All over the East­ern Front, en­thu­si­asts – fu­elled by vodka and na­tional pride – search for valu­able mil­i­tary mem­o­ra­bilia. Jack Losh joins one group of Poles, and meets the ar­chae­ol­o­gists and po­lice­men try­ing to stop them

The Observer Magazine - - THIS WEEK'S ISSUE - Pho­to­graphs AN­TO­NIO OLMOS

In the quiet of the for­est, Alek­sander holds a rusted pis­tol and turns it over. Others gather round to ad­mire the hand­gun, each feel­ing its weight be­fore shoot­ing an imag­i­nary bul­let into the trees. More de­tri­tus of war is placed on a pic­nic ta­ble – a swastikaadorned badge, shards of shrap­nel, a Soviet medal in­scribed “Pro­le­tar­i­ans of all coun­tries, unite!” The rem­nants of fallen regimes.

The men are among the thou­sands of detectorists across East­ern Europe hunt­ing for relics of the Red Army, the Third Re­ich and Im­pe­rial Rus­sia. Be­neath ploughed field and re­mote wood­land is buried trea­sure from a tur­bu­lent, van­ish­ing past. Even to­day, the war dead lie in these lands. Some­times bod­ies are found.

Each week­end this group, call­ing them­selves the Maso­vian Guardians of His­tory, heads to the Pol­ish back­woods to es­cape the city. There is a builder, bar­man, fac­tory worker, of­fice clerk, post­man and sushi chef, among others. Fu­elled by vodka and a pas­sion for his­tory, they strip old bat­tle­fields of arte­facts while try­ing to dodge the po­lice.

On a driz­zly sum­mer af­ter­noon 24 hours ear­lier, I meet Alek­sander in a sta­tion out­side War­saw. The 30-year-old, with cropped hair and an ath­letic frame, has just fin­ished his shift at a rail­way parts fac­tory. He gives a po­lite yet cal­i­brated smile and leads me to his car.

As we drive across flat, open coun­try, I try to imag­ine the blood­let­ting that passed on this, the for­mer East­ern Front – the ar­moured clashes, the scorched-earth poli­cies, the mil­lions dead. But it is im­pos­si­ble. It’s not long un­til con­versa- tion turns to pol­i­tics. “Im­mi­gra­tion is not good,” says Alek­sander, un­prompted. “We should stop the mix of peo­ple and cul­tures.” What about his com­pa­tri­ots who face sim­i­lar hos­til­ity in the UK? “They should not be in Bri­tain in the first place,” replies the am­a­teur kick­boxer-turned­triath­lete. “These Poles are ex­ploited and should stay here to make our coun­try great.”

The coun­try­side grows emp­tier and, be­yond the non­de­script town of Międzyrzec Pod­laski, we reach a small dwelling with run­down out­houses, guarded by a yap­ping mon­grel. A mid­dle- aged man dressed in cam­ou­flage trousers and black T-shirt opens the gate. A few detectorists stand around, drink­ing beer. Sev­eral more soon pitch up, dressed in the out­fit of choice – khaki fa­tigues.

Sud­denly, some­one lets out a cheer. Dar­iusz has ar­rived. In sweat-stained army sur­plus, he swag­gers over – metal de­tec­tor slung over his shoul­der, paunch pro­trud­ing from his vest. A sil­ver cross hangs on a heavy chain around his neck. His right arm is tat­tooed with a Winged Hus­sar of the old Pol­ish cav­alry. Af­ter greet­ing his friends, he chal­lenges me to a fight but gets dis­tracted by our pho­tog­ra­pher – a Mex­i­can. “Ah, you’re from the Ze­tas car­tel! You are my boss!” As a joke, he holds two knives to the throat of our trans­la­tor then heads off for another beer, trip­ping down the steps to the house. “Ha!” he guf­faws. “In­stant karma!”

The dig will start in the morn­ing. The plan now is to get plas­tered. Lager flows among in­nu­mer­able shots of vodka flavoured with cherry, plum, quince or wal­nut. Dar­iusz pre­pares a camp­fire for a pot that bub­bles with pota­toes, onions and chunks of pork. This hearty din­ner fails to soak up all the booze and, by the early hours, the detectorists pass out. Three col­lapse fully clothed on to a sin­gle bed.

away lies Krakow, TWO HUN­DRED MILES the base of DCI Bartłomiej Morek. This po­lice­man runs the Vinci unit, tar­get­ing un­ac­cred­ited detectorists, art thieves, forg­ers and relic smug­glers. “We don’t want to fight hob­by­ists, but my job is to pro­tect ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites,” he says. “We must stop detectorists de­stroy­ing them.”

