My visit to Gdańsk

Gdańsk (“Danzig”; population 1.4 million) lies in the extreme north of Poland, on the Baltic sea:

The city has a long and tortuous history. Founded about a thousand years ago, it passed between various factions of Poles, Teutonic Knights, Prussians, Lithuanians, Russians, and Germans again until the end of World War I. It then became a “free city”, or quasi-nation with ties to Poland, and increased its already substantial wealth as a trading port. (For a while all the grain imported into Poland had to pass through the city.)

Because the city harbored a number of German speakers and had considerable ties to Germany, in 1939 Hitler demanded that Gdańsk be made part of Germany, linked to the big nation with a territorial corridor. Poland refused, and that gave Hitler one reason to invade Poland on September 1, 1939. Gdańsk fell immediately. Many of its Jews fled to Palestine, while most of the remainder were exterminated.

After Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Gdańsk suffered greatly, bombed by both Russians and Americans—attacks that destroyed most of the medieval city (see below). It also endured a huge influx of refugees from Germany, who were expelled after the war when the city was again repopulated by Poles. The Soviets “liberated” Gdańsk in 1945, accompanied by widespread pillage and rape, and then it became part of the Soviet’s extended empire. The old parts of the city were rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s.

During Soviet times, Gdańsk was a center for Polish disaffection with the Russians. Here’s a canned history of some of that rebellion, which many of us older folk remember.

In December 1970, Gdańsk was the scene of anti-regime demonstrations, which led to the downfall of Poland’s communist leader Władysław Gomułka. During the demonstrations in Gdańsk and Gdynia, military as well as the police opened fire on the demonstrators causing several dozen deaths. Ten years later, in August, 1980, Gdańsk Shipyard was the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union movement, whose opposition to the Communist regime led to the end of Communist Party rule in 1989, and sparked a series of protests that successfully overturned the Communist regimes of the former Soviet bloc. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałęsa, became President of Poland in 1990.

And my visit began where Poland’s recent independence did: at the Gdańsk shipyards below (the sign says “Gdańsk Shipyards”). They don’t make so many ships here these days, as manufacturing has moved to Asia, but they do make some, and the harbor is still an important venue for trading:

Right next to the shipyards is the Solidarity trade union building, which I’m told now houses a union that’s become right wing. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the famous “Solidarity” logo on top:

The memorial below, a piece of brick wall with a plaque, is nearby. Based on the description of a similar section of wall residing in Berlin, and the words on the plaque (see below), I’m guessing this is part of the shipyard wall that, on August 14, 1980, Lech Wałęsa climbed to reenter the shipyard from which he’d been fired for agitation four years before. Learning that the strike was weakening, Wałęsa defied his ban, climbed the wall, mounted a barrel, and gave a speech that inspired the workers to continue their strike.

They did, and this led to an unheard-of foundation of an independent trade union in Communist Eastern Europe. That was the beginning of the end for Russian control of Poland, and, nine years later, the Communists allowed elections and Poland was soon free. Without Wałęsa, this would have happened much later, and for his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. (He also served as President of Poland for five years, and is now retired.)

My translation of the German on the plaque below:

To the memory of the battle of “Solidarity” for freedom and democracy, and the contribution of Poland to the reunification of Germany and for a politically united Europe.

My host Borys took me on a walking tour of the old city. I can’t remember what all of these buildings are, but they were largely reconstructed after extreme war damage. Perhaps Polish readers can identify them:

This is what the building above looked like at the end of World War II:

The main street of the old town. These fancy houses, probably belonging to merchants, were also reconstructed, but without the front porches they used to possess:

This is what the street above looked like this at the end of World War II:

Again, more buildings I can’t identify. It’s a beautiful city and attracts many tourists:

One of the city gates (you had to pass through many to get into the inner part of the town:

This  building contains not only the “cross” symbols of the Teutonic Knights, but two lions that, I was told, are symbols of the Polish royalty. I was also told that the lions are usually facing each other, but here look in the same direction: the direction that the King would use to enter the city (he had his own gate):

Another lovely building in the area called the Long Market:

Neptune’s Fountain,”  a famous sculpture (and modern meeting place), finished in 1633 and renovated in 1957:

A water-spouting lion on the fountain:

One of the city’s canals that connects to the Baltic Sea.

