Friday, August 12, 2005


The harbour in Gdansk (Gdynia, actually) had a different feel from the harbour elsewhere. There were NATO warships docked. We got off the ship and went to our bus. Our tour guide, Jacek was determined that we would learn a lot about Poland’s history and, particularly, its many years of occupation by everyone from the Germans, the Russians, the Teutonic Knights, etc. He was passionate about Poland and wanted to be sure we understood his story.

Gdynia is part of the tri-cities – Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk. Gdansk was an “independent city” and the Poles wanted their own seaport so they built a harbour at Gdynia, about 30 miles away. Sopot, in between the two, is a seaside resort.

People first settled near Gdansk in the 7th century. It was in 997, when the bishop of Prague christened all the inhabitants, that it became part of the Polish state. In the 13th century it was taken over by Teutonic Knights and became part of the Hanseatic League. Over a period, the knights were driven out and Poland was once more independent. Heavy wars with Sweden (remember the Vasa – it was on its way to Poland) weakened the Poles and though they were not conquered, they were then vulnerable to attack by the Russians. In the 1700s Poland was partitioned. For 123 years part of it was Russian, part Austrian and part Prussian. And yet the culture survived. And so it went. Gdansk became a “free city” At times it was more German than Polish. After the first world war, Poland became independent again, only to be fought over by both the Russians and the Germans in World War II. Gdansk was devastated in the war and it is miraculous to see how it was reconstructed to have the same look as before.

In the 1970s there was the first uprising. The shipyard workers in Gdansk and Gdynia went on strike for better working conditions. The strike was brutally put down. Our tour guide, who once worked in the shipping industry, remembered running from the melee. In 1980, Lech Wałćsa started the Solidarity movement

We left the bus and walked through the Upland Gate onto a pedestrian street (in the rain). Umbrellas up we trudged along the street looking at buildings reminiscent of Amsterdam. Dutch architects had left their mark. Here, too, there had been a window tax, so buildings were built long and narrow. We walked toward the Golden Gate which has the slogan “With Unity small states rise, with Disunity large states fall. We meandered through streets and went to St. Mary’s Church, built in the Gothic style. The tall windows bring light into the church. At one time they were all stained glass, but wars and the Reformation destroyed most of them. At one time St. Mary’s was shared by the Catholics and Lutherans. Then it became Lutheran, but it is back to being Catholic. In 1945, many Polish Catholics from the east moved into the area. Pope John-Paul visited there in 1979. His visit to Poland was a catalyst for Poles to think again about independence. During the riots in the 70s and later in the 80s many people took refuge in St. Mary’s church.

There are 3 naves in the church. Originally there were frescoes, but during the Reformation everything was simplified. Fortunately they did not destroy the elaborate altar piece. They only closed it. It was only reopened in 1945.

You can see burial stones through out the church. The more important people were buried closer to the altar. Slate was very expensive and after a number of years they would reuse the markers, turning them over and carving on the other side. An important piece of art is the 10 Commandments. It illustrates each of the commandments so that the illiterate people could have access to the text.

A number of important works of art can be found here. A large astrological clock, dating to the 1400’s is magnificent.. There is a copy of a triptych dating from 1475 – The Last Judgement and a pieta dating from 1410.

We walked through some narrow streets and then went to see the stores selling amber. Amber is at least 40 million years old. The very old amber is 45-50 million years old and is mainly white. The best known colour is cognac, but amber also comes in green and yellow (the youngest amber). For many years amber was used as an ingredient in incense in churches. Amber is so light, it floats on salt water. We watched a jeweler polish some amber and then had a bit of time to look around. On the buses to lunch we passed the spot where the main synagogue stood. A smaller one is going to be built shortly. Most of the Jews from Gdansk left the city before the war. Because of the heavy German presence, they learned of what was happening in Germany and fled. Another structure that is going to be rebuilt is an Elizabethan Theatre. It was there in Renaissance and actors came from England to perform Shakespeare.

Our guide spoke of his time participating in the Solidarity Movement. They knew what they wanted to get rid of, but what next? We passed the Solidarity Monument, which had been put up to honour those who died in the strike of 1970. Our guide worked designing ships for Warsaw Pact countries.

Who was born in the Gdansk area – Gunther Grass, Joseph Conrad.

During the years under Soviet domination, Poland was better off than parts of Russia. 21% of the agricultural land was kept in private hands and so they did not suffer the extensive famine that happened in Russia when people were put in charge of collective farms who knew nothing about agriculture.

After lunch, we drove to Oliwa to a Cistercian Chapel. Along the way we saw “Leningrad Housing”, immense blocks of apartments with no personality. Apartments seemed small and rundown.

In the chapel in Oliwa we heard a short organ concert. Their organ is well known. The choice of music was interesting. The organist played some more traditional church music such as the Bach / Gounod Ave Maria. But he also played the opening to Pictures at an Exhibition and showcased the organ in a very modern piece, which at times sounded almost electronic, bell-like. Back’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor was thundering. As we sat I looked up and delicate starts are painted on the ceiling of the church. We walked through the church and the grounds.

Our guide said that many houses are being privately bought, though they are still out of the range of many Poles. Those privately owned are better maintained.

Our guide was great – though perhaps a bit bitter. He worries about the Germans buying up Poland and about the many Poles who leave the country to work throughout the EU. To be sure we would continue to learn about Poland he recommended some books which are listed here.

Our tour guide's website

Books he recommends about Poland

1. Lynne Olson & Stanley Cloud: A Question of Honor (the Kosciuszko Squandron: Forgotten heroes of World War II)
2. Norman Davies: White Eagle, Red Star (The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920)
3. Norman Davies: Rising '44 (The Battle for Warsaw)
4. Norman Davies: God's Playground (A History of Poland)
5. Matthew Parker: Monte Cassino (The hardest fought battle of World War II)
6. Intelligence Co-operation Between Poland and Great Britain during World War II (the report of the Anglo-Polish Historical Committee

Now I have been on Russian soil where both my parents were born. Growing up hearing my mother speak Russian with her friends - it was oddly emotional to hear it around me. This was not a pilgrimmage, but I do feel touched to have come, in a very small way, closer to my parents' beginnings. And today I have been to spot where my mother (and possibly my father) left her homeland forever.

Coming back to the ship with all its opulence certainly eats at my conscience.


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