Finds are of­ten flogged on the black mar­ket, with on­line bazaars dis­tribut­ing arte­facts to coun­tries around the world, in­clud­ing the UK. “We have tools to lo­cate peo­ple on the other side of the in­ter­net,” says Morek. “Once we know an item is il­le­gal and in­side Poland, there’s no prob­lem se­cur­ing a search war­rant.” Land­ing a pros­e­cu­tion is harder. “Detectorists know how to es­cape a con­vic­tion and share their knowl­edge about how to stay free.”

Metal de­tect­ing with­out the right per­mit can in­cur a £1,000 fine or a month in prison. Those guilty of pos­sess­ing sal­vaged weapons and ex­plo­sives – even if rusted or de­ac­ti­vated – may be jailed for sev­eral years, though sen­tences are of­ten sus­pended. Crit­ics say

Is this grave rob­bing? I never take jew­ellery or gold teeth from the dead. But medals… that’s OK

My fa­ther killed him­self when I was 19. Af­ter that I drank hard for three years – a litre of vodka a day. Now I’m bet­ter

Pol­ish law on his­tor­i­cal ob­jects is am­bigu­ous, lead­ing to ar­bi­trary pun­ish­ment and of­fer­ing no fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive to hand in arte­facts.

Back near the Poland-Be­larus bor­der, as the Maso­vian Guardians of His­tory gather on Satur­day morn­ing, Dar­iusz is jovial de­spite last night’s heavy ses­sion. His fas­ci­na­tion with the past was kin­dled by his grand­fa­ther, a Sec­ond World War vet­eran cap­tured by the Nazis and used for slave labour. “I am sur­rounded by his­tory,” says Dar­iusz, 35, in bro­ken English. He grad­u­ated with a his­tory de­gree and now, af­ter a tur­bu­lent 20s, works as an itin­er­ant farm­hand, pick­ing fruit in south­west Ger­many.

“My mother was a civil ser­vant, my fa­ther com­mit­ted sui­cide when I was 19. Af­ter his death, I drank hard for three years. One litre of vodka per day some­times. I was very ag­gres­sive and fight­ing in the streets, so my girl­friend said: ‘You have a prob­lem, go see psy­chol­o­gist.’ One day, I just wake up and de­cide to stop. Now I’m bet­ter. Some­times I see my fa­ther in me, but I make a choice and fix it.”

As with most here, Dar­iusz is a na­tion­al­ist. His right-wing views ex­tend to Is­lam (“I get my ma­chete for all the Mus­lims”), gay rights (“This is a Catholic coun­try – I think most peo­ple don’t like the gays”) and re­cent demon­stra­tions against the gov­ern­ment’s con­tro­ver­sial plan to take con­trol of the Supreme Court (“This protest is spon­sored by Soros and run by old com­mu­nists”). On Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, he is non­plussed (“Obama or Trump – same shit”).

De­spite his views, Dar­iusz is af­fa­ble, all blus­ter. As a fel­low de­tec­torist ex­plains: “He’s the most pop­u­lar guy here. He has a big heart. If he saw a Mus­lim woman in trou­ble, he’d be the first to help.” He’s still sin­gle. “Girls don’t like it when I’m away dig­ging,” he says. “Maybe I have wife one day, but now dig­ging is win­ning.”

Over break­fast, the group knocks back cof­fees and beers and then, dressed in com­bat gear, piles into a van for the bumpy ride into the mos­quito-in­fested woods. This area was once scarred by a se­ries of clashes – between the Wehrma­cht and the Red Army in 1944, between the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian and Rus­sian em­pires dur­ing the First World War, between Pol­ish rebels and the tsar in 1831 – along with assaults dur­ing the 17th-cen­tury from Rus­sia, Swe­den and Za­porozhian Cos­sacks.

