Rust in pieces: A look back at Poland’s lost car graveyard
As Poles across the country prepare to descend on the nation’s cemeteries to honour their dead on the occasion of All Saints’ Day, urban explorers will be mourning the vivid memory of arguably the country’s most remarkable graveyard of all.
Found thirty kilometres south west of Warsaw in the satellite town of Grodzisk Mazowiecki, for years the cemetery here was a celebrated open secret among motoring nerds, photographers, urban snoops and fans of the bizarre – after all, this was no ordinary graveyard, rather a madcap assembly of vintage cars and motorbikes that had been left abandoned to be swallowed by nature.
“It was all the work of one man,” says Marek M., a self-styled “urban sleuth” who spends his free time roaming Poland in search of mysteries and adventure. “Tadeusz Tabencki was a high-ranking official working for the Ministry of Transport,” he explains, “and after the war he was handed the challenge of recovering the cars that had been stolen by the Nazis.”
A keen motorist himself – and apparently a regular participant in various Bugatti rallies – Tabencki used his newly acquired powers to amass a private collection that peaked at approximately 300 cars and 200 motorcycles.
“There’s so much conflicting information out there that it’s nearly impossible to get to the bottom of the truth,” says Marek. Tabencki’s life was shrouded with rumour and hearsay, though most agree that a significant proportion of the vehicles he accrued weren’t exactly gained in the most legal of ways – there’s several sources that claim that coercion, intimidation, blackmail and other such tactics were used, if not by Tabencki, then certainly those in his office.”
Notoriously parsimonious, Tabencki’s frugality was such that it is alleged he chose against buying an engagement ring for his wife. But this thrifty prudence did not apply to his car collection, with Tabencki heaping time, attention and considerable expense on the restoration and upkeep of the vehicles. Spread across two plots in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, his considerable horde included a number of star pieces: a Porsche 911 previously driven by songstress Maryla Rodowicz, Roman Polański’s white Plymouth, a Renault that once belonged to Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, and an Opel GT that had been formerly owned by racing driver Andrzej Jaroszewicz. The biggest asset of all though, that was a Mercedes Silver Arrow that had previously been in the possession of Hermann Goering – in 1967, Tabencki loaned it out so it could be used in the cult WWII thriller The Night of the Generals.
While these were the headline grabbers, they represented but a fraction of an overall collection that came to feature a pair of Buggatis, a Jaguar SS 100, a yellow Triumph Spitfire, a rare pre-war BMW 327, and every single model of motorbike to be produced by the Polish SHL firm – among these, a prototype bike so unique that no documentation of its existence has ever been discovered.
In the 70s, it’s said that Tabencki approached the government with the idea of creating a motoring museum, a notion that was eventually rebuffed after party officials decided against the wisdom of promoting a private collection of such lavish largesse. “Even so,” continues Marek, “Tabencki continued doting on his cars right until his death.”
It says much about the murky nature of his life that there is disagreement not only over the cause of Tabencki’s death, but even the date. “Most commonly, people say he died in 1989,” says Marek, “but I’ve also seen 1991 mentioned. Stranger still, while natural causes seem most likely, there’s some who have speculated online that he might have even been murdered by gangsters who coveted his cars.”
Certainly, his collection had earned envious glances from several people, to the extent that it’s been reported that 12 cars were stolen while Tabencki’s funeral was taking place. It was to get worse. With Tabencki out of the picture, his son is reputed to have saved some of the more valuable pieces while the rest were left to rot where they stood.
Within years, the decomposing vehicles found themselves picked and eaten by vandals, scrap merchants and the elements of nature. What survived were skeletal remains that served to inspire and intrigue all who visited this ghostly world of disintegrating, rusting treasure. A surreal and haunting site, it became a point of pilgrimage for thrill seekers and urban explorers until being cleared once and for all in 2016. “There was something truly special about it,” recalls Marek with fondness, “something almost post-apocalyptic in its strange, sad beauty. When people mourn some of the landmarks Poland has lost, I can’t help but feel that this was the most special.”