Grave Matters – an atrocity unearthed by Jennifer Rae
At last, the digging of the foundations of the long-anticipated sports centre had started. I watched its slow progress from the elevated position of the dry ski slope, which I frequented at weekends and after work. All of a sudden, the diggers stopped on the building site, and nothing happened for weeks on end. Nobody I asked seemed to have the slightest notion why. Other skiers using the dry slope also felt that there was a veil of secrecy surrounding the builders’ inactivity. Somebody must know what was going on. We weren’t in the “need to know” category, obviously. Eventually, news leaked out and reverberated round the whole camp. Three skeletons had been unearthed face down in the ground. Underneath the remains of one body, six brass buttons were found, equally spaced in two rows of three, as they would have been sewn on a uniform jacket. Speculation was rife. Who were these people and why had they been buried in such an undignified fashion?
The intended sports centre was on Hohne NATO Army camp, less than two kilometres from the site of Belsen concentration camp and not far from what was the East German border, before Gorbachev’s glasnost and the pulling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This was the camp which had been the headquarters of the Wehrmacht, who had operated the concentration camp during WW2. Strange things still happened there many years after the war ended.
Appeals for information about the possible identity of the inmates of the makeshift grave were circulated throughout the German and British communities. Time passed. Nobody seemed to know anything, or they weren’t telling. In the absence of a response, the bodies were disinterred and given a proper burial in consecrated ground and excavation of the foundations recommenced. Before any real progress could be made, work halted again. This time, the remains of sixty-three human beings were uncovered. A second, more urgent appeal was posted with a wider circulation than the first. This was obviously a mass grave, and somebody must be able to shed light on who they were, what happened to these poor souls and why.
At the time, I lived in the German community of Bergen, Belsen’s twin town. Every week, free newsletters reporting local news and publicising upcoming local events were distributed to every household in town and the surrounding area. Some time after the gruesome discovery on the NATO camp, an article appeared in one such newsletter. It related the story of a Polish man, if my memory serves me. He was reported to have said that by sheer good luck, he was spared from the same fate as those found in the unmarked grave.
They had been prisoners under armed guard headed for Belsen concentration camp when word reached their ears that the allied troops were arriving to liberate the starving inmates. As I understand it, the group fell into jubilant disarray at the unexpected news. The guard was ordered by his superiors to shoot all those in his charge. Whether he questioned the command, or hesitated in carrying out the order, it isn’t clear, but his perceived insubordination resulted in his own demise along with the others buried face down in the earth.
The ensuing chaos allowed the Polish man to escape. He put as much distance between himself and his would-be executioners as possible, eventually making it to one of the many remote hamlets on the NATO artillery ranges on Luneburg Heath. To his great good fortune, he was taken in, concealed, and protected by some kind inhabitants of that country village and there he stayed. Why leave when you have nowhere else to go?
His is one of many remarkable stories of survival which I heard about but one question in my mind remains, or perhaps two. How many other unmarked graves are there yet to be discovered and is there anybody still alive who knows about them?