Mass Graves of 8,000 Concentration Camp Victims Discovered in Polish Forest

Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP / Getty Images

Investigators with the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) have discovered what they claim are two mass graves containing the ashes of at least 8,000 Polish citizens who were killed by the Germans during the Second World War.

Karol Nawrocki speaking at a microphone
Karol Nawrocki, head of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, holds a press conference in the Białuty Forest, where the mass graves of about 8,000 victims from Soldau concentration camp were unearthed at the beginning of July 2022. (Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP / Getty Images)

According to reports, around 17 tons of ashes were found in the two pits, which measure approximately 10 feet deep. The discovery was made by archaeologists and anthropologists with the IPN in Iłowo-Osada, in the Białuty Forest. Historians and experts have long known that the wooded area was the final resting place for many Polish victims of the German Army, but the exact location of the graves wasn’t known until now.

The institute’s archaeologists located traces of clothing, buttons and other items in the graves. Nothing of value was found, indicating the bodies were likely robbed before they were burned.

To mark the discovery, the IPN held a ceremony, which featured speeches and a wreath-laying.

Gravestone overlooked by a wooden cross in the middle of Białuty Forest
Symbolic gravestone in Białuty Forest, where the mass graves of around 8,000 victims from Soldau concentration camp were unearthed at the beginning of July 2022. (Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP / Getty Images)

According to experts, the remains likely belong to prisoners of Soldau concentration camp, which was erected following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The camp was founded by SS-Brigadeführer Otto Rasch on the former Polish Army barracks in Działdowo, with approval from high-ranking SS official Reinhard Heydrich, and was used for transit, internment and extermination.

The first prisoners – Polish Army servicemen charged with defending Modlin Fortress – arrived toward the end of September 1939. It’s believed at least 30,000 prisoners were held at Soldau over the course of the Second World War, including Polish elites, political opponents, military members, the intelligentsia, clergymen, resistance fighters and people of the Jewish faith.

Executions occurred at the camp between 1940-44, during which a large number of inmates were killed or died of other causes, such as disease and malnutrition.

Memorial dedicated to the victims of Soldau concentration camp
Memorial dedicated to the victims of Soldau concentration camp, which operated during Germany’s occupation of Poland in the Second World War. (Photo Credit: Poeticbent / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Karol Nawrocki, the head of the IPN, the German Army began excavating the bodies of those killed at Soldau in March 1944. From there, they were “brought out, burned and pulverized in order to prevent this crime from ever being known, in order to prevent anyone taking responsibility for it.” Once the ashes were buried, trees were planted over the graves.

This job was conducted by Jewish inmates, who themselves were killed by their captors. Tomasz Jankowski, a prosecutor with the IPN, believes those buried at this particular gravesite were likely murdered around 1939.

“We have taken samples from the ashes, which will then be studied in the laboratory,” Andrzej Ossowski, a genetics researcher with Pomeranian Medical University, told AFP. “We will be able to carry out DNA analyses, which will allow us to learn more about the identity of the victims.”

Placard attached to a tree in the Białuty Forest
Placard noting the newly-discovered mass graves of around 8,000 Polish victims from Soldau concentration camp. Their ashes were discovered in July 2022 in the Białuty Forest. (Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP / Getty Images)

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The Polish Institute of National Remembrance is tasked with investigating war crimes committed by the Germans throughout World War II, as well as communist crimes against Polish citizens. If the perpetrators are still alive, the institute has the power to bring charges against them.