This is the first ship built by the Poles after World War II:

This building bears only the symbol of the Teutonic Knights:

The brick-and-wood structure is the reconstruction of a crane used in the 14th and 15th century to lift goods (and masts) off of boats. One site describes it:

The mechanism of the Crane, the biggest port crane in the medieval Europe, is the exhibition highlight. It consists of two pairs of wooden treadmills. Since the Crane also served as the town’s gate which led the way from Szeroka Street to Długie Pobrzeże Street, the bottom treadmills, situated in the place of a vault, are visible from the outside.

However, it is worth going inside the Crane to see the upper treadmills. A walk up the narrow wooden stairs to the highest storey is a real attraction. It is a perfect viewing spot for those who want to take a closer look at the size of the mechanism which was based on a very simple principle. To make the Crane lift goods from ships (e.g. wine and beer barrels or millwheels), its treadmills had to be set in motion. This way, a rope was rolled up onto a treadmill. But what could set them in motion? Well, workers made the mechanism work by getting inside the wheels and walking on the built-in boards (the Polish name for a treadmill, koło deptakowe, reflects the walking activity conducted by workers). As a result, four people could ‘lift’ the weight of up to two tons.

Here is one treadmill. I’m told the walking workers who moved it were actually the city’s prisoners: humans turning a giant hamster wheel.

The construction of St. Mary’s Church began about 1340. It was severely damaged by the Red Army during World War II but has been reconstructed. Wikipedia notes that it’s one of the two or three largest brick churches in the world:

Here’s a view given by Wikipedia:

We had lunch in a Kashubian restaurant, a region around Gdańsk that has its own cuisine and language (both, however, are similar to Polish)

I started with borscht (soups are customary starters in Poland) a beet soup with bits of hard-boiled egg:

And then onto the massive main course: a Frisbee-sized potato pancake covered with a pork stew and generous dollops of sour cream, served with pickles, shredded beets, and a Polish style cole slaw on the side. I could finish only about 60% of it. To wash it down we had glasses of kvass, a Russian drink made from fermented rye bread:

I wanted to see some Baltic amber, and Gdańsk is its epicenter. Baltic amber is world famous as a semiprecious “gem,” though it’s fossilized tree resin from over 40 million years ago. It comes in many colors and is either mined or picked up off the seashore. I bought myself a small piece as a souvenir, but it can be made into many elaborate pieces, including drinking cups and chess sets.

Here is some of the amber on sale, mostly on one small street behind the cathedral:

Amber animals:

This is a lovely piece of green amber with bubbles. Some pieces have inclusions like leaves or insects, and those cost a lot more. Some even have vertebrates like lizards, and prices for those are sky high.

Amber kitties!

Dinner after my talk: duck pierogi with redcurrant garnish. (Sorry, Honey!) They were excellent:

I stayed in Sopot, a seaside resort town right next to Gdańsk. Before I took the train back to Wloclawek yesterday, we had brunch in a cute peasant-themed restaurant on the shore:

I love potato pancakes, and never get them because a. they’re a pain to make and b. very few restaurants in the US have them; they’re Eastern European and also a staple of Jewish cuisine (latkes). So I had some for breakfast, too, sprinkled with sugar and slathered with sour cream.

Others had Polish “pancakes”, which were sweet, filled with cheese and topped with jam. They were excellent.

This is another Polish breakfast dish: breaded, deep-fried cheese served with redcurrant jam, along with its relative, unbreaded but fried smoked cheese from southern Poland.

My host Borys (right), his wife Joanna (center), and Borys’s student Chama. Borys and Joanna have a four-month old girl.

