Westerplatte……September 1st, 1939…..early in the morning. Most Poles sleep. Kids are enjoying the last “free” night before going back to school. The air is chilly at the coast and the waters of Baltic Sea are rough. A German battleship the “Schleswig-Holstein” is docked in the harbor of Gdańsk. Officially, the ship is paying the city a c.ourtesy visit. The real reason for its presence is different. At 04:48am, the Germans open fire. World War 2 starts. Poles wake up to a new reality. Kids don’t go to school.
September, 2016……late morning. The sky is beautifully blue. Clouds look painted, blurry as if made by one move of a brush. My favourite kind of sky. In the place where the sky ends, the dark blue sea starts. The horizon is a line disturbed by nothing. I’m on a small peninsula named “Westerplatte”. I came by bus. Westerplatte belongs to Gdańsk, but in fact it lies outside the city. The ride here took 30 min. I have been here before. I was four years old when my parents showed me this place for the first time. I was too small to understand what this place was. I couldn’t know that this was the scene of the first clashes of World War 2. The knowledge that here, where maybe World War 2 started would not change anything as I didn’t know what war was, back then. All I remember from my first visit to Westerplatte is the stairs that I climbed with my brother while playing “catch me if you can”.
September 1st, 1939…… later in the morning. Another two assaults are attempted by the Germans. The Polish troops are heavily outnumbered. A small group of 200 men is facing 4000 Germans. Polish soldiers manage to fight off both attacks. They have enough ammunition to protect their positions for twelve hours. They will fight heroically for their fatherland for seven days.
Gdańsk…September, 2016……the noon. There are not many people here. The peninsula is covered by a forest. Visitors disappear somewhere between them. I’m making my way through the woods. As I walk around the area, I come across several ruins, bunkers and piles of rubble hidden in the bushes. One of the bunkers is almost untouched. It managed to survive 7 days of siege and 6 years of war. How did it survive? I have no idea. Maybe it had luck, or maybe it wasn’t important enough to bomb it down.
Gdańsk…September 2nd, 1939……the noon. The Germans are surprised by the resistance they encountered. They bomb the Polish positions repeatedly with heavy artillery. When this does not get the expected results, with help comes Luftwaffe. The airstrike starts. Bombing raids follow. When this doesn’t work Germans try to set fire and burn the forest to smoke out the soldiers. They fail.
Gdańsk…September, 2016……early in the afternoon. The forest is very nice. The trees look old. Their dark green colour is in contrast with almost flashy green grass. It is late summer but the sun hasn’t managed to burn the grass yet. An asphalt path crosses the forest. The day is sunny and it can be felt on the skin that it is still summer. Trees surrounding the path give cool relief. On my way there rises from the bushes a concrete construction. This is what left of a soldiers’ barracks. I can go inside, so I enter. I’m not sure if the things I see inside of the building are more terrifying or sad. I guess both. Fallen walls, fallen floors, fallen staircases. And the beautiful view from the holes that once were windows. A few meters from this place is an edge of the forest. At the edge of it there is a row of trees planted carefully in a perfect line. Each of them has a letter attached to it. Together they form the Polish phrase “never again war”.
Gdańsk…September 7th, 1939……just before the noon. Being out of supplies and ammunition and with no help on the way, the Polish commander Sucharski finds himself in a desperate situation. He knows that the surrender is the only option.
Gdańsk…October 6th. 1966…… Poland is in theory, free for 21 years now. In memory of the heroic soldiers who defended the peninsula during the Battle of Westerplatte, the Monument of the Coast Defenders is erected. Soviet authorities did not oppose.
Gdańsk…September, 2016……the afternoon. In the place where the forest ends, a flat space begins. There are a few smaller remainders of history to be found here and there. A lot of plates with black and white pictures. Most of them show Schleswig-Holstein launching fire or Polish soldiers. The words “War! War! War!” or “To wipe out Poland” shout from the posters. There is a row of Polish flags surrounding this area. Even for a foreigner it must be clear that this place was a theatre of an important event and has a huge patriotic meaning. The Monument of the Coast Defenders is easy to spot. It is located on a top of a small mound. The mound is covered by prickly wild roses. Most of them overblown already. The few flowers that still have petals are occupied by bumblebees having a pollen bath. They look comic. Flowers that lost their pink leaflets offer red rose hips instead. They add some colour to the grayish monument. The monument itself doesn’t look spectacular. It is a concrete structure of an indeterminate shape. Looks very Soviet, I would say. I climb the stairs. The same stairs I climbed more than 20 years ago together with my brother.
While walking around the monument I find the word “WESTERPLATTE” engraved. This one word means Western Island. A basic name of a random island that is located west of somewhere else. But in Poland it means much more. It means patriotism, heroism, bravery, sacrifice and national pride.
Gdańsk…September 2016…….later in the afternoon. I’m leaving Westerplatte. I’m leaving tourists that crowd at the foot of the monument and take photos, posing on the stairs. I hear them speaking at least in few different languages. I wonder if they know what this place is. I wonder if they stop and read the posters. I walk away, leaving them with the landmark and their cameras. I disappear in the forest. I’m passing by the ruins. I’m taking a bus to Gdańsk, leaving the ghosts of the past behind.
Gdańsk…September 2016……now. The air is chilly at the coast and the waters of Baltic Sea are rough. Kids are in the school. A Swedish ferry of Stena Line is docked in the harbor of Gdańsk. It will depart soon.