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New Europe

Day Ninety-seven: Gdansk

The Gdańsk Shipyards 
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The Gdańsk Shipyards, where Lech Walesa worked, are still in business, but only just. Behind me and Andrej, the general manager, their last big contract takes shape.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe waters between Kaliningrad and Gdansk are awash with the landmarks of history.

On a bitter winter's night in January 1945, a Soviet submarine raced across them in pursuit of a German liner, the 'Wilhelm Gustloff', full to four or five times its normal capacity with refugees fleeing from the victorious Russians. Three of its torpedoes hit the 'Gustloff' , which sank with the loss of over 7,000 lives. It was the worst loss of life in any marine disaster and it lies some 150 feet below the surface of the Bay of Gdansk.

Turning south into the Motlawa Canal, which connects the Bay with Poland's longest river, the Wisla (Vistula), we pass the place where the very first shots of the Second World War were fired. A Polish garrison on the Westerplatte headland was bombarded by the German battleship 'Schleswig-Holstein' on 1 September 1939. Less than 200 men held out against the Germans for a week. Today a chunky Soviet Realist-style monument marks their sacrifice (which is bit ripe considering the Russians had concluded a non-aggression pact with Germany a week before German troops attacked the Poles on Westerplatte).

On the west side of the canal rise the cranes and roofs of one of the most famous shipyards in the world, where an electrician by the name of Lech Walesa (the 'l' is soft, and the 's' has an 'n' sound before it, so he's 'Lek Wayensa') led a strike that was to change the face of communism in Eastern Europe. Now the Gdansk Shipyards themselves are victims of change. Decayed, dilapidated and struggling to survive in the capitalist world, their fame is more symbolic than commercial.

Once we've landed and settled ourselves in a waterfront hotel, we make a pilgrimage to the shipyard. The famous gates, outside which the world's press camped during the stand-off between workers and the government twenty-seven years ago, are still there, frozen in time. Hanging from their black and white bars are various symbols of Polish resistance: the national flag, a big framed photo of the Polish pope, John Paul II (and a noticeably smaller photo of the current, German, pope), a banner bearing the name of Solidarity, the first trade union in any communist country, bunches of flowers and a likeness of the Catholic icon, the Black Madonna. They reflect the potent combination of religion and politics, priests and workers, that in the words of the historian Timothy Garton-Ash marked 'the beginning of the end of communism in Europe'.

No workers pass through here any more and the gatekeepers direct visitors to the 'Freedom Multimedia Exhibition'.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-seven: Gdansk
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Gdańsk
  • Book page no: 229

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  • Sightseeing
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 18 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 16 
  • Pole to Pole