Malbork to Gdansk
I am now back at Malbork Station. I am standing on the platform and looking east. The old main line continues for another 80 kilometres to Braniewo (Braunsberg), now on the Russian border. 55 kilometres beyond that, inside the Russian enclave, is Kaliningrad (Königsberg).
Although I could make some progress from here towards the Russian border, I would not be able to get any further. Even assuming I could get into Russia (almost impossible in 2022), I would still be forced to resort to alternative means to complete the trip into Kaliningrad; although there are broad gauge tracks on the Russian side, no trains run across the border.
Although I will turn around here, I am not going to go back to Berlin exactly the way I came. Until 1945 there were always two rail routes linking Malbork and Berlin; the way I came via Schneidemühl (Piła) and another way via Danzig (Gdańsk) and Stettin (Szczecin). I will go back using the latter route, although I intend to make an extended visit to Gdańsk on the way first.
Back in the interwar era of privileged trains, there was a daily service that ran from Königsberg to Berlin via Danzig (Gdańsk) and Stettin. Some of its carriages would have been sealed from here at Malbork all the way through both the Free City of Danzig and the Polish corridor until Gross Boschpol, the first German station on the line to Stettin. The same train also conveyed carriages that were sealed through the Polish Corridor but served the Free City of Danzig.
I retrace my journey over the Nogat, back across that triangle of land that used to be part of the Free City of Danzig, back over the Vistula and then back into the former Polish corridor at Tczew. From there I head north, passing the old boundary to re-enter what was once the Free City. The whole journey, which would have involved crossing 3 separate frontiers in the 1930s, now takes less than an hour.
I arrive at Gdańsk‘s beautiful central station. it was opened in 1900 and shares its design with Colmar in Alsace which was also part of the German Empire at the time. Unfortunately, the main building is currently undergoing restoration and it is impossible to enter. I spend the next 4 days exploring the city.
My trip around Gdańsk can be followed here
After 4 days, I am ready to resume by journey back to Berlin. I will now head through Gdynia, Lebork, Slupsk, Kozsalin and Stargard on my way to Szczecin (Stettin). I will change trains there and then head across the German border at Tantow and then south to the German Capital.
The first stage of my trip involves catching the 10:21 Inter-City train to Szczecin. The train takes the name “Bryza”, the Polish word for “Breeze”. It has originated further south from here at the town of Olsztyn and now will take another 5 hours to reach Szczecin.
The train consists of just 4 refurbished PKP Inter-City coaches headed by an EP-07 locomotive of 1965 vintage. The EP-07 (E-07) is based on the British-designed E-06. With over 400 in service the E-07 is still the most numerous electric locomotive class on PKP
I have managed to get an excellent deal on First Class and have paid just £8 for the 5-hour trip. The coach I am travelling in, at the front, is a composite with half the length having compartments for first class and the other half having an open section for second class.
The rest of the train consists of a side corridor second class coach, and two open second class coaches, one of these has a small area set aside for a trolley service and automatic vending machines. Nevertheless, there is no catering on the train today, so it is just as well that I have come equipped with my own picnic lunch.
My compartment, like the rest of the train, has been extensively refurbished and features digital displays and new seats. It all looks very attractive, and the seats are actually very comfortable. When I get on there is already an old man sitting in the compartment, he greets me in Polish and smiles when I answer in English.
The route I will be taking was opened in stages by the Berlin-Stettin Railway Company. Its main line from Berlin reached Stettin in 1843 and was then extended east in stages to finally link to Danzig by 1870. The whole operation was taken over by the Prussian State in 1880.
The train departs a few minutes late, and then makes a couple of stops on the outskirts of Gdańsk. After a few more minutes we make a stop at Sopot and then head over what was until 1939 the border between the Free State of Danzig and Poland. The next stop is at Gydnia, the port city that was created by Poland to rival Danzig in the interwar period.
Just before arriving at the station there is a junction with the North-South Coal Trunk-Line, a railway built in the late 1920s and early 1930s to carry coal from Silesia through the Polish corridor to Gydnia for export. The line is traceable on the modern PKP map. It avoids Gdansk and heads south to Bydgoszcz.
At Gydnia an elderly woman comes into the compartment. She greets the old man in Polish and thanks him as he helps her to place her suitcase on the rack. Then, save for a brief exchange when the ticket collector appears, there is total silence. Neither of them attempts to talk to each other or to me for the rest of the trip.
From Gydnia the line turns to the west. We make a stop at Wejherowo (until 1918 Neusladt), which would have been the last station inside the Polish Corridor. We then continue west passing through Gorziepole Wiekele without stopping. Until 1945 this station, then known as Gross Boschpol, would have been the first place the privileged train would have stopped back in Germany, and where its sealed coaches would have been unlocked.
We would now have entered what the Germans used to refer to as Pomerania. The word comes from the Slavic “po more” and means “land of the sea”. From 1815 until 1945 the province of Pomerania stretched along the Baltic coast from here all the way to Stralsund and beyond.
