As Szczecin ponders what to do with old bomb bunker, TFN looks at examples from the rest of Poland
Reputed to be among the best preserved bunkers in the country, today city authorities in Szczecin have toured a wartime bomb shelter to decide its future.
Located on ul. Starzyński, the shelter has been described as a miniature underground city with its 85 rooms capable of holding 75 people at any one time. Built during the 1940s, it was later readapted in the 1980s and its walls and ceilings strengthened to a thickness of three metres.
Still fully operational, the fallout shelter is equipped with a working sewage system, electricity, bathrooms, kitchens, medical facilities, a generator and its own deep well.
Once intended to serve as a base for the leaders of the West Pomeranian Voivodeship in the event of a nuclear war, for years the building – and what lay within – was kept classified and concealed from the public.
Now largely cleared of its interior fittings, councillors last year voted to sell the structure to the highest bidder with the starting price set at PLN 10 million. The news came as a body blow to historical enthusiasts who had lobbied for the shelter to be protected and included on the city’s touristic ‘underground route’.
However, its future could still be safeguarded – not due to its historical importance, but rather its potential value should war engulf Poland ever again. According to one city councillor, the availability of shelters has become a hot topic among constituents ever since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Krzysztof Romianowski of City Hall says: “After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, a lot of people have approached me wanting to know where the nearest shelter is and if anything has been prepared in the case of an emergency.”
Residents of Szczecin, as it transpires, are better placed than most with 357 shelters touting a capacity of 170,000. And whilst many of these take the form of basements incorporated into post-war housing estates, the largest are a lingering legacy of the city’s former guise as the German city of Stettin.
Heavily fortified during the Third Reich era, the city saw a rash of bunkers and shelters built, many using Soviet slave labour.
Built to hold 5,000 people, and boasting a usable area of 1,900 sq/m, the largest of these – and arguably in the whole of Poland – now functions as one of the city’s primary tourist attractions and can be found underneath the main train station.
Decried by some as eyesores, and envied by others for the real estate that they occupy, these shelters and military leftovers have become something of a topic of debate – seen by some as a reminder of the ugly past, they are treasured by enthusiasts but generally overlooked by the general public – as if they have become an organic feature of the urban fabric.
Many such examples of Nazi and Cold War era infrastructure have been dismantled or otherwise blocked off and forgotten; however, across the country there have been instances where they have been creatively used.
Usually defined by their thick walls, labyrinthine walkways and deep darkness, these concrete relics have proved natural nightclub venues, and instances of such can be found in both Gdańsk and Poznań – known for its wild, hard-partying and liberal microclimate, Schron in the latter has assumed a cult reputation with the atmosphere lent an added sense of adventure through the presence of thick metal doors, barred gates and surviving bits of machinery.
In Gdańsk, meanwhile, the aptly named Bunker club has long been a feature on the city’s nocturnal landscape. Built in 1942, the walls of this six-storey behemoth have also been utilised by the city’s climbing community.
Neither is this the only piece wartime concrete to be harnessed (literally) by adrenaline junkies. In Mazury, to cite one instance, a lock imprinted with the shape of giant fascist eagle has been transformed into a highly unusual zipwire attraction. Located at Leśniewo Górne, the scale and enormity of it all is almost a dehumanising sight.
Having clambered over a terrifyingly wobbly rope bridge, those who dare can plunge right over the murky, stagnant waters below while nervously gripping onto a cable above.
Defined by their diversity, the uses for such objects have proved varied – back in Szczecin, visitors can stay in the Hotel Vulcan, built directly on top of a bunker created in 1942 to shelter the 1,470 employees of the neighbouring Vulcan Shipyard.
It is Wrocław, though, that has arguably worked out the most creative solution to these forbidding monstrosities. First built in 1942, it is impossible to miss the 25-metre tall cylindrical tower that looms over Pl. Strzegomski.
Originally serving as an air raid shelter, and then as a hospital and key point of resistance during the brutal siege of Festung Breslau, accounts from the period talk of squalid corridors filled with the groaning wounded and buckets and bathtubs overflowing with amputated limbs.
Today, it is almost impossible to picture these almost Dante-like visions of horror. Authored by the architect that designed the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, since 2011 this six-floor bunker has served as the Wrocław Contemporary Museum, a bleeding-edge gallery filled with maverick, thought-provoking art and crowned by a top-floor café with blustery views over the city ahead.
As an example of how to appropriate these monumental structures, it has no equal.
But then you also have the vast network of tunnels and suchlike that honeycomb Poland – to the west, that means the Międzyrzecz Fortification Region. A.k.a. the Ostwall, and stretching for miles and miles, it was considered the most technologically advanced defensive fortification system built by the Nazis.
Featuring underground train stations, workshops and barracks, these have since given way to nature and today provide home to 35,000 bats making it the largest underground bat refuge in the whole of Europe. Sinister as it is, the underground bicycle route at Boryszyńska is without doubt one of the most extraordinary experiences Poland has to offer.
But why do I say all of this? It all goes back to the beginning. It cannot be denied that all of these objects were born from a regime of such malevolent evil as to defy description.
Yet destroying these places that have survived tampers with history in a manner that merits our concern. Though inexorably associated with a dark and bitter past, ample evidence exists as to how they can be successfully reborn for purposes more positive.
And besides, dare we ever think that their original intended use might not come in handy.