Winter in Poland: In the snowy forests of the East

Bunker in Gierloz, Eastern Poland

We have spent the night in the former SS and RSD officers’ hotel. Our room is looking out into the winter forest toward the place where Count Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler. To reach the breakfast room we have to walk around the greenish concrete building. Everywhere, long thin icicles are looming from the eaves. It is more than 10 degrees below zero and our nostrils stick together when we inhale the icy air. Obviously, the breakfast room has been renovated since Hitler’s heyday. It is held in dark greys and greens, with huge black-and-white photographs of the bunkers in the snow decorating the walls. Very fitting for the Polish winter landscape outside.

A cheerful tall woman in a black T-shirt and black jeans serves huge portions of bread, cheese and unexpectedly tasty scrambled eggs. Outside, only a group of Polish youngsters stumble forlornly among the bunkers, stopping briefly at the Stauffenberg Memorial.

Hitler Bunker in Gierloz

A large rupture splits the wall of Hitler’s own bunker, marked by the number 13 in black on yellow. It is difficult to imagine that these ugly piles of concrete in a forest near Kętrzyn once housed the Nazi elite. But from 1941 to 1944, they formed the most important of about 20 “headquarters” spread across Europe.

A winter visit to the European Bisons in Eastern Poland

Wisent in winter, in Poland's Bialowieca Reserva

A few days later, we are again wading through snow looking for a different type of history. The European Bison had practically become extinct in 1919 when the last free-ranging bison was killed (although the Russian Tsars had previously done their share to eradicate them with huge hunting parties). Some of the bisons had survived in zoos, though, and since 1952 they have been living in the wild again in the Białowieža forest, a 150 000 ha expanse of woodland. “They go everywhere: sometimes you see them in the fields near one of the villages, once they even came into my own backyard,” a ranger explains. “But you know, there are only about 400 of them in such a huge forest. You would have to be lucky to see one.” In the end, we find Europe’s largest mammals only in the bison reserve a few kilometers away from the village.

More than half of the Białowieža Forest is actually situated in Belorussia, with the border running quite close to the village. The wooden, roofed panels of a nature trail are useful to find the path for the first hour or so. Most of the informative texts, only in Polish anyway, have long disappeared. On one of the empty white tracks, a wooden barrier has rotten and broken into the snow.

The eastern border of Poland …

Bialowieca Polish-Belorussian

Behind a red-and-yellow sign proclaiming something in Polish and Russian, a striped pole indicates that this is the Belorussian border. We hesitate: There is no fence, not even a proper barrier, and yet this is the Eastern border of the European Union! It is just a few steps to the Belorussian border pole, and back into the world of Schengen. That evening, seven tall men in padded black clothing turn up in our pension. The Polish border police has found our tracks in the snow and searched the village for the offenders. Crossing the border, if ever so briefly, apparently merits a fine of up to 500 zloty per person. Eventually, two hours of arguing with Commander Janek and his men brought the fine down to 100 zloty per person. When we ask whether many people enter Poland, and the EU, illegally from the Belorussian side, the officers fall silent. Only then do we notice a large folder on the police officer’s desk, marked “Schengen documents.”

NB: Our winter trip to Poland was not sponsored in any way. We paid all the expenses ourselves.

See also our post about the European Bison in Białowieža

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