Construction workers in northern Poland have unearthed a World War II-era mass grave containing what are believed to be the bodies of 1,800 German men, women and children who disappeared during the Soviet Army's march to Berlin.
Poles digging at the site of a planned luxury hotel in Malbork — which was called Marienburg and was part of Germany during the war — excavated a bomb crater at the foot of the city's famous 13th century Teutonic Knights fortress, authorities said Monday.
The workers found a small group of bodies in late October and halted digging to allow prosecutors to investigate. After resuming work weeks later, the workers turned up dozens, and then hundreds, more corpses. They believe more may be found.
It was not immediately clear how the bodies ended up in the crater but initial examinations by Polish and German experts have concluded that they are likely the remains of German citizens still classified as "missing" more than 60 years after the end of the war, town official Piotr Szwedowski told The Associated Press.
Millions of civilians were killed or declared missing during World War II. Many of those who disappeared in the chaos of wartime Europe are still unaccounted for.
"Examination of the remains and the circumstances confirm that these are the missing German inhabitants of Malbork," Szwedowski said. "I have no doubt it is them."
As the Red Army was advancing in early 1945, the inhabitants of Malbork were ordered to evacuate. Some refused, while others were prevented from doing so by the general chaos of the nearing front.
The Soviets bombarded the city with heavy artillery in their assault. After the defeated German military retreated, the remaining civilians found themselves at the mercy of Red Army troops. There are no known living witnesses of what happened, Szwedowski said.
The bodies were buried naked without any possessions, he said.
"We found no trace of any clothes, shoes, belts, glasses — not even dentures or false teeth," he said.
Some 100 skulls — primarily of adults — have bullet holes in them, suggesting these people could have been executed, but it is still unclear how the others were killed, Szwedowski said.
"We don't know if these (civilians) are direct or indirect victims of the artillery barrage but the bullet holes suggest executions in some cases," he said.
More forensic tests will be carried out before the remains are laid to rest either in Malbork or a German military cemetery in Stary Czarnow, near the northwestern city of Szczecin.
"These people died in such an inhuman way, were dumped so inhumanely, that we need to bury them in dignity and respect," Szwedowski said.