Death in Marienburg: Mystery Surrounds Mass Graves in Polish City

By Georg Bönisch, Jan Puhl and Klaus Wiegrefe

In the Polish city of Malbork, once part of German West Prussia, one mass grave after the other has been uncovered over the years. The causes of the mass deaths in the city following World War II remain a mystery today.

In Malbork, Poland, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Gdansk, Radoslaw Gajc slings a pick-ax over his shoulder. Dressed in green overalls like all the city's housing industry employees, he crosses an icy dirt track, then descends into an open pit. Just 200 meters (650 feet) away, the majestic brick walls of Malbork Castle soar in the background.

Gajc is a construction worker, and together with his colleagues he's supposed to be building a luxury hotel here. Instead, he finds himself more in the role of a gravedigger. After just a few strokes with the pick-ax, Gajc strikes bone. He reaches for a small garden spade and carefully excavates the fragments of a human jaw, two teeth still attached, then drops his find into a black plastic bucket. "At first we were constantly finding children's skeletons," he says, "and that was really hard for me. I have a young son myself."

Gajc and the others are working their way through a mass grave containing the remains of at least 1,800 people, including women and children. All the bodies were naked when they were thrown into the pit, and their cause of death is unknown. Did they die during World War II? Or later, in an epidemic? Were they the dead retrieved from the city's houses and streets after battles, to be accorded at least this form of burial?

Or are they the victims of a monstrous crime? Some of the skulls, it turns out, reveal bullet holes.

So far no forensic experts have been called in, although the excavation here has been going on for months. City officials first announced the find earlier this month, and there is a strong chance the bones are the remains of Germans. The excavation is being led by Zbigniew Sawicki, the archaeologist at Malbork's castle museum. Sawicki himself is a specialist in the Middle Ages, and the construction workers on his crew are hardly qualified to perform forensic analysis.

The one thing known for sure is that Malbork, then a German city and known as Marienburg, was engulfed in a wave of violence in 1945. This has been corroborated by numerous witnesses from that time -- Germans, Poles and even a Red Army soldier. Additionally, a great deal of evidence can be found in documents from the private Marienburg Archives in Hamburg.

This is also not the first mass grave to be found in Malbork. In 1996, 178 corpses were discovered on the grounds of Malbork Castle. Nine years later, specialists exhumed the bones of 123 more, including five women and six children, from a former trench along the southern wall of the castle. But this many bodies have never before been found in a single grave.

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