In 1945, Nazi soldiers murdered more than 200 Polish and Soviet forced laborers at three separate locations in what’s known as one of the worst crimes in the war-torn nations. Historians and archaeologists excavating the three sites have uncovered more than 400 personal items left behind by the victims at the time of their death and, in pairing with historical records, an archaeological excavation led by Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL) in Germany is helping experts forensically reconstruct the victims' final moments.
Shortly before the end of World War II, members of the Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht marched dozens of prisoners into Germany’s Arnsberg Forest. One such location was Langenbachtal, where 71 forced laborers were taken into the forest and told to drop their belongings and clothes on the roadside likely with the expectation of retrieving them before reaching their new location.
Cartridge cases found along a brook indicate that Nazi officials instead executed their victims, while bullets found throughout the forest suggest some attempted to escape. Here, it is believed that personal items belonging to the 60 women, 10 men, and one child – including a prayer dictionary, shoes, pieces of clothing, and utensils – were confiscated and given to others in the camp while money likely ended up in a military cash box.
Nearby, researchers found fewer items at Meschede-Eversberg, leading experts to believe that the perpetrators were more prepared. A large pit in the ground suggests that a grenade was used to blow a hole that the 80 victims were then forced to enter before they were killed. Here, 50 objects were found including a harmonica, a spectacle case, and a comb stand.
The third location has a similarly tragic ending. At Wastrein-Suttrop, 51 workers were forced to dig zigzagged trenches that would inevitably be their final resting place.
The events remained a secret until 1946 when the English military received an anonymous tip that bodies were concealed under a cow paddock, reports German news outlet Deutsche Welle. The following year, British and American forces made Nazi associates exhume the bodies and they were then buried at Fulmecke cemetery, which was founded during the First World War.
More than seven decades later, the research team says it is their “social responsibility” to add to the culture of remembrance.
"The results should not only document the events and the processing by the judiciary after 1945 but should also be used for memorial cultural projects, such as the redesign of the manure cemetery 'Fulmecke', on which the murder victims today rest,” said LWL historian Marcus Weidner in a statement.
To date, only 14 of those murdered have been identified. Researchers hope to continue their work in Germany and abroad to link victims with their potential descendants.
[H/T: Deutsche Welle]