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Skeletons of the Past: Helping Europe's War Dead Find a Final Resting Place

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With excavations of Europe's killing fields still unearthing the mortal remains of thousands of fallen soldiers, World War II still isn't over for the people who find them, identify them and give them a proper burial.

Thomas Schock is standing on a plot of land in Redczyce near Znin in western Poland. The region was known during World War II as the Reichsgau Wartheland, formed from Polish territory annexed by the Nazis in 1939. Redczyce then became Rettschütz and Znin became Dietfurt. It's a blustery day in March, 70 years after the war ended. The birch and pear trees are bare. "Ideally, the troops who died would have been advancing," says Thomas Schock. That would mean there might be grave plans, sketches and photos. "It's harder if the troops were retreating." A bulldozer behind him has already cleared away a meter of ochre soil. "Stop!" yells Schock. He's noticed a dark patch in the sand. "Shadows of corpses," he says.

Thomas Schock is a qualified forest ranger who studied the subject in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. But he got bored with the forest and retrained. Now he specializes in exhuming dead bodies and remnant bones and re-burying them in another location. He recalls how he used to spend his evenings filling out reburial forms, processing reports on deceased people from a 17-year-old buried in a shallow grave to victims of violence and mass graves for soldiers and civilians, layers upon layers of bones, skulls and boots. "Nothing but death and suffering," says Schock. "I knew I either had to give up or just get on with it." Today he works for the German War Graves Commission, where he is in charge of exhumation and reburial in central and southeastern Europe.

Multimedia Special: The Day of the Century

Behind him, the bulldozer's driver has switched off the engine. The team continues digging up the field in Redczyce with trowels, unearthing stratum upon stratum of soil. The same way that images slowly emerge when a photographer processes pictures in a dark room, a semblance of a soldier gradually appears, in the form of a helmet, a skull, remains of boots and a padded coat, ribs.

Europe is built on cadavers. Merely scratching the surface of its soil can turn up bones, metal shards, unexploded bombs, dog tags, rosaries, rusty knives and forks, medals, belt buckles. Shadows of corpses.

A Diorama of Death

In August 1942, Colonel Walther Sonntag of the Wehrmacht's Casualty Office signed four pages of typewritten instructions for military graves officers, along with a further nine pages of sketches, laying out guidelines for mass graves for soldiers.

Colonel Sonntag worked on the assumption that after "initial burial on the battlefield, part of these mass graves will have to be turned into war cemeteries." Trees were to be left intact "as much as possible" and proximity to a train station was considered a prerequisite. In cemeteries with over 3,000 graves, a 12-meter-wide (39 feet) pathway was mandatory, "including the grassy borders on either side." Individual graves could measure a maximum of seven square meters and the topsoil was to be left undisturbed. "The graves must be laid out so that two fallen soldiers are interred head to head, to avoid a profusion of pathways and grave steles," read the guidelines.

But after August 1942, despite the colonel's instructions, "a surfeit of grave steles" was often inevitable.

Seventy years later, Thomas Schock has his work cut out for him tracking down what is left of the Wehrmacht soldiers and the war dead, who still lie scattered across Europe's erstwhile battlefields. Not only do he and his team dig up skeletons -- they also dig up, layer by layer, a past that has failed to make it into the history books.

In February 1944, six-year-old Anna Rossa watched the Red Army shoot a group of German soldiers in Redczyce. Anna Domanska, as she's called today, has never forgotten the sight of the bodies of the half-naked men, lying on the street. "They lay there until the front moved on and were then interred in a pit in the former Protestants' cemetery. I know this because my little brother Pawel was also buried there," she wrote in a letter to the Polish foundation Pomost, or "Bridge". For the last ten years, the association has been locating and investigating World War II graves in Poland and working together with the German War Graves Commission.

Tomasz Czabaski is head of Pomost and also one of ten project managers at the German War Graves Commission.

"We visited Anna Domanska just before she suffered a stroke, and she showed us the spot on a map," he explains. "Other people in the village couldn't remember anything, but they were helpful."

