The creep factor in Gdansk

Okay, there’s a darkness here I wish I didn’t have to acknowledge. I call it the creep factor. It lurks behind the deep yellow, rust and green painted facades of the buildings in Old Town, threads through the black veins of amber, and burns in the eyes of the damned in Gdansk’s masterpiece, Hans Memling’s The Last Temptation. The creep factor reaches its zenith in the Artists’ Court, a vast hall decorated with enormous paintings (more tortured souls being dragged to Hell), large wooden boats suspended from high ceilings, old swords and weapons, and an armored warrior looming over us on a high landing. I imagined him glaring though it was hard to tell, his head being a deer’s, crowned with antlers.
Staring up at the deer-soldier, I tactfully asked our guide, Kristof, “Was the deer a noble animal?”
“No,” he said, “but hunting in the forest was the most noble act of all.”
A medieval hunting lodge, where apparently the town leaders still welcome important people and heads of state to gather and drink.
Outside on the main street of Old Town, the sun shines, a guitarist strums a waltz, tourists bite into succulent pierogies at cafes or lick soft ice cream cones as they saunter past souvenir shops and twinkling displays of amber. The Old World charm factor does serious battle with the creep factor, and believe me, I’m more than ready to be charmed. Why shouldn’t people sweep shadows and darkness under the cobbles? Shouldn’t they be allowed to forget?
After all, this curious little town was Danzig. Bombed in 1945. Scars remain. On our walking tour, Kristof takes us through one thousand years of Polish history—being tossed between Russia and Germany, and once even being erased from the map of the world—but he never once mentions the word, Jew. That loaded word, in itself potent enough to transform otherwise peaceful humans into antlered beast-faced monsters.
“There is a concentration camp 40 km from here,” says Kristof, without elaborating on who was killed there, and who did the killing.
I like Kristof, with his brush of dark hair, shy smile when we laugh at one of his jokes, and strange body tic—a swerve of his chest. He points out his wife’s favorite café, and the best place in town to eat pierogies: Udzika on Piwna Street.
Through the day I’ll eat pierogies (stuffed with chicken, raisins and nuts), drink Polish beer, linger at the amber stands, and am, I confess, slowly seduced by the desperately sweet scent of confectioner’s sugar and sidewalk cafes and the piercing loveliness of sunset over the bricks and cobbles, and the moon peeking through the Ferris Wheel near the canal.
Still, I find myself wandering through the Old Town gates, leaving color, lights and people behind, to a darker, seedier area. I slow down at a group of tattooed, pierced, spike-haired teens smoking and laughing in front of a coffee shop, very different from the cafes in Old Town. Its scrawled window advertises “Okie Dokie.” A new kind of coffee on my endless search for great coffee through the world? George Michael’s voice blasts from inside: “Freedom!”
And I keep going.