I admire tour guides for the same reasons I admire standup comedians: they’re all-around smart, historically-informed, and adept at attuning to the perspectives of others. The good ones at least.

Having relied on tour guides from Eastern Europe to East Africa, I’ve had mostly excellent guides, with some forgettable and regrettable ones mixed in. This post is basically a tribute to a guide named Łukasz Darski, who showed me Gdańsk, a jewel of a city on the Baltic Sea coast of northern Poland.

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Gdańsk (old town pictured) is actually a tri-city region on the Baltic Sea coast with Sopot and Gdynia, all three of which have their own character.

There seems to be a certain tao to finding the right guide. I tend to rely on word of mouth from people I know rather than checking online reviews or booking with a company. Łukasz was recommended to us by our PolishOrigins genealogy guide.

We connected with him via WhatsApp on our two-hour drive from Toruń to Gdańsk. He was immediately responsive and asked just a couple questions about our interests and time allotment. He suggested we start at the European Solidarity Centre the next morning, which turned out to be exactly the right call.

The ECS is located in the shipyards of Gdańsk, where laborers started the Solidarity movement (Polish: Solidarność) in the 1980s, which ultimately helped to bring down Communist systems throughout Europe.*

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Gdańsk shipyard, near the location of the Solidarity Centre. Two factors made Gdańsk a site where the Solidarity movement could incubate. First, it provided access to sailors who brought in new ideas and information from outside the Soviet bloc. Second, the network of man-made islands and bridges in the shipyards were not accessible to tanks and larger military equipment that were used to quash previous revolts.

“Here they are researching and trying to spread the idea of solidarity,” Łukasz told us when we met him in the Solidarity Centre atrium. Lech Wałęsa, the Nobel-prize winning figurehead of the movement and former president of Poland, maintains an office in the building. The centre was hosting a conference on critical thinking that day.

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Atrium of the European Solidarity Centre. The rust-colored steel buttresses are angled five degrees to give the appearance of a ship’s hull.

The permanent exhibit positions the Solidarity movement as the proudest moment in modern Polish history. Solidarność was the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union. Its membership peaked at 10 million members — 1/3 of the Polish working-age population at the time.

Exactly which moments Poland should be proud of in its history is a dynamic conversation. Having been partitioned and occupied by its neighbors for a period that stretched from the late 18th to the early 20th century — and then again during World War II — there is no shortage of traumatic memory in Poland.

At one point during the trip, our genealogy guide subtly noted, “In Poland there are no politics — only history,” which seems to be a play on a comment attributed to French philosopher Jacques Ellul. I take it to mean that the political office-holders are the ones who have constructed and wielded the most compelling historical narratives, for better or worse.

Poland’s current political powers hold up an image of the country as the martyr of Europe, a victim whose suffering and righteousness has never been properly acknowledged. It is an agenda that shares traits with other forms of nationalism attracting populist support in Europe and the US, with a common denominator of mostly white Christian men. Several of the heroes of Solidarność, including Wałęsa and the Kaczyński brothers, have played a part in Poland’s shift to the hard right. It’s complicated.

In spite of the complications, the ECS skillfully and powerfully constructs a narrative of Solidarity as an example of Polish character at its best. Here are four reasons why it ranks up there as one of the most effective and relevant museum exhibits I’ve seen*:

The information was presented in a visually-compelling way without over-reliance on interactives. I feel pressure to read everything in museums, so I rely on the visual design to convey quickly what this section is all about and where I should focus my attention. The ECS did this expertly, and in conjunction with a fascinating collection. One exhibit pavilion features the original “21 Demands” document, which is a series of demands the striking shipyard workers made of the Communist authorities, written on plywood and posted for all workers to read. The ceiling of the pavilion is dotted with hardhats worn by the shipyard workers.

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The original “21 Demands” document, which is included by UNESCO in its “Memory of the World” list as one of the most important documents in history. Among the 21 points are calls for free trades unions to be established, censorship abolished, and political prisoners to be released.
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Ceiling in one area of the ECS, covered in hardhats worn by Gdańsk shipyard workers. For a good history of Solidarność with further resources, check out this summary from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

2. The Narrative

The exhibit’s narrative offers the most relevant advice in Europe and the US right now:

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Uniforms representing nine striking coal miners who were massacred in Katowice in 1981 during the Solidarity struggle. Coal miners’ uniforms hang on hooks at the beginning of each day. These uniforms hang in memoriam, implying they will never again be taken off the hook by the nine workers who were massacred.
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A closing wall at the ECS features the emblem of Solidarność formed by comments made by visitors.

