The Ghosts Of A City’s Nazi Past


LEGNICA – The newspapers of this industrial city in the southwest corner of Poland may one day carry a classified ad with the following offer:

FOR SALE: Large plot of land with apartment buildings, modern medical clinic, spacious gardens, movie theater and chapel. Isolated location, no nosy neighbors. Plenty of room for further construction.

It sounds like a perfect site for someone with an eye for development.

Except for one thing — every edifice on the 22-acre site in Legnica is crumbling.

And the area has, according to local legend, ghosts.

Nazi ghosts.

The venue of an elite Nazi Army hospital that fell into communist hands after World War II, the forested area has lay deserted, in ruins, since Communism ended here in 1993 and the Soviet Army left in a hurry.

The plot of land known as “The Russian Hospital,” unmarked down a narrow road from Zlotoryska Street, is the largest still-undeveloped Nazi-era site in Legnica, maybe in Poland.

No electricity or running water can be found in the buildings, giving them the appearance of a setting for a horror film about a devastated society.

About a mile from the populated part of Legnica, near a major highway under construction, the land, which could be a valuable site along the continent’s roads of commerce, sits empty.

Some local Poles blame a Nazi curse. According to Legnica legend, ghosts of wounded Nazi soldiers have been spotted over the years wandering in the center of town several miles away, mainly in the railway station, which was thought to have been connected to the army hospital via a hidden tunnel.

“Stay out,” warns one of the few examples of graffiti on the buildings’ walls. There’s little vandalism, since there’s little left here to vandalize.

In the mid-1990s, the site briefly became the property of the municipal government, then was given to a few ethnic Poles as compensation for homes they had lost when evicted from Ukraine.

As far as is known, no Jews passed through the grounds’ gates. The hospital does not figure in Holocaust history, but its ties to the hated Nazi occupation army make it a site with tangential Jewish interest.

“There are many different legends and stories,” said Wojciech Kondusza, a city hall official who has chronicled Legnica’s history.

The stories about the haunted Legnica site aren’t well-known among young residents here, said Kondusza, leading a visitor around the grounds one recent morning. He added, “The older generation knows.”

There’s a story of a man who was interested in buying the property several years ago, who fell to his death from the roof over the 36-meter swimming pool. The story may be apocryphal, but someone has painted the outline of a body with red paint alongside the detritus of the pool, which remains filled with rainwater that has seeped inside.

And there’s a story of a clock in a church steeple on the hospital grounds that would mysteriously explode during repairs.

Legnica is not alone. Kondusza says other Polish cities have similar Nazi legends.

The occasional wannabe-tourist will ask about the ghosts, said a security guard at the front gate, who keeps a pair of snarling, mixed-breed guard dogs at his side.

Kondusza pointed here to the remains of a fountain, there to a one-time garden. Amid the towering birch and pine trees are buildings with broken and boarded-up windows, sinks with no pipes, winding staircases that lead nowhere, clumps of untrimmed bushes, and the remains of warehouses, fuel depots, a restaurant and stores, and the three-story, 650-bed hospital that stretched more than the length of two football fields.

While birds chirped and tweeted overhead, a lone squirrel darting between buildings was the only sign of animal life on the grounds — no rats, no spider webs.

“Legends about haunted houses abound, especially in the former German territories, where people moved into dwellings [that once belonged to Jews], often finding them strange and alien — with plenty only too real bloody events witnessed there in the process,” said Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish journalist and longtime Jewish activist.

The most prominent example of this in Poland is Warsaw’s Silver Tower.

The skyscraper on Tlomackie Street, where the capital’s Great Synagogue stood until destroyed in April 1943 as part of the annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto, suffered a series of misfortunes over nearly three decades of construction. The foundation started sinking. The building’s design changed. Financing collapsed. Work stopped after the Solidarity labor movement gained power. Various state-owned construction companies lost interest. Finally, the building was completed, with space set aside for a first-floor gallery of the Jewish Historical Institute, which helps Poles research their genealogical roots.

The owners of the “Russian Hospital” have not found interested buyers, and the city has no plans for the grounds, Kondusza said. “The City Hall has nothing to do with it.”

He said the land is worth about $34 million; the price to develop it, another $44 million.

The land may remain in the dissolute state in which the Soviet Army left it, Kondusza said. “Everything is left as it was. This is the way it was. This is the way it is.

“It may stay this way forever.”

Steve Lipman traveled to Legnica under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi of Poland.