Danzig / Gdansk
As our train traveled through the countryside of what used to be Pomerania, Prussia to Danzig / Gdansk, stunning scenery unfolded before our eyes. Marshes and meadows were covered with what looked like yellow Scotch Broom, purple Erika and red poppies. Groves of White Birch trees and Spruce pine (derived from the word 'Prussia' because of the abundant pine trees in Prussia) grew around the vast open fields.
What comparative luxury we were traveling in. I recalled my grandmother's stories of fleeing their home in Elbing, Prussia, once the Free City State of Elbing. They fled by sled though the snow to the port city of Danzig, then called Freistadt Danzig (Free City State Danzig). The beautiful old city had been reduced to ash and hundreds of thousands of refugees were being transported out of the city on whatever ships were around. Some people fled the rampaging Russian armies on foot over the frozen Baltic Sea, being bombarded by Soviet and British bombers.
It was said that the communists were pushing people into the sea and far worse. Russian writer and an ex-captain in the Soviet Army Alexander Solzhenitsyn* wrote of communist atrocities against the German civilians. He was sent by the Soviets to the Gulag (Siberia) for opposing this.
My grandmother, my father who was 8 at the time and the other children found passage on a whaling ship, the Walter Rau, which took them to the west. The ship they were supposed to be on, the passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff** was sunk by an allied submarine torpedo. Thousands of refugee civilians perished in the frigid sea.
The history and beauty of the area can be quite overwhelming. Humanity seems to have come so far at such a cost in human lives and suffering, but at times, I fear we are stepping backwards once again.
* WWII Massacres reported by Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others. See NEMMERSDORF.
** The liner Wilhelm Gustloff was flying the white flag as a Red Cross hospital and refugee ship. It was one of many others carrying refugees which were sunk. Click here to see the memorial site by Jason Pipes, a U.S. serviceman.
Also see "The Wilhelm Gustloff -- The greatest sea tragedy of all times."
The old city gate still has a German inscription about beauty, peace and freedom above the double cross shield of Danzig..It states: "Es musse wol gehen denen die ich liebe es musse Friede sein inwendig in Deinen Mauern Vnd Gluck in Deinen Palasten Psalm 122."
The Neptune Fountain
Danzig, Germany (Gdansk, Poland since '45) was an important medieval Hanseatic League sea port city. The wealthy merchants of the city commissioned artists and architects to build beautiful and elaborate grand buildings. The city was 90% destroyed by Allied bombing and soviet tanks during WWII, but it's historical center has been painstakingly restored.
Across from the harbor, the ancient crane and amber stands you can still see a city block in ruins from the war. On the side of a ruined wall is now a Ruffles Potato Chip advertisement!
The people now living in Danzig are exceptionally friendly and helpful and enjoyed my attempts to try to speak a few words of Polish. Some people of German heritage spoke German with us while many people also speak English.
Sagas and Books
At one time Danzig was a place where art, culture and trade flourished. German architects and artists contributed to the ambiance of the city center. The area was first mentioned by Roman historian Tacitus in the year 98 A.D. in the Agricola and Germania. The Romans and even Arabs had traded for Amber with the Baltic Sea people since ancient times at the Prussian Baltic Sea trading place Truso (Elbing, now Elblag).
In the 1200s the German Order of Teutonic Knights built castles and hospitals in the area and spread Christianity, often by the sword. Cities were built by Hanseatic League tradespeople.
Prehistoric Prussian Stelae (Prussische Babe) female deity carved stone statue or menhir.
Baltic Sea Amber also known as Northern Gold, Bernstein, and called Electra by the Romans is found all along the Baltic Sea coast including Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad Oblast) and Danzig (Gdansk) areas. According to legend Amber is the tears of the Nordic Goddess Frya, wife of Wotan (Odin), that fell into the sea and washed up upon the shore. Others say it is drops of sunlight. Fossilized Amber from the resin of ancient Spruce pine trees is millions of years old. Some pieces have tiny leaf or insect inclusions.
After the 1920 Treaty of Versailles Danzig was a free city state with a population of over 85% ethnic Germans. The end of WWII Prussia was divided up between Russia and Poland.
The old Danzig / Gdansk train station
The Solidarity Shipyard Memorial to the shipyard workers killed in protests against the Polish communist leaders.
In Gdansk as in Berlin there was the dichotomy of peace and beauty contrasting with political turmoil and destruction. On our next stop in Elbing / Elblag the historical turmoil and conflicting natural beauty was even more evident.
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