A town wrestles with its dark past: Nazis and Soviets

A town wrestles with its dark past: Nazis and Soviets

Set in a thick forest, ringed by limpid lakes and free of violent crime, the town of Borne Sulinowo in northwestern Poland has undeniable bucolic charm – except for the ghosts on every eerily quiet street of the Nazi and then Soviet soldiers who built it.

Governed for the past three decades by Poland, the town was controlled by and was part of Germany before World War II, seized by the Red Army in 1945 and occupied by Moscow’s forces until 1992. For a time, it embraced its dark side, eager to attract visitors and money to a forlorn and formerly forbidden zone so secret it did not appear on maps.

Military re-enactors, including enthusiasts from Germany and Russia, visited each year to stage a parade, dressed in Soviet and Nazi uniforms, which are banned from public display in Germany.

A Polish businessperson opened the Russia Hotel, decorating it with photographs of himself and a friend dressed in Russian military uniforms and with communist-era banners embroidered with images of Vladimir Lenin. His other ventures in the town included a cafe named after Grigori Rasputin and boozy, Russia-themed corporate events.

Russia’s full-scale of invasion of Ukraine stopped all that. Kitsch became offensively creepy.

“Everything changed very quickly,” said Monika Konieczna-Pilszek, the manager of the Russia Hotel and daughter of its founder. Online reviews, she said, suddenly went from “commenting on our food to talking about burning us down.”

She told her father they had to change the name. “Instead of attracting people, it was repelling them,” she said. The inn is now called the Borne Sulinowo Guesthouse. A big Soviet banner hung in the hallway next to its restaurant has been turned around so Lenin is no longer visible.

“Nobody wants to be reminded of Russia these days,” Konieczna-Pilszek said.

Dariusz Tederko, a local official responsible for promoting the town, lamented that the war in Ukraine “has turned everything upside down.” The military re-enactors, he said, are no longer welcome. The Russians couldn’t come anyway because of a government ban.

Trying to draw more Poles and Western Europeans, he now promotes the town’s less-triggering charms. “We have lots of beautiful heather,” he said, waving a brochure with pictures of hiking trails and wildflowers.

But he misses the prewar days when Russia was “not so sensitive” and Borne Sulinowo did not have to feel ashamed about the one thing that set it apart from countless other places in Poland offering pleasant scenery and pretty flowers.

He said he was still in touch with retired Russian soldiers, including one now working in the Kremlin, who served here during the Cold War and who used to return regularly for trips down memory lane.

Unlike many Poles, residents of Borne Sulinowo often harbor little personal animosity toward Russians. They are appalled by the bloodshed in Ukraine but blame Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

During the Soviet era, the town – home to more than 10,000 soldiers of the Northern Group of Forces – was a world unto itself, scrubbed from maps and off-limits to Poles without special entry passes, though many still sneaked in to buy food and vodka.

Renata Szmurlo, a nurse who grew up in a Polish town near the Soviet zone and moved to Borne Sulinowo with her family after the Russians left, recalled a carefree youth of cycling past military checkpoints with her friends to visit the town’s shops. They accepted Polish currency but, stocked with supplies from Moscow for Soviet officers, had more goods than Polish ones.

“The Russians were great guys,” she recalled.

When the town was part of Germany, Adolf Hitler visited, arriving by train in 1938 to inspect what was then a secret military training ground, set up in the forest so that Nazi commanders could furtively practice the blitzkrieg tactics that, just a year later, would plunge Poland and then the rest of Europe into World War II.

“If you just look at the trees and buildings, everything here looks OK, but if you know the history of this place, it makes your skin crawl,” said Dariusz Czerniawski, a former teacher who moved to Borne Sulinowo shortly after the last Russians pulled out. They left a ghost town of empty, dilapidated barracks, suddenly silent shooting ranges and fields rutted with tank tracks.

After a year under the control of the Polish army, Borne Sulinowo reappeared on maps in 1993 as just another Polish town, inhabited by a few early pioneers like Czerniawski. “It was so quiet, I wanted to scream,” he recalled. “The silence and emptiness were terrifying.”

Over time, more Poles arrived, attracted by cheap housing and the chance for a fresh start. The town now has nearly 5,000 year-round residents and many more people during the summer. It still feels empty and isolated.

The main road – Adolf Hitler Strasse during the Nazi period and Stalin Avenue after 1945 – is now Independence Street.

Lined with gimcrack Soviet apartment blocks intermingled with sturdy villas left by the Germans, it has a few shops, a defunct pizza place and the Sasha Cafe, run by a Russian-speaking man from eastern Ukraine, who first came here as a young photographer working for the Soviet military command.

A target of suspicious whispering by locals and scrutiny by Polish authorities, he recently put his property up for sale.

Czerniawski, the early pioneer, today runs the town’s museum and has spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with the past.

“It would perhaps be easier to demolish the whole town,” he said, “but what would that give us – just a big empty space with no memory of anything?”

Borne Sulinowo, he believes, needs to survive as a “unique place built by the two most brutal totalitarian systems of the last century” – and as a reminder of where such systems lead. “Usually to war,” he said.

“We have to remember our bad past so that we can learn something for the future,” he said.

He has resisted suggestions to remove from the museum a mannequin dressed in a Russian military uniform and has rejected demands that the Soviet-designed tank opposite the entrance be taken away. Some residents threatened to destroy it.

But the tank, Czerniawski noted, was put there by Polish authorities, who took it from a Warsaw military museum. “It is Soviet design but was made in Poland,” he said.

“It is part of our history – perhaps not the glorious history we would like – but it is ours,” he said.

The most sinister reminders of Moscow’s former hegemony – concrete bunkers housing nuclear warheads – have mostly been swallowed up by the forest near Brzeznica-Kolonia, a village 19 miles south of town.

“Entry Categorically Forbidden. Danger of death or disability,” read signs put up in front of the crumbling, weed-clogged bunkers.

Until the warheads were taken back to Russia in 1990 as the Soviet Union unraveled, they were part of the Vistula Program, a top-secret deployment of nuclear weapons in Poland that began in the 1960s. Throughout the Cold War, Moscow insisted it had no nuclear weapons in Poland while accusing the United States of threatening peace by putting its own warheads in Europe.

For Jan Chmielowski, a Pole who first visited Borne Sulinowo in 1994 and “immediately fell in love with this strange place,” the Soviet past was for years “just a big sad joke” because everything left by the Russians seemed to be falling apart.

He bought an old German villa, turned it into a guesthouse and, inspired by the Russia Hotel next door, began organizing corporate team-building events featuring vodka, surly Soviet-style service and mock arrests by fake Russian officers with guns. He has dropped that and now organizes French-themed events with Champagne and without weapons.

“Everything Russian stopped being funny after the war in Ukraine,” he lamented.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.