Historians and archeologists in Germany’s Westphalia-Lippe (LWL) region on Friday presented 400 artifacts excavated in recent months at three rural sites where in March 1945 German troops gunned down forced laborers.
Advancing American troops subsequently directed Nazi adherents to exhume bodies at two forest sites in the Arnsberg/Sauerland region for cemetery reburials.
An informant’s anonymous tip in late 1946 led to a third site where bodies had been concealed under a cow paddock.
Last moments forensically ‘reconstructed’
Regional Westphalia-Lippe executive head Matthias Löb on Friday said his staff’s work, aided by volunteers equipped with metal detectors, had turned up forensic clues on the victims’ last moments, including bullets lodged in forest soils marking victims’ apparent attempts to escape.
“These murders are part of our history that we must own up to,” said Löb, adding that the project also sought to thwart current far-right downplaying of Germany’s Nazi past.
Three groups executed
SS General Hans Kammler ordered squads of his Division für Vergeltung(Reprisal Division) to execute three groups of Polish and Russian forced laborers over three days.
LWL archeologist Manuel Zeiler said the team’s “interdisciplinary and systematic” approach – – had been “unique” for probing Nazi-era crime sites in Germany – seven decades after World War Two.
400 artifacts found
Many of the 400 artifacts were found in forest soils in Langenbach Valley near the town of Warstein, said LWL historian Marcus Weidner, adding that the items uncovered included shoes, colored buttons, pearls, a prayer book and lexicon in Polish, cutlery and textile fragments.
Reconstructing events at that site, the LWL said 71 victims — comprising 60 women, a child and 10 men — were apparently told to leave their meager possessions on the edge of a forestry road before being shot dead at a stream escarpment.
Money stolen from them ended up in the division’s cash box.
Projectiles were found spread throughout the surrounding forest. The murderers left behind spades, said the LWL.
Atrocity’s aftermath documented by Americans
At a second site, at Suttrop near Warstein, laborers were forced to dig trenches laid out as a zigzag in which 57 people were then shot dead by Nazi troops, said to comprise Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers.
The Americans later ordered exhumations, summoned the local population and filmed the atrocity’s aftermath. Records from the-then US 95th Infantry Division about Warstein are held in the USA’s Eisenhower Archive.
“A short while ago I took a phone call from an elderly woman who was involved in the operation,” Weidner told regional WDR public broadcasting.
“And, in the literature there are many accounts by persons who still remember the scenes, the smells, that are strongly etched in their minds.”
Harmonica, Soviet coins
The third site re-examined from last year through into January 2019 had turned up a harmonica, a spectacle case and a comb, said the LWL, as well as Soviet coins and a spoon.
At that site, Eversberg near the town of Meschede, Nazi troops had detonated mortars to make a cavity in which they then shot 80 people and then concealed the victims under the paddock.
The tip given to British military sector forces in November 1946 led to those remains being exhumed in 1947 and being placed alongside other remains at Meschede’s Fulmerke Cemetery, which is soon to be renovated.
Only 14 identified
Weidner said only 14 of the 208 victims had been identified, thanks in part to research conducted abroad.
The latest work offered the chance to link victims to potential descendants and overcome past reticence in finding out “who was shot dead here,” Weidner told WDR.
More than 13 million people were conscripted by Hitler’s regime as forced laborers, many to work as slaves as part of the Nazi arms build-up.
The LWL is a regional conglomerate that runs schools, clinics and museums servicing nine cities and 18 counties on the eastern fringe of North Rhine-Westphalia state.