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Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Gdansk basks in its former glory

After being reduced to rubble during World War II, the port, formerly called Danzig, has been restored and is preparing to celebrate former resident Gunter Grass' 80th birthday

DPA , Gdansk, Poland

Gunter Grass' book The Tin Drum.

When German author Gunter Grass was born in a suburb of this historic city on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea 80 years ago it was known to most of the world as Danzig.

The port now goes under the Polish name of Gdansk and the district of Langfuhr, where Grass first saw the light of day, has changed its name to Wreszcz.

A great deal has happened in the meantime including a war unleashed by the Germans that killed 50 million people and destroyed the Free City of Danzig. The Old Town was reduced to rubble. The German population was forced to leave and only a small ethnic minority remained. Thanks to excellent restoration work, the seaport is now as handsome as it was before hostilities began.

Once a free city under the Protection of the League of Nations, the Danzig of yore lives on in the novels of Nobel Literature laureate Gunter Grass. Echoes of the heroes of his first and probably best-known novel The Tin Drum - especially of the diminutive Oskar Matzerath - can be found in the streets of the old Hanseatic city.

Gdansk attracts countless tourists who are fascinated by the places that inspired the work of Germany's most famous post-war novelist. Their numbers are sure to increase in the run-up to the author's 80th birthday on Oct. 16.

Langfuhr, or Wreszcz, used to be on the outskirts of Gdansk but is now an integral part of the city. Mieczyslaw Abramowicz, a member of the Gunter Grass Society in Gdansk, has devised a route through Wreszcz that follows the biographical and literary footsteps of the author. A total of four such tours are planned in various parts of the city.

Last June saw the inauguration of the first of these literary round trips, one that has been given the name "Eight gifts to mark the 80th birthday of Gunter Grass." Each of the "presents" is a place which reminds visitors of the writer or one of his characters - such as the old brewery in Langfuhr or the Church of the Sacred Heart. Grass was christened here, just like Oskar Matzerath, whose frenetic drum-playing later gets him into a lot of trouble.

Abramowicz is very familiar with all these places, such as the market square in Wreszcz where in The Tin Drum Oskar's grandmother Anna Koljaiczek peddles her eggs, butter and geese every Tuesday with hot bricks secreted under her skirts in order to keep warm. Not far from here is the site of the former synagogue in Wreszcz, which has since been converted to a school for music. It was sold by the Jewish congregation even before war broke out. Most Jews in Danzig had fled the city before the tide of anti-Semitism. Those who did not leave were murdered.

Most tourists who come to Wreszcz find their way to a street that used to be called Labesweg. Here stands the house where Gunter Grass was born. It was a cramped place and he often alluded to it in his writings. The street has been renamed Ulica Lelewela, but the appearance of number 13 has hardly changed through the years. It is easy to imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to grow up here.

Grass has long been an honorary citizen of Gdansk and plans to erect a statue in his honor have been on the cards for years. Grass suggested using the money instead to pay for indoor toilets to be installed in houses in the Ulica Lelewela. "They still haven't got them," said Abramowicz. And there is no sign of the proposed monument to Grass either. A statue of Oskar Matzerath does exist, though, and can be found not far from the Ulica Lelewela.

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