Borys and the F1 offspring, Estera:

I finish with cats. Here are some cats of Gdańsk, starting with an old geezer sleeping on a porch:

Here’s a cartoon making fun of Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński, head of Poland’s right-wing “Law and Justice” (PiS) party. He is known for being very fond of his cat Fiona, as well as of cat in general.

Here are Jaroslaw and Fiona in a news photo.

Oh, I forgot. John Paul II, the “Polish Pope”, is a hero everywhere in Poland, but seemed especially prominent in Gdańsk, And of course Catholicism is ubiquitous, as in this shrine in a seaside park, which I call “the depressed Jesus”.

And yes, playing in Gdańsk: “John Paul II: The Musical. I kid you not!


  1. lkr
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Gdansk/Danzig — I always think first of The Tin Drum — and the eels!

    As an entomologist, I’m in awe of the entomofauna discovered in Baltic amber. I wonder how many unknown taxa are lying unnoticed in all those silly beads!

    • David Coxill
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Yes ,the tin drum ,he mentions the strange language around Gdansk/Danzig,the Eels ,i used to fish for them at night ,

    • Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Oskar’s grandmother is Kaschubin.

  2. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Sure hope the “rock and pop” musical comes to the States. I’d go. But must be in Polish (with English supertitles). I’d get completely stoned, dig out my old nun’s habit (given to me by a bona fide nun), put it on and rock out.

  3. GBJames
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Interesting travelogue!

    For what it is worth… potato pancakes are a standard part of Wisconsin’s Friday fish fry tradition. All proper frys offer them although there is a wide range in styles. I prefer the more latkes-like versions. I never really thought a lot about the reasons we have this tasty tradition but we do have an awful lot of Polish/German/Jewish heritage.

  4. Mark R.
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    What a fantastic city. I recognize “Danzig” but really knew nothing of its history and architectural splendor. They did a good job rebuilding after WWII.

    How did your talk go?

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Was the amber in the Amber Room in St Petersburg sourced from Gdansk?

    And FWIW when I was in Ystad (S coast of Sweden) ~15yrs ago there were boats laden with timbers headed for Gdansk. My understanding was that they were made into lumber there, and then into IKEA furniture. Any idea if Gdansk is still a big IKEA manufacturer?

    • Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      The amber for the Amber Room came from East Prussia.

      • Hempenstein
        Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:22 pm | Permalink


  6. Paul S
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Wonder if John Paul II: The Musical features The Vatican Rag.

  7. Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    A visit is on my bucket list, and this article serves as a good reminder! Thanks.

    I have a minor quibble. It didn’t just have “considerable ties” to Germany, it was practically a German city, since it was for the most part a Hanseatic, or Prussian city. Keep in mind that nations didn’t exist for most of the time. Germany (or the German Empire) as such didn’t exist until 1871.

    • Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Germans immigrants began settling in Danzig in the Middle Ages. Political control of the city changed hands several times, including among Polish potentates, but was ruled for an extended period by the Teutonic Order before being incorporated into Brandenburg-Prussia.

      As mentioned in another comment, when Danzig was made a ‘free city’ in 1919, it was 95% German, and had been a German city for many centuries. The so-called ‘Polish Corridor’ running just West of Danzig was predominantly Polish, while the surrounding region – East Prussia and Posen – had interspersed communities of ethnic Germans and Poles, making any drawing of an international border liable to spawn revanchism.

      Declaring Danzig a free city, in order to provide Poland a sizable port on the Baltic, was untenable. But Poland of 1919-1939 contained large areas with non-Polish populations. Conceding to Danzig returning to Germany was unthinkable for the Polish government, as it feared this would lead to revanchist claims on its other ethnic minority territories.

      • frednotfaith2
        Posted September 14, 2017 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        And from all I’ve read, Hitler wasn’t really concerned about the plight of Germans living under non-German governments — he just wanted any excuse to destroy Poland and to move closer to his secondary goal of transforming the Soviet Union into “living space” for Germans. His primary goal was to enslave or exterminate all groups of people he regarded as sub-human within Europe. His mania for that goal seriously undermined his attempt to accomplish the other. Of course, millions of people were murdered or suffered horrifically as a result of his failed attempts at both goals.

