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Culture

Controversial museum planned in Poland at site of first Nazi invasion

The Nazi invasion of Gdansk on Sept. 1, 1939, marked the start of World War II. A new museum is in the works on the historic site - but some fear that Poland's suffering will be underrepresented.

The German ship Schleswig-Holstein attacked the Westerplatte peninsula on Sept. 1, 1939; historical photograph

Coming from the Baltic Sea, the Nazi troops pushed through Danzig to take all of Poland

Apart from a huge, socialist-style monument, there's not much left on the Westerplatte peninsula on Poland's Baltic coast, except for bunker ruins and a few plaques commemorating the Polish soldiers who died when the Nazis invaded on Sept. 1, 1939.

There's not even a sign to tell visitors that the Second World War began on this very spot, 70 years ago.

"I heard shots from the post office and the Westerplatte peninsula. There were shots everywhere in Danzig on Sept. 1," said Elzbieta Marcinkowska-Szuca, who was born in 1914 and lived in Danzig - now called Gdansk - during the historic invasion. "Polish radio in Warsaw reported that the defense of the Westerplatte was holding up, but we were still afraid."

At the time, Marcinkowska-Szuca was employed at the post office, but happened to be off that day. That saved her life.

When the Nazi soldiers had gotten through to the post office in downtown Danzig, all of her co-workers were killed. To remember them, Marcinkowska-Szuca has kept a few old photographs over the years.

Civilians during the war

These kinds of keepsakes and survivors' reports are to be collected for the first time under one roof in Gdansk.

The planned World War II museum, to be built at a cost of 100 million zloty (about 25 million euros or $35 million), is slated to open in five years - just in time for the 75th anniversary of the start of the war.

Nazi troops lead an attack on the Danzig post office

After entering Danzig, the Nazi troops stormed the central post office

Even before the museum's completion, controversy has already erupted. It's not the costs that critics are concerned about. Rather, they've accused the museum developers of generalizing Polish history.

"The difficulty is that everyone views each event, and the very phenomenon of war, from their own perspective," said museum director Janusz Marszalec. "We want to work out a clear, decipherable model that allows Poles to present their various views - without leaving out perspectives from other nations."

And "other nations," said Marszalec, includes Germany.

An analysis of suffering

The exhibition isn't intended to focus on the soldiers and what happened at the fronts. Instead, one of the main themes is a comparison between the fates of civilians in the various countries involved in the war.

"These people also suffered," said Marszalec, referring to the German civilians at home, behind the front. "They were hit hard by the Allied bombings. They suffered because they were part of the war."

Still, a museum that mentions German suffering is incomprehensible for many in Poland - particularly those who have personal memories of the invasion.

"The Germans were victims of a war they started themselves," said Barbara Wojewska-Wojcik, Elzbieta's niece. She was only six years old in September 1939, but can still recall the horrible events of that time.

Originally proposed as a counterweight to plans for a Berlin museum on expellees from Eastern Europe after the war, the Gdansk exhibition has taken a more conciliatory tone. Representatives from 20 countries - including six people from Germany - brought handfuls of dirt from their hometowns to the memorial service Tuesday in Gdansk.

As a symbolic gesture, the dirt will be mixed together in an urn and placed in the foundation of the new museum.

Navy officers during ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Westerplatte, Gdansk, Poland, 1 Sept 2009

The 70th anniversary of the invasion was observed with a ceremony on the Westerplatte near Gdansk

Author: Katarzyna Tuszynska (kjb)

Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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