Thirty minutes from Warsaw, deep in the dark forests of Otwock, something truly terrifying lurks – an abandoned asylum famed for its spirits…
I don’t like hospitals. I don’t like ghosts, either. I remind myself of this, but by now it’s too late. I’m standing outside a derelict psychiatric hospital and there’s no way back – literally. The taxi driver has sped off, and he’s been told not to come back for another three hours.
To award it its full name, I’m outside Zakład dla Nerwowo i Psychicznie Chorych Żydów Zofiówka. Founded in 1908, thanks to the charitable donations of Zofia Endelman, ‘Zofiówka’ originally functioned as a sanatorium for Jews with nervous and psychiatric conditions. Seen as a modern institution, it embraced techniques of the time such as electroshock therapy.
Then came the Germans, and you don’t need Google Translate to read between the lines of that one. Under the shadowy charge of Dr. Walbuma Jost, Zofiówka became the only Jewish mental health institute in occupied Poland. Conditions were brutal, with starvation rampant and disease treated with either a bullet or a phenol injection to the heart. But it was to get worse. On August 19th, 1942, the hospital was emptied as part of plans to liquidate the Otwock Ghetto. Up to 140 patients were shot outside, among them Adela Tuwim, mother of author Julian. The remaining Jews were transported to the gas chambers of Treblinka.
The Nazis then found a new use for Zofiówka. For the next couple of years, Aryan-looking Polish children were brought up here as part of plans to ‘Germanize’ them. Alongside them, 100 German mothers reared 150 children under the guise of creating a master race fit to rule the future Nazi empire. The story of Zofiówka is not a happy one.
After the war the complex was used to treat tuberculosis patients, as well as addicts and children with mental health issues. In the mid-90s the sanatorium was finally closed, but by then the hauntings had already began. “A nun working at the hospital was discharged with schizophrenia,” says Michał Mizura, “and hung herself a few weeks after.” After that, a chain of events unfolded that went beyond comprehension. “Paintings hanging on the walls were moving around, night watchmen were too scared to work alone.”
Long since abandoned to nature, Zofiówka is penned in by tangled trees and dense vegetation. The buildings that survive appear suddenly, as if unannounced, following a short crunch through narrow woodland paths. Throughout the thirty minute journey from Warsaw, the Insider has been swapping stories of the night before and catching up on ex-pat intrigues and anecdotes. Frankly, it’s all been a good laugh. Up until now. Now we are silent. Ahead of us stands the shattered shell of Zofiówka, its black, empty windows daring us to enter.
Climbing through one, we stumble over broken masonry and rotted wooden panels. Clearly, we’re not the only ones who’ve visited, and that’s confirmed by a gun target left behind by some paintball enthusiasts. Moving upstairs, gingerly at first, the peeling plaster walls present a jigsaw mix of perfectly preserved tiles featuring intricate patterns and psychedelic graffiti of occult-like shapes. The effect is unsettling. But, stood on the balcony, we realize this is only the beginning. Peering above the trees looms the main building, a hulking structure that breathes menace into the air.
This time, no Chuck Norris moves are required. The metal door has been smashed down, allowing easy access into the guts of the structure. A long corridor stretches into the distance, and it’s tip-toeing down this we note with alarm that we’re definitely not alone… Otwock, I guess, has a limited nightlife and as such the local boys have declared the hospital their hangout. Aware of our need for a quote we approach a lager-sipping gang of floppy haired teens. “Alright lads, you live round here then?” They answer in teenage monosyllables. We persevere. “So, erm, seen anything scary?” “All the time,” answers the leader, before slouching off with an aerosol up his nose.
Not to be defeated by the lack of action we venture forth, the sound of our new friends fading in the background. Labyrinthine in its floor plan, the layout becomes more disorientating the further we advance. A warren of chambers unfolds before us, sucking us deeper and deeper into the back of beyond. “Well,” booms the photographer suddenly, “I wouldn’t like to get chased around here by a madman with an axe.”
Up until now the experience has been odd but largely unemotional. I think, in part, that’s been because it’s been impossible to decipher the role of any single room. The bathroom, however, is unmistakable with its fractured fittings and porcelain debris. The sight of it sends a jolt through me. I’m reminded Zofiówka wasn’t built as Scooby Doo set; it was a real place, of real trauma. The realization is uncomfortable.
It’s with this feeling that we scramble to the half collapsed roof. Up here, with the trees swaying below us, the nuances of nature feel more acute and pronounced; every whistle of the wind and every craw of the crows is amplified. Once again we fall silent. It feels strangely peaceful; sad but serene.
The same can’t be said of the basement. Rule No. 1 of any horror film firmly states ‘Do Not Go Downstairs’. It’s a rule that applies doubly in the case of former psychiatric hospitals – in these places, even rats avoid the cellar. There’s a reason for that: edging your way down into the blackness everything stands still. You can hear yourself breathing. Every little sound makes you jump. And once the torch beam settles on a set of mysterious metal hooks protruding from wall the tendency is to panic. All of a sudden, ghosts feel so real…