New details are emerging about atrocities committed by Nazis in Poland during the onset and closing stages of the Second World War, including how they tried to destroy evidence of their crimes.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, triggering the Second World War. The opening months of the conflict were particularly brutal, especially in the Pomeranian region of northern Poland, where an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Polish citizens were massacred.
Any doubts about Nazi ruthlessness were quickly put to rest. This large-scale atrocity would be the first of many to happen in Poland during the war. And indeed, these killings, known as the Pomeranian Crime of 1939, are considered a foreshadowing to the later Nazi genocides committed in World War II. Some of these killings were done as part of the Intelligenzaktion, in which prominent and well-educated members of Polish society, such as teachers, priests, doctors, activists, office workers, and former officials, were executed.
These killings took place at approximately 400 different locations in Pomerania, including a site on the outskirts of the Polish town of Chojnice. Another massacre of approximately 600 imprisoned Polish citizens took place at this location in late January 1945, as the German retreat along the Eastern Front was in full swing. The Poles were executed, and their bodies burnt to destroy the evidence, according to eyewitness accounts. The site near Chojnice was later named the “Valley of Death” on account of the killings that took place during the war.
An investigation done immediately after the war uncovered the remains of 168 people, but “it was evident from the exhumation reports that not all human remains were discovered and exhumed,” according to new research published today in the science journal Antiquity. The graves of the imprisoned Poles killed in 1945 weren’t fully investigated, either. “Discovering, mapping and analysing the material remains of these crimes from the Second World War were among the aims of the project ‘An archaeology of Death Valley,’” as the researchers, led by Dawid Kobiałka from Polish Academy of Sciences, note in their paper.
For the investigation, Kobiałka and his colleagues looked at more than 1,000 pages of historical documents kept in Polish archives and conducted ethnographic research by interviewing members of this community, including relatives of those believed to have died in Death Valley. To find evidence of the burials, the team explored nearly 10 acres (4 hectares) of land where the killings took place, which they did with LIDAR, metal detectors, and other non-invasive equipment.
Data from these surveys was then compared to historical aerial photographs taken of the region. This analysis revealed a series of trenches dug by the Polish army in the weeks leading up to the war. In a darkly ironic twist of fate, the Nazis used these trenches to bury their murder victims.
“Executions took place at the trenches,” according to the paper. “The victims fell into the trenches or their bodies were thrown there by the perpetrators. Later the trenches were backfilled with soil.”
The sensitive nature of this research required the archaeologists to perform limited excavations. A total of eight trenches were opened at various locations within Death Valley, leading to the discovery of a mass grave in which as many as 500 Nazi murder victims are believed to be buried.
The archaeologists also uncovered evidence of the cremated bones of victims from the 1945 massacre, which they describe as “the most important result of the project.” Some of these ashes were even found scattered on the surface of the ground. Archival evidence revealed a list of potential victims—a group that consisted primarily of members of the Polish resistance movement. The paper provides a grim account of what happened during this late war massacre:
We located the spot where the victims from January 1945 were killed and believed to have been burned in a stack formation. Preserved fragments of wood confirm the accuracy of the witness testimonies, according to which the bodies, and the stack, were doused with a flammable substance and set on fire. The presence of valuable items belonging to the victims demonstrates that the bodies were not robbed; these artefacts also allow the possibility of identifying individuals through their possessions.
A total of 349 artifacts were recovered as a result of the archaeological expedition. Some of these artifacts belonged to the victims, including a woman’s gold wedding ring. Incredibly, the researchers were able to match this ring to Irena Szydłowska, a courier of the Polish Home Army.
The woman’s “family was informed about the finding and the plan is to return the ring to them,” explained Kobiałka in an emailed press release. In addition to these personal possessions, the researchers also uncovered evidence of the massacre itself, things like bullets, shell casings, and burnt wood.
“Despite the Nazis’ efforts to hide their crimes, material evidence of the killings, preserved to the present day and discovered in 2020, bears witness to the massacre and tells the story 75 years later,” the researchers conclude.
The investigation is ongoing, as more victims are being uncovered in Poland’s Death Valley. The team plans to perform DNA analyses of the remains in hopes of identifying more victims. The remains will then be reburied, and Death Valley will be made into an official war cemetery.