I arrive at the hideout shortly after a rescue mission, where elite soldier William Blazkowicz went undercover and retrieved refugees from the forced labour camp in Belica. The mental burden these refugees carry is tangible; it weighs on their shoulders and is told in their eyes. You see it in their posture, broken not only by the unspeakable forced labour, but also by what they saw and experienced. Yet each person is different, and a glint of their personalities shine through as I observe how they deal with their own, personal horrors.
The atmosphere in this place is an uncomfortable blend of despair and relief; hope sits alongside fear, comfort alongside anxiety. The sanctuary of the hideout provides an opportunity for the refugees to relax; to speak to others; to repair; to remember what it means to be a human being again, but I doubt it does enough to silence the nightmares, to quell their mental turmoil. William Blazkowicz declines to be photographed. He claims it would compromise the mission, but I believe there is more to it than that.
I sat quietly as Milo thanked Blazkowicz for reuniting him with his wife, Anne, whilst lamenting the loss of "so many". He wouldn't be drawn on the things he'd seen at the death camp, nor would he provide the story behind the scars he bore. If I were a better photographer, I probably would've pressed him, but I felt I was intruding, and instead opted to spend a small amount of time photographing them both from a distance, before leaving them in each other's company.
Many of the refugees rest and reflect, or sleep a deep sleep of unimaginable exhaustion. The makeshift beds and old sofas must feel like absolute luxury to their broken bodies.
Some turn to religion to settle their souls. Many may laugh at the idea - after all, what god would allow this? - but what else do they have to believe in?
Anya Oliwa was formerly the Head Nurse at the Zaklad Psychiatryczny Malawies, a Polish mental health asylum established by her family in 1824. She revealed to me that Blazkowicz himself was a patient there, in a vegetative state for an astonishing fourteen years. She joined the resistance, along with Blazkowicz, when the Nazis destroyed the asylum, killing the patients in the process. Anya is a strikingly beautiful woman with a remarkable inner strength. She speaks fondly of William, and her professional, somewhat formal tone softens when I try to draw her on the more personal aspects of his character, before she politely informs me she must return to her work.
Tekla is a curious character – clearly a scientific and mathematical genius but somewhat enigmatic and, shall we say, "lacking interpersonal skills". She is an incredibly valuable member of the team, however, and I can tell that, hidden behind the unusual tics and abrupt manner, there is a warmth to her. She uses her studies and calculations to put up a barrier between herself and others, possibly for fear of becoming too attached to anyone. I can't say I blame her too much.
Fergus Reid and Blaskowicz have a long and complicated history, not that he will tell me about it; he was happy to be photographed, "so long as you keep your mouth shut and don't get in my fucking way when I'm trying to work". I dutifully kept quiet and snapped away, although I did still get a seemingly sincere "cheers, kid" out of him once I'd finished.
I attempted to speak to everyone I photographed, mainly out of courtesy, but also to better understand and tell their stories. Often, however, I was met with silence. Everything is too fresh in their minds. With pangs of guilt, I proceeded to quietly photograph them, as if they were curiosities in a zoo. As wrong as this feels, I have to keep in mind that am doing a job here; this story needs to be told. I must push my feelings aside and see the bigger picture. This is a unique opportunity to communicate to what remains of the free world what is happening, it is a chance to push back against the tide of Nazi propaganda.
I am a different kind of soldier. My camera is my weapon.