Surrounded by birch and pear trees, the pit has been excavated, exposing a diorama of death: remains of bodies that look as though they are straining towards the light, bones in jackboots that are still largely intact -- a reminder that leather survives longer than human skin. The chinbone of another skeleton appears to jut forward, the skull tucked into the neck bone and the teeth bared. Absurdly healthy, they make the corpse look like it's laughing at the commotion around it.

"You need to maintain a certain distance to do this kind of work," says Thomas Schock. "Not least in terms of the language you use. Someone once wrote that we accompany the dead in life, and it's true. Meeting relatives or people who witnessed these events first-hand can be very moving."

Only about a third of World War II casualties can be identified. Some were buried with a note, stuffed into a bottle and placed next to the corpse in the grave. Wehrmacht dog tags are sometimes found. Whenever a soldier died, half the dog tag would go to his officer, the other half would be left with the corpse. These dog tags are often put up for auction on ebay by the descendants of the dead -- but also by grave robbers, much to the disgust of Thomas Schock. Once a corpse is stripped of its dog tag, its identity is lost forever.

The Mother of All Authorities

In Berlin's suburban Reinickendorf district, close to an allotment garden complex, is an Imperial-era red brick building that stretches along an entire street. Unbeknownst to many, it houses -- as any map of the capital reveals -- the succintly-named Deutsche Dienststelle or "German Office," a title that makes it sound like the definitive agency, as though Eichborndamm 179 housed the mother of all German authorities. The block is all arched windows, former production halls, corner towers and vestiges of assembly line tracks. Until it was decommissioned by the Red Army, it served as the manufacturing site of the German Weapons and Munitions company.

Today it's the final repository of every surviving Wehrmacht record. Thousands of tons of index cards and file folders containing information on dead soldiers are now stored on the site where once grenades and shrapnel bombs, gun cartridges and bullet casings were manufactured. It too is a graveyard of sorts.

The Deutsche Dienststelle was formerly called the Wehrmachtsauskunftsstelle für Kriegerverluste und Kriegsgefangene, or "Wehrmacht Information Office for War Losses and POWs," which is why it still goes by the acronym WASt. The staff includes an official in charge of "Skeleton Findings," one responsible for the relatives of "Foreign Associations" and another for reburials and the fates of soldiers who died as long ago as World War I.

The Wehrmacht's entire bureaucratic legacy is archived here, amounting to 65 kilometers (40.3 miles) of paperwork -- consisting of files from military hospitals, personel records, information on graves including lists of their whereabouts, family registers, 156 volumes of army postal service directories, protocols of reburials, and information on prisoners of war. There are filing boxes for "Waffen-SS Leaders," "Dog Tags of Requisitioned Traders" and a comprehensive index of personel from the army, airforce, police, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm, Reich Labor Service and "other military-like organizations." Somewhere in the files is a yellowing report on an 18-year-old prisoner of war named "GRASS, Günther," 10th SS Panzer Division "Frundsberg."

Staff member Elvira Gerhardt has a gentle manner and judging by the pictures on the walls of her office, a fondness for cats. On her desk is a faded, handwritten index card, a letter sent from the front dated Oct. 13, 1944, and a rusty cigarette case. Gray marbled filing boxes are piled up behind her. "There are roughly 20 estates to administer per 500 reburials," Gerhardt explains. Rings, pocket watches, rosaries, cigarette cases and decayed coins are kept in glass cabinets. "Most of them were recovered from graves," she says.

The office doors have signs that read "Infantry Regiments" and "Waffen-SS Ranking Lists." Inside, posters of back exercises are stuck to the front of the filing cabinets.

An Inventory of Horror

The last war on German soil ended 70 years ago -- a lifetime ago. But it's still not over at the Deutsche Dienststelle, at least not between standard office hours, when 250 members of staff continue to process 18 million index cards, handwritten and filed while war was still raging.

Soldiers killed in action are marked with a blue cross, while a red cross indicates a soldier has been pronounced dead. But death by no means marks the end of the story. In fact, it's at that point that the work begins: "There needs to be an official death notice," explains a case worker. Only then will an index card get a red cross, raising all manner of pension and inheritance questions.

