A tale of two cities: Fascinating exhibition looks at the histories of Gdynia and Tel Aviv
Though separated by 3000 kilometres, with one city built on the muddy silts of the Bay of Gdańsk and the other on the shifting sands of Samaria in central Israel, Gdynia and Tel Aviv have much in common.
Both were founded at around the same time and played a similar role in the history of their countries. They represented the dreams, ambitions and aspirations of two modern nations: one that had just regained its independence in the case of Poland, and one that was on a path towards the creation of a new homeland in the case of Israel.
Tel Aviv as the first ‘Hebrew’ city was an entry point for goods, and more importantly people, who sailed into the new port in waves of Aliyah. Gdynia, meanwhile, was established as ‘Poland’s gateway to the world’.
Now, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has broken down the barriers of land and sea to bring these two sibling cities together and tell their fascinating story.
The Warsaw museum has gathered an impressive collection of photographs, maps, paintings, posters, documents and scale models of each city’s stand-out structures for its major autumn exhibition ‘Gdynia – Tel Aviv’.
Artur Tanikowski, curator of the exhibition told TFN that much connects the two cities: “Gdynia and Tel Aviv are connected not only by when they were established but also by their colours, which we tried to reflect on the exhibition.
“White is the colour of modernist architecture, its bright, well-lit walls and comfortable, spacious interiors; blue is the colour of the sea and sky, while yellow is the colour of sand.”
The beginnings of Tel Aviv go back to 1906 when Jews living in the Arab city of Jaffa under Ottoman rule decided to establish a European-style settlement outside the walls of the crowded city. They named it Akhuzat Bayit (homestead).
On 11 April 1909, a famous lottery was held on dunes north of Jaffa, during which sixty-six families drew shells to decide how the land plots would be distributed in the ‘First Hebrew City’.
A year later, the city’s name was changed to Tel Aviv, which means the Hill of Spring, a literary reference to the idea of revival and renewal.
Built on sand, Tel Aviv could have seemed like an ephemeral makeshift construction without permanent foundations. However, for the Zionists, the building of the settlement was a chance for a brand new beginning.
Their dreams become reality in 1917 when British foreign minister Lord Balfour declared his support for establishing a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine.
Far away on a different continent, Poland’s window to the world was established on the site of a settlement dating back to the mid-13th century under the name Gdinam, which means wet, swampy ground.
In 1919, in the wake of the Versailles Treaty, the re-born Polish state was granted a sliver of Pomerania with a short stretch of the Baltic Sea coastline excluding the Free City of Danzig.
In March 1920, after the symbolic ‘Wedding to the Sea’, Gdynia was designated as the site of Poland’s naval harbour.
What links the two cities most and where the POLIN exhibition comes into its own is architecture.
Renowned architects were brought in to build the two cities. They promoted the modernist style, designing an urban space that reflected the modern era. Both Gdynia and Tel Aviv were dubbed ‘white cities’.
Many German Jewish architects trained at Germany’s Bauhaus school of modernist architecture left Germany during the 1930s. Some, like Arieh Sharon, came to Palestine and adapted the Bauhaus style to local conditions, creating what is recognised as the largest concentration of buildings in the International Style in the world.
Tel Aviv's White City emerged in the 1930s, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
Gdynia was also influenced heavily by the Bauhaus style, which can be seen in many of its beautiful cubic tenement houses.
A highlight of the exhibition are the crisp, white scale models of some of the most important buildings in the two cities. Stripped down to their essence with all the clutter of their surroundings removed, visitors can enjoy their simplicity of form, sleek lines and exquisite curves.
In Gdynia, there is no better example than the former ZUS building. Completed in 1936, its striking exterior harks to the transatlantic liners that were the high-tech gizmos of the day.
Meanwhile, from Tel Aviv, the Rubinsky apartment building sends a shiver down the spine with its racy form.
The new cities and their founding myth attracted and inspired artists, whose work is featured at the exhibition.
Works by such artists as Nahum Gutman, Reuven Rubin and Ludwig Blum have been specially imported from Israeli institutions, including the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Gutman’s cubist oils jump off the walls and repay an investment of attention. Born in the Russian empire, the dauber moved to Ottoman Palestine in 1905 and he went on to be a pioneer of a distinctively Israeli style, which moved away from strictly European influences.
The exhibition has been organised now to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of Gdynia, the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus university, and 110th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv.
Visitors can enjoy the exhibits from Friday 13th September to 3 February 2020.