Together with a friend from a distance, they watched the exhumations of Poles killed by the Germans. Despite their parents’ prohibition, they would sometimes go to a place the locals call Death Valley. They were curious what was going on there. Once they found burned human bones and charred wood. Mr. Kazimierz was 13 years old then. Now, after 75 years, he returned there and showed this place to archaeologists. A bit further, the researchers found burned bones. They may belong to the victims shot by the Germans in the Death Valley in January 1945.
The inhabitants of Chojnice (Pomorskie) and the surrounding area named it the Death Valley after the first executions in the fall of 1939. Historians describe this place as Pola Igielskie. It is an area on the northern outskirts of Chojnice, where in 1939 and probably in the second half of January 1945, the Germans murdered Poles. In total – according to various sources – several hundred or even over a thousand people could have died there. Now this place is once again investigated by archaeologists as part of the Death Valley Archeology project. The work is headed by Dr. Dawid Kobiałka.
Among the victims of October and November 1939, there were, among others, disabled people from the National Social Welfare Institutions in Chojnice. Today, 88-year-old Kazimierz was the son of a Zakłady employee. Later he himself worked there almost all his life.
The Red Army entered Chojnice on February 14, 1945. In late November and early December of the same year, exhumations took place in the Death Valley. Mr. Kazimierz was 13 years old then. He remembers watching the work with a friend from a distance. It happened that, despite the parents’ ban, he went there with his friends. They were curious what was going on there. Once they found burned human bones and burned wood.
Mr. Kazimierz has now shown the archaeologist the place where he found bones 75 years ago. After so many years, however, the memory fails.
– Its indication was not precise, but helpful enough that we knew where we should look more or less – says Dr. Dawid Kobiałka.
It was enough to stick a shovel into the ground once to see the remains
On the basis of surface tests with a metal detector, it was possible to find the remains.
– Mr. Kazimierz said that these bones were on the surface of the earth and he was not mistaken much. The bones lie one centimeter or two just below the ground – says the archaeologist.
As he adds, it was enough to put a shovel in the ground once to see the remains. – In this land there were more burnt human bones than sand – says Kobiałka.
As soon as researchers discovered bone fragments, work was immediately stopped.
– We have notified the relevant institutions. We asked for permission to exhumate the Institute of National Remembrance. The area is secured and we are waiting for the prosecutor’s decision whether the Institute of National Remembrance will exhume the place personally, or whether we can scientifically pick up the remains that we discovered – says the doctor.
Residents saw the glow of light
Although the research has not yet been carried out, based on the documents and stories of some witnesses, it can be assumed that the remains are traces of the crime from the second half of January 1945. At that time, the Germans were to lead an unspecified number of people to the Valley of Death. The victims were to be murdered and the bodies burned to cover up the traces of the crime.
– The most probable version of events is that they were Gestapo prisoners from the prison at Wały Jagiellońskie 4 in Bydgoszcz. There, among others, were detained members of the Polish underground from Bydgoszcz, Toruń and the surrounding area, who were captured at the turn of 1944-1945 – reports Kobiałka.
He adds that as the Red Army was approaching, the Gestapo evacuated the prisoners. – There were several columns of people and they went in different directions. One of them was herded to Chojnice and murdered in the Death Valley, the archaeologist explains.
The townspeople saw a glow of light at night on the outskirts of the city in the Valley of Death, and a “terrible smell of burning” went over the city.
– The analysis of the documents showed that during the exhumation in the fall of 1945, these burnt human remains were not picked up. In the materials we have found in one document, there is an annotation that in the Death Valley, then it was called Ostrówek, about 600 people were murdered and burned. There is also an additional note that the site was not exhumed at the order of the conservator of monuments, so we were convinced already at the stage of archival inquiries that these human remains lie somewhere on the northern outskirts of Chojnice – describes the archaeologist.
The analysis of archival documents also shows that the Germans murdered and burned their victims in one place, but that these remains were to be buried in another place.
“Burnt wood is pine, and pine does not grow in Death Valley”
– The remains that we dug up with the first shovel impalement underwent a preliminary anthropological analysis to determine how many people may be buried there. This could not be determined. The burnt bones are really very small, some of them do not even have a millimeter, the largest we found are no more than 4-5 centimeters – explains Kobiałka.
He adds that, in addition to the remains, researchers found burned wood. They analyzed them separately. It turned out to be a pine tree.
“And the pine in Death Valley doesn’t grow because it’s a wetland. Pine prefers a dry environment, so most likely, although this crime was allegedly done in a hurry, it was nevertheless meticulously and cold-blooded. Most likely, the pine was brought to the Valley of Death, because it is a tree that has a lot of resin and burns very easily – says the archaeologist.
