A search at a site where up to 1,000 are suspected to have been killed by the Nazis has uncovered human ashes and bones.
The site, which is near Chojnice, northern Poland, has become known as the Death Valley due to the harrowing reports of a mass killing that took place there in 1945.
Archaeologist Dawid Kobialka said the discovery of human remains indicates the site was indeed an execution spot where bodies were burnt in order to cover up their murder.
The evidence tallies with reports by witnesses who say they recall “those 200-litre gasoline barrels” and the “stench” of burnt bodies lingering over the town.
Dr Kobialka said bones were found only one or two centimetres beneath the surface – enough for a shovel to reveal them at a single stroke.
He said: “Our main goal was to find material remains related to executions in the Death Valley from the Second World War.
“We followed a standard archaeological methodology: archival research, non-invasive research, a metal detector survey, we looked for witnesses and, finally, we carried out test excavations.
“All the obtained data resulted in discovering what we believe is an execution spot and a place where the bodies of victims were burned to cover up evidence of the crime.”
It’s evidence that fits with witness accounts of bodies being burned after the massacre.
Dr Kobialka said one witness in particular was helpful in uncovering the site.
He said: “Kazimierz Janikowski had especially important information.
“As a young boy, in 1945, he went to the Death Valley and found burned human remains. He showed us more or less where we should be looking.
“The place that he indicated to us was about 40m from where we found burned human remains.
“The victims were murdered from a close distance and then the bodies were thrown into a cremation hearth.”
The finding of human remains at the site follows the discovery of other artefacts related to the massacre there.
Many of these items also showed signs of burning.
Dr Kobialka said: “We found material evidence of the crime, e.g. bullets and shells from Walther PPK and P08 Parabellum German pistols.
“We found personal belongings of the victims like buttons, pocket knives, coins and devotional articles. We found an earring and a fragment of a brooch, among others.
“Most of the artefacts have marks which confirm that they had contact with fire and high temperatures. Some artefacts made of aluminium are completely melted.”
The 1945 massacre was one of two that took place at the Death Valley, with the other taking place in 1939, and targeting Polish intellectuals and community leaders.
It’s thought that victims of the later massacre, meanwhile, were Gestapo prisoners from the city of Bydgoszcz, 44 miles to the south.
Jan Grunt, a witness to the 1945 massacre, said the Germans left behind gasoline barrels when they departed.
“The shootings from pistols were heard almost all night,” he said.
“The bodies were doused in gasoline and later burned. The fire was discernible for three days and nights at the Death Valley.”
Mr Janikowski recalled seeing the barrels too.
He said: “I still see those 200-litre gasoline barrels. There was a stench over town when the bodies were burned.”
Dr Kobialka, who was born in Chojnice, described how the massacre continued to have an effect generations later.
“There are descendants of the victims who still look for information about what happened to their relatives,” he said.
“I have literally just got an email from an old woman whose father was probably killed at the Death Valley. She was three months old when the Gestapo arrested her father.
“Such archaeology has a great social, cultural, and historical value. There is information that only archaeology can reclaim, even in the context of events as recent as the Second World War.”
A more in-depth excavation of the site is to take place next year.