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

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.
Von Matthias Pankau
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.

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.

Foto: DDP

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: Living With The Dead

Foto: © Reuters Photographer / Reuters

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.

Adding To A Morbid Collection

After Kowalke finds the remains, the case is turned over to the German Information Office (WASt), formerly known as the Wehrmacht Information Office for War Losses and P.o.W.s. For every number on an insignia, there exists a file which will indicate the fallen soldier's identity. In the chaos of war and its aftermath, a lot of information was lost. Nevertheless, the bureau is still the place to seek the identity of a fallen soldier after more than 60 years. Whether it's a wedding ring, an insignia, a rank or a love letter, the WASt gets all the personal items Kowalke finds. They're numbered, packed and compared with the files of 18 million members of the Wehrmacht, as the German armed forces were called during World War II. In the evidence room the belongings of soldiers whose relatives can't be found -- dentures, watches, glasses -- are collected.

Kowalke has been adding to this morbid collection for more than 30 years. The wiry 68-year-old is actually a cabinetmaker by trade. He tells of how, as an apprentice, he had to build a coffin as his first assignment. At the time he had absolutely no idea that dealing with the dead would become his career.


Photo Gallery: Living With The Dead

Foto: © Reuters Photographer / Reuters

In 1980, he was asked by his minister in Buckow to take responsibility for war graves in the Oderland region. The fate of his father, killed in France in 1944, was another motivating factor. Kowalke still has vivid memories of a rainy day at the end of the 1980s when he stood by his father's grave in Andilly in Lothringen -- which, with more than 30,000 graves, is the largest German war cemetery in France . He felt sad and happy at the same time: "Finally, I had a place to focus my grief." Additionally it is important to him to give those who lost brothers, sons and fathers a little knowledge.

Around 20,000 Dead Soldiers Found

Before 1990, that was no easy task. In the former East Germany (GDR), soldiers who had served in Hitler's army were viewed as wrongdoers and GDR leaders frowned upon according them any last honor or even last resting place. For this reason, Kowalke's unearthing, and then reburial, of fallen soldiers all had to be done under the auspices of the church.

It was only in 1990, the year of Germany's reunification, that what he did started to become accepted and publicly acknowledged. At that time, in the western part of Germany, there was no longer any official organization responsible for reburials and the search for the bodies of fallen German soldiers, from Scandinavia to North Africa, had generally been called off. However in the eastern part of the country, where the war's most deadly battles had been fought in early 1945, the work was really only just beginning. This was true for all of eastern Europe. And since 1990, Kowalke has dug up the bodies of 20,000 fallen soldiers.

Every year, Kowalke and his 25 colleagues, who search for fallen soldiers in Eastern Europe and Russia on behalf of the VDK, rebury between 35,000 and 40,000 soldiers. Generally the fallen soldiers are buried in the country they died in. For example, Russian soldiers found in Brandenburg are buried in a military graveyard in Lebus, a town north of Frankfurt an der Oder. Likewise, soldiers of the former Wehrmacht who died abroad are buried in German military cemeteries there. However relatives of the fallen are entitled to submit an application to the VDK requesting that their loved ones be buried in Germany.

The Worst Thing Is Finding Remains of Children

Kowalke has lost a lot of sleep thinking about his job and the fate of the young men he finds. Happily, over time, he has become accustomed to the situation and has even been able to find a greater sense of inner peace. Still, there are places that continue to haunt him, such as the area south of Berlin where the Battle of Halbe was fought. Here, at the very end of the war, tens of thousands of German soldiers in the Ninth Army and civilians died as they desperately tried to break through three lines of enemy forces to reach their comrades in the German Twelfth Army; all many of them wanted was to surrender to Western forces.

"When it comes to the Battle of Halbe," he pauses a moment, "I still feel my heart ache." The very hardest thing for him, as a father of two girls, is when he comes upon the remains of children. "Even after so many years," he says, "coming across a pair of small shoes with tiny ankle bones in them cannot help but affect you."

What worries him most is leaving someone behind, forgotten in the ground. "Here in Brandenburg, the war is far from over," he says, in a reference to an 18th-century Russian general who said that a war is only over once the last fallen soldier has been given an honorable burial. That kind of "end" to war is something that Kowalke, who has already been awarded the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany's highest civilian honor, would like most.

'God Loves Them All'

When it comes to reburial, he believes even the smallest details are of paramount importance. "If I overlook something," he stresses, "no one else can make up for that. It's gone forever." And it doesn't matter to him if the person who he recovers is German or Russian, a member of the SS or the Red Army. "After death, we are all the same," Kowalke says. "I might not know the poor guy. But God knows and loves them all."

Even more than six decades after the end of the war, there is still grieving to be done for the fallen. When reburial ceremonies are held, guests may include wives, children, grandchildren, former comrades in arms and even former class mates.

Kowalke recently attended the reburial of a soldier he had found. It was held in the German military cemetery in Halbe, which is the country's largest, with 28,000 graves. The family of the soldier was also there. There was his widow, his daughter and his granddaughter.

All of them laid their hands on the small, gray coffin once more before it was lowered into the ground. Then they sang the Bach hymn, "Befiehl Du Deine Wege" together. "At moments like that, I know exactly why I do this job," Kowalke says.

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