The remains of 1,800 bodies were exhumed from a mass grave in a Polish city that was part of the German Reich during the war. Historians believe the victims were German residents of the town.
The remains of an estimated 1,800 World War II war victims have been unearthed after construction workers laying the foundations for a hotel discovered a mass grave in Malbork near the northern coast of Poland last October.
Malbork, known previously as Marienburg, had been part of the German Reich's former eastern territories, which became part of Poland after the war. Today the town's main tourist attraction is a castle built by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century.
Since the site had then been a part of Germany, Polish authorities suspect that the remains belong to ethnic German residents who might have been killed by the advancing Soviet army in the final days of the war. In March 1945 Malbork was the scene of heavy combat between Adolf Hitler's retreating forces and Soviet soldiers entering the town.
Victims included children
"We are dealing with a mass grave of civilians, probably of German origin. The presence of children... suggests they were civilians," Zbigniew Sawicki, a Polish archaeologist supervising the exhumation, told Reuters.
"It is very puzzling that no personal belongings have been found among the remains... We have few clues as to how these people died, though there is a high probability they were war victims," Sawicki added.
Starvation and exposure
Investigators believe that many of the victims perished from air raids towards the end of the war and some may have even been executed. Around thirty skulls were found with bullet holes, but the likely cause of death for most victims was from starvation and exposure.
The severe winter weather has now hindered the exhumation process. "These people were buried in an appalling and inhuman manner," Piotr Szwedowski, a Malbork city official, told the AFP news agency.
"It was a serious shock to us... We are trying to exhume the remains in the most humane way possible and to ensure them a respectable burial," he added.
State prosecutors said that Poland's Institute of National Remembrance would conduct research into the findings. Szwedowski suspects that the massacre took place when most German civilians had already fled the small town, which had some 30,000 residents.
Rainer Zacharias, a German historian from Malbork, wrote a book about the war period and said that as many as 3,000 residents had defied army evacuation orders and the fate of 1,840 of them was unknown. That close to that number of bodies have been exhumed suggests that the victims were ethnic Germans.
The discovery has raised hopes among the descendents of former residents. One elderly man, who now lives in northern Germany, told the AFP that he believed his grandmother was among the dead.
"I hope she will finally get a decent burial, and that it will be in Marienburg, her home town," he said.
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