We all crave suspense, adrenaline, danger, fear. Not all of us show it, but it’s a part of our psychology. Freud named this impulse Thanatos, after the Greek god of Death without Violence.
In some of us, this impulse is so strong that we willingly fly into the unknown like a moth into a flame. We hope not to crash and be cooked to death upon our encounter with the flame, the unknown, but there is always that ludic element in uncovering the mysteries we behold.
I am in love with a tenacious Polish girl. Her name is Julia. She, being from Krakow, traveled almost 400 kilometers to visit me in Warsaw, where I lived for almost a year. Being a pair of adventurous souls, we sought out our July quest and found it in the nearby town of Otwock, twenty-three kilometers south of Polish cosmopolitizing capital.
At first sight, Otwock is not a remarkable town. Most of its buildings are what you’d expect from a regenerating post-communist nation. It is, however, home to the endemic architecture known as Swidermeijer. The river Swider flows across the northwest of the town and joins the Vistula further north. It is quiet, and peaceful…nowadays at least.
We headed down to Otwock to make the best of the night and look for Sanatorium Zofiówka: an abandoned mental asylum. Unbeknownst we had invited ourselves into a desecrated domain of death.
We arrived in Otwock by train at the 21st hour. No wind blew, no stars shone, and darkness began to overcome this long and late June day. A growing moon lit the night sky, giving it a dimly lit deep blue hue. Last time I had visited this town, it was a hot spring afternoon. A local music festival featured many local bands and a Mexican Chaman carried out a small riverbed ritual to bless all living beings.
Not knowing where to walk, and not wanting to use the last minutes of battery our phones had, we asked a young crew of friends where we might find this infamous Asylum. With disbelief in his voice, one of the kids gave us some convoluted, yet seemingly precise directions. Warningly he remarked that the Zofiówka was located outside the town, in the nearby forest. “Excellent!”, Julia and I exclaimed with ecstatic naivete. They informed us of the common presence of criminals and drug addicts in the Asylum. We thanked them for their help, perhaps instead a condemnation, and went on our way.
Near the train track, I resolved to arm ourselves up. Each picked up a pair of rocks; we couldn’t afford to meet the Devil on the way and not be prepared to smash his face in. We each held a rock and our hands. The second earth grenade we hid in our pockets. Our trek to the Sanatorium began.
The town was dimly lit, and no people walked its streets. It was cold, but our fear and excitement kept us warm. We clutched each other’s hands and, to lighten the mood, joked about our horrible sense of direction and how it was far more likely for us to get lost halfway than to ever reach the Sanatorium. Perhaps that would have been better. I’ll admit, I was afraid of what might await us in this strange place. A part of me did not want to go. I was fearful of what danger I might be compelling Julia to go through. Once she heard this, she blushed and called me adorable for fearing for her safety and doubled the speed of the march.
Fearful but determined to uncover the mystery of Zofiówka, we walked on. We entered a forest passage and a long, dark, and the chilling walk led us to a street. We passed a big, white, noble-looking building, which we assumed to be a pre-school. Two-hundred meters forth and marked by a pair of pillars, we came upon an entrance. Within was not the darkness that comes with night, but that which exists because light fears coming in. I looked at Julia and she looked at me. The moon looked down upon us. It was late into the 22nd hour.
“Here we are,” I murmured. “Let’s go,” she answered, as if regretting the words that slipped out her mouth.
We took out our cell-phone flashlights to illuminate the way. Our few remaining minutes of battery encouraged us to move fast. The wind blew, helping the icy fear creep into our cores. We followed the path, surrounded by tall shadow trees whose rustling treetops gossiped about our arrival. We came upon a split road, hesitated for a moment to decide and headed right. In the distance, we saw a big house with a room lit by a warm light. A dog warned whoever dwelled there of our presence. Figuring it was not abandoned, we returned to the intersection and took to the left.
Our hands were held as if by magnets powered by currents of curiosity and fear. We walked with cold sharp senses, our pupils desperately grasping what light there was. Silence was law, and our steps disrupted the frigid order of the air. Wondering how much more we had to go until we came upon the asylum, we found the answer in the sky ahead. Between the treetops, we saw the deep blue sky cut by a line of darkness.
To some places we are drawn, and from others repelled. This place inspired neither. Now so near, I could feel this conspicuous sensation of presence, as if tentacles of evil exuded from the building ahead. We walked to the end of the canopy covered path. Pierced by the chilling horror of having reached our destination, we froze in a terrified awe. Before us stood Sanatorium Zofiówka.
