Most of us have heard of important historical finds dredged from the depths of the sea – but somehow, it surprises us when such a discovery is made in the sludge and mud of a river in Poland.
As the effects of global warming are becoming more apparent, Poland has been experiencing worrying droughts, which last year caused the river levels to drop substantially. The Vistula River, which meanders more than a thousand kilometers through Poland, from the Beskidy Mountains to the Baltic Sea, reached its lowest levels since recordings were first made in the late 18th century. The result of this has been the discovery of a large number of objects which had lain submerged and undisturbed for so many years – in some cases even as far back as the 17th century.
A very interesting find was that of a WWII Russian aircraft, located near the village of Kamion, in a black, swampy, oxbow lake on the Bzura River, (a Vistula tributary). While the aircraft is very badly damaged, with most of its markings worn off by time and water, there is a possibility of identifying it at the Vistula River Museum at Wyszogrod, to which these pieces have been moved for further study.
Found with this wreckage were the remains of Soviet uniforms, a parachute, a coat collar of sheepskin, a pilot’s pistol, the control panel and some radio equipment along with a lot of ammunition. The inscriptions on the control panel and the radio equipment are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and it is thought that this wreck is most probably that of a Russian plane. Added to that, an eyewitness reports seeing, sometime in January of 1945, a low-flying plane, hit by enemy fire, crashing through the thick ice into the freezing water of the river.
This incident would thus have occurred at the time that the Red Army was advancing on the German Army which was retreating towards Berlin. Poland was an area which experienced fierce fighting, with over 600,000 Soviets killed while fighting the Germans on Polish land.
A Russian Embassy spokesperson feels that this discovery is most important, and is waiting for the numbers on the wreckage of this aircraft to be deciphered, so that the remains of the three crewmen also found with this wreck, may be identified and properly buried.
A few days earlier, another historical discovery was made in the Vistula river. At Warsaw, many stone fragments from the early 20th Century Poniatowski Bridge, blown up in 1944 by the Germans, were found. The bridge was rebuilt after the war, but the Warsaw authorities, keen to recover more of the original pieces of that bridge, also found some pieces of the original 18th Century Poninski Bridge.
The pieces, from both of these bridges, were exposed by the low levels of the water. Possibly even more interesting – various pieces, many of rather elaborately carved marble, which are believed to come from sunken Swedish vessels, were uncovered. The Swedes – during the 17th Century – went so far as to loot bits of floors, bits of stairs and even the railings. With the river at normal levels, locating or recovery of these artifacts would have been very difficult, some say nearly impossible, so this is one good result of the drought.
Another discovery of historical significance is that of pieces of headstones and tombstones, found in the now shallow waters of the Vistula. A man walking along the river near Warsaw came across fragments of these broken stones with Hebrew lettering on them. It seems that the existence of these archaeological treasures has been known of for a long time, but once again, searches under the waters of the Vistula River (or tributaries) have been impossible until now.
These Jewish tombstone pieces are thought to be from the Brodno cemetery in the Praga district of Warsaw, which once held approximately 300,000 Jewish tombs, although now only about 3,000 tombstones remain. It is understood that both during and after the war the stones were utilised as building materials and also to reinforce the banks of the Vistula River.
All these discoveries help to increase and substantiate some of the history of Poland – from the 17th Century Swedish invaders, to historical bridges; from Russian fighter planes to Jewish tombstones. During WW2 Poland suffered under the scourge of the persecution by the Nazis and was at the centre of a maelstrom of fighting, with Germans invading from the west and the Soviets from the east.
Who knows what other things remain hidden under the drying mud of the Vistula River? We might yet discover even more of Poland’s fascinating history.