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Gdansk postmen’s story a stark reminder of WWII

Gdansk — Lying in a display case in a Polish museum, a handful of uniform epaulettes, eyeglasses and the soles of leather boots are a poignant reminder of the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago.

They belonged to 38 Polish postmen who were shot by the Nazis in the northern port of Danzig, after resisting an all-out assault on September 1, 1939. Buried in a mass grave, the men’s remains were rediscovered by chance in 1991.

The postmen were among the first victims of a six-year conflict that was to claim 50 million lives.

Danzig, known today as Gdansk, was an anomaly.

After its 1918 defeat in World War I Germany lost swathes of territory to the reborn state of Poland, mostly home to Poles.

The victorious Allies were reluctant to award Danzig to Poland, given that 90 percent of its 400,000 residents were German, but also did not wish to leave it in Germany’s hands.

As a result it became the "Free City of Danzig", under the auspices of the newborn League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN.

But because Poland lacked a port, it was granted special rights in Danzig. They included a military supply depot on the nearby Westerplatte peninsula and a post and telecommunications office.

German-based parties contested local elections in Danzig. The Nazis won control in 1933, the same year they were elected to run Germany.

They turned on the city’s 1,500 Jews, eventually destroying their homes, businesses and synagogues during the infamous "Kristallnacht" of 1938. They also ratcheted up harassment of Poles, in a campaign that included regular beatings of postmen.

From 1938, Berlin pressed for Danzig’s returned to Germany, and also demanded territory from Poland, which Warsaw rejected.

In July 1939, period documents show, Danzig’s Nazis drew up plans to attack the post office, while Berlin prepared its wider offensive on Poland.

A German battleship, the Schleswig-Holstein, arrived in Danzig on August 25. The vessel was on a purported courtesy visit, but was carrying orders to fire on the Westerplatte depot at 4:45 am on September 1.

There, 180 Polish troops held out for a week against 3,500 Germans.

The ship’s guns were also the signal for Nazi units to seize the post office.

But with war clouds looming, the postmen had smuggled arms in their mailbags. They met fire with fire for 14 hours before the Nazis finally pumped in burning petrol.

Six postmen died in the battle, and two were shot after surrendering. Six people died of their wounds, including the caretaker’s 11-year-old foster daughter.

In the building’s garden, a lifesize photograph today shows the captive men lined up against the actual wall, awaiting their fate.

Thirty-eight were shot, and two were to die in Nazi concentration camps.

Danzig was declared part of the Third Reich. Most of its Polish and Jewish inhabitants were massacred.

It was to be largely destroyed in 1945 as Soviet and Polish troops rolled back the Nazis. Its German inhabitants were driven from the city, which was awarded to Poland.