No one here both­ers with the bu­reau­cratic rig­ma­role of ob­tain­ing ac­cred­i­ta­tion to dig. One of the reg­u­lars, a po­lice­man, is usu­ally on hand to help them evade the law. “Once we got stopped by two cops,” says one de­tec­torist. “But he was more se­nior so they let us go.”

Be­fore the dig, the group gath­ers round a re­cently sal­vaged col­lec­tion of weapons from the bat­tle­field – ri­fles of Im­pe­rial Rus­sia, semi-au­to­matic Mausers, a pair of Ruby and Tokarev pis­tols – along with rare medals, coins and mil­i­tary in­signia. Then they fan out into the green glow of the for­est. Their in­stru­ments buzz, bleep and hum as they head through stands of birch and maple, oak, pine and spruce. One of them stum­bles across a wartime trench, al­ready ran­sacked.

I spot Alek­sander, his sen­sor flick­ing from side to side. He and his grand­fa­ther – a sur­vivor of mas­sacres car­ried out by Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists in 1943 – en­joyed long con­ver­sa­tions about his­tory, which nur­tured his pas­sion for the past. There is another rea­son for his love of metal de­tect­ing. “My fac­tory is stress­ful and dirty, but the for­est is clean,” says Alek­sander. “I rest my brain and es­cape from re­al­ity.”

But his pur­suits have cre­ated a fam­ily rift. His sis­ter, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, does not ap­prove: “We don’t talk much any more.” Their re­la­tion­ship is symp­to­matic of the ten­sions between detectorists and ar­chae­ol­o­gists, about whom Alek­sander is scathing: “They just at­tend con­fer­ences and spend money. They’re the real thieves.”

The feel­ing is mu­tual. Dr To­masz Nowakiewicz, from the Uni­ver­sity of War­saw’s In­sti­tute of Archaeology, says: “We’re no longer in the 19th cen­tury. Call­ing your­self a col­lec­tor is no ex­cuse.” In­sti­tute di­rec­tor Dr Krzysztof Jaku­biak tells me the detectorists’ slap­dash meth­ods de­stroy an ob­ject’s con­text – crit­i­cal for in­ter­pret­ing past hu­man ac­tiv­ity. “We know how to do proper ex­ca­va­tion and ex­trac­tion. We don’t just tear ob­jects out from the soil. Within 10 years, we risk los­ing all these ob­jects.”

the for­est and THE DE­TEC­TOR IST S SC OUR find medals, coins and shrap­nel, but not much more. Sweaty, bug-bit­ten and ready to re­fuel, they stop at a pizza par­lour. Ar­tur, a fac­tory worker, or­ders a carafe of vodka and passes out be­fore we ar­rive back at the rented house.

They con­sider them­selves cus­to­di­ans of his­tory. “For me, these ob­jects are price­less,” says one. “They con­nect me to the past. I don’t want to leave them to rust. This is our na­tional his­tory, but they’re my arte­facts.”

That night there is axe- throw­ing and vodka shots while Marek, a sushi chef, plays the same pa­tri­otic mil­i­tary tune on re­peat. Af­ter too much booz­ing, he is car­ried to bed, but by break­fast the next morn­ing he has al­ready necked three beers.

The group walk through an or­chard and cross a marsh amid bird­song and the buzz of in­sects. It is bu­colic, another world from the one that Jan Dem­czuk re­mem­bers from his child­hood. We meet the 90-year-old, re­tired farmer chop­ping fire­wood out­side his barn. He doesn’t seem both­ered by the khaki-clad strangers prob­ing his land for trin­kets and tro­phies.

“There was fight­ing around here in Septem­ber 1939 between Ger­mans and Poles,” re­calls the old man. The front­line re­turned in sum­mer 1944 as the Sovi­ets pushed back against the Wehrma­cht. “I re­mem­ber sol­diers run­ning past. There were many ex­plo­sions.”

As bat­tle raged, Dem­czuk de­scribes his mother tak­ing him with their piglets to hide in a field. The sow, miss­ing her lit­ter, es­caped from her pen and joined them, as the ter­ri­fied young boy cra­dled the tiny an­i­mals. Asked about life un­der oc­cu­pa­tion, he an­swers: “As hosts, the Nazis were per­fect. There was or­der. Sure, they killed in­no­cent peo­ple, but it was war.”

