Gdynia

Gdynia - Poland's gateway to the world

more than a year ago
Poland as a defined nation had existed in various shapes and sizes from the year 966, its composition being altered over the centuries by wars and alliances before the Prussians, Russians and Austrians succeeded in removing it entirely from the map in 1795 with the 3rd partition. The doughty Poles were not to be defeated, and continued to fight for their own colour on the globe, succeeding finally in regaining independence in 1918 at the end of World War I when the state was recreated at the Treaty of Versailles. The new nation required access to the sea and, having failed to convince the powers to place the important city and port of Gdansk/Danzig under Polish control, the final borders of this new nation instead included a narrow strip of land for Poland along the Baltic Sea coast.

Located between the newly created Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) and the German province of East Prussia to the east, and West Prussia to the west, this strip of coastline was reached by what was infamously to become known as the “Polish Corridor”, an avenue of land connecting the bulk of the country with the sea. The biggest port in this part of the Baltic coast at the time was Danzig, a city with a 900 year history. However many citizens there, as well as the German government who continued to exercise huge influence over the decision making of the Free City rulers, were unsympathetic to the needs of the new Polish state. This was clearly demonstrated when the port of Danzig refused to unload French armaments for Polish forces engaged in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War.

The Polish Government were therefore determined to build a new seaport at the top of the ‘corridor’ and the place they settled on was the small fishing village of Gdynia. The development of Gdynia into a major port was seen as critical for the economic independence of the new country and the story of this development was to reflect, not just one of the most incredible building projects of all time, but also the determination of a nation and its people to survive and to flourish in a new era of European history.

The development of Gdynia

Although Gdynia had first appeared in records in 1253 as a small Kashubian fishing village by 1789 it had only increased in size to a settlement of a mere 20 houses. About 80 years later, as the West Prussian village of Gdingen, it had developed slightly, with a recorded population of around 1200, some restaurants and accommodation for holidaymakers. But it was as part of the new Poland that a plan was put in train in 1920 to transform it utterly, a plan which was accelerated by the passing in the Polish parliament (Sejm) of the Gdynia Seaport Construction Act in 1923.

The new port to be carved out of the Baltic coast was to be located in this former fishing village: the Hel Peninsula provided protection from strong winds, the sea in the area was deep and usually free of ice in winter, and an existing railway was just 2 kilometres distant. Under chief port designer Tadeusz Wenda, building of the port began in 1921, but financial problems caused delays and, in 1922, the Polish Parliament decided to light a fire under proceedings. By 1923, Gdynia had a small harbour, a 550-metre long pier and a wooden breakwater, and the port was visited by its first major ocean-going vessel and its first foreign ship, the French Kentucky.

In late 1924, the Polish government engaged a French-Polish consortium to build a harbour with a depth of seven metres, and by the following year Gdynia had gained further piers, a railway and cargo-handling equipment. However, work continued at quite a slow pace until 1926 when Polish exports increased during a German-Polish trade war and as a result of a British miners’ strike. By late 1930, docks and industrial facilities had been built, and the port was finally connected to the Upper Silesian industrial and coal-producing centres by the newly constructed Polish Coal Trunk Line railway. Poland’s first passenger shipping line, from Gdynia to New York, also started up and over subsequent years famous ships like the MS Batory and MS Chrobry were to link Gdynia with transatlantic locations.

The basic plan for port construction was ingenious, consisting of digging out large amounts of land from the coast inland to create a large section of the port, then dumping the spoil from this first stage into the sea at nearby locations. In this way, effectively twice as much port area was created. In a tremendous engineering feat huge concrete blocks were built on the shore and toppled into the water in order to support the new quays and breakwaters.

While the port was being constructed, so too was the city. City rights were granted on February 10, 1926, at which time Gdynia had around 6,000 inhabitants and the city started to expand quickly with the Polish government alone bringing about 50,000 citizens to the city. By 1939 the population had risen to over 120,000. While the port was built by the state, essentially the city was built by private investors. Small single-storey buildings were initially constructed, then these were demolished by the owners to make way for multi-storey buildings as the city grew and the inhabitants became more prosperous. The project attracted all parts of Polish society to the coast with engineers, construction workers and administrators all relocating from other Polish cities, in particular Warsaw, to take part in this vital national project.

The construction of the basic harbour was completed in 1935 and by 1938 the former fishing village had become the biggest and most modern port and shipyard on the Baltic with almost half of Poland’s trade passing through it. Yet, disaster was soon to follow.

The war years

In 1939, at the start of war, German troops occupied Gdynia, the city was renamed Gotenhafen and (O-1) Skwer Kosciuszki was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. The Poles brought by their government to the city of Gdynia were expelled and worse, around 12,000, especially the more educated, were executed. The port was turned into a German naval base and the city was also used as a sub-camp of the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig.

