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A photo of smouldering ruins in Nazi occupied Białystok, 1941. (Photo: Courtesy of Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe via Wikimedia Commons)

For decades, Poland was a crossroads of horror. Caught between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and their wars of extermination, civilians and soldiers alike were slaughtered and concealed in countless graves—many of which still lay quiet in the Polish dirt.

The latest 20th century mass grave was excavated outside the walls of a former jail in the city of Bialystok. The archaeological work, and follow-up DNA analysis, have now identified it as the scene of a Nazi SS war crime. The identification now also casts into doubt an even bigger grave the Soviets blamed the Nazis for in the postwar period, as the Polish team reports in the journal Forensic Science International.

“The reported case is a perfect example of how field work and further genetic tests can rewrite history,” write the scientists, who undertook the project as part of the ongoing Polish Genetic Database of Victims of Totalitarianism.

The detention center right in the heart of the northeastern Polish city was suspected to have been a scene of secret executions and burials perpetrated by the Communist regime after World War II. The project attempted to identify those victims.

But the chaotic 20th century history means there are painstaking forensic layers to sift through at the site—some 60 mass graves thus far have been identified at this nexus of crime, punishment and torture.

WHAT LIES BENEATH

Before the conflict started in 1939, the jail was a routine detention site for criminals. The facility came under the aegis of the Gestapo in 1941 after the sneak invasion of the Soviet Union, and came to hold civilians in the resistance, and underground activists.

When the winds of war shifted, during the drive to Berlin, the Soviets exhumed a pit in 1944 in the garden of the jail. The grave contained dozens of decayed remains. Those remains were identified as the victims of a Nazi slaughter of Polish hostages executed in 1942.

But the latest discovery of the second mass grave has instead been identified of that particular massacre—casting doubt on who, and what, the Soviets claimed to have discovered in 1944.

Three officers of the Polish Home Army, a resistance group, were rescued from the Gestapo holding cells on Halloween night 1942, by legendary local hero Zbigniew Recko “Trzynastka,” who drugged some security guards with sleeping pills, and shot and killed another amid the daring gambit.

Five days later, in retaliation for the escape, the Nazis shot 25 Polish hostages. The bodies were covered up that same night, Nov. 5, 1942.

Two years later, under the watchful eye of the Soviet regime, a local civilian committee exhumed the remains of 36 people from the garden. The authorities concluded it was the massacre from two years before—even though the numbers didn’t match up.

Decades after Poland freed itself from the Warsaw Pact, Polish academics and forensic experts are attempting to set the record straight with new investigations.

This latest dig unearthed 24 bodies in 2012. Just a cursory investigation of the bones and artifacts was completed in 2014, after which the pit was reinterred with the skeletons and artifacts still intact. The initial investigation turned up bullets, machine gun shells and hundreds of other items, including jewelry and devotional items like crosses and medallions, as well as fastening clasps for uniforms and a tattered cap.

But the demolition of the adjacent building, and further funding for the project, allowed for the full excavation, beginning also in 2014.

DNA CLUES IN THE BONES

The bones yielded Y-STR profiles of the executed. But since the historical sensitivities are still acute less than a century later, using mass media to reach out to living relatives was ruled out.

But a single man who knew his grandfather was executed by the Nazis on Nov. 5, 1942 approached the team. He provided a genetic sample. And in the tooth of one of the victims, extracted by PrepFiler BTA and amplified by GlobalfFiler and YFiler Plus, they made a match between the grandson, the grandfather and then a son and sister of the deceased.

The connection led to finding relatives of a second victim of the massacre—whose tooth connected him to his surviving daughter.

The Y-STR was not initially enough to make definitive matches—but the follow-up genetic detective work made clear that the mass grave was from the retaliatory massacre perpetrated by the Nazis in 1942, and not the Soviets in later years.

The mystery remains of the 36 bodies “identified” by the Soviets after the war, the scientists conclude.

“The first identifications confirmed the doubts of historians, since both the results of genetic profiling and the conducted anthropological analysis revealed that at the end of the war a mistake was made, and bodies other than those suspected had been exhumed,” they write. “Having established this fact, the mass grave created at that time should be investigated to reveal the identity of the remains uncovered then.”

The Soviets assigning blame to the Nazis for the 36 bodies would not be the first time they pointed to their mortal enemies for atrocities they themselves committed. For instance, the Katyn massacre of 1940, which took the lives of some 22,000 Polish nationals, was actually perpetrated by the Soviet NKVD. That crime was denied by the Russians until 1990, amid the collapse of the Communist regime.   

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