On the Other Side of the Woods

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Opposite to my home, on the other side of the road, there is a piece of undeveloped land, covered with various grasses and small groups of trees, which for reasons undisclosed the locals use to call a ‘park’. Far from being cared for in any way, the area is just left to itself and year after year becomes wonderfully overgrown. Winter is especially gracious to it, not only because it mercifully covers the imperfections: pieces of broken glass or cigarette butts, but also because it renders the spot eerily quiet. It becomes stunning even though it is ordinary.

The winding beaten path leads through the trees to another inhabited area. Although only a few hundred feet apart, the settlements differ in a fundamental way. My home is in one of the twenty-something buildings raised to house the Nazi German officers along with their families, the five buildings on the other side of the woods constituted the Cieplice branch – one of almost one hundred – of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp.

The branch, called AL Bad Warmbrunn, was built and organized in 1944 specifically for Jewish prisoners, and was intended to satisfy the needs of the nearby factories. The camp housed about 1,000 prisoners until the beginning of 1945, when the advancing Soviet Army forced the Nazis to flee. Many camps were liquidated and proofs of unimaginable horrors happening within hastily destroyed. The prisoners that were able to march were forced to set off toward camps situated west of the ever nearing front. Only 621 prisoners from the AL Bad Warmbrunn and AL Hirschberg lived through the journey to the camp in Buchenwald.

The Soviet Army brought with it liberation from the Nazi Germany, but ultimately not entirely free of charge. Hirschberg and Bad Warmbrunn, renamed as Jelenia Góra and Cieplice, respectively, were annexed into the post-war Poland – a land on one hand liberated from the horrors of the Nazi German occupation, on the other hand effectively held captive by the Soviets for the next 44 years. The previous German inhabitants of the Lower Silesia were exiled and replaced with Polish settlers, who were themselves exiled from their homes in the Lwów province, since the latter had been incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – all of which were a result of the Yalta Conference.

The new Polish inhabitants, thrown here by the immense powers of history, started their lives afresh. One should not be mistaken: it was not an orderly process. There were no officials assigning new homes to the newcomers – everything was up for grabs, as long as one was strong enough to keep a hold on it. Thus the former homes of the SS officers became the new homes of the incoming settlers – among them my grandparents. The Soviet system was at some times as thrifty as it was usually wasteful and uneconomical: the former camp buildings were reconditioned and inhabited just like the rest of post-Nazi properties.

These buildings were a hell on Earth 70 years ago, and they are not dream homes today either (I have no photographs, but if you are curious you can take a look at them here). At the first thought there is something revolting about stepping over the events these buildings witnessed and transforming them into a residential area. On the other hand, apart from an inconspicuous monument, these remnants of horrible past do not raise an impenetrable screen of seriousness, tragedy and unbelievable pain. These feelings do linger about, but they are very tangible. As if one could make the acquaintance with history – there is no “do not touch” sign.

The following are photographs of the miniscule woodland and the adjacent town stadium – a place where I spent many laughter filled days with my friends from both sides of the woods. We played basketball or giant checkers, during the summer we listened to our favorite music using the stadium’s modest sound system (thanks to the unusual kindness of the guard), while during heavy winters we ice-skated on the frozen, out of order swimming pool. In 6th grade I won second place in 300 m run there, in 8th grade I fell in love.

Time passed by very quickly.

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On the top of one of the leeves surrounding the stadium. Camp buildings to the left.

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A roe deer frightened by the sound of shots from the nearby shooting range. Camp buildings to the right.

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Some of these trees must be more than 70 years old.

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