        • Posted September 15, 2017 at 8:46 am | Permalink

          Hitler’s primary goal was to punish the world and everyone in it for his miserable existence by wreaking havoc and mayhem.

  8. Peter
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    “after the war when the city was again repopulated by Poles”
    That is, a German city was populated by Poles after the native Germans were expelled. In 1923, 95% of the population of Danzig was German. The city had always been German, and very much an independent republic. The mediaeval houses and churches are in the style of northern Germany.

  9. Posted September 14, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Are Polish pancakes more like latke, or German Kartoffelpuffer?

    I once severely overate at a Hanukkah dinner, falsely assuming their oil-absorption properties were equivalent.

  10. Karen E Bartelt
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    This Pomeranian has to get to Gdansk.

  11. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Such a beautiful city. The people of Poland have shown extraordinary resilience over their very long history.

    We regularly make our own potato pancakes, where I prepare the shredded potatoes and the wife knows the state secret for converting them into the final yummy pancakes. They are topped with sour cream or apple sauce. Funny how either topping works very well.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    One of the better jokes about the Polish I have heard is that it is OK in Poland to say bad things about Jesus, but you’ll never get away with saying anything bad about Pope John Paul II :)!!

    Although JP2 was mainly trying to restore more traditional practices to Catholicism after the tumultuous years following Vatican II, he went out of his way to be a very Jewish-friendly pope.

    I recall reading decades ago that John Paul’s cousin in high school shared a room with Roman Polanski after the latter was adopted after the Allies defeated Hitler. (Polanski was homeless between the ages of 6 & 12 while his parents were in a concentration camp.) I am currently unable to verify this, but it was in a book-biography of RP.

  13. Don Mackay
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Great trip and photos!
    Now for something similar based on the Polish traditional farming landscape to complete the picture.

  14. Michael Sternberg
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the excellent travelogue!

    About potatoe pancakes: They are also popular in Germany and each region has their own name. I grew up calling them Bambis or Klitscher. Two dozen terms are at .

    Now, a pretty similar version to the ones you showed us here can usually be had at the Chicago Chistkindlmarket each year throughout the pre-Christmas season. They come with applesauce or cream, and sure go down well with hot Glühwein. Alas, due to considerable demand they may, on occasion, come out a bit under-done and not be up to PCC(E)’s standards. 🙂

    • Rita
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      Or, you can get potato pancakes at the Mabenka Restaurant, 7844 S Cicero Ave. Burbank, Illinois.

  15. Bethlenfalvy
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Pictures are nice, the wording verges on a distortion of historical facts.

    “Because the [pre-WW II] city harbored a number of German speakers […]”

    Danzig was a German-speaking city.

    According to the 1923 census 95.03% of the 367 000 citizens spoke German, 0.44% both German and Polish and 3.28% Polish, Kashubian or Masurian.

    “It also endured a huge influx of refugees from Germany, who were expelled after the war when the city was again repopulated by Poles.”

    Expelees were the native German Danzigers who were replaced by Poles.

    The ethnic cleansing of Danzig was part of the monstrous ethnic cleansing programme the victorious Allied decreed at the

    • Bethlenfalvy
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, I accidentally touched the wrong button. – Continuation:

      “It also endured a huge influx of refugees from Germany, who were expelled after the war when the city was again repopulated by Poles.”

      Expelees were the native German Danzigers who were replaced by Poles.

      The ethnic cleansing of Danzig was part of the monstrous ethnic cleansing programme for East Germany (i.e. Germany east of the rivers Oder and Neisse) and German language areas in Central Europe decreed by the victorious Allied at the Potsdam Conference (summer 1945).

      Numbers of civilian casualties oscillate between 600 000 and 2,2 million.

      Total number of expelees/deportees is estimated at about 14 million.