4. The Guide

Łukasz. He’s from Gdańsk and lived through this history. He essentially gave us a socially-conscious tour of the permanent exhibit and wove in elements of his personal experience to enrich the displays.

For example, one nook in the museum is a recreation of the living room of a Communist-era flat. These flats are all over Poland and are still used, though now the exteriors have a modicum of color and the interiors are furnished with more zest.

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Model of a Communist-era flat at the ECS.

“The only inaccuracy here is that the flat probably would not have color TV,” Łukasz said.

He told us a story of his sister waiting in a line for four hours for a doll, only to be told there were none left.

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Refrigerated display case used during Communist era in Poland. The item was used to illustrate the point that after standing in line for up to four hours for provisions, one would finally make it to the front of the line and often find the shelves empty.

He talked about regretting his choice not to attend the June 12, 1987 mass in Gdańsk led by John Paul II (Polish-born Karol Wojtyła).

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Mass led by Pope John Paull II in front of 700,000 people in Gdańsk. The Pope subtly but unquestionably advocated for Solidarność when he said, “Bear one another’s burdens…Solidarity — this means: one with another, and since the burden exists, then it’s a burden to be carried together, in the community.” Photo by Chris Niedenthal.

As great as the ECS exhibit was, Łukasz could have been talking to us in a coffee shop and we would have been enthralled. We had budgeted to spend two hours at the museum, by which point we were deeply engrossed in an exchange of ideas about American and Polish politics. We spent three hours at the museum altogether and certainly could have spent four.

Next, Łukasz took us on an outdoor hike, which we were game for on a crystal clear but brutally windy, cold day.

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The saunter up the hill in freezing cold wind was worth it for this overlook. Shipyards on the left, old town on the right.

Our next stop was a quick lunch at a bar mleczny, or milk bar, which is a small-ish den that serves a decent cafeteria-style menu for cheap. They were popular with students and commoners during some of the leaner economic times of the 20th century in Poland. It’s a nice choice for a cheap lunch.

“I like this one because your coat doesn’t smell like milk bar the rest of the day,” Łukasz said, referring to the typical lack of ventilation in these places.

To my plate, I added gołąbki (stuffed cabbage roll simmered in a tomato sauce) and ziemniaki (potatoes, of course) to go with my favorite soft drink in Poland, czarna porzeczka (black currant juice). I’m waiting for the day when Costco starts selling it, so I can buy a pallet full. To top it off, I had to pick a bowl of soup from the good selection on offer. I chose kapuśniak — cabbage soup.

“To jest najlepsze,” the lunchlady said when the bowl landed on my tray. It’s the best.

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A gołąbki. This all sounds like a lot of cabbage, and it is. It really is. But still, it’s not too much cabbage.

By lunchtime, our party had decided to stay an extra night in Gdańsk so we could see more of the city with Łukasz. After touring historic sites in the beautiful old town, Łukasz set us up in a sauna on the Baltic beachfront in nearby Sopot, where the custom is to run out of the sauna, across the frozen sand, and into the ice-cold sea — then back to the warmth of the sauna. We ended night one with a dinner at Bulaj, an upscale restaurant 250 meters down the beach.

Our second day with Łukasz featured a visit to Gdańsk’s monumental museum dedicated to World War II. Here, the tensions in Poland’s historical reckoning with WWII fully surface. Our touring with Łukasz concluded at the Muzeum Emigracji (Immigration Museum) — the counterpart to Ellis Island on the Polish side. This building was the place where the majority of Poles who left for the US boarded ship. I hope to cover both of these museums in future posts.

To say a final word about Gdańsk and Łukasz: Gdańsk is a beautiful city with a ton of interesting activities to offer, but Łukasz brought it to life for us in a way that made us promise to ourselves that we will come back. It’s a city and an experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. If you’re planning to visit Gdańsk, book a tour with Łukasz.

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Me and Łukasz at the European Solidarity Centre, with Lech Wałęsa behind us signing historic documents with a conspicuous red pen. The pen was designed by a struggling entrepreneur from Częstochowa, Poland’s holy city of miracles, which is home to the revered Black Madonna painting. Wałęsa knew the signing of the accords would be seen worldwide. His choice to use this absurdly large pen boosted the business of the guy from Częstochowa. The pen has a postcard of John Paul II rolled up inside of it.

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Notes

Pronunciation Guide:

Standard disclaimer: Pretty much all the r’s are rolled. The penultimate (second-to-last) syllable almost always receives the emphasis. The letter ę is not exactly “en,” but like a nasally “en.” Which brings me to the point: I’m still learning Polish and I’m making up my own phonetic spellings, so take all this with a grain of salt. If you see something in error, linguistically or historically, let me know. It’s good learning opportunity for me.

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