Did you know that Gdańsk is where World War II started? Well it did, and it seemed all too fitting for this trip to finish off where the story began to unfold for my family.
Known at the time as the free port of Danzig, having been wrestled out of German hands after World War I, the German and Polish populations coexisted in relative peace until the rise of Hitler. At this point, anti-Polish sentiment became rife and by the mid-1930s the police, which were controlled by the Germans, had started keeping tabs on any Pole thought to be a threat to German interests.
Poland’s tumultuous history kept her wary of this situation and she secretly strengthened forces based at the Westerplatte, shipping in military hardware and building fortifications. I’ll tell you more about Westerplatte later but the upshot was that when trouble came knocking, they were able to hold out longer than the one day Germany thought it could.
It was the 31st of August 1939 when Nazi soldiers dressed in Polish uniform staged a mock attack in the German border town of Gleiwitz. Hitler claimed that the attack, which took place on a radio tower, was a provocative move by the Poles. In ‘retaliation’ he launched the attack on Westerplatte.
Whilst it was widely accepted that war commenced after shots were fired from the SMS Schleswig Holstein, a German warship in port for a presumably friendly visit, recovered log books from the Nowy Port Lighthouse across from the Westerplatte, show that shots were fired from a Nazi gun emplacement near the Lighthouse, a full three minutes before the Holstein arrived.
Germany had declared war on Poland. It was the 1st of September 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, but there was little help for the Poles. The garrison at Westerplatte fought on, finally surrendering on the 7th. Gdynia surrendered two weeks later, followed by Hel – which ironically enough was the last place the Nazi’s gave up when all was said and done in 1945!
So of course the first thing on my list of musts in Gdańsk was a visit to the newly completed Museum of World War II.
From the beginning, the museum was criticized for not focusing enough on Poland and Polish heroism and too much on the civilian population. When the Law and Justice party won the election in 2015, more trouble was on the horizon with the party’s leader aiming to gain control of the museum, attempting to dismiss the museum’s Director and preventing the museum’s inauguration.
The museum did finally open, quietly, but several weeks after its inauguration, the museum’s director and senior staff were dismissed. Exhibits were altered in an attempt to re-skew the story and museum staff were restricted from providing personal opinions. The museum’s trouble is not over yet, with the party’s next move being to merge it with what will be a new museum on the Westerplatte; this unbuilt museum is also causing controversy today. Today though, I am looking foward to my visit of the museum, hopeful that they have told the story of WW2 well.
The building itself, designed by Kwadrat Studio, is something to behold – a rust-coloured steel, glass and metal structure emerging from and crawling along the ground. Part of the museum lays beneath ground level and bunker-like comparisons are well founded. The museum is situated near the infamous shipyard where the Solidarity movement gained hold; the area itself seeming to be out in the middle of not much else. The bus drops you nearby, but not outside of, the museum.
Inside, there is room upon room filled with artefacts, documentary evidence, touch-screen stories and scene recreations, doing a great job of breaking down the different parts of the war.
There is a lot of information on display and it is displayed well.
For all the criticism, what I can say is that there were indeed some exhibit subjects covered that I haven’t seen widely presented yet and those included stories from my own family’s journey. Themes such as the Siberian deportees and the forced Polish Labourers.
You should allocate at least three hours to explore this museum, any less and you won’t do it justice, but you could certainly spend the day here. I would also recommend buying your ticket on line and getting there early. One criticism of the museum, is the lack of English books available for sale in the museum – especially considering the Law & Justice Party’s accusations about the contents being too Polish – but then it was probably a good thing for me as I simply had no room left for them anyway.
Leaving the museum and missing the bus by just inches, I head through the backstreets, down pebble strewn pathways and across a field to get to the Gdansk Shipyard. Today, by coincidence, marks the anniversary of the signing of the accord between the Polish government and workers from the Gdańsk Shipyard and when I arrive there is an exhibition on Anna Walentynowicz (a Polish free trade activist) and lots of people milling around.
Something is going on here today, but I don’t know what, and given my limited command of the Polish language, it’s not like I can ask anyone what it is.
I hang around checking out the memorial, plaques and posters in the area and waiting for what seems like an age until the skies look like they are gonna rain down on me. I’m not getting wet.
I finally get a bus, just as the rain starts and hop off outside the train station. I look around for some lunch and spot a piano-bar looking restaurant with a semi-covered alfresco area, ordering posh pierogi – spinach, sun-dried tomato and onion with blue cheese sauce washed down with a Kellerbier.
I have one last day in Gdansk and I’ll be spending it at Westerplatte.