GDANSK, Poland — It was adjacent to this city, at a narrow peninsula on the Baltic Coast called Westerplatte, that the first shots of World War II were fired, little more than half a century ago.
The date was Sept. 1, 1939.
Though Gdansk has achieved worldwide fame in recent years as the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union, Westerplatte, symbolically, remains a significant landmark of 20th-Century history.
The monument, modernistic and muscular in appearance, was erected in 1966. Towering 82 feet atop a man-made hill, it commemorates the Defenders of the Coast. Fresh flowers--in red and white, Poland's national colors--adorn the monolith's base. Bouquets tied with ribbons are sometimes placed in clefts in the sculpted granite.
The first time I visited the peninsula, blossoms quivered in a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea. I was joined that morning by flocks of bundled-up Polish school kids, who learn early on that Westerplatte has great significance in their country's long, often tragic history.
So they listened intently as teachers told them about Maj. Henryk Sucharski's gallant stand.
Following a cannon bombardment from the battleship Schleswig-Holstein at 4:45 in the predawn morning of Sept. 1, 1939, 5,000 Germans stormed Westerplatte. Maj. Sucharski's 88-man garrison, hastily reinforced by about 100 volunteers from the city, was ordered to hold the peninsula's munitions depot for 12 hours.
Incredibly, the stubborn defense against impossible odds lasted seven days and seven nights, while Poland waited for Allied naval and air force help that never came. The world's most destructive war was suddenly under way, and the Poles were its first victims.
Why Adolf Hitler chose to attack this place at that time is an entangled matter, with strands stretching all the way back to the Treaty of Versailles, signed 70 years ago, in 1919.
By treaty mandate, the strategic port city was taken from defeated Germany and made an independent state--called the free city of Danzig--at the Baltic outlet of a 90-mile strip of German territory assigned to Poland. This "Polish Corridor" separated East Prussia from Pomerania on Germany's fractured map. Hitler's demand for reunification led to the 1939 invasion.
I walked the pathways over grassy stretches and through wooded areas. Sea birds swooped and squawked overhead. The vanished garrison's concrete barracks have been left as a bullet-pocked, artillery-shattered ruin.
The actual monument to Sucharski and his men is close by: a tank on a pedestal, along with a cross and a dark bronze tablet brightened with flowers. Atop a tablet perches an eagle--Poland's ancient, stalwart emblem--with one wing bent low to represent pain in battle.
As I looked and pondered, a girl's voice came from a cluster of teen-age students. She was reciting a poem. It is, my companion explained, commemorative verse written by Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski and familiar to Poles young and old:
"When the days were fulfilled
and one had to die in summer,
straight to heaven, in rows of four
went the soldiers of Westerplatte." Such gestures are not uncommon, for this is hallowed ground indeed, and Polish people are emotional and intensely patriotic. On a subsequent visit, I watched six old men step into military cadence while heading uphill to the Defenders of the Coast monument. Medals hung from their suit jackets. After laying a floral wreath, they saluted and then marched back down the hill to conclude their silent, private ceremony.
Friends in Gdansk told me that Westerplatte's importance to Poland goes beyond that fateful first week of September in 1939. It represents defiant resistance throughout the war. Hence the powerful symbolism of a monument that stands alone, rock-solid and tall, facing the sea.
Of course, my friends also showed me their city, made famous in this decade by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement. Local history, however, precedes Westerplatte and the labor unrest of the 1980s by hundreds of years.
As is the case everywhere in Poland, the past is clouded by conquests and partitions. Consequently, Gdansk has endured geopolitical identity crises, becoming Prussian-German Danzig in 1772 and 1793. It was absorbed into Hitler's Reich after the fall of Poland in 1939.
But there have been glory days, too. This is immediately apparent in the sizeable Old Town sector, clustered between canals, the Motlawa River, magnificent gate towers and remnants of medieval walls.
We strolled the pedestrian-only Royal Road, lined with beautifully embellished Baroque and Renaissance facades. The route broadens at a public square called Dlugi Targ (long market); its narrower continuation is Ulica Dluga (Long Street).
At midpoint stands the Town Hall's 260-foot clock tower, built in dark-red brick late in the 14th Century, soon after the seaport had joined Northern Europe's Hanseatic League of mercantile cities.