The Second World War 60 years on: Where it all began...

Next week, Europe will remember the 60th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. But in the city of Gdansk, launchpad of the conflict, the memories have never gone away
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some have forgotten, and now there are many who never knew that the second world war began at Gdansk (then Danzig) in northern Poland. Those of a certain age know that on the first day of September 1939, the German battleship Schleswig Holstein fired its shells over Westerplatte, at the entrance to the port, and into the Polish military post. Within two days, on 3 September, Britain had declared war on Germany.

Now you can approach Westerplatte without covering fire or armoured support by boarding the 106 bus from the centre of Gdansk.

I visited the area to see for myself independent, free-enterprise Poland, and to experience a Poland at peace. But I could not help being drawn, on the way, to those landmarks which illustrate the country's tragic journey through history where, too often, its story has been one of bloodshed and strife.

The docks of Westerplatte are a bustle of commerce - timber is loaded, western goods are unloaded. The area behind is green and pleasant parkland, but the docks feature a proud, sad museum commemorating the agony of the war, with some dockland ruins left, stark, just as they were after the bombardment.

In the town of Gdansk itself, politicians, the newspapers and TV proclaim its democratic freedom. The people in the street, with their trainers, jeans, and mobile phones, testify to its normality as a European city, and the shops, fully stocked, exemplify the resurgence of the consumer. You don't have to go far, however, to be reminded that it is a miracle that this exists at all. Gdansk was almost completely destroyed in the war; in the Old Town the level of destruction was officially put at over 90 per cent.

I walked from Golden Gate, at the western edge, a kilometre to the east to St Mary's Gate - built more than 300 years ago, it was reduced to a few feet of smouldering rubble in 1945. The surviving citizens and their descendants have rebuilt it in its entirety. Now one can marvel at the loveliness of Gdansk's Long Street, at the green and red decorated facades, the elaborate panelled doorways and ornamented roof gables.

The evocative and atmospheric St Mary's Street is the most famous in Gdansk, and unique in Poland. It, too, was pulverised by the occupying armies, but after the war old documents and illustrations of the area were found and every building was re-made, stone by stone, to the original designs and with similar materials. Every usable piece of marble, gilt, or wrought iron found in the rubble was restored and incorporated.

At the end of the street is St Mary's Church, the largest brick church in the world, which can hold 25,000 worshippers. It took 159 years to build and survived for another 400, before being burnt out in a few days in 1945. Luckily, many of the works of art inside, along with the huge astronomical clock - which must be one of the finest in the world - had been removed and hidden, and are now back in place in the restored church. Adam and Eve still ring the bells every hour and the saints show their puppet-like paces every quarter. As I admired the great gold- ornamented timepiece, three storeys high under the huge vault, a priest in a white robe and hat, with a bushy white beard, spotted my interest and came up to me.

"When I was a boy," he said, "I loved watching all 12 apostles circling throughout the day. Now only eight are left. But come back: John, Andrew, Peter and Philip are being restored. They will be back."

Other old areas of the city have been rebuilt - more in the style of an average modern town - but St Bridget's Church, in the centre, still remains, a fine example of the power of the church to harbour the heart of an oppressed people. St Bridget's was also almost destroyed in 1945; its Renaissance tower and Gothic vault were each rebuilt, and it has since become the symbolic centre of Poland's future.

It was here, near the Gdansk shipyard, that Lech Walesa, the trade unionist who became president of Poland, worshipped, and where the church gave its support to Solidarity and the overthrow of communism. The church has modern craftwork which future historians will venerate, including crosses that commemorate the workers' strikes, and bas reliefs which depict scenes from Solidarity's history.

The sight of it prompted us to walk a mile or so across the city towards the shipyard and its own monument. We walked with Georg, a student acting as our part-time guide whose T-shirt pronounced: "I'm Alive." He had the exaggerated smile of a budding con man.

From the advertising hoardings and flashing neon we saw that the only battles being fought now are of the commercial kind between Shell and Esso, and Coke and Pepsi.

We next set off for lunch at the Pod Wieza. I chose the borsch (soup) and the golonka (leg of pork with pea puree and sauerkraut), and over the meal Georg reminded us that Poland had been wiped off the map by Russia and Prussia for a century until 1900. The country lost a million men in the first world war and during the second world war three million citizens died, in addition to the three million Polish jews who were exterminated - a total of 20 per cent of the population.

The restaurant did not serve dessert, which seems standard practice for Polish restaurants, so we walked on to a milk bar for coffee and shortcake. In the few yards in between, Georg vanished into thin air. So we strolled along the shops offering amber, dolls, and, endlessly, wooden eggs, until we got to the gates of the shipyard. Here stands the Solidarity monument commemorating the 45 workers killed during a 1970 strike. They won't let you into the yard if you just turn up but visits can be arranged in advance.

Getting out of Gdansk is easy by bus, train and boat. The favourite day trip of locals is to the fishing village of Hel near the tip of the peninsula separating the Gulf of Gdansk from the Baltic Sea. Our boat left from the centre of the old town and moved along the Motlawa River into the gulf for the one-hour voyage. The beach, a resort in summer, has hosted the world windsurfing championships.

The peninsula, only 500 yards wide, was defended to the death and was the last part of the country to be given up to the Germans in 1939; it was also the last part of Poland which the Germans surrendered to the Russians. So, the people of Gdansk are only half-joking when they say, as they do, that they have been to Hel and back.

Getting there: between them, British Airways and LOT Polish Airlines fly three times a week from Gatwick to Gdansk. Fares are lowest through an agent such as Polorbis (0171-637 4971), which yesterday quoted pounds 170.50 for return travel in September. From other airports, there are good fares available from discount agents on SAS. Alex Ninian visited Gdansk as part of a Baltic cruise on the P&O liner `Island Princess'.

Polish National Tourist Office: First Floor, Remo House, 312 Regent Street, London WIN 4JH (0171-580 8811 for brochure requests)

... and Where the Third Reich Met Its End

THE SILENCE of an empty classroom always has an eerie quality. The peace contained within the walls of this particular technical college, in a dreary backstreet of Reims, is broken by some bold capital letters.

TOP SECRET, barks a despatch.

Not for long, it wasn't, I reflected. A watercolour captures the moment when the world, or at least that part of it at war with Nazi Germany, could begin to breath again.

"The German Government surrendered unconditionally, at Reims, France, at 02.41hr, 7 May," read the notice.

Every town in France has a rue or avenue 8 Mai 1945, to mark Victory in Europe Day, when the Nazis - their forces routed, their leader dead in the ruins of Berlin - capitulated. Yet the surrender was signed in the early hours of the previous morning.

Shortly after midnight on Monday, 7 May. General Jodl, Admiral von Friedburg and Colonel Oxenius were driven to the College Modern et Technique de Garcons. They represented the remnants of the Third Reich. Within two hours, the most evil war machine of the 20th century had shut down.

Simon Calder

The Museum of the Surrender is at 12 rue Franklin Roosevelt, Reims (00 33 3 26 47 84 19), open daily except Tue