Friday-Sunday, April 27-29, 2018
We’d heard this port city offered another lively old town center to stroll in as well as two informative museums to tour, and we did them all in our two-night stay.
Once again we had booked an apartment in a spanking new condo complex. It was so new most of the units remained unsold, which made for a rather ghostly atmosphere until we exited and turned the corner where some cafes had opened.
But, you couldn’t beat the location being within a two-minute walk of the lively waterfront promenade next to the Old Town,
the Museum of the Second World War across the street,
and the European Solidarity Center within an easy one-mile walk.
The first mention of Gdańsk can be found in the records of a Benedictine monk noting the life and death (killed by the pagan Prussians) of a Bohemian missionary and bishop, St. Wojciech or Adalbert, in the late 10th century. Written “urbs Gyddanyzc” its location as a sea port meant a healthy trade, especially in timber and grain during the Polish Golden Age (16th-17th centuries).
During that time the Protestants pushed the city for freedom to practice their religion and actually got it. This tolerance spread to multiple faiths, attracting Dutch Mennonites, Scots, Huguenots and Jews, and Gdańsk became a melting pot and, no doubt, a very viable business center.
The city declined during the 1700 and 1800s. After Poland’s independence in 1918 Gdańsk became the “Free City of Danzig” (a former Prussian/German name for the city), i.e., an independent city state under the authority of an international body (the League of Nations).* This was a compromise based on acknowledging the majority German population without giving Germany access to this important port.
* This wasn’t the first time Gdańsk acquired a free-city status. Polish kings had bestowed special privileges on this prestigious port in the 1400s. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte established it as a semi-independent city-state recognizing the Poles help in his defeat of Prussia; but that only lasted until 1814/15 with the Congress of Vienna.
During the interwar years from 1920-1939 Danzig, along with the rest of Poland, struggled to create a healthy economy only to earn the dubious distinction of being the site where WWII erupted. In 1939, Germans posing as Poles blew up a radio tower, causing Germany to ‘retaliate’ by shelling the military post of Westerplatte. Which is the perfect entree to Gdańsk’s Museum II Wojny Swiatowej or, in English, the Museum of the Second World War.
The state-of-the-art museum opened a little over a year ago after the Prime Minister at the time, Donald Tusk (now president of the European Council), started the project in 2008 with historian Pawel Machcewicz, the museum’s first director, curating,
Descending three floors below ground, the permanent exhibition leads you through 18 segments starting at the beginning of the war and ending with the reshaping of Europe by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, the latter keeping Poland in the iron fist of Russia.
Rooms off a long corridor filled with signage, artifacts, films, photographs, and digital displays focused on civilians across Europe, as well as soldiers throughout Europe caught in the crossfire of WW II.
The displays include an actual suitcase whose simple presence represents the horror of the Holocaust…
the unquenching thirst for freedom symbolized by various countries’ resistance icons (below are the initials of Norway’s King Haakon VII)…
maps depicting Germany’s 1939 absorption of Poland, with Russia earning a piece of its eastern territory…
haunting photographs such as this one of two young sisters, which appeared in LIFE magazine’s coverage of Warsaw’s fall…
and films portraying the unbelievable amount of suffering caused by this war.
Amidst the more expected displays were those a bit startling to come upon:
This French Lieutenant POW dressed as a woman and would have escaped if he hadn’t dropped his watch, which a guard ran to return to him.
And, this 1939 propaganda poster (a Soviet solider giving a ‘liberated’ peasant the kiss of peace) appeared in the Soviet Daily PRAVDA, which seems a bit ironic considering Russia’s detestable homophobia.
There’s no question this museum invites visitors to understand the war in a universal sense. As the historian and former Museum Director Pawel Machcewicz, states: “This is the museum which tells the story of a war in terms of politics, ideology and civil population… We cannot explain Polish history without paying attention to other nations”…”We are not an isolated island.”
But, that lack of not focusing solely on the Polish people is where the ruling Labor and Justice Party has now taken issue. Enough so that the museum’s opening promo included the call-to-action “See it before they close it” (“Poland’s World WarII museum under political bombardment”, by Claudia Ciabonu, 5/15/2017). The government slashed the funding and plans to merge this one with a yet-to-be-built museum covering the first battle of WW II at Westerplatte.
