New evidence of Nazi war crimes uncovered in Poland’s ‘Death Valley’

Around 168 victims were exhumed shortly after the war, but it was long known that many other graves remained uncovered.

New research has uncovered evidence of the first large-scale atrocity committed in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Second World War.

Around 30,000-35,000 people were murdered in the country’s Pomeranian province in the first months of the conflict. One area saw so much violence that it later became known as ‘Death Valley’.

An aerial image of Poland’s ‘Death Valley’ around the time of the excavations. More than 12,000 civilians were killed here in the opening months of the war.Image: D Frymark/Antiquity

Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the event which triggered the outbreak of the Second World War. Their troops occupied large swathes of the country, including the Pomeranian province on the northern coast.

Violence against civilian Poles subsequently took place in more than 400 locations within the province, one of which was Death Valley, near the village of Pias´nica. Over 12,000 people were killed here between 1939 and 1940.

The Nazis returned to this site, near the town of Chojnice, in 1945, in an unsuccessful attempt to conceal their crimes. Further massacres also took place at that time.

Around 168 victims were exhumed shortly after the war, but it was long known that many other graves remained uncovered.

Now archaeologists working in Death Valley have made more significant findings. Their work, recently published in the journal Antiquity, was led by Dr Dawid Kobiałka of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Kobiałka and his colleagues consulted historical records and undertook non-invasive surveys in the region before carrying out limited excavations.

‘Without any doubt, the most important result of the research in 2020 in Death Valley was locating a mass grave from 1945,’ Kobiałka said.

As well as human remains, the team uncovered hundreds of objects that are believed to be victims’ possessions.

‘Among the most important artefacts found was a woman’s wedding ring,’ said Kobiałka. ‘It was identified by doctor Dariusz Burczyk from the Institute of National Remembrance, Poland, as belonging to Irena Szydłowska, a courier of the Polish Home Army.’

‘Her family was informed about the finding and the plan is to return the ring to them,’ he added.

Work will now continue to identify victims of the massacre. ‘A series of specialised analyses of the finds is taking place right now,’ said Kobiałka.

‘It is believed that more victims killed in Death Valley will be identified soon, and their families will be informed about what really happened to their beloved ones.’