The Pomeranian Voivodeship in today’s Poland includes the city of Gdansk itself and stretches west to beyond Slupsk. The West Pomeranian Voivodeship then continues towards Szczecin. Over the border in modern Germany the name lives on as the Federal State of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania.
Hour of the Women
Two hours into the journey and we reach Slupsk. This town was known as Stolp until 1945 and the area around it is the setting for a fascinating story I read when it first came out in English more than thirty years ago.
“Hour of the Woman” by Christian von Krockow (translated from the German “Die Stunden der Frauen”) is billed as the story of a German Scarlett O’ Hara, but it is actually far more riveting because it is based on truth.
The book tells the story of Christian’s sister Libussa, whose aristocratic Prussian upbringing in Stolp can in no way prepare her for the tumultuous events at the end of the Second World War.
With all the men away at war or dead, the pregnant Libussa is forced to adapt to survive as the Russians approach Pomerania from the east, Germany is defeated and eventually the area in which she grew up becomes part of Poland and she is forced to leave for good.
The railway I am travelling on features heavily in the book with Libussa making trips between Stolp and Berlin during the war and afterwards, at one point trying to disguise herself as a Polish passenger.
The story is unusual in that it is told from the point of view of the defeated Germans, with Libussa portrayed as, if not the victim, certainly as the heroine. The book cannot help but hint at the injustice of Libussa being forced to leave an area where her ancestors had lived unmolested for centuries.
Nevertheless, given the tremendous suffering of the Polish people at the hands of the Nazis, this could all be construed as somewhat controversial. The author skilfully addresses this issue in an afterward to the English language edition, reporting visits that he and his sister have made to their former home and their friendships with the Polish people now living there, dismissing any German protests at the loss of territory at the end of the war.
On towards Szczecin
The train continues its journey west. With its locomotive hauled carriages, manned stations, old style signal boxes and corridor coaches, there is something very endearing about the Polish railway system. It feels like a much cheaper, cleaner and more comfortable version of British Rail twenty or thirty years ago.
Although it is electrified throughout, I am surprised to see that the whole line almost all the way to Szczecin has been single track. Eventually, we reach the main Szczecin- Poznan line at Stargard.
We leave Stargard behind and finally reach the outskirts of Szczecin (Stettin), the train’s terminus. Just before the main station we cross the Oder River. For many miles to the south of here the Polish-German border is the river itself, but this city, which lies to the west of the Oder, was designated as Polish in 1945; the border skirts around to include it. We pull up to terminate at the central station.
Across the border
Szczecin is apparently worth a longer visit, but today I have less than an hour connection here. I head off to the ticket office to buy a single ticket to Tantow, the first town in Germany. I return to find my connection, a 2-carriage diesel train operated by German Railways (DB) sitting silently in Platform 1.
The train is empty when I first get on, but as departure time approaches it fills up. Although the train conductor is German and the announcements are in German, it seems that most of my fellow passengers are Polish. There is one exception; the woman sitting opposite, who has a very large suitcase, and is speaking Russian on her phone whilst chomping on pickles from a jar she holds in her hand.
We set off, make a couple of stops on the outskirts of the city and then head out into the countryside. The Polish-German border is out there somewhere but it isn’t very clear where exactly. One minute all the numberplates on the cars waiting at level crossings are Polish, the next they are German.
The little diesel trains that ply this route cannot work into Berlin Hauptbahnhof so they normally terminate short at Gesundbrunnen station. It is actually incredible to think that the rail service between Germany’s largest and Poland’s third largest city is nothing more than an infrequent two-car stopping train.
However, our service today isn’t even going that far. There is engineering work and a bus replacement service; 40 minutes in, about a third of the way to Berlin, we are forced to detrain at Passow.
The railway I am now travelling on is the old Berlin to Stettin (Szczecin) main line. Until 1945, this was one of the premier routes out of the German capital. Many of the old stations along the line look quite imposing, although they seem to be in a bad state of repair.
At Passow itself there is an interesting display of historic photographs decorating the shelter where we wait for the bus to take us on to Angermünde. Among them is a montage celebrating the 175th anniversary (1843-2018) of the opening of the line.
The bus arrives and for the next 20km or so, we are treated to a relaxing ride through the countryside with the occasional view of the railway line off in the distance.
At Angermünde there is a train waiting to take us forward. It consists of five double-decker coaches pushed by an electric locomotive at the rear. It is already quite full of people when I get on but I manage to find a window seat on the top deck.
The line is not especially scenic and for much of the way the only views are of woodland, but there are occasionally fields full of sunflowers to enjoy. About a half hour before Berlin, we pass through Bernau and the S-Bahn trains start to appear alongside us.
After a journey of just less than an hour we arrive at the lower level of Berlin’s grand Hauptbahnhof terminal at around 6:30pm. My trip from Gdańsk has taken around 8 hours. That is, just by coincidence, roughly the same amount of time express trains took along the same route in the 1930s.
Both railway routes I have used on my journey to Poland are over 150 years old. It is fascinating to think that despite the turmoil of two world wars, a cold war and several changes in borders, they are still pretty much intact and in use today.