The 150 million files labeled "Casualty Reports" contain comprehensive information on every foot lost to frostbite, every accident, every instance of self-mutilation, amputated leg and ruptured abdomen in battlefields from Stalingrad to Kursk. The battles fought by the Wehrmacht are documented in minute detail at the Deutsche Dienststelle. Its rows of files amount to an inventory of horror.

The archive is overseen by Hans-Hermann Söchtig, a former lieutenant colonel who likes to wear maroon velvet jackets and has a picture of a Eurofighter as his screensaver. It's no coincidence, he says, that a Wehrmacht information office was set up on August 26, 1939, just a few days before the start of World War II.

"According to Article 77 of the 1929 Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, signatories pledged to establish information offices in the event of hostilities that would address questions relating to prisoners of war," he says.

Söchtig is nevertheless surprised that the agency has survived this long. "Reports on casualties continued to arrive even in the last days of the war," he says.

The Right to a Final Resting Place

Legally, the skeletons of Wehrmacht soldiers are subject to German burial law, which guarantees the right to a final resting place - so long as this is on German soil as defined in 1990. "The problems begin when a soldier was buried abroad," explains Söchtig. "In these cases the German War Graves Commission sends us burial protocols and we check the lists to see if we can identify the deceased."

He is pleased by how much cooperation with Russia has improved over time. The two countries now exchange expertise and findings, from bones to archived information. His office helps promote peace, says Söchtig, and that means a lot to him.

Like any government agency, the Deutsche Dienststelle has to justify its existence every year. Not all politicians are convinced that three generations after the end of World War II, 250 salaried employees still need to be sifting through Wehrmacht archives. As a possible harbinger of worse to come, the employee canteen has already been closed down.

Söchtig cannot understand these reservations. The Wehrmacht battles were so heavy that there is still a lot of work to be done. "We field nearly 40,000 queries every year," he says. "They tend to pick up whenever there's a TV show like 'Generation War' ("Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter," in German). Many young people are keen to know what happened to their grandfathers."

A Culture of Remembrance

Slowly, a culture of mourning is morphing into a culture of remembrance. The office is often contacted by "occupation children" from other countries, whose mothers confessed on their deathbeds that their fathers were German soldiers. In such cases, the services of the national war crimes prosecutions office in Ludwigsburg have to be enlisted and estates administrated.

Then there are people like Anna Domanska, who reported that she was never able to forget seeing 40 bodies buried in the village of Redczyce near Znin in present-day Poland -- bodies of Germans, including a child.

In fact, the German War Graves Commission believed it had fulfilled its remit in 1989. War graves in Western Europe had been investigated, the information archived and the dead commemorated. The teams in charge of locating graves, reburial and bone collection had been dismissed. But then the Berlin Wall fell, and it transpired that World War II still couldn't be consigned to history. The commission's work began anew, suddenly with far-wider parameters.

"There were new graves everywhere," says Thomas Schock -- in the former East Germany, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and the states of the former Yugoslavia. Thomas Schock gets animated as he talks about this period, when the Iron Curtain came down and a new world of grave excavations opened up. The former communist countries were home to a plethora of unmarked graves -- of retreating and advancing soldiers, prisoners of war, civilians and war heroes.

Even now, 70 years after the war's end, it is possible for elderly Germans to finally find out where exactly their brothers, cousins or fathers died. "You need to know this in order to grieve" says Schock. Families need to be able to see their name on a grave stele in a military cemetery, he says, they need to see the landscape, the birch and pear trees, the horizon in front of their relative as he breathed his last breathe.

Graves That Tell a Story

The skeletons lie side by side in Redczyce. The excavation team will inform local police that they also found a sack of ammunition amongst the many skulls.

Thomas Schock enjoys his job. Every country he works in is different. Every piece of land calls for a different approach. Germany long ago signed new war graves agreements with Poland, Russia and even Montenegro. But other countries, such as Kosovo and the breakaway state of Transnistria, are still completely uncharted. "There is often a strong need for national heroes," says Schock. "The bones of German soldiers can often end up in the wrong graves." In which case, they need to be recovered, and that can be a laborious process.

