Remains of Nazi Massacre Victims Discovered in Poland’s ‘Death Valley’

In January 1945, German forces murdered around 500 Polish resistance fighters in a forest near the village of Chojnice

Aerial
An aerial view of Poland's "Death Valley," where the Nazis carried out mass executions during World War II D. Frymark

Researchers in Poland have uncovered evidence of a Nazi massacre that took place in Poland’s “Death Valley” toward the end of World War II.

As Andrew Curry reports for Science magazine, a team from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ (PAS) Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology discovered the long-hidden mass grave through a combination of land surveys, interviews with local residents and archival research. The scholars published their findings in the journal Antiquity last week.

The burial, located near the Polish village of Chojnice, contained more than one ton of human bone—a figure in line with the roughly 500 prisoners killed at the site in January 1945. After shooting these victims, the Nazis burned their bodies on massive pyres in hopes of destroying evidence of the atrocity.

“We knew the victims were buried somewhere, but until our research no one knew where,” lead author Dawid Kobiałka, an archaeologist at PAS, tells Science.

Locals dubbed the forest surrounding Chojnice “Death Valley” in recognition of the mass executions that took place there at the beginning of the war. Per the study, the Nazis murdered some 30,000 to 35,000 residents of the Polish Pomeranian province between October and November 1939, carrying out mass killings at 400 sites across the region, including Death Valley.

Known as the Intelligenzaktion, this policy of mass murder targeted educated members of Polish society, such as teachers, priests, doctors, activists, office workers and former officials, writes George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. Comparatively, the victims of the January 1945 massacre were mainly members of the Polish Home Army, an underground resistance network.

Exhumations carried out in Death Valley in the fall of 1945 unearthed the remains of 168 people—a fraction of the hundreds murdered near Chojnice over the course of the war.

Remains of Nazi Massacre Victims Discovered in Poland's 'Death Valley'
An engraved gold wedding ring found in Poland's "Death Valley" Kobiałka et al. / Antiquity

“It was commonly known that not all mass graves from 1939 were found and exhumed, and the grave of those killed in 1945 was not exhumed either,” says Kobiałka in a statement quoted by Live Science’s Laura Geggel.

According to Science, the study is the first to systematically apply archaeological methods to a World War II–era mass grave, as research on human remains buried at concentration camps is often barred by Jewish religious beliefs.

The scholars used noninvasive techniques, including remote-sensing LiDAR technology, to survey the area and identify sites of interest. Homing in on trenches dug in the woods near Chojnice, they investigated further with ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic field analysis and metal detectors. Ultimately, reports Live Science, the team excavated eight trenches and discovered more than 4,250 artifacts, including jewelry, bullet casings and charred wood. Though a small selection of objects found at the site dated to the 19th century, the majority were linked to the wartime massacres.

Moving forward, the researchers hope to use DNA testing to identify the victims. Archival research has yielded a list of individuals taken to Death Valley in 1945, offering a point of comparison for identification efforts. After examining the cremated remains, the team plans to rebury them and turn the site into an official war cemetery.

“Despite the Nazis’ efforts to hide their crimes, material evidence of the killings, preserved to the present day and discovered in 2020, bears witness to the massacre and tells the story 75 years later,” write the authors in the study.