The entrance to the Museum of the Second World War in the northern Polish city of Gdansk is through a typical cobbled street which looks exactly how it would have done in 1939 before the fighting started.
The lights are on, shops, their windows full of goods, are open and all looks perfectly normal – apart from the odd, ominous Nazi propaganda poster plastered on the walls.
Then several hours later you exit the building, still shell-shocked by the horrors you’ve seen, past an imposing Russian T-34/85 tank, along a bombed-out, rubble-strewn wrecked road.
By now all the Nazi propaganda posters have been torn down … only to be replaced by equally grim Soviet ones.
And five million Poles are dead with 95 per cent of Gdansk razed to the ground – destroyed first by the invading Germans and then by their Russian “liberators”.
So it is fitting that this €100 million museum, opened in 2017, should be in Gdansk. For it was here, when the city was known as Danzig, that World War II started.
Early on the morning of September 1, 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which had sailed into the harbour on the pretext of a “courtesy call”, suddenly and without any warning, began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte.
Minutes later, heavily-armed Nazi police and crack SS units attacked the Polish post office, just a few yards from where the museum has now been built.
Fifty Poles armed with a motley mix of weapons held them off for 17 hours before, as part of the shelled building began to collapse, finally surrendering. Bullet holes from the battle can still be seen in some of the remaining walls.
The defenders were subsequently lined up against a wall and executed by a firing squad. Poland’s first martyrs of the war.
The heavily-outnumbered Westerplatte garrison, which had been expected to capitulate within hours, held out for seven days, despite repeated shelling and dive-bomber attacks, before finally hoisting a white flag.
Across the Bay on the appropriately-named Hel peninsular, 3,000 stranded Polish troops defied overwhelming odds to defy the Germans until October 2, shooting down at least 50 enemy planes and damaging two battleships.
To really appreciate the museum and trace Poland’s subjugation under first the Nazi jackboot and then the Soviet hammer and sickle you need at least four hours. A whole day would be preferable.
But it’s a harrowing experience. One wall, floor to ceiling, is covered with hundreds of photographs showing some of the three million Polish Jews who died.
There is also a railway truck into which many of them would have been crammed as they were carted off to the concentration camps.
And hanging from the ceiling is one of the Luftwaffe’s Stuka dive-bombers which brought so much terror, death and destruction across the whole of Europe
But some of the simpler, everyday things are most shocking. Like the homesick German soldier who proudly sent to his parents a postcard showing him shooting dead a Polish family in cold blood.
Gdansk itself has now been largely rebuilt in traditional style, the building’s medieval frontages largely reminiscent of old Amsterdam. It’s a wonderful city to wander around with some excellent bars and restaurants, especially along the banks of the Motlawa River.
Author Gunter Grass and philosopher Schopenhauer were both born here. So too was Daniel Fahrenheit, inventor of the temperature scale that old guys like me still think in.
And, of course, it was in the shipyard here that Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement, which ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, was born.
For more details about Gdansk and Poland, see https://www.poland.travel/en.
Details of the Museum at https://muzeum1939.pl/en.
Ryanair fly direct to Gdansk from various UK airports.