Over the years, Schock has noticed that graves continue to tell their own story even when wars are over. Mortal remains can change in time, as can the identities of the dead. Sometimes, perpetrators can become victims.

The Czech Republic, where there are many unmarked graves of civilians who died in 1945, is a difficult case, says Schock. "The Czechs would like us to put on the grave stele that they died in the last months of the war." But in fact, many of them were still alive in May 1945 and were only killed later in acts of revenge.

Some places seem to be cursed, he says. Huda Jama ("bad cave") is a former coal mining settlement in Slovenia identified as the site of a mass grave. "Among the dead were German soldiers, Kroats, collaborators, partisans, civilians and intellectuals, some of whom were thrown into the grave alive. There were layers of bodies and animal cadavers on top."

Digging up the past is an ongoing process. The German War Graves Commission is also active in Ukraine. although reburials have been suspended in Kharkiv and Donetsk in the light of the current unrest. While the bones of soldiers killed in past wars are being recovered, fresh bodies are being buried just a few kilometers away. The killing never ends. In Vilnius, new bones have been discovered of soldiers who belonged to Napoleon's Grande Armée.

Differing Burial Cultures

Officers and soldiers were buried in separate graves during the Franco-Prussian war, explains Schock, and it was only during World War I that the dead began to be buried in individual graves. In Russia, the dead were simply piled into mass graves during World War II. Graveyards where bones dating from a specific era have been reburied together are called "Brothers' Cemeteries." "It's another culture, and absolutely fascinating," remarks Schock. He mentions how the bones of nearly 1,000 soldiers found near Krakow in Poland were supposed to have been reburied long ago, but a local priest blocked their removal. The place he's referring to is called Ocwiecim, better known as Auschwitz.

He also tells the story of an elderly woman from Poznan, who - like many others -- tended a soldier's grave in the middle of a forest for years, even though she didn't know who he was. It turned out he was a German soldier, but it didn't matter to her. This was the grave she visited, raking the earth and keeping it tidy. "Sometimes people have tended graves for 40 years that turn out to be empty," says Schock.

Shifting borders can also make reburials necessary. In one case, bones reburied in Austria had to be removed and reburied again in the Balkans. Europe's soil is still steeped in the blood of countless battles.

In Serbia, says Schock, There is often little understanding for Germans who show up and talk of reconciliation and peace. "They think it's about commemorating heroes."

In fact, that's an idea which was long anathema in Germany, as was the concept of soldiers being killed in action. The 55 German soldiers who died in Afghanistan were returned to their families with such little ceremony they might just as well have been aid workers killed in an accident. Although they lost their lives in public service, their loved ones must grieve for them in private. It was only in 2009, under former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, that the first Bundeswehr memorial was unveiled in Berlin.

Unearthing History

As they search a grave, someone in Schock's team finds a pocket mirror with Cyrillic script on the back that reads "The End of Bolshevism - The Beginning of Happiness." To whom does it belong now? The relatives of the deceased? The person who found it? Germany or Poland? The Deutsche Dienstelle?

Strictly speaking, everything found here in Redczyce belongs to the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. But the War Graves Commission is permitted to recover anything that could help identify the skeletons. It all depends on the point at which a grave becomes an archeological site, and when a keepsake becomes a museum artifact. For the young Polish members of Schock's team, this field outside Redczyce is now a piece of history -- exploring it is not so much painful as fascinating.

"To me, world war graves are archeological digs," says 31-year archeologist Maksymilian Frackowiak. "We're not only identifying skeletons, we're unearthing history."

But 28-year-old Maciej Erdmann, a geologist, wonders if it's worth it. "You can't quantify in financial terms what identifying a skeleton actually means," she says. "We're shedding light on the horror of war, which costs less than another war would."

"For the people who live here, it is normal practice to give the dead a proper burial," says Adam Bialas, a 32-year-old political scientist. "The war was over 70 years ago and you can't keep talking in terms of victims and martyrs. Now and then we find a medal amongst the bones. Whenever I find something personal, it reminds me that these were once people who had someone at home waiting for their return."

