I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long. It is 7:00 am on a cold April morning in Warsaw. I’m standing on the sidewalk holding my backpack like if I’m ready to hitchhike with the first car that pulls over. I’m not. I’m waiting for Anna from Intopoland to pick me up to go to Wolfsschanze – Wolf’s Lair – in Ketrzyn, Poland.
Wolf’s Lair was Adolf Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler spent nearly half of World War II (over 800 days) in this compound, which contains over 80 buildings including massive bunkers for high-ranking German Officials like Göring, Bormann, and Hitler, among others. It was here where decisions like the construction of the death camps and the fate of many European nations were made.
The 250-km-four-hour ride from Warsaw to Ketrzyn crosses through some of the most beautiful countryside, stuck-in-time villages and untouched valleys. This is the Poland that is rarely seen and visited. The farthest I am from Warsaw, the more foreign it feels.
It’s almost 11:00 am and I am now at the Mazurian Lakes. Getting close. I feel like we are entering a once forbidden place. I start looking very attentive to every detail as we whoosh through the forested rural road that leads to the compound. The tall evergreen trees, the dark ground once covered with thousands of landmines, the desolate environment, the steel and concrete debris; all strange to me, yet somewhat familiar. I am exploring the place I’ve seen through images and movies like Valkyrie.
Inside the compound, I meet Jadwiga –a Wolf’s Lair local expert. Today I’m her only visitor. I feel special. The place is all mine.
“Ready to see Wolf’s Lair? Jadwiga says to me with her accented English.
“Hell yeah!” I reply with a big smile.
“Since you are alone I’m going to give you a special tour.”
My lack of words betrays my serious composure and reveals my uncontrollable excitement. I feel like a kid, unearthing treasures in a secret playground.
We head towards the remnants of the Situation Conferences Barrack. This is where Col. Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler during Operation Valkyrie (as seen in Valkyrie, the movie). There are barely a few recognizable structural elements on the ground and a plaque that memorializes the act of von Stauffenberg.
As we continue and head towards the main bunkers area, I am stunned by the scenery. No single bunker survived intact the German self-attack. Every single of the over 30 bunkers were cracked from floor to ceiling, caved in, or completely obliterated by dynamite explosions. You can only imagine the destructive force necessary to raze these 5 meters thick reinforced concrete walls.
I try to imagine this place as it once was before its destruction in January 1945. That’s the time when Hitler ordered the SS troops to destroy this compound with high explosives to prevent its capture and use by the Red Army. After the war, locals plundered the ruins leaving only the massive broken figures that today still cast the ghostly shadow of a dark moment in human history.
“You chose the perfect time to come to visit.” Jadwiga tells me, as she continues, “The weather is not too cold and the deciduous trees have no leaves. You can see the bunkers without the foliage cover.”
Nature has taken over this place, covering paved streets with layers of dirt and dry leaves, and complementing its concrete walls with muss and creeper.
Bunker after bunker I get a better understanding of the immensity of this compound and of the vast destruction left behind by the Germans. The only habitable structure is the former headquarters for Hitler’s personal security, which today is a small hotel and restaurant.
We continue walking until we get to Führer Bunker –Hitler’s Personal Bunker. It is the biggest building in the complex. Surprisingly, its exterior still stands with some noticeable cracks and damage, but its interior is completely destroyed. Oddly this is bunker #13.
We enter the bunker. It is dark, cold, and humid. The walls are full of sweat. The sound of the water drops echoes on the empty space. As I make my way inside, it is impossible for me to recognize whether the remaining debris and fragments were once part of the wall, ceiling, or floor. The interior is obliterated; the environment, ominous.
As we exit Hitler’s bunker, crossing through one of the crumbled thick walls that are almost laying flat on the ground, Jadwiga offers me a piece of a slightly discolored yellow tile that belonged to the Bunker’s Kitchen. I’m astounded by this act. She is giving me a unique souvenir.
We head towards the back of the complex and we enter another partially destroyed bunker. This one belonged to Göring –Hitler’s appointed successor. Once inside I see a massive concrete wall that has tipped over to the outside and an iron ladder right above it.
“Want to go up to the roof?”
“Can I?” I reply somewhat confused.
“Yes, that’s the special part for you.”
Not many visitors get to climb to the roof through the unsafe rusted iron ladder, but she thinks I’m fit and capable of accomplishing this.
She goes up first and I follow. Once I have a solid footing on the crumbling roof, I take notice of the flak towers that once housed anti-aircraft machine guns that once protected the compound and of the massive and organization of this place. All around me I see miles and miles of forest. This place is well hidden.
Back on the ground, safe and sound, we walk back towards the main entrance. Two hours have passed since we started, and I still feel like I want more. Walking through this abandoned destruction has moved, thrilled, and amazed me beyond my expectations. I have enough to “digest” during my four hours journey back to Warsaw.