Evidence of a war crime from the opening stages of the Second World War is only now being uncovered in Poland.
Hitler’s armies invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, leading Britain and France to declare war on Germany two days later – an event that marks the start of World War 2.
From the outset, the Nazis treated their enemies with inhuman brutality, and an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Polish citizens were massacred during the invasion of the northern province of Pomerania.
So many people were killed in 1939 and 1945 in one area of Pomerania, near the outskirts of the town of Chojnice, it became known locally as Death Valley.
An investigation immediately after the war uncovered the remains of 168 people, but “it was evident from the exhumation reports that not all human remains were discovered and exhumed,”
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A mass grave containing the bodies of some 500 victims has now been found by researchers, who published their work in the academic journal Antiquity.
The paper, by a team led by historian Dawid Kobiałka, explains that this particular site was used by the Nazis to bury the bodies of the 1939 massacre, but German troops returned to the area in 1945 in a bid to cover up the crime.
The team used ground-penetrating radar and documentary evidence as well as the testimony of surviving witnesses to piece together the details of the massacre.
One witness, giving evidence shortly after the end of the war, said they had seen "a column of approximately 600 Polish prisoners from Bydgoszcz, Toruń, Grudziad̨z, and neighbouring villages, under the escort of the Gestapo, being taken to Death Valley during the second half of January 1945".
The researchers wrote: "They were executed there, and the witness speculated that the bodies of the victims were burned to cover up the evidence.
"Executions took place at the trenches. The victims fell into the trenches or their bodies were thrown there by the perpetrators. Later, the trenches were backfilled with soil."
A sweep with a metal detector also revealed bullets, shell casings, and jewellery, including a gold wedding ring, buried along with the bodies in the mass grave.
The researchers managed to find out that the ring's owner was Irena Szydłowska, a courier in the Polish Home Army.
"Her family was informed about the finding, and the plan is to return the ring to them," Kobiałka said.
The team also hopes to identify some of the other victims using DNA from the bodies. When the research is complete, "the remains will be reburied in Death Valley and the site will become an official war cemetery," the researchers concluded.
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