MALBORK, Poland – Germans and Poles are laying ghosts of World War II to rest this week — more than 2,000 of them.
At a ceremony Friday, they will rebury the bones that were discovered last fall in a mass grave at the foot of this northern Polish city’s medieval castle, setting aside the grievances that linger from the war and often bedevil relations between the two countries.
But the uncertainties about who the dead were and who killed them may never be resolved. All that authorities can say with some assuredness is that they were probably German civilians who died in the ferocious final months of the war, in a city with a shared Polish-German past that dates back more than 700 years.
Poland and Germany are at peace today — fellow democracies in the 27-nation European Union. But the war still shadows the relationship. They argue, often bitterly, over war damages, past suffering, and the rights of an estimated 3 million ethnic Germans expelled as Poland headed into a future as a Soviet communist satellite.
Yet the grisly find by red-brick Malbork Castle seems to have drawn hearts and minds together. Polish authorities have handled the discovery with sensitivity, neither side has voiced recriminations, and discussions on where to rebury them have reached a cordial, mutually agreed conclusion.
“These were innocent people and they should be treated with respect, and have a proper burial,” said Marian Kempka, a 56-year-old Polish man visiting the Malbork cemetery where the remains were temporarily stored.
The first bones were found in October by construction workers digging foundations for a five-star hotel by the Castle, a tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage site. But it took three months for the magnitude of the grave to become clear. While construction of the 175-room hotel was moved to an adjacent plot, an exhumation was ordered by Polish authorities.
Workers spent six months gently working through wet sand to amass the bones of some 2,120 men, women and children. But they found no documents, clothes or personal belongings, save for a child’s pair of glasses. There also are no known witnesses to the burial.
Forensic experts and anthropologists moved in, and the evidence “indicates it is most probable that these are German civilians who died in early 1945, in February or March,” says Maciej Schulz, a prosecutor at Polish state-funded Institute of National Remembrance, who investigated the mass grave.
The supposition is that they were buried in a shell crater after artillery fire demolished buildings, and that because there is no mention of the grave in Polish or German documents, it must have been filled with bodies between March and mid-May, when Soviet forces held the city, he said.
Moreover, it was Red Army practice to clean up cities it entered by dumping stripped bodies into bomb craters, Schulz said.
The few existing witnesses from Malbork talk of many bodies lying in the city at the time.
Bodo Rueckert, whose German family had to leave the town at the end of the war and who now heads an association of Malbork expellees, speculates they may have been killed by Poles seeking revenge for their suffering under six years of German occupation.
But Georg Fritz, an official with an organization that represents the small German minority in Malbork, believes most were German civilians who were killed in the crossfire or died of cold, hunger and disease during the harsh winter and the long Soviet siege of early 1945.
Schulz, the Polish official, shares this view, stressing that fewer than one percent of the skulls bear bullet wounds.
DNA testing would have been too complex and costly for so many remains, he said.
Prosecutors are still digging for clues in Polish archives and have asked Russian archivists to search their files, but say no reply has been received.
Meanwhile Rueckert says he has had many calls from people who say, “Now I know where my grandpa or grandma is, under there.”
Many of them may have been among the 3,000 people who couldn’t find room aboard the last train out of Malbork when Germany ordered its citizens to flee the advancing Soviet army, said Piotr Szwedowski, a city spokesman.
“Maybe they are lying here,” he said.
German records list by name more than 2,600 Malbork Germans as dead and another 1,800 missing — men, women and children; civilians and soldiers, according to Rueckert.
After the Wehrmacht fled March 8 and until late May when the Soviet-backed Polish administration took control, the city was almost empty of civilians.
Then it began to fill up again, this time with Poles who had been expelled from their homes in eastern territories that Poland lost to the Soviet Union after the war.
Among the earliest arrivals was 10-year-old Tadeusz Bronowski, whose family settled into a small house in mid-May. The boy spent much of his time roaming the streets in search of food.
“I remember German prisoners in torn uniforms, guarded by Russian soldiers, driving around the city in an old truck and collecting the decaying bodies from the streets,” Bronowski, now a 74-year-old retired architect, recalled. He said he saw no more than 300 bodies in total, all German or Soviet soldiers. The bodies, he says, were dumped at the foot of the castle hill.
“That was no sight for children,” he said.
Fritz believes the cleanup unit stripped the bodies and burned the clothes to head off typhoid fever and that soldiers looted their valuables.
He said the grave showed traces of lime, which is used to hasten decomposition.
Moreover, some skulls found at the top of the heap had bullet holes, suggesting they may have been German POWs executed by the Soviets once their work was done.
“They did it in such a way that no one knew about it for 60 years,” Fritz said. “It’s a great mystery.”
By Polish-German agreement, the remains are being transported 200 miles to the Polish town of Stare Czarnowo, which has one of Poland’s 13 cemeteries for German soldiers. They will be buried 20 to a coffin in one or two mass graves, and Catholic and Protestant services will be held, Szwedowski, the city spokesman, said.
Former Malbork residents and relatives of Germans who went missing in the city during the war are to attend.
Each year newly discovered war graves yield some 4,000 bodies for these cemeteries, according to the government’s Council for Protecting Monuments of Struggle and Martyrdom.
Sept. 1 is the 70th anniversary of the war that began with the invasion of Poland by Germany from the west, and two weeks later by its then Soviet ally from the east. More than 6 million of Poland’s citizens were killed, the Nazis’ worst concentration camps were built on its soil, cultural treasures and industry were destroyed and some 85 percent of Warsaw, the capital, was razed.
Fritz stresses the respect and compassion the Poles are showing for the Malbork find.
“When you think of all those Polish families that lost their loved ones in the war, they are sure to understand the suffering connected to the grave. They are familiar with such tragedies.”
Associated Press writer Rachel Nolan in Berlin contributed to this report.