The historic city of Gdansk, often regarded as one of Poland’s most charming seaside destinations, beckons visitors with its rich heritage and captivating history. What sets Gdansk apart is its inclusion in the Tricity area, alongside Sopot and Gdynia. Together, these cities offer a trifecta of diverse experiences, ensuring there’s something for everyone to enjoy during their visit.
The picturesque city of Gdansk, known as Danzig in German, holds a significant place in the annals of 20th-century European history, being at the forefront of two pivotal events. In 1939, the invasion of Poland by Germany commenced in Gdansk, igniting the flames of World War II. Decades later, the city became the cradle of the Solidarity movement, marking the first opposition movement to participate in free elections within a Soviet-bloc nation.
Throughout its history, Poland has been a melting pot of cultures, serving as a vibrant center for Jewish life and culture since medieval times. Gdansk, in particular, welcomed many Jewish merchants from Lithuania in the 15th century, enriching the city’s cultural tapestry. However, the shadows of tragedy loom large over this heritage. Before World War II, a significant number of Jews emigrated, while those who remained faced unspeakable horrors. Many of Gdansk’s Jewish residents fell victim to the atrocities of the Holocaust, perishing in the concentration camp of Stutthof.
“Survival and Resilience: The Enduring Legacy of Gdansk’s Torah Scrolls”
The New Synagogue in Gdansk stands as a unique and historically significant place of worship, holding the distinction of being the sole synagogue in the city. Erected in 1927, it served as a sanctuary primarily for Jewish refugees from Russia and Wielkopolska, while also welcoming a small number of Gdansk’s Jewish residents.
Tragically, in 1938, the synagogue suffered damage, prompting the local Jewish community to make a difficult decision. In a bid to protect this important structure from further destruction, they opted to sell the property to the city of Danzig (now Gdansk). This strategic move proved pivotal in preventing the synagogue from sharing the fiery fate that befell many other synagogues in the region during that turbulent period.
Remarkably, despite the trials of war, the Torah scrolls of the New Synagogue endured. Following the conflict, they were faithfully returned to Gdansk’s resilient Jewish community, serving as a testament to the enduring spirit and resilience of the city’s heritage.
“Preserving History: Unveiling Gdansk’s Jewish Heritage Through Exhibitions”
Currently, the Jewish Community serves as the sole sanctuary for religious services in the Tricity, offering an essential spiritual and social hub for approximately 90 registered members of Gdansk’s Jewish community center. This tightly knit community takes on the responsibility of caring for the New Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery in Chelm, with future plans to manage the Sopot Jewish Cemetery.
Inside the New Synagogue, visitors can explore a small yet compelling exhibition on the ground floor, which recounts the poignant story of Gdansk’s Jewish community before World War II and the tragic events of their extermination. Encouragingly, a new exhibition is slated to premiere on the first floor in the upcoming spring season. This exhibition will feature artifacts recently discovered during excavations at the Stutthof Concentration Camp, a haunting site where many of Gdansk’s pre-war Jewish residents endured unimaginable suffering and met their tragic end.
Mychal Samet, the president of the community, revealed to The New York Jewish Travel Guide that there’s a belief that many individuals with Jewish heritage may reside in the region, some potentially unaware of their roots or hesitant to disclose them. He noted that weekly Sabbath services are held within a modest synagogue or study hall located in the same building that houses the community’s offices and dining area.
However, urgent renovations and repairs are needed for the interior of the synagogue building. Mychal stressed, “Significant funds are required to rejuvenate both the structure and its interior. This space serves a dual purpose: it is the vibrant heart of Jewish life and a venue where local non-Jewish residents can explore Poland’s rich Jewish heritage.” He emphasized that Gdansk holds unique significance, harboring one of the few remaining synagogues in this part of Poland. He added, “Preservation is our responsibility, and it’s a duty we must fulfill.”
While a Jewish renaissance has driven a gradual resurgence of Jewish life in larger cities such as Warsaw and Wroclaw, a phenomenon well-documented in recent years, Gdansk is still striving to catch up and revitalize its own Jewish heritage.
“The Legacy of the Great Synagogue: From Grandeur to Tragedy”
The Great Synagogue held immense historical significance, standing as one of the largest synagogues ever built in Gdansk. With a capacity to accommodate up to 2,000 worshippers, it featured a main chamber for 1,600 attendees and a separate women’s section for 400.
Inside, the Great Synagogue boasted remarkable stained glass, imposing chandeliers, Decalogue tables guarded by stone lions, and a colossal organ. By the 20th century, it had become a hub of Reform Judaism, hosting a Museum of Judaica. However, Nazi control of the city government in 1933 led to multiple arson attempts, culminating in damage to Torah scrolls in 1938. Consequently, precious artifacts were relocated to safer havens abroad.
Today, rebuilding the Great Synagogue remains unrealistic. A portion of its former site houses the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, while other parts are under state protection. A memorial plaque honors its legacy, commemorating the Jewish community’s sacrifice in World War I and their efforts to preserve their heritage in the face of Nazi persecution.
Established in 1939, the Stutthof Concentration Camp was the first and longest-operating Nazi camp in Polish territory. Initially intended for 3,000 inmates, it became a site of unimaginable suffering for over 125,000 prisoners from 26 countries, many perishing in its gas chambers after enduring torture and forced labor.