“Oh fuck,” we both lamented, as one more curse flew into the air. We saw that at the side lay a torn metal fence; privacy had been violated a long time ago. Those who were drawn to Zofiówka were welcomed by decay and misery. The walls, perhaps six meters tall, were covered in violent and erratic graffiti. A pair of cylindrical columns held the roof above the entrance and reminded us of a perhaps elegant past. The derelict brick structure full of large broken windows had its arching main door shut by a damaged brick wall. The sharp remains of glass threatened our intention to enter.
We approached the one on the right, and I climbed inside. I landed upon glass, stone, and beer cans. The walls were peeling like dry, dead skin. Terrified by the sound of my own making I examined the cold, stagnant room. Julia followed. I approached the door that led to a corridor between the main hall and the right wing of the building. I peeked anxiously, expecting to find a psychopath ready to sever my head. Not finding death incarnate, I stepped into the corridor, and held Julia’s hand.
The wall in front of us was covered in graffiti homages to Slayer and some other cryptic drawings. Very clearly though, we saw red arrows pointing to the right. Terrified to choose where to go now, we let the memories in this place choose for us. We followed the arrows.
Immediately, we came upon a corridor leading to an entrance to the right and three entrances to the left. We entered the room to the right and came into a large, trashed room where condom packets lay on the bloodstained ground. A flaking wall spoke the nature of this Asylum: ANTYPSYCHIATRIA. The roof was pierced by dirty stalactites of paint, threatening those who looked up to heaven for safety or hope. Everything was still, and quiet. Suddenly, we heard muffled steps somewhere within the building. We hushed and waited for more, but nothing followed. Like a blinding mist fear arose from within; adrenaline kicked up the exploration’s speed.
We came back to the corridor and gush of cold fear blew into us. We felt our body temperatures drop. Following the arrows, we stepped forward and entered the first room to the right. Its tone differed from the rest of the Sanatorium: we were received by a graffiti of LOVE on the right wall. We turned around and entered the second room. In the same handwriting, in big red letters we read: HERE THERE ARE NO LIVING, WE ARE RULED BY THE DEAD. Again the strange cold wind penetrated us…Terrified at the omen of death, I returned to the corridor. Julia remained inside reading some other graffiti I could not understand. Resolving to discover where the arrows led at the end of the corridor, I found myself in a small passage room with an entrance to the right, and cry for HELP on the left. Julia came to me and I told her to wait for me to check the final room. A bleak, sinister energy emanated from this room. Morbid curiosity pulled me in step by step and I very cautiously peeked inside. From this angle, I saw three bathroom stalls, then plain concrete. I took one big, final step. I saw etched in blood upon the wall the origin of the energy: the face of the demon Baphomet, cursed by an upside down cross and three sixes across its head. At its base, a space delimited in red full of ash remains.
I hollered for Julia to see, and we unanimously decided to leave right away. We ran towards the window, jumped it over, and sped down the beaten path.
Under the spotlight of the moon we left the grounds of Zofiówka. We called for a cab and received no answer. We quickly walked back, for the last train left soon. On the main street, a white van zoomed by, its open back doors banging against itself. We reached the train and sat down satisfied with our adventure and happy to be safe.
We struck a conversation with some guys on the train, and we told them of our fresh adventure. They looked blankly at us: “Kids what the fuck were you doing there? Do you have any idea of what happened in that place?” Julia and I looked at each other puzzled. We shook our heads. He explained: “Sanatorium Zofiówka was founded in 1908. It used to be a hospital for patients of tuberculosis. When the Nazis invaded, they brought in patients with mental illnesses. In August of 1942, Nazis authorized “Action T4”. They pulled out 140 patients from the hospital, lined them up and executed them. Zofiowka was a place where minds who were in dire need of help and care instead received torment a lived horrors. The remains of the 140 patients were found in the 1980’s, buried in the hospital’s garden. During its operation in World War II, over 400 patients were starved to death. The entire Jewish population of Otwock was sent to Treblinka to die: over 7000 souls perished.”
As we began to understand the weight of history in the place we had just ignorantly been, Julia and I looked at each other and laughed in astonishment! Enduring fear and the possibility of immediate danger bonded us deeply. As a couple, so as a team, we have become stronger and closer for it. High adrenaline dates are highly recommended!
(Fun fact! The 2015 YouTube video titled “11B X 1371”, which supposedly contains encrypted directions to kill the Polish president, was supposedly shot in Zofiowka. If you want a good scare, check the video out!)
Photo credit: Pexels