Legends of a Mass Grave The Village and the Nazi Labor Camp

Jamlitz is a quiet German village like many others. But there is one difference: It was also the site of a brutal Nazi labor camp. Hundreds of corpses are thought to be buried in the soil here. But the search for the mass grave has yet to unearth more than stories of wartime horror.

By in Jamlitz, Germany


"Go ahead and write that we country bumpkins don't think much of this talk of graves," said Heinrich Keritz, a Jamlitz local in his mid-50s, leaning against the barbed wire fence holding a telescope. "All our taxes are being used and, in the end, nothing will be found." Keritz looked angrily at the piles of earth, meter-high weeds and the backhoe.

Heinrich Keritz is the stereotype of a morose backwoodsman. To understand him, one has to know the story of his village. Jamlitz is a small town with some 600 residents on the border of the Spreewald forest south of Berlin. Tucked between rapeseed fields and a spruce forest, the village only rarely sees an urban tourist. Jamlitz residents don't like the flurry of publicity. The only feature setting this village apart from any other is its proximity to the "camp."

That is how Jamlitz locals refer to the Lieberose camp, a satellite of the Nazis' Sachenhausen concentration camp. At the end of 1943, some prisoners from Sachsenhausen were transported to Jamlitz and forced to build a training area for the SS division "Kurmark." There were more deaths in the Jamlitz barracks than in similar labor camps. Every day, dozens of prisoners were killed or died from exhaustion. Only 400 of a total 8,000 prisoners survived the war.

An Elusive Grave

Sixty years have now passed since the horrific crimes in the camp. But the stories live on in Jamlitz -- about bones hidden in the forest, about haggard camp victims, about people on a death march begging for water, about SS men spending nights drinking and shooting. In 1971 builders working in the neighboring settlement of Staakow stumbled upon remains of nearly 600 prisoners from Lieberose, victims of a mass shooting in the final days of the camp. The Stasi, the former East German secret police, spent months interviewing people to try to identify those responsible for the crimes. But the investigations were soon shelved.

Interest in the camp resurfaced in the mid 1990s. Many suspected that victims from the mass shooting still lie buried in the ground. According to old camp plans, the graves may lie in the center of Jamlitz. There are thought to be remains from some 700 people, but there's no list of names. "All we have to go on are numbers," said Günter Morsch, director of the Sachsenhausen Memorial Foundation and the author of a detailed report about Jamlitz. Dozens of suspected sites were dug up in the years until 2004, but no evidence was found. The air force flew over the settlement with their radar detection devices -- also without uncovering any sign of the graves.

The list of suspected sites was eventually whittled down to just one location, but the land owner blocked excavation work for more than a decade. Last autumn an agreement was reached with a Brandenburg state court, and Jamlitz's history was stirred up again. A team of archeologists from the local authority dug up the soil, layer by layer, uncovering some 500 square meters of the overgrown land around an abandoned house.

But Heinrich Keritz turned out to be right, at least for the time being -- no human remains were found. The dig was completed on Tuesday, but the search for traces of the murdered camp prisoners will continue.

"We cannot stop the search there, not after the findings of the latest excavations," Brandenburg Interior Minister Jörg Schönbohm said on Thursday. Some relics from the concentration camp were indeed found: cooking equipment, glasses, canteen porcelain, building materials. These findings "lead to the possibility that the victims do not lie far away," said Schönbohm. "We were possibly never so near to the grave."

The results of the search are important for the Jewish community, historians and the state of Brandenburg. However, they won't affect the dark history of the village, nor change the facts of what happened during the war right on residents' doorsteps. Before the first barracks were built, Jewish prisoners were housed in a local guesthouse. Some families put up the families of SS men; others hid people who had managed to escape from the camp.

"People who live here know about the camp," said Christa Wiernowolski, a woman living next door to the excavation site. When she and her husband built their home in Jamlitz, both felt ill at ease. "It was clear what sort of land our house was standing on," she said. When her husband dug a hole to erect a fence, he stumbled upon two old SS steel helmets. Neighbors found some teeth while digging in their garden.

Christa Wiernowolski was a young woman when she first heard stories of the emaciated people driven through the villages and beaten on the streets. The 56-year-old teacher speaks openly about the barracks. Her family always talked about the camp, and the wife and baby of one SS soldier even lived in her parents' attic during the war.

Today Jamlitz has a documentation site with information boards. But eyewitness accounts and historical facts have long been merged with fiction in the village. In the local bar people speculate that the corpses are buried meters below the foundations of houses near the latest excavation site. The state of Brandenburg shares this suspicion. The government, according to Schönbohm, plans to dig up two neighboring plots of land.

"But most people here don't want to talk about the camp," said Christa Wiernowolski. "They simply want their peace and quiet." When the local council held a meeting to inform people about the excavations, not a single Jamlitz resident showed up.

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