In late 1941 as World War II was heating up and the Nazis were pushing deeper and deeper into Russia, it seemed that nothing could halt their advance toward world domination. Folks back home in Germany followed the news from the front, but otherwise life for them was relatively normal. That is, except for a small group of young German women who had been relocated to eastern Poland. Their life was anything but normal! Although these women were not serving in the military and were not residing anywhere near the front lines, they never knew if each new day would be their last. These women were employed by those protecting Adolf Hitler at his heavily guarded “Wolf’s Lair.” It was from this location that the Fuhrer oversaw the invasion of Russia. The site was composed of a series of heavily-fortified bunkers hidden deep in a thick forest in northern Poland. These women lived and worked here. In fact, they were among the more than 2,000 people that were required to operate Hitler’s eastern headquarters.
This small cadre of young German females had a genuinely unique role in the service of the Fuhrer. Their job was to taste the Nazi leader’s food before it reached his lips to make sure it was not poisoned. Literally, their every meal could have been their last. A few years ago one of these “food-tasters” – the only one to survive the war – told how she and her young female colleagues, when they had finished eating the bland vegetarian dishes put before them, would often burst into tears “crying like dogs” because they were so grateful just to still be alive.
Several years ago I read on the internet that the Polish government had opened Wolf’s Lair to the public and that you could actually spend the night inside the complex in one of its original buildings. I immediately set out to organize a visit.
Wolf’s Lair is located near Gierloz in the north of Poland (an area that was once East Prussia). Gierloz is only a few miles from the town of Ketrzyn where I arrived by train. I managed to find a taxi near the station for a short ride to the place where Hitler spent a significant amount of time during World War II – more than 850 days during 1941-1944. In other words, this is not a place that Hitler only passed through from time to time, but it was one of his main headquarters. Even more importantly and historically significant is the fact that Hitler was almost assassinated here in July 1944.
As the taxi neared the compound, my heart began to race. I felt as if I were about to enter a once forbidden place. Finally, I caught a glimpse of a road sign that read Gierloz. My body and mind snapped to complete attention. The forested rural road which leads to the Wolf’s Lair is flush with the tall evergreen trees that shade the road at almost any hour of the day. The taxi began to slow, and I tried to imagine how this very ground was once littered with thousands of land mines and fox holes. We turned into the grounds of the Wolf’s Lair and strangely, initially, it seemed familiar to me. I realized that was because of the images I have seen of it in movies like “Valkyrie.”
The taxi dropped me off right in front of what today is an on-site hotel. During the war, this “hotel” housed Hitler’s personal security detail so it consisted of not only sleeping rooms, but also a mess hall (today a restaurant). This building is the only one in the entire compound that was not largely destroyed by the Nazis before they fled. I checked in and walked down a long corridor in search of my room. As I made my way, I wondered which of the infamous Nazi higher-ups might have also strolled along this very hallway. Actually this former bunker was a very pleasant place to stay and the bonus was that I was already on the grounds of Wolf’s Lair for the duration of my 33-hour visit.
The grounds of Wolf’s Lair are at once beautiful, green, mossy and natural – if you can put out of your mind the horrors of the Third Reich that played out here like decisions related to the construction of the death camps that sealed the fate of so many millions of European Jews. It consists of about 80 partially-destroyed concrete bunkers set in concentric circles or security zones. Obviously, the Fuhrer’s bunker was inside the innermost zone.
Armed with a map I set out to take a first look around – eternally grateful I had not been here 75 years earlier. Just a few yards outside my “hotel,” I came upon the site of the 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life. Of course there were numerous assassination attempts but this one almost succeeded. There was a bench near the spot where the Situation Conference Room once stood, and I sat down to read the plaque which details the bravery and determination of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg who attempted to assassinate Hitler here during July 1944. He placed an explosive device inside the room where Hitler was to attend a morning “situation” conference. The bomb was armed with a time-delay fuse which would allow Stauffenberg to leave well before the blast. He did so and survived the explosion. But so did Hitler! Even though several people gathered around that map table died instantly and many more sustained serious injury, the Fuhrer’s only complaint was deafness and some sore joints. In fact, later that same day Hitler met Mussolini at the Wolf’s Lair railhead. He had arrived for a war conference. Stauffenberg and the other top leaders of the plot were executed later that day. In all, it is estimated that over the next several months more than 4,000 people were put death for participating in this attempt to eliminate Hitler.
After a few moments of reflection, I walked on towards the main bunker area. No single bunker remains intact after the explosive charges planted by the retreating Germans except for the “hotel.” Every other bunker is cracked from floor to ceiling, caved in, or completely obliterated; however, enough of General Jodl’s map room remains so that you can actually walk inside of it.
I looked carefully at my map and tried to imagine this place as it was before its destruction in January 1945 when Hitler ordered his SS troops to destroy the compound to prevent its capture and use by the Red Army. Soon after that, the locals plundered the area leaving only the collapsed concrete as a grim reminder of the evils perpetuated here.
I finally arrived at Bunker #13 – Hitler’s bunker – the largest in the entire compound. Nature has taken its toll on the Fuhrer’s “home away from home,” and the bunker is covered with several layers of dirt and dried leaves. Vines and moss cover parts of the rubble, adding to its eerie appearance. Surprisingly, most of its exterior remains although with noticeable cracks. Almost all of its interior was destroyed. It is dark and cold. The walls are wet with moisture. The sound of dripping water echoes throughout the empty space.
I leaned down and peered into what was once a long hallway. Not a single soul was anywhere to be seen, so I ignored the warning signs and crawled inside – but only a few feet. In the absolute quiet of this place my imagination ran wild as I considered where I was at this moment.
As I returned to my room to pack and order a taxi, I found myself strangely moved by the power of this place and what it meant for so many people who never even knew of its existence. Walking through this compound moved, thrilled, and amazed me beyond my expectations. It is impossible to visit here without thinking about “what might have been” absent the courage and sacrifice of so many of the Allied forces who finally rid the world of the Third Reich. Indeed, I have seen enough here during my visit to reflect upon during my train journey to Warsaw and for the rest of my life.
Next time: “The Journey to Bethlehem”