      ” […] when [after WW II] the city was again repopulated by Poles”

      The meaning would become clearer if the author would add “after 600-700 years”; perhaps “Slavophones” (in lieu of Poles) is more adequate as the Slavic medieval population on the Baltic was rather Polabian/Slovincian/Kashubian in nature.

      “It then [after WW I] became a “free city”, or quasi-nation with ties to Poland […]”

      Danzig was cut out of Germany against the will of the local population and placed under the auspices of the League of Nations. Head of State was a High Commissioner of the League.

      With his emphasis on havoc caused by the Russians the author reinforces a Polish narrative which puts blame for post war-violence and destruction of cultural heritage mainly on the Soviets, which is not true. There are also cases (e.g. Liegnitz in Silesia) where the Soviet garrison protected the local German population from marauding Poles.

      What makes the historical sketch pretty unsavoury (at least for someone whose whole family fell prey to the deportations “from the East”)is the fact that it seems to obfuscate and conceal a historical monstrosity.

      • Posted September 15, 2017 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        I did the best I could trying to produce a short history from the Internet; I did not do extensive research. There is no deliberate distortion and your implication that there is is rude.

        Please try to be more civil; there are ways of setting the record straight without being huffy.

  16. jay
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    There’s a seriously fabulous 15 century astronomical clock in St Mary’s church in Gdansk. For me that would be a first stop

  17. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Great travelogue.

    Here’s a cartoon making fun of Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński,

    Can any of the Polish contingent say what the book is that Kaczyński is cuddling? The red stripe for some obscure reason makes me think it’s a BuyBull, but I’m not sure why.

    • George
      Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      The title of the book is “Top Secret” (Scisle Tajne). I cannot read what is below that.

      Not sure of the meaning of the words on the card – which is a play on the Polish National Anthem.
      Marsz Marsz Dabrowski
      z ziemi Polskiej
      do Wolski…

      Which translates to:
      March, march Dabrowski
      from Polish land
      to Wolski….

      Not sure what the Wolski reference is.

      The Polish National Anthem is the Mazurek Dabrowkiego (aka Jeszcze Polska nie zginela, Poland Is Not Yet Lost).
      It was written after the Third Partition wiped Poland off the map.
      “It was originally meant to boost the morale of Polish soldiers serving under General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski’s Polish Legions that served with Napoleon’s French Revolutionary Army in the Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars.”

      There is a lyric in the song:
      Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski,
      Z ziemi włoskiej do Polski.

      Which translates to:
      March, march, Dąbrowski,
      From the Italian land to Poland.

      • George
        Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        Not sure of the meaning of the sock on the floor with cash in it. The word on the sock is konto – which means account.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. That makes more sense of the red stripe too.

  18. George
    Posted September 14, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    The first two pictures are of the Green Gate.

  19. Posted September 14, 2017 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your photos.
    The shipping company I worked for in Holland long ago, used to charter ships for the transport of goods to and from Gdansk and Gdynia. I envied my collegue who managed that kind of transit, and have more than once tried in vain to replace, or at least to accompany him on a business trip to those lovely cities, laden with a rich Baltic history.

  20. Posted September 15, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I notice that boat pictured in the photo of the canal is named “Malgorzata.” Is that just a coincidence, or was that done on purpose?

    • Posted September 15, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      On purpose, though I didn’t schedule the boat to be there. I gave Malgorzata a larger shot of the name.

  21. Posted September 15, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    A storied and important place.

    Also, there’s something about seeing the first of the potato pancakes and the amber in close proximity – they look related somehow.

    mmm potato pancakes!
    (Haven’t had those in years – used to have them all the time growing up because they were so available near where my parents were.) I used to make sandwiches out of them, usually cheese and tomato, microwaved until the cheese melts.

  22. Posted September 16, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I highly recommend visiting Frombork which is close to Gdansk and where Copernicus developed his theory and is buried. As a scientist it is an invaluable trip.

  23. Hugo
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    great post, great food, will put this city on my to-visit list

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