The streets were packed with visitors for the city’s annual three-week long St Dominic’s Fair – the largest open-air trade and cultural event in Poland, attracting over a million visitors annually. The Fair was established by Pope Alexander IV in 1260 and is known in Poland as Jarmark Dominika or simply Jarmark. The Fair used to have pardon masses attendance at which could cut your stay in purgatory by 100 days.
Nowadays, more than one thousand traders, artists and collectors offer only earthly delights for visitors, such as amber, silver, and art. The Fair used to start with bell ringing, a call for ships to come to Gdańsk to ply their wares. It was always an important event for the town with the king and nobility taking part – however, the Fair stopped at the beginning of WWII and didn’t recommence for 33 years. Looking around at the amount of business being made, both traders and visitors were making up for lost time.
There are many sightseeing highlights including The Armoury with its hideous elongated gargoyles, The Upland Gate, and the Zuraw or Red Crane by the water’s edge. There’s a Ferris Wheel in the harbour area and a Maritime Museum. What’s noticeable here is that the new apartments being built don’t fit in with the other Hanseatic warehouses – they look cheaper and nastier – the old Communist attention to detail has been lost in the interests of greed and making a quick financial killing.
The Old Town was 90% destroyed by these armies and by the Russian forces seeking to wrest Gdansk away from Nazi Germany. My understanding is that the sensitive restoration of the city after 1945 did reduce some of the Prussian influences in the architecture, but that most of the buildings looked exactly as they did before 1939.
Drawings, paintings, and old plans were used to reconstruct whole neighbourhoods, as was the case with most Polish cities after WWII, and as I walked along each street, strolled through the parks, and admired every church I gave thanks to the restorers for making such great efforts to reproduce their city of the pre-war years. It would have been easier to build Stalinist blocks, but the planners wanted their city back as it was in early 1939. It took over 30 years to complete, but the Old Town is now old again.
Now it was time to discover the rest of Gdansk and to go back even further into the past. The city’s name is thought to originate from the Gdania River and was first recorded in 997 AD as urbs Gyddanyzc. After a number of changes, the name city finally changed to Gdąnsk in 1656. The German name is Danzig.
I had always been fascinated by Danzig / Gdansk since I saw some postage stamps in my father’s album. All the other stamps were from countries, but Danzig was a city, a free city between 1920 and 1939. The first stamps of Danzig were overprinted German stamps issued on 14 June 1920 though these were soon followed in January 1921 by the first stamps of the Danzig Free State. Stamps continued in use until the outbreak of World War II in 1939 when the Free City was made ‘unfree’ by the Third Reich.
Solidarity is the heartbeat of recent Polish history and to emphasize this point a ‘feedback wall’ in the final exhibition room is covered with a reproduction of the 1981 cardiogram poster of Czesław Bielecki. This wall comprises thousands of items of feedback from visitors, written on white or red cards. The word “Solidarity” written in red on a white background is the culmination of a number of upheavals, starting with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and including many revolts against communism. Visitors write their feedback on the cards and then place them on small pegs, adding to the thousands already there.
I spent 2.5 hours in this museum and I was not conscious of the time passing as the exhibits and information were fascinating, interesting, and brought alive by their presentation.
Jerzy Popiełuszko avoided a deliberate car accident on 13th October 1984 but the authorities had yet another plan. It was carried out on 19th October 1984. The priest was beaten by three Security Police officers: Captain Grzegorz Piotrowski, Leszek Pękala, and Waldemar Chmielewski. He was tied up and put in the boot of a car. The officers bound a stone to his feet and dropped him into the Vistula Reservoir. Subsequent investigations found he was conscious when entering the water. He’d been bound in such a way that the more he struggled the more a noose around his neck tightened. This sickened me to my stomach and the people of Poland did not forget who was responsible.
On 4th June, 1989 the Solidarity Civil Committee contested 35% of the seats in the Polish Parliament, the Sejm, and all the seats in The Senate. Solidarity obtained 161 seats in the Sejm, the maximum possible, and 99 out of 100 in The Senate. For some reason, Piotra Baumgarta didn’t find favour with the voters, but all the other 99 Solidarity candidates were elected.
Another shocking event which placed the authorities in a bad light was the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a staunch anti-Communist Catholic priest. After completing secondary education, Jerzy Popieluszko attended a seminary in Warsaw. He served his army duties in a special force designed to dissuade young men from becoming priests. This had no effect, as Popiełuszko continued his studies after leaving the army. In 1981, Jerzy Popiełuszko took part in demonstrations with strikers in the Warsaw Steelworks. His sermons criticized the Communist system and motivated people to protest.
During martial law Catholic Churches were the only places where protests could be voiced openly. Popiełuszko’s sermons were broadcast by Radio Free Europe and became famous throughout Poland for their uncompromising stance against the regime. The Służba Bezpieczeństwa, or Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, tried to silence or intimidate him. When this didn’t work, they fabricated evidence against him; he was arrested in 1983, but soon released on intervention of the clergy and pardoned by an amnesty.
Although the authorities were hoping to reduce the effectiveness of the Gdansk Agreement for workers’ rights in Poland, a number of different events conspired against them. The first was the film Man of Iron by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda, about the shipyard strike of 1980, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1981. The publicity for the film meant the authorities couldn’t prohibit it from the cinemas.
The second event was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Walesa on 5th October 1983. Walesa feared he would not be let back into Poland, so his wife Danuta and son Bogdan accepted the award on his behalf. The biggest reason why Poland remained in the news was that the Pope John Paul II was Polish and the pontiff visited his homeland often, including paying a visit to Walesa in June 1983 after the Solidarity leader had been released from prison.