When German troops eventually retreated from Gdynia near the end of the War, they succeeded in largely destroying the port, a job then completed by the advancing Red Army, who bombed the port and city, destroying many buildings and equipment, and sank several ships trying to escape through the Baltic Sea: among them the Wilhelm Gustloff (see Disaster at Sea), which had served as a floating barracks for naval personnel in Gdynia and whose demise, in which more than nine thousand civilians and personnel died, remains the largest loss of life in a single incident in maritime history.

Post-war history

Having built this port and city from scratch, the post-war Polish state renamed it Gdynia and started the process of making the port once again a major location for importing and exporting. The shipyard produced a large number of ships, many of them for the Soviet Union, but is perhaps best known internationally for the role the shipyard workers played in the formation of the Solidarity trade union. An earlier event, in 1970, which left much bitterness, had seen demonstrating Polish shipyard workers fired on by the police, leaving around 20 people dead. To this day this is one of the more tragic events of the fight against the communist authorities and its memory has been somewhat overlooked by the events of 1980 which saw Gdansk recognised as the spiritual home of the anti-communist fight. This is something which still rankles to this day with the local population who feel that the major contribution and the price paid in human life by the people of Gdynia has been forgotten.

What to see

The city centre is considered to be very well planned, with (N/O-1) ul. 10 Lutego/Skwer Kosciuszki and ul. Starowiejska forming the primary west-east axis and ul. Swietojanska and ul. Abrahama the north-south one. For obvious reasons, don’t expect to find an old town here, though there are still some buildings from its days as a small resort. As good a place to start as any is at the City of Gdynia Museum (ul. Zawiszy Czarnego 1), which will give you a good grounding in the city’s story, while the Naval Museum next door, featuring a garden full of weaponry including a rusting MiG fighter, is also worth a visit if you have children in tow.

While the port today is no longer the biggest in the Baltic it is, along with the neighbouring port of Gdańsk, still of vital economic importance to Poland. There are a few different ways to view it. Most picturesque is to take a walk up to one of the viewing points either at the top of Kamienna Góra (ul. Mickiewicza) or in the Pogórze Górne district (ul. Ksawerego Czernickiego). This is about 15 minutes bus ride from the centre. Take bus 194 from outside the Hala Targowa (ul. Jana z Kolna) to the last stop to enjoy majestic views over the entire city and the port. It is also recommended to take the local commuter train (SKM) to the Gdynia Stocznia stop to see the poignant memorial to workers murdered during the 1970 strikes. Finally on the port and Solidarity theme keep an eye out for another memorial to the victims of 1970 outside the City Hall building (Al. Pilsudskiego 52/54).

Do look a little deeper as well, for as much of the development of Gdynia took place during the heyday of the modernist architecture movement, there are numerous stylish buildings from that era. The short walk from the main train station to the sea along (N/O-1) ul. 10 Lutego and Skwer Kosciuszki will provide the visitor with several examples of modernist architecture which reflect the city’s maritime role, including buildings with portholes, quarterdecks and curved facades to resemble ships.

For example, there is the Polish Ocean Lines building, which now houses the Tourist Information office on ul. 10 Lutego (at the junction with ul. 3 Maja), the Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego residential building around the corner on ul. 3 Maja or, a personal favourite, at the junction of ul. Abrahama and ul. Starowiejska. Further on towards the sea there are a former cinema at no. 10-12 Skwer Kosciuszki, and the Gdynia Aquarium building and the Polish Yachtsman’s House at numbers 1 and 3 Aleja Jana Pawła II.

If you want to go shopping then ul. Świętojańska is one good place to go, and you will see this architectural style at, for example, no. 68 (Empik bookshop) or no. 122. Alternatively, for something more earthy, the market complex near the train station also dates from this period. Even today, many of the new buildings constructed in or near the city centre – such as the Batory shopping centre (N-1, ul. 10-Lutego 11), pay homage to this era and the city’s essential raison d’etre, the sea.

And as you walk around enjoying this city of 250,000 souls, take a moment to remember that had it not been for the Treaty of Versailles and the Poles’ determination to show the world, and in particular their bullying neighbours that they were worth their salt, this place might be something quite different altogether today.

Further reading

Local photographer and historian, Sławomir Kitowski, has published a number of beautiful albums recording various parts of Gdynia and her history. For those interested in seeing more wonderful photographs of the development of Gdynia from fishing village to international port should keep an eye out for these, pick of which is Gdynia Miasto z Morza i Marzeń (Gdynia – City of the sea and dreams), which can be picked up from EMPiK on ul. Świętojańska 68. You can also access more photos of Gdynia over the years thanks to the National Archive which has made collections available online.
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