His rec­ol­lec­tions do not cap­ture the hor­ror that un­folded in this area, home to a large, cen­turies- old Jewish com­mu­nity. A ghetto was es­tab­lished, then came the mass de­por­ta­tions by cat­tle wagon to ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps. Less than 1% of the lo­cal Jewish pop­u­la­tion is be­lieved to have sur­vived.

The detectorists sur­vey a meadow then move to a rasp­berry plan­ta­tion, oc­ca­sion­ally crouch­ing down to dig up the goods. Dar­iusz is un­con­cerned about un­ex­ploded ord­nance. “No prob­lem. It’s not dan­ger­ous. If it blows up, my brain is dust and I don’t even know.”

Like Alek­sander, an ob­ses­sion with past hero­ics is not his only mo­ti­va­tion for rum­mag­ing in the dirt. “When I am dig­ging, I am es­cap­ing,” he ex­plains. “I just for­get.”

There is a beep and Marek and Piotr be­gin ex­ca­vat­ing with great pur­pose. They hol­low out a few inches then test the soil with a de­tec­tor. Another beep. Piotr grabs his spade and digs out clumps of earth. He reaches in, clasps his fin­gers around the ob­ject and lifts it out. A hel­met, per­haps? An SS of­fi­cer’s Luger? It’s a rusted horse­shoe. He tosses it away.

Bot­tle tops and farm junk may ac­count for most finds but, very oc­ca­sion­ally, some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary is un­earthed. Back at the house, a builder called Se­bas­tian is knock­ing back a late-morn­ing beer. This fa­ther- of-two in his late 30s is go­ing through a di­vorce and has come to the coun­try­side to clear his head.

He de­scribes how, sev­eral years ago, he went look­ing for mil­i­taria near Bo­hukały, a vil­lage by the Be­larus bor­der. Ger­man Panzer di­vi­sions had rum­bled through here on their light­ning ad­vance east­wards in 1941. Three years later, this tiny vil­lage was again at the cen­tre of fierce fight­ing dur­ing the Sovi­ets’ counter-of­fen­sive. Se­bas­tian heard that fol­low­ing the bat­tle lo­cals had buried the dead in bomb craters. He set out across this necrop­o­lis and his de­tec­tor soon started beep­ing. He dug up a flask then bur­rowed fur­ther and found a dog tag, and then a skull. The more he dug, the more bones he found, fi­nally ex­hum­ing 26 skele­tons.

“I was ex­cited and emo­tional,” says Se­bas­tian. “It was in­tense.” He took the dog tags, cov­ered the bones and in­formed a Ger­man or­gan­i­sa­tion that repa­tri­ates the re­mains of miss­ing sol­diers. “It doesn’t mat­ter if they’re Pol­ish, Rus­sian or Ger­man. They’re sol­diers with loved ones who don’t know what hap­pened.” He also pock­eted spent am­mu­ni­tion, shell frag­ments and a medal awarded to those wounded in ac­tion. Is this grave rob­bing? “I never take jew­ellery or gold teeth from the dead,” he replies. “But medals – that’s OK.”

The group gath­ers for one last beer, in­spect­ing the week­end’s haul. Be­sides shrap­nel and car­tridge cases, there are coins and mil­i­tary but­tons from the 19th cen­tury, a 1660s shilling, a bronze medal­lion from the Rus­sian-Turk­ish war (1877-78), a Nazi map-read­ing in­stru­ment, and a hand­some piece of sil­ver. But they’ve not made that dy­na­mite dis­cov­ery that could earn a for­tune and gen­er­ate a leg­end. “No prob­lem,” smiles Dar­iusz, shrug­ging his shoul­ders. “We try again next week­end.” Some names have been changed

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists know how to do a proper ex­ca­va­tion. We don’t just tear ob­jects from the soil with­out con­text

The ris­ing storm: Ger­man troops pa­rade in front of Hitler and his Nazi gen­er­als af­ter en­ter­ing War­saw on 5 Oc­to­ber 1939 at the start of the Sec­ond World War

Lost and found: (from left) a hand­gun, bul­lets and coins found by the detectorists; and Jan Dem­czuk (right), a farmer who lived through the Sec­ond World War

‘When I am dig­ging, I am es­cap­ing’: (from left) a de­tec­torist at work; Dr Krzysztof Jaku­biak (left) and Dr To­masz Nowakiewicz from War­saw Uni­ver­sity

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