Wedding rings, bullets, and cremated remains are just some of the relics recently discovered by archaeologists looking for evidence of an infamous war crime in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Reported in the journal Antiquity, the new study saw a team of Polish researchers carry out an archaeological investigation around an area in northern Poland that’s become known as “Death Valley”.
“As a kid living near Death Valley, I used to play with my friends there,” Dr Dawid Kobiałka, lead study author from the Polish Academy of Sciences, said in a statement sent to IFLScience. “Three decades later, I discovered a mass grave of approximately 500 Poles there.”
After the German invasion of Poland was completed in October 1939, between 30,000 to 35,000 Polish intellectuals, Polish civilians, Jews, and Czechs, as well as German inmates from psychiatric institutions, were killed in the Polish Pomeranian province in a matter of months. One of the many brutal mass executions took place near the town of Chojnice in the autumn of 1939, in which the Nazis executed hundreds of civilians. Local people named the area “the Valley of Death'' or “Death Valley” — a site that lived in infamy for generations.
A second massacre occurred here in January 1945, the final year of the Second World War. Eyewitness accounts said some 600 Polish prisoners were escorted to “the Valley of Death” by the Gestapo and executed. Their bodies were promptly burned to cover up evidence of the atrocity. In the autumn of 1945, when the war had finally come to a close, the remains of 168 people were exhumed from the area, but many suspected this was just the tip of the iceberg.
In the new study, archaeologists have started to uncover more of this horrific story. The team revealed evidence of cremated bones that appear to have been scattered across the surface of the ground. Archival evidence and interviews led the researchers to believe these burned remains belonged to members of the Polish resistance movement who were likely killed during the second massacre in January 1945.
“It was commonly known that not all mass graves from 1939 were found and exhumed, and the grave of those killed in 1945 was not exhumed either,” explained Dr Kobiałka.
Lidar remote sensing techniques, combined with historical aerial images, revealed the presence of trenches in the valley. It’s thought they were originally dug by the Polish Army in case of war with the Third Reich but were later used by the Nazis to bury more of the dead.
A total of 349 artifacts were discovered around "Death Valley" using metal detectors. Some of the objects are physical evidence of the brutality that took place here, such as bullets and shell casings, while others are deeply personal belongings that vividly highlight the humanity of the victims.
“Among the most important artifacts found was a woman’s wedding ring,” explained Kobiałka, “It was identified by Dr Dariusz Burczyk from the Institute of National Remembrance, Poland as belonging to Irena Szydłowska, a courier of the Polish Home Army. Her family was informed about the finding and the plan is to return the ring to them.”
The team hopes to use DNA analysis to help identify the victims with greater precision. Once this is complete, the remains will be reburied in "Death Valley" and the site will become an official war cemetery.