Western Poland is home to many families originally expelled from Galicia, Lithuania and Ruthenia. The elder generation lived out of suitcases and settled here so that their children could call it home. The younger generation is now increasingly eager to know more about that history and don't care if it's Polish or German history. Old photographs of horse-and-carts, starving people, processions of refugees and babies that froze to death are moving, period.

Before Schock and his team could begin an excavation, they needed to get permission from the district authority, which owns the plot of land, the department of health, the historic preservation office and Poland's Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites (ROPWiM), whose responsibilities include ensuring that a war criminal does not accidentally end up in a grave of honor.

Breaking the Silence

Here behind the birch trees, after hours of scraping away at the ground in an icy wind, the team suddenly discovers a shiny enamel button with a red border, completely undamaged. A swastika against a white background, the Party badge. Was this what got its wearer killed? Might there also be a helmet here with an SS insignia? Do the mortal remains of a war criminal deserve to be reburied in a soldier's grave?

"Everything is still in flux," says Thomas Schock. It used to be easier, he explains. "Everyone was seen as a victim. But we want to break the silence. We need to find ways of reburying both victims and perpetrators." A sign will be posted here, explaining that it was a burial site of war criminals. "But then relatives of the others buried here will come along and accuse us of turning their grandfather into a perpetrator."

The graves in Redczyce have been evaluated and photographed. The bones the team found have been put in black body bags and labelled, and will be temporarily stored in a casemate at Poznan Fortress, fortifications in today's Poznan that were built under earlier Prussian rule. The Deutsche Dienststelle will be sent any information on reburials.

Any dog tags or other clues as to the identity of the deceased will also be sent to Eichborndamm 179 in Berlin, where staff will check their records. Ultimately, their job is to clarify the individual fates of the war dead. If an identity can be established, staff will send relatives notification that mortal remains found in a mass grave have been reburied. Locating relatives is a challenge in itself, which is why the Deutsche Dienststelle recently launched a campaign specifically designed to facilitate the process.

It could take a number of months before the skeletons found in Poland are reburied in cardboard coffins, which leave less of a mark in the ground. They will be ceremonially buried in a military cemetery in Poland. Roughly five years after the excavation, the graves will get granite steles bearing the names of the dead.

By the time dusk falls, 61 skeletons, including one of a child, have been recovered in Redczyce near Znin. According to the project protocol, skeletons were piled on top of each other towards the back of the mass grave, making it impossible to distinguish between some ten skeletons.

Thomas Schock inspects the findings and speaks into his dictaphone. "A skull, badly disintegrated, displaying a hole. Roughly 25 years old. Fireburst. Grenade splinter on the right-hand side, thigh measuring 41.5 centimeters, signs of a blow to the head with a hammer or similar object. A blood-spattered dog tag. Approximately 167 centimeters tall, Young. Fontanelles not closed." And so on, and so on, and so on.

Last year, the German War Graves Commission recovered 31,698 casualties of war. In total, it has recovered 827,812 war dead across Europe -- 69 years after the end of World War II, 69 years of peace.

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1. Are current German leaders, a disgrace to their nation?
Inglenda2 05/07/2015
A human-being dies for his country. A reason for sadness for the family, but whatever nation, ethnic group, or religion, such people belong to, they are regarded as heroes. Only in Germany do we find a government, authorities and media, who apparently pride themselves in running down those who served their fatherland during the last century. It was the governments, not the soldiers who started these wars and it was the ordinary citizens, not the politicians, who later paid the highest price. The German War Graves Commission does a great job, in giving back a little honour to the casualties of war, which it has recovered all across Europe. In every other civilised country, this homage would be seen as a duty of those representing the people.
2. World War II
mervynsullivan 05/09/2015
All soldiers who did their duty and died deserve respect. Today, Germans can hold their heads high. What happened under Hitler is a lesson to the world of what happens when a 'mad man' assumes power, by-passes democratic processes, and then poisons a society with propaganda and indoctrination. The remarkable transformation of Germany over 70 years is truly admirable.
3. german soldiers
gl58673 05/09/2015
my father was a german soldier he was drafted and was declared missing . i find it a disgrace how all the german politicians and reporters crap on the soldiers , i find you discusting people, you and your attitude shame on you
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