Frightening to me is the Labor and Justice Party’s explanation for doing so: They felt “the museum should have concentrated more on depicting ‘features characteristic of Poles’ such as ‘loving freedom, Catholicism, patriotism and especially being proud of their history.’ ” Wow. As soon as a country’s government defines its people by a religion, an alarm should start screeching to put any intelligent person an alert.
And, if that isn’t scary enough, the Polish courts decided in favor of the Labor and Justice party. Michcewicz was ousted as Director but hasn’t given up. He sued the government for copyright violations regarding the exhibit. And, he’s not alone in his outrage as reported in this December 2017 article by Julia Michalska. Seems to me they need to change the name to: Poland’s Museum of Poland’s People During World War II as seen through the eyes of Poland’s Heroic Labor and Justice Party.
The other museum we toured covers an event most people of our generation remember: the Solidarity Movement led by Lech Wałesa. Another impressive museum, both in its architecture and content.
A towering 1980 monument greeted us as we approached the museum.
A plaque in five different languages defiantly proclaims “Memorial of the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970. A token of everlasting remembrance of the slaughter victims. A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force. A sign of hope for fellow-citizens that evil need not prevail.” A powerful introduction to the exhibit inside.
The museum audio tour begins with earlier rebellions throughout the communist bloc, then soon focuses on Poland and the 18-day strike in 1980.
Under the leadership of Lech Wałesa (b. 1843), an electrician at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, workers and members of other unions won their 21 grievances (the original sign listing them is on display)
and the historic founding of the trade union Solidarnośc (Solidarity), the only one independent of the communist party. Ten million workers eventually joined Solidarity, almost the entire Polish workforce.
Yet, I didn’t realize the official acceptance of this non-communist union was short-lived. Ever since Solidarity’s victory in 1980 the powers-that-be were conspiring to shut it down. In December 13, 1981 they acted. Poland’s Prime Minister and leader of the Communist Party, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, introduced martial law and outlawed Solidarity.
Martial law remained in effect until July 1983. It wasn’t until late 1988 after a wave of strikes that talks in Warsaw began to re-legalize Solidarity, among other demands.
The museum highlights the church’s critical role in Solidarity’s success, especially with Pope John Paul II’s third visit to his homeland in 1987. During that visit he encouraged Poles to band together in support of one another. A round-table meeting in Warsaw led to the reinstatement of Solidarity’s legitimacy in April 1989.
The museum positions this civic organization as the proverbial straw that broke the communists’ back.
This museum opened in 2014. Unlike the Museum of WW II there doesn’t seem to be any controversy surrounding this one, at least nothing blatant. If anything, the exhibit provokes nationalism in the extreme, especially with the rousing film from the 1980 signing: Film Clip 1980
Time for the outdoors.
Similar to Warsaw’s WW II destruction, bombing destroyed almost all of Gdańsk’s historical buildings. And, like Warsaw’s medieval heritage, this city recreated lovely streets for spring strolling.
Walking along the river we saw a peculiar tower. Come to find out it was a 15th-century crane.
Looking up we saw one of the two wheels used for lifting loads for shipping.
Men actually walked the treads inside the wheels to operate it! I’d call it the human-hamster wheel. I wonder if it has the obligatory squeak with every rotation?
On the outskirts of the old town green spaces and warm sun drew locals and tourists alike.
And, something that always attracts me–a fountain. Even better, a kid-friendly one :)
One last site was St. Mary’s Church, promoted as Europe’s largest brick Gothic church. Initially the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights (from the neighboring Malbork Castle) built a small brick temple in the mid-1300s. By the 1500s the church had ballooned to its current size and, yes, it was HUGE.
But, also surprisingly airy once inside.
And, a popular tourist attraction, especially for group tours, which we saw puddled around a medieval painting and astronomical clock.
With that we ended our city tours of Warsaw and Gdańsk and turned our car back towards Germany and JUANONA.
We hope to return for future explorations and, if we do, we know we still won’t be able to pronounce these multiple-consonanted words.
Yet, at least we can say a word we always try to learn when traveling, dziekuje (jen-koo-ye)–thank you.
So, dziekuje to Poland. Our time here provided more than entertaining site-seeing excursions. It’s also a reminder of just what bullies can do once in power.