spent quite a long time inside the church. The highlight was a half-hour organ concert given with the church’s very powerful 4,000-pipe organ. The organist, Arkadiusz Poplawski, played several short selections of classical favorites, including Shubert’s Ave Maria and Bach’s Toccata in B Minor. Kay loved hearing Ravel’s Bolero played so dramatically in that setting.
It was fitting that our last excursion climaxed at the amazing castle of Malbork situated on a tributary of the Vistula River.
Like much else in northern Poland, the castle was terribly damaged by the Russians who were after the remnants of the Nazi armies near the end of the war. It has taken seventy years for the Poles to restore the castle, and the work is still not complete. Still, what a magnificent sight it is!
The Teutonic Knights, who once ruled over a large swath of Central and Eastern Europe, built many castles, but Malbork was the greatest. It grew to its present size over 150 years during the 14th and 15th centuries. At its peak, it could accommodate 1,000 knights with their retainers and servants.
Divided into High, Middle, and Low Castles, it is the largest brick complex in the world. Although attacked and besieged four times throughout history, it was never conquered.
The young man who was our guide is very well informed and speaks English fluently. Over more than two hours he led us through gateways, courtyards, and up and down stairways . . .
in order to show us the beautifully proportioned great halls, towers, refectories, kitchens . . .
and more intimate spaces.
Features we usually don’t see on these kinds of visits are the medieval toilets located in towers over running water below to carry away the waste. An interesting item of trivia is that the material used in lieu of toilet paper was cabbage leaves that appeared to have had an antibiotic property.
After a couple of centuries, as the Order fell on hard times, it sold Malbork to the King of Poland for185,000 Hungarian gold coins. Such a deal!
As a youth, growing up in Chicago that was reputed to contain more Poles than Warsaw, did I ever think that one day I would actually visit their country of origin? Now, Kay and I have been to Poland four times, and if there will be a fifth in our future, we’ll welcome it.