Gdansk Pilgrimage 2018 (6): A somber (and contested) Museum of the Second World War, followed by tasty Baltic fishies.


I’ve prefaced the travel narrative of our visit to Poland (itself backdated to the actual days we were there) with a series called Eight Days of Gdansk, which provides background on a European destination that’s scandalously little known to Americans.

Previously: Polish hoops, mustard soup and bison lager.

Poland has experienced a tumultuous history. Humankind has tended to be a violent lot, and in a strictly European context, a disproportionate amount of suffering has centered on the areas located between the Tatra Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north.

From east to west, across several historical boundaries of the country we now refer to as Poland, the terrain generally is flat and indefensible, crisscrossed time and again by invading armies. For hundreds of years the geographical locales where Poles live often have been occupied and exploited by powerful neighbors, one after the next.

These facts contribute to the national identity of the Polish people every bit as much as America’s expansionist “manifest destiny,” which took shape in our backyard owing to seemingly inexhaustible lands westward, begging to be seized. In Europe, Poland was the place always up for grabs.

All this helps to explain why, when the Law and Justice political party came to power in Poland in 2015, a museum about World War II in Gdansk already well on its way to completion suddenly became a pawn in a struggle of viewpoints, with the new populist government applying the brakes to the museum’s autonomy, contending that the story being told there was in need of immediate revision.

Something like this: The global history of the Second World War is important, but it’s even more important for any WWII museum located in Poland to regularly remind visitors that the Polish nation has drawn the short straw, time and again — a state of affairs beginning long before 1939.

There is much true about this. Poland was partitioned more than a century prior to World War I, then became that nasty war’s main battleground for Germans and Russians to pulverize each other. At war’s end, Poland reappeared on the map thanks to savvy lobbying of America’s president, Woodrow “14 Points” Wilson. Predictably, Poland’s newly drawn borders were disputed, necessitating a half-dozen brief skirmishes with neighbors following the big war.

One of these fights, the invasion of Poland by the Bolsheviks, was highly significant for the remainder of the continent. The Soviets were hurled back, and Poland waited for thanks that never came, because the victors of the western alliance were too busy sticking it to the Germans via the Treaty of Versailles.

Directly or indirectly, this helped give Adolf Hitler a receptive audience among Germans, and after a scant 20 years of comparative peace, Poland was in the cross-hairs again as Hitler prepared to seize what he viewed as Lebensraum (living space) to the East, to be confiscated from the Poles — who, after all, were only sub-human Slavs.

The Nazis invaded in 1939, with what would become World War II’s opening engagements being fought in Danzig (later to become Gdansk) at the Polish Post Office and the harbor fortifications at Westerplatte. Poland was quickly crushed by Hitler on one side and an expedient Stalin on the other, and again the country disappeared from the map.

When it was over, much of Poland was smoldering ruins, occupied by the victorious Red Army, and having lost 18% of its pre-war population.

Almost all of Poland’s Jewish population is included in this figure, and even more horrifying, many of the worst Nazi concentration camps were located on Polish territory, which meant that human beings constantly were being brought there for the sole purpose of being murdered. The extent to which some Poles  assisted the Germans in the implementation of the Holocaust is a topic that will have to wait.

I refer readers to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and move on to the post-war era.

After the Second World War ended, Poland’s borders were shifted west, and ethnic cleansing began. Germans finding themselves in Poland were expelled, as were Poles residing to the east in places like Latvia, Lithuania and Belorussia. As Günter Grass describes in his novel The Tin Drum, incoming Poles usually were assigned houses and apartments where departed Germans had lived; if the German owners hadn’t yet vacated their homes, they soon would.

Four decades of Communism was next, and when it finally collapsed in 1990, Poland could begin trying to make sense of it all. I believe this process is still underway, and I’ve already written about the controversies surrounding the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk.

Eight Days of Gdansk, November 1: World War II and Gdansk.

As with the European Solidarity Centre, which is visible a short distance away, the Museum of the Second World War is a striking architectural statement. The guided tour begins with World War I, describes the interwar period and the factors leading to renewed conflict, and provides an overview of the military campaigns. Much detail is devoted to the wartime milieu for civilians, and the Holocaust is given its due.

As with our day at the European Solidarity Centre, I’m choosing to present the photos with little in the way of explanation. It’s a visual collage. One thing I’d recommend to future visitors to Gdansk: if you’re going to both of these excellent museums, do the Museum of the Second World War first, and then the European Solidarity Centre.

And be prepared to have an emotional reaction at both.

A drink was necessary afterward.

Inevitably, the time came to eat. We’d walked past Rybka Na Wartkiej several times, as emblazoned with “Fish and Chips” in English. Early Sunday evening was declared zero hour, and far from being some sort of themed British kitsch, Rybka Na Wartkiej turned out to be a great place to eat Baltic seafood.

For starters, fish soup and herring marinated in a variety of spices. Marvelous.

That little glass in front of the Tyskie, well, that’s Żubrówka Vodka, otherwise known as bison (or buffalo) grass vodka; it’s an herbal vodka made from rye, and flavored with a tincture of bison grass (Hierochloe odorata). A blade of the grass generally is put in each bottle. Delicious with the herring and soup; Diana liked it, too.

Haddock was the fish of choice, and I’m exhausting the superlatives.

Rybka Na Wartkiej serves Tyskie beer, and Tyskie is an SABMiller brewery. I haven’t bothered to research this any further, but my guess is Książęce is the Tyskie branch charged with brewing specialties. The Black Lager and Hefeweizen both were more than respectable.

We went for an evening walk and picked up a few bottles of beer to take back to the room. Some of the photos are blurry.

Then again, so were we.

Look, it’s a Pilsner Urquell bar. These sorts of things still impress me.

Next: Wrapping up Gdansk with a harbor boat ride and boar pierogis.