History and hallucination

Jan Morris writes a stirring tribute to the presence of history and hallucination in Gdansk.

Published January 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I stand at the end of a deserted peninsula, in a city with a lost name, and see lying in the harbor a warship that isn't there. Everyone who comes to the city sees that phantom vessel, and hears the blast of a broadside that sounded nearly 60 years ago: for this is the former Danzig, in the extinct Polish Corridor, and the ship is the long-sunk German battle cruiser Schleswig-Holstein, whose bombardment of the vanished barracks of the Westerplatte peninsula began the Second World War.

The city is called Gdansk now, but I grew up with Danzig, and can't get out of the habit. Long ago in my school atlases it was always called Danzig, and sometimes had a little plan all its own, in a corner of the map of Central Europe, to show that it was a place peculiar to itself -- a Free City, in fact, under the sovereignty of the League of Nations, within the strip of Polish territory that separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Danzig was a fateful place, and when it mutated into Gdansk, that proved fateful too: It was here that the Soviet Empire first began to crumble before the superior convictions of democracy, and the hero Lech Walesa of Solidarity lives here to this day, like the knight of an old fairy tale, behind the high hedges of a suburban villa.

There are not many places in the world where the history of our time seems more immediate. And it is history clarified by hallucination, where things are a little more exact than they ought to be, legendary champions live on bus routes and insubstantial battle cruisers kill soldiers long since dead.

The prime Gdansk illusion is central Gdansk itself -- Old Danzig, that is, which was for centuries one of the great seaports of the Hanseatic League and a lordly center of Baltic commerce, culture and diplomacy. Teutonic knights in chain mail -- Polish kings in ermined robes -- cloaked merchants from Gotland or Riga -- traders in amber or Arctic sealskins -- eminent astronomers and illustrious sculptors -- these were the sort of people who haunted the memories of the place, and the streets of the city were tall-gabled and sprinkled with spires.

For years Danzig was the biggest city in eastern Europe. Sometimes Polish, sometimes German, briefly French, it remained a revered old seaport of the Baltic until -- crash! -- in 1945 the Red Army, driving the Wermacht out of Poland, demolished the whole place by bomb and gunfire. Old Danzig was almost entirely destroyed, probably more completely than any other European city. Within the circuit of its medieval walls, with its quays and warehouses beside the Motlawa River, nothing was left but rubble. It is one of the miracles of our century that 50 years later we can walk those very same streets, among the same tall-gabled houses, beneath the towers and steeples of Danzig's ancient churches, as though nothing at all has happened.

I suppose the reconstruction of Old Danzig -- as it was -- is the single most spectacular rebuilding job ever, one honorable memorial of communist rule in Poland. I defy any ill-informed stranger to guess that this marvelous city is not in its original incarnation. Proud and mellow stand the houses of those ancient merchants in their stately ranks, apparently worn a bit by age and weather but instinct with centuries of consequence, and above them stands the mighty red hulk of the Church of Our Lady, one of the largest brick churches in the world, like a very declaration of sacred permanence. Seven town gates of Gdansk still look down, as they always did, upon the water traffic of the river, and a constant bustle of shoppers, tourists and buskers enlivens the elegant square called the Long Market, for so long the prime mercantile exchange of the Baltic Sea.

I could hardly believe it all. I could hardly credit that the Restauracja Tawerna, where they served me boiled eel and potatoes as though they had been serving them without a break since the 15th century, 50 years ago was no more than a pile of rubble. It was almost inconceivable to me that the venerable roofed crane on the riverfront, a famous municipal symbol since the Middle Ages, was only a synthetic substitute, or that the beautiful Baroque mansions of Mariacka Street, with their elegant stone terraces and flourishes of sculpted stone, were really no older than I was myself. Very few people in Gdansk today can remember Old Danzig as it originally was, before tragedy destroyed it and bold hearts built it up again.

Occasionally reality does impinge. The thoroughly authentic traffic of the modern city whirls around the ring roads, beyond the Torture House and the Great Armory's florid turrets. From the tower of the Town Hall you can see the massed derricks of the modern docks, away at the mouth of the Vistula. The Old Polish Post Office really is the actual post office that G|nter Grass immortalized in "The Tin Drum" and the royal gate that was always the city's ceremonial entrance is one of the very few old structures that did not need rebuilding.

Besides, a city is an animate object, and Gdansk has never been exterminated. An old man stands in the Long Market, selling starfishes and amber from a tray just as his forebears doubtless did five or six centuries ago. A young man rides by on a bicycle, inexplicably loaded down with bits of old cardboard as he might ride a pony heavy with firewood from the forest. There is an immemorial smell of ropes and tar along the quays, and a generic shrieking of gulls. Coveys of feral cats scurry about in holes under the river footbridge, spat upon by naughty boys and fed by a cadaverous man in spectacles and leather jacket. Two young soldiers in the traditional capes and triangular hats of the Polish army sit on a bench by the water licking ice creams.

In short, from time to time I am reminded that although the fabric of the city may be deceptively new, the life it lives is the same robustly organic life it has lived for a thousand years. This is very good for me, because sometimes during my stay in Gdansk I began to feel that the sham and the genuine were disturbingly confused here, past and present all mixed up, the very conception of old and new made meaningless. I was beginning to feel that I really had seen that German battle-cruiser belching shells upon the peninsula of Westerplatte, and that perhaps Gdansk really was Danzig all the time.

But that old man selling starfish, and those two fine young sergeants licking ice creams, looking just as Polish soldiers have always looked, brought me back to the real thing.

In a shop on the Motlawa embankment I saw an old model of a paddle-steamer, circa 1890 I would guess. The ship was called Luirpold, was brightly painted in the red and white Danzigian colors and bravely flew the crown and double white cross of the Gdansk ensign. I bought it at once. They packed it up for me in a comical contraption made of several shoeboxes taped together, and with hilarious care and hazard I carried it away with me to Copenhagen, to London and home to Wales.

Now it sits on a windowsill in my library, looking complacently exotic against a background of damp Welsh pastures. It is more than just a model to me, more than just an old Polish pleasure steamer, and it has voyaged much farther than the mere voyage from Gdansk to Llanystumdwy. Think what storms of history that old ship has paddled through! The bombardments and the invasions, the bombings and the street fighting -- fire and cold and terror and oppression! I don't know whose windowsill it stood upon when the wars came to Danzig, or the commissars took over Gdansk, but I like to see its grand old ensign flying here now, to remind me always -- as its home port did -- that truth rides above hallucination, and always wins in the end.

By Jan Morris

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Jan Morris has written more than 30 works of travel literature, including "Fifty Years of Europe," "The Matter of Wales," "Hong Kong," "Venice" and "Spain."

MORE FROM Jan Morris

Related Topics ------------------------------------------