On Sept. 1, 1939 — 84 years ago — the German warship Schleswig-Holstein fired at Polish units in the city of Gdańsk, then known as Danzig.
The Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland followed and World War II erupted.
By the time the war was over, large parts of the city were destroyed — and an invisible Iron Curtain prevented it from enjoying the prosperity of the Western world.
Like many other cities before and after, whether damaged by war, fire or an earthquake, Gdańsk had to shake off the trauma.
It had to gather its resources and start rebuilding.
Former President Ronald Reagan and Polish-born Pope John Paul II — strolling together, engrossed in conversation — are immortalized in bronze statues standing tall in a large park named after the U.S. commander-in-chief.
The park is perched at the edge of the Amber Coast in the city of Gdańsk, the birthplace of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement.
Fresh flowers and wreaths can always be found in front of the statues, a display of genuine gratitude by the locals aware of the leading role the two statesmen had in the defeat of communism.
The trauma of the harsh martial law enforced in 1981 and government-imposed austerities are long gone.
Life seems tranquil in Gdańsk these days.
Still patches awaiting reconstruction
Tourists flock to this historic port city, attracted by the picturesque old town and white sandy beaches.
But as they climb to the top of St. Mary’s Basilica and gaze down, they realize that there are still small patches around town waiting for reconstruction.
The history is impossible to ignore: Gdańsk is where World War II began.
On Sept. 1st, 1939, the German warship Schleswig-Holstein fired at Polish garrison guarding the outpost of Westerplatte.
The city was governed by Poland but had a vast German population. Adolf Hitler demanded it be handed over to the Third Reich and refused to take “no” for an answer.
Global war ensued and raged for six years — leaving over 60 million people dead worldwide and countless cities reduced to ashes.
Preservation of history won the day over modernity — and the city began its comeback.
Gdańsk was devastated. When the war finally ended, the remaining German population was ordered to leave, and the Poles began a debate over how to rebuild the badly damaged city.
Some wanted to remove the rubble and start anew, creating a modern town with just a few token historic structures left standing.
Others wanted the entire old town rebuilt — after all, Gdańsk had been an important city for 1,000 years. It hurt people deeply to see it reduced to ashes.
Fortunately, preservation of history won the day over modernity. Slowly but surely the city began its comeback.
Gdańsk was founded by Polish ruler Mieszko I in 980.
It was a strategic port settlement where the river Vistula emptied into the Baltic Sea and ships sailed toward the Scandinavian Kingdom of Denmark.
Gdańsk — “Ku-Dansk” — meant “toward Denmark.”
At the beginning of the 14th century, the city was taken over by the Order of Teutonic Knights and its name was Germanized to Danzig.
After several revolts against the Teutonic Order, in 1410, during the Polish Teutonic wars, the city’s council recognized the Polish king, Władysław Jagiełło, as its sovereign.
Throughout the centuries the city prospered, joining the Hanseatic League and employing Flemish and Dutch architects to erect its finest structures.
Gdańsk created a vast central avenue lined with colorful, intricate and beautifully designed townhouses for the nobility and merchants, really just to impress the Polish kings in case they decided to pay a visit.
A merchant meeting place called Artus Court (Dwór Artusa) named for the legendary King Arthur opened its doors to locals as well as visitors.
Gdańsk’s most famous landmark, Neptune’s Fountain, a mannerist-rococo masterpiece, still stands prominently in front of the court, attracting throngs of tourists.
The astronomer Hevelius made his important discoveries here and is buried in St Catherine’s Church, the oldest church in Gdańsk.
The physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was born and grew up here right on Ogarna Street.
He is known for inventing the mercury thermometer and developing his namesake Fahrenheit temperature scale, which is still used in the United States.
His family townhouse is now a museum.
Perhaps the most imposing structure in the old town is the largest brick church in the world, the Basilica of St. Mary.
Its massive tower dominates the Gdańsk skyline.
The construction of the church began in 1343.
Among other artifacts, the church houses a renaissance clock constructed by Hans Düringer.
Upon its completion in 1470, the clock was the largest in the world.
Gdańsk Main Town Hall is hard to miss, and it offers lovely views of the old town from its tower.
It is one of the finest examples of Gothic-Renaissance architecture in town — and the oldest parts of the building date back to 1327.
One of the most popular attractions for snapping photos along the Motlawa River waterfront is the “Żuraw,” the largest medieval port crane in Europe.
Built in the 15th century, the crane is also a fortified gate and a unique treasure of medieval technology.
The Motlawa River waterfront dazzles with amber shops, restaurants and a variety of gates opening onto picturesque, historic streets.
Perhaps the favorite for both locals as well as tourists is Mariacka Street.
Gdańsk changed hands between Poland and Germany several times.
In addition, it was besieged by Sweden during the Second Northern War. Napoleon tried to liberate it from the Prussians, referring to it as “finally a decent place.”
But one community of foreign people settled in Gdańsk peacefully and created their own neighborhoods, still known as Nowe Szkoty and Stare Szkoty — New Scotland and Old Scotland.
From the late 14th century, the Baltic region enjoyed strong trade links with Scotland. Religious tolerance and prosperity enticed many Scotts to settle in Gdańsk. By the 17th century, Poland was home to an estimated 30,000 Scots. A large number lived in Gdańsk.
Over the course of several centuries, the Scottish population assimilated. But one can still enjoy a nice meal at a Scottish pub named U Szkota.
After the First Partition of Poland in 1772 (giving large chunks to Austria, Russia and Prussia), the inhabitants of the city fought fiercely for Gdańsk to remain a part of Poland. But after the Second Partition, the city was incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia.
In September 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived and established the Free City of Danzig. It only lasted only seven years.
After the French retreated, a French physician named Jean Georges Haffner, who arrived there as an army doctor serving Napoleon’s troops, decided to stay and build a spa and a wooden pier in the nearby village of Sopot. Haffner’s pier was only 30 meters long.
But what the “happy French doctor” started would turn Sopot into a world-renowned resort, often referred to as the Polish Riviera. And his modest wooden pier? It has now expanded into the longest one in Europe.
When Poland was partitioned and Danzig fell into German hands, its significance as a port city dwindled.
The city was finally returned to Poland by the treaty of Versailles, at the end of World War I. But another war was looming on the horizon.
During the Russian offensive in World War II, large parts of the historic city perished.
The list of reasons why Gdańsk should be and would be rebuilt was quite lengthy. The decision was made to bring it back to its former glory, to put on display its Flemish architecture, and to bring comfort to a nation decimated by war.
The city was rebuilt not for the tourists, but for its inhabitants. And ironically, it remained that way for generations.
After the war, Poland was trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and few foreigners could enjoy the delights of the somewhat mediocre socialist accommodations. But the citizens of Gdańsk never gave up, and eventually, with the help and inspiration of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, they saw a peaceful change of regime. They became part of the European Union.
They began to spruce up the town and build new hotels, shopping malls and aquaparks. And eventually they saw the tourists return … in throngs … and enter the old city though the golden gate … and be awestuck.
What would Gdańsk be like without its old town? One dare not imagine.
A war, a fire, an earthquake, can seemingly take everything from people, impoverish them, demoralize them.
For any place suffering distress, Gdańsk is a shining example of how to soldier on against all odds, how to rebuild and hold one’s head high in the face of adversity.