He adds that one of the pieces of wood has an embedded fragment of burnt human bone – this may be evidence that the bones and the burned pieces of wood are traces of the same crime.
Under the microscope, you can also see discoloration from gasoline on the wood. – As seen after the rain. When there is a puddle and there is gasoline poured out, it looks like a rainbow color. And something similar can be seen under the microscope on at least one fragment of the wood – says Kobiałka.
This is to confirm the stories of the inhabitants who said that they saw a group of Poles and SS men driven by the Germans, dragging barrels “with a suspicious substance, probably gasoline” on a sledge.
“From there the road led only one way – to the Valley of Death”
Sources provide various data on the number of people who died in the Igielskie Fields. It is known, however, that it was a place of executions and mass graves. For this purpose, the Germans used shooting ditches prepared by the Polish Army in 1939 in the event of war.
– In the fall of 1939, the killings took place as part of the Intelligenzaktion and action T4. It was about murdering the local intelligentsia, broadly understood. They were teachers, clergymen, but also merchants and people who, in one way or another, exposed themselves to the local Germans – says Dawid Kobiałka.
He adds that in October 1939, the occupiers also killed disabled people from the National Social Welfare Institutions in Chojnice. – There are various testimonies, but most likely it was 218 residents of these establishments – he says.
In total, up to several hundred people could have died there in 1939. However, it did not end in the fall of 1939.
Intelligenzaktion is an extermination action carried out by the Germans in the first months of World War II. Its aim was to liquidate the so-called “Polish leadership”. It was particularly intense in Pomerania. Between September 1939 and April 1940, militants of the paramilitary Selbstschutz as well as SS and German police formations murdered there from 30,000 to 40,000 Poles – representatives of the political, economic and intellectual elite. It was the bloodiest of all regional Intelligenzaktion operations, which was primarily due to the massive participation of representatives of the local German minority in the preparation and implementation of the genocide.
According to the testimony of some witnesses collected by the municipal court, in the second half of January 1945, the Germans were to deport a group of Poles there. It is not known exactly where – from Grudziądz or Bydgoszcz. They were all supposed to be shot in the Valley of Death.
– There are also different testimonies here. According to one it was 600 people, according to another 800. One witness testified that it could be up to 1400 people – says the doctor.
The occupiers were to kill this group of people and burn the bodies to cover their tracks. They were to bury the remains in a mass grave.
To date, it is not known exactly how many people died in the Valley of Death. On February 14, the Red Army entered Chojnice, and already in the fall of 1945, exhumations took place. Only the remains of 167 people were excavated. The photos from this event are so drastic that they will not be published in the study of the research results.
The families were able to recognize the remains of only 53 victims.
– This story is still shrouded in mystery. People lost their parents, husband and wife during the war. They often don’t know what happened to them. They can only guess. If in the fall of 1939 someone was imprisoned in Chojnice or in the buildings of the National Works, the road from there led only one way, to the Valley of Death, says Dr. Kobiałka.
The exhumed people were buried in December at the specially created Cemetery of the Victims of Nazi Crimes in Chojnice. People who recognized their relatives could bury them in other places.
Service inspections, concrete slabs and camera traps
Archaeologists are now waiting for the prosecutor’s decision as to whether they can examine and exhume the remains.
At the moment, the place is secured with concrete slabs so that no one from the outside has access to it. In addition, the police and municipal guard regularly appear on the spot. There are also camera traps.
– We had to secure the site against the so-called cemetery hyenas. Unfortunately, there are people who show up at the research site and search the area in the hope of finding material things. It must be said directly that such searches are the destruction of a mass grave – says Kobiałka.
The first archaeological research with a metal detector began on May 9. At that time, researchers had already found, among others a badge of the Military Training of Women from the times of the Second Polish Republic, casings from German short and long weapons, a cuff link, underwear buttons, or German coins – a total of over two hundred artifacts.
The Death Valley Archeology project was co-financed by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage from the Culture Promotion Fund. The research is carried out by the Friends Foundation of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
The team currently consists of nine researchers, archaeologists and anthropologists assisted by volunteers. The work plan for the Valley of Death is to survey the area. They want to find out exactly where the executions took place, and then people were buried en masse.
Works related to the project Archeology of the Death Valley in the Igielskie Fields are to last until September 5. Dawid Kobiałka, however, hopes that the search will continue.
The text is based on interviews and documents collected as part of the Death Valley Archeology project.
Main photo source: Death Valley Archeology