Over 400 artefacts from one of the worst massacres of the Second World War discovered
Excavations in Germany’s Arnsberg Forest have uncovered over 400 artefacts at the site where 208 Polish and Soviet forced labourers were murdered by the Waffen SS and German Army. The site shows how the planned and systematic executions were carried out in three separate groups over three days in March 1945, mere months before the end of the war.
Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL), who have been conducting the excavations since 2018 have found a wide array of items, including buttons, beads, shoes, clothes and a Polish prayer book. More unusual items were also dug up, such as Soviet coins and parts of a harmonica. It is likely that the victims were robbed after they were shot as there are very few items of monetary value.
Most of the items were found at the first massacre site at Langenbachtal, where 71 victims were executed: 60 men, 10 women and one child. Their belongings were uncovered on the roadside, meaning that they were likely ordered to leave them behind, perhaps to give the false expectation of a safe return. The forced labourers were then marched to the top of a ridge overlooking a brook for their execution. Bullet casings found scattered around the area suggest that some of the prisoners tried to escape before being shot down.
Evidence from the other two sites show that the German captors were more prepared on the second and third days. The 51 victims at Suttrop were forced to dig a zig-zagging trench before being shot inside it. At the third site at Eversberg, mortars were used to create a large crater where the victims were made to stand in what would become their mass grave before being executed.
The victims of Langenbachtal and Suttrop were exhumed by the US Army in 1945 and laid to rest in Fulmecke Cemetery, Meschede. The US 95th Infantry Division summoned the local population to help and filmed the grim task of digging up and transporting the bodies. The records are still held in the USA’s Eisenhower Archive.
Eversberg was exhumed by the British in 1947. A tip was given to the British military sector forces in November 1946 that there was a mass grave underneath a cow pasture. This led to investigations and the exhumation of the grave a few months later. The 80 victims were also laid to rest at Fulmecke Cemetery.
After visiting the excavation site, Dirk Wiese, the Federal Government Commissioner for the Federal Republic of Germany said that “in a place like this, it become clear how close our history still is to us.”
“We have been experiencing the trivialisation and increasing denial of the crimes of the Second World War and the Nazi dictatorship for several years” Matthias Löb, Director of LWL commented, “But the murders are an example of the part of our history that we have to face.”
Some of the finds are going to be put on display around the country, including at the museum at Fulmecke Cemetery, which is due to be renovated.
So far, only 14 of the 208 victims have been identified. There is hope that the discovery of so many artefacts will help to identify more and ensure that their tragic stories are recognised and recorded.
Photo copyright: LWL
Added: 14th March 2019