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Germany's Corpse Hunter: Helping the Lost Dead of WWII Rest in Peace

By Matthias Pankau

During battles at the end of World War II, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians never got a decent burial. For almost 30 years, one man has been finding these bodies and helping them rest in peace.

Digging for human bones: Erwin Kowalke's job is to find some of the thousands of soldiers who died during World War II, identify them and then accord them a proper burial. Zoom
DDP

Digging for human bones: Erwin Kowalke's job is to find some of the thousands of soldiers who died during World War II, identify them and then accord them a proper burial.

The first thing one sees is a jawbone. Erwin Kowalke picks it carefully up out of the loamy soil and sets it in a small, gray cardboard coffin sitting next to the freshly unearthed grave. Two probes of his spade later he pulls out a skull.

"This boy was about 20. Not much older," he says, pointing out the well-preserved teeth. "The wisdom teeth aren't quite in yet." In all likelihood, he's handling the remains of a Soviet soldier. The teeth are a clue. "Russians were differently nourished. That's why their teeth are ground down more than Germans," he explains.

When he finds a decomposed leather shoe a few minutes later, his suspicions are confirmed. "This is a Russian," Kowalke reports. The shoe has a knobby rubber sole. "And those belonged only to soldiers of the Red Army."

Kowalke is a specialist in his field. He started working for the German War Graves Association (VDK) in 1980 and ever since he has travelled to the last battlefields of the World Wars to do his job. He is actually retired these days but he continues to volunteer for the organization, which has located, identified and buried German soldiers since 1919. And Kowalke's expertise is in demand. After the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he spent months in the former Yugoslavia uncovering and identifying bodies.

Photo Gallery

18  Photos
Photo Gallery: Living With The Dead
Kowalke pulls about 10 bodies a day out of what was once blood-soaked ground in the east of Berlin. Around 60,000 people died in the Battle of Halbe during the last few days of April in 1945 toward the end of World War II. The Red Army annihilated the remains of Germany's Ninth Army in the last major battle of the war. In the battle of Seelow Heights, east of Berlin, around 50,000 German, Russian and Polish soldiers were killed in the space of a few days. Only a few were properly buried. The majority were simply hurriedly covered up. And thousands of them are apparently still buried somewhere in Brandenburg.

These bodies are usually found during the course of road building or when unexploded bombs are being sought. Metal detectors pick up anything metallic. "And if the guy had a field shovel or a weapon on him, then we have him," Kowalke says. That's what happened this time. The metal detector beeped because the fallen soldier had a helmet, bayonet and pistol underneath him. Munitions excavation crews are responsible for the weaponry. And Kowalke is responsible for the dead.

'Not Exactly Digging For Potatoes'

Which is why the corpse expert is submerged up to his hips in a pit in a forest along the Oder-Havel canal northeast of Berlin. He digs carefully, so as not to accidentally damage any bones. "We're not exactly digging for potatoes," he notes. Suddenly, a second skull is revealed. It's no surprise though. Larger bomb craters will often contain more than one soldier.

He finds an enamel filling in a tooth. For Kowalke, this is an important clue that he's dealing with a German -- the Russians didn't have that sort of amalgam filling at the time. Shortly afterwards he uncovers a broken yellow comb and a leather briefcase. Inside are a few coins but there is still no clue to the identity of the soldier. Nevetheless, Kowalke can tell he was about 25 years old and 1.7 meters (5 feet 7 inches) tall.

He reads the bones like a book. "From the size of the upper arm, for example, one can tell the overall height. And from the state of the end of the bone one can tell the age," he explains. When lightly rusted dog tags turns up in the big sieve used to sift the dirt around the bones, Kowalke can barely contain himself. "We'll soon know who you are," he says, addressing the corpse directly as is his wont. "The dog tags are like an identification document." After about three hours Kowalke carefully stows the remains of the three men discovered today, then he notes the details of his finds on a form.

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