The Bells of St. Mary

In 1473, Paul Beneke gave German painter Hans Memling’s painting “The Last Judgement” (Jüngstes Gericht) to the Marienkirche. Napoleon stole the famous Memling Triptychon and put it in the Louvre. Germany recovered it and restored it to Danzig. However, in the massive Red Army looting after the Second World War, the work of art was pilfered and whisked off to the St. Petersburg Eremitage. It is now back in Danzig. The German-built Marienkirche is the largest brick church in Europe.

Hans Memling c. 1430-1494 was a German born at Mainz, Germany, although he is often wrongly called Flemish. This great painter was probably a soldier of Charles the Bold. Wounded at the battle of Granson, he was cared for at Bruges by the Hospitallers of St. John. To reward them he made the paintings that are still to be seen in the Memling Museum. Here, he became an important burgher of that city and owned property, for in 1480, he was listed as the owner of three houses, one of them “a large stone house.” He married Anne de Valkenære (d. 1487), by whom he had three sons, Jean, Cornelius, and Nicholas. Pupils filled his studio and he received commissions from the chief citizens of the town and his fame spread beyond Flanders.

The building of the medieval church began 1343 at the behest of Ludolf König, commander of Teutonic Knights, and the church tower had to be built so that it was lower than the castle tower of the Knights. In 1466, when the Knights were expelled from city, the church tower was elevated to today’s height. Construction ended in the year 1502, when the last brick was added by Heinrich Hetzel on July 28, 1502 after 159 years of construction. In 1529, Dominican monk Pankracy Klemme opened the church for Lutherans and during next 43 years, Catholic masses were conducted at the high altar and Protestant masses at St. Nicolas altar. Catholics lost the church at last in 1572. Until 1945, the Marienkirche was the largest Protestant place of worship of the world. Today the church has 26 inside pillars, 7 gates and 37 huge windows.

In the Second World War, the Marienkirche was among the treasures heavily damaged or destroyed by Allied bombing or completely ruined by Red Army looting in March, 1945. Most of its art was destroyed, its wooden construction burned and collapsed. All of the windows were blown out and only one gate was saved. The tower’s interior burned out and the clocks either fell down or melted. Soviet soldiers devastated any surviving art. Some was fortunately hidden in 1944 and survived elsewhere. The reconstruction of the church took place in 1956.

Before and after

German Danzig at the turn of the 20th century; Danzig in 1945

The origins of Danzig are still uncertain, but it was an important town by the 10th century and had a majority German population. At different times it was held by Pomerania, Brandenburg, Poland and Denmark, but after falling under the rule of the Teutonic knights in 1308 it thrived and prospered. It received German city rights in 1343 and developed into a multi-cultural port of great importance, even attracting Scottish settlers, but maintaining a predominantly German population.

In 1919, Danzig had a 90% German majority and a 6% Polish minority. The French, in a vindictive effort to weaken German economy, poured large capital investments into Gdynia, a small Polish owned settlement 25 km away from Danzig, resulting in a massive influx of Poles. The village grew from 1,000 people to 100,000 new Polish inhabitants within 20 years, creating a volatile situation.

Things festered and Danzig was absorbed once again into Germany during the Third Reich. Toward the end of the war, Germany had begun evacuating its civilians from Danzig, which ended up being 90% destroyed by Allied bombing followed by Red Army pillage when in March of 1945 they seized Danzig and committed another orgy of rape, murder and robbery, finally setting the ancient city on fire. Most remaining Germans fled their homes in the city in winter in severe circumstances, and an astounding 70,000 Poles kept waiting in the wings were trucked in to replace them.

The old city’s treasures were burned, melted, shattered, looted, carted off to Russia or spread all over the communist world. Its German heritage was entirely and intentionally erased and the Stalinist propaganda turned Danzig into “an eternally Polish city” to justify its theft and expulsion of Germans.