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.
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My best analogy is that being a neo-Nazi in Eastern Europe is akin to something along the lines of being one of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, in America, the ones that hold up the “God Hates Fags” signs. Someone whose views are taken as extreme, out of the mainstream political consensus, but still people who aren’t afraid of being seen on camera espousing these views (and are definitely not adverse to writing them on the wall of an abandoned limestone quarry). One Russian urban explorer, whose tagline read, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for the white race,” even tried to friend me on Facebook.

As a result, I’ve been a little wary about the people I’ve met. Not suspicious exactly, but just as “Maybe the people we meet will turn out to be Jewish” has

been put into the category of “within the realm of possibility” in my head, “Maybe the people we meet will turn out to be neo-Nazis” been transferred there from its previous home of “something that would make a bad episode of ‘Seinfeld,’” as well.

I look at the carving on the wall for a while, and my companions catch me staring. I relay my skepticism about the authenticity of the carving, suggesting that it was probably neo-Nazi locals who carved it. But my companions insist otherwise.

“No, that is from the war,” they tell me. “There are other ones in here. They all look the same.”

More than any other modern regime, Nazi Germany has been thoroughly discredited, its historical imprint wiped from current existence. In Italy you can still run across buildings whose keystone reads “built during the XIVth year of the Fascist regime.” In the United States there’s a Tennessee state park named for the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. But there is no place in the entirety of Europe where the government would allow a Nazi relic to be displayed openly, at least not outside the confines of a museum, without a very good explanation for it.

This carving was one of the rarest things a person could find. Even in a former German bunker we had found in the tunnels under Paris, built during the Nazi occupation of the city, there was nothing past the words Notausgang (Emergency Exit) and Rauchen Verboten (No Smoking) on the walls. Much of the purpose, the excitement, in urban exploration is finding this kind of thing, a historical remnant preserved because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of the location. I’ve gotten to see something incredibly rare. My emotions are telling me differently, but my head says I should leave it as is, leave it for others to experience, to have their own thoughts and feelings upon its discovery. After all, ideologically the Nazis have been universally debunked and destroyed. There is nothing left to fight, the victory long since complete.

And if I were someone different, had a different family with a different history, I would have likely heeded this thought and left it alone. And if another, different person had made this choice, I would have understood, made no judgments.

But I’m not a different person. To me, these people aren’t a vague historical ideology, just a symbol and an epithet now. All I can think of when I look at the carving in the stone is that whoever put it there wanted to murder my whole family.

I pick up a piece of glass, dig it into the soft limestone surrounding it and start to hack away. I don’t stop to think about what the others will think of it. After a few moments, one of the Ukrainians, a gruff black-haired man who doesn’t speak English, gets up, takes out his pocketknife and joins me in my erasure.

Excerpted from “Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration” by Moses Gates, with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group USA. Copyright 2013 by Moses Gates. Visit Moses at MosesGates.com.


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