The memory of this concentration camp endures in the State Stutthof Museum, a solemn homage to the victims of the Nazi regime. Within its confines, visitors encounter a chilling array of structures, including a gas chamber, a crematorium, four living quarters, and the ominous SS watchtower. These stark reminders serve to commemorate the atrocities committed during this dark chapter in history.
“Preserving Dignity: Sopot’s Response to Cemetery Vandalism”
Sopot’s Jewish Cemetery offers a distinctive destination for exploration because of its intact original walls and entrance gate, despite the loss of many internal monuments over the years. Established in 1913, this serene 0.5-hectare site, nestled among enduring linden and birch trees, serves as the eternal resting place for numerous local Jewish families.
As you wander through the moss-covered grounds, you’ll encounter surviving graves with inscriptions in Polish, German, Russian, and Hebrew, dating between 1922 and 1936—the last year of interments. Notably, a monument dedicated to Jewish soldiers stands among the gravestones, while above the entrance gate, a Hebrew inscription reads, “This is the Gate to God.”
Thanks to the efforts of the Polish Nissenbaum Foundation, the cemetery has undergone partial restoration and holds the esteemed status of a registered monument. It’s important to note that the cemetery is no longer used for burials.
Regrettably, the cemetery gained international attention when a group from Gdansk, claiming to be anti-fascist, vandalized certain gravestones. This act of desecration underscored the importance of preserving and respecting the cemetery’s historical significance.
In response, residents of Sopot swiftly hung a banner expressing their apologies for the attack, demonstrating their commitment to honoring and preserving the cemetery’s historical integrity.
The Chelm Jewish cemetery, one of Poland’s oldest, managed to survive the Holocaust but sadly fell into disrepair after its closure in 1956. The Jewish community, with roots dating back to 1694, is now actively working to restore it. A poignant tribute nearby is the Monument to the Evacuated Children, honoring the ‘Kindertransport’ that saved approximately 10,000 Jewish children. Sculptor Frank Meisler, himself a Kindertransport survivor, unveiled this memorial outside Gdansk’s Glowny train station on May 6, 2009.
Monument to the Evacuated Children- New York Jewish Travel GuideWhen visiting Gdansk, make sure to explore these essential attractions:
Gdansk’s Iconic Waterfront: Take in the breathtaking views of one of Europe’s most picturesque waterfronts. A leisurely stroll along the harbor front offers a chance to soak up the city’s charm, with local street musicians providing a delightful soundtrack and tantalizing aromas drifting from nearby restaurants. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch boats gliding along the water, offering unforgettable cruises.
Colors of the Old Town: Dive into the heart of the city in its historic center, where a captivating blend of Germanic and Polish architectural styles awaits. Wander through stunning structures that narrate Gdansk’s rich history and culture, inviting you to uncover its past
In this square, be sure not to overlook the stunning Neptune Fountain and the original Fahrenheit Thermometer Monument—Daniel Fahrenheit, the inventor of the thermometer, was born in Gdansk. The Golden House, a 17th-century marvel, boasts an ornate facade adorned with intricately carved historical scenes. Nearby, Uphagen’s House, a rococo-style gem from 1776, is now part of Gdansk’s Historical Museum, showcasing a remarkable collection of textiles and garments within its period-furnished rooms.
As you wander the city streets, keep your eyes wide open to encounter a multitude of captivating gargoyles, each with its own unique charm and character, contributing to the city’s rich history and architectural beauty.
Explore Gdansk’s rich amber heritage at the Amber Museum, housed in the old prison tower. Discover how amber, formed from ancient tree resin, has shaped the city’s history, and admire stunning sculptures and art crafted entirely from this precious material. Don’t miss a stroll down Mariacka Street, where you’ll find exquisite amber jewelry—the perfect gift to remember your visit.
For a relaxing day away from the urban bustle, head to Gdynia’s clean, sandy beach. Enjoy the trendy cafés, bars, and museums that line the shore. In Sopot, a charming seaside resort, marvel at unique architecture like the Krzywy Domek (Crooked House), indulge in bars and cafes, and take a leisurely stroll along the longest pier on the Baltic Sea for a perfect coastal escape.
A trip to Malbork is essential for those intrigued by these imposing fortresses, which hold the title of the largest castle in the world by land area. Built in the 13th century, it served as the headquarters of the Grand Master of the Order. Malbork Castle is a remarkable medieval marvel, boasting approximately 30 million bricks, making it the world’s largest brick construction. Step inside to immerse yourself in history as you explore its various rooms and surrounding gardens. Depending on the season, you might even try archery or witness thrilling knight’s dual performances for an additional fee. Notably, Malbork Castle has held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1997.
Poland boasts one of the world’s largest diasporas, closely linked with Chicago, often regarded as the second-largest Polish city after Warsaw. In Gdynia, visitors can explore one of Poland’s newest and most remarkable museums—the Immigration Museum. Housed in the beautifully restored historic Marine Station building from the interwar period, this museum delves into the journeys undertaken by Polish people and sheds light on the reasons behind Poland’s extensive history of emigration. Featuring unique artwork and real-life stories of Poles living abroad, the museum offers a rich and enlightening experience for all who visit.
For more information:
For train travel, contact Rail Europe or visit https://www.raileurope.com/.
Story and photography by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com
The author participated in a press trip sponsored by the Polish Tourism Board.