Encountering a Nazi Relic in Odessa's Fabled Tunnels

Moses Gates Travels World's Cities In Search of Odd Spots

Beneath the Surface: Odessa is home to over 1,000 miles of underground limestone tunnels; at one time this section was used as a bomb shelter.
Steve Duncan
Beneath the Surface: Odessa is home to over 1,000 miles of underground limestone tunnels; at one time this section was used as a bomb shelter.

By Moses Gates

Published March 05, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 4)

The Ukrainians I’m with could be anyone at first glance. They don’t really look the part of “urban explorers,” which is what the members of the loose-knit worldwide network of artists, historians, adventurers and other assorted nutcases are sometimes called.

But then again, nobody I’ve met in this world has really looked the part. Not the shy Korean girl from a wealthy family who takes naked pictures of herself in abandoned power plants. Not the London bus driver with a weakness for lager, mince pies and well-endowed women, who is halfway to his goal of visiting every abandoned subway station on earth. Not the flamenco dancer with the soft Quebecois accent who travels the world, rappelling into storm drains.

And certainly not me, a mild-mannered Midwestern Jewish boy who got nervous sneaking cigarettes between classes in high school.

Supplies in tow, we drive out to one of the small towns that surround Odessa. It’s the middle of the day, and there’s no need to be clandestine about where we’re going. This is one of the few things I’ve done that’s not actually, technically, illegal. But it’s certainly not encouraged. This network is raw, and incredibly labyrinthine. People get lost in the tunnels all the time. Luckily, the people I’m with are the closest thing to professionals that exist: They’re actually whom the police call if they get reports of someone lost in the catacombs. Unfortunately, sometimes all they end up finding is a body.

We spend hours in the catacombs, doing several trips to various sections. We get used to this world, and happily wander the tunnels underground, eating, drinking, drinking some more and learning how to swear in Russian. But our trip isn’t just a big party. The catacombs have a history to them, a history that, when you experience it up close and personal, is haunting.

First we come to a cavern with several names written in Cyrillic on the wall, which my Ukrainian guides explain are the names of a group of partisans who hid in the quarries while fighting the fascist occupation: Odessa was under occupation by the Axis powers from October 1941 to April 1944. During this occupation, the catacombs were used as a base for several groups of these fighters, who numbered about 300 overall. There’s an official museum in part of the catacombs that’s dedicated to this history (in true Soviet fashion, it’s called the Museum of Partisan Glory) in the village of Nerubayskoye — not too far away from where we are — but it’s a tiny part of the overall network.

Continuing, we see plenty of other remnants of this time: old weapons, bullets, bottles, graffiti and, most heartbreakingly, a cavern where one of the walls is painted to represent a bedroom, with windows, furniture and a plant growing in a pot on the windowsill. And then we turn a corner and see, carved into the limestone wall, a circle about a foot in diameter with a swastika carved into it.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.