The square in front of the Collegiate church of St Nicholas in Końskie, south-central Poland, was once a cemetery for fallen Wehrmacht soldiers and civil administration workers of the Third Reich in German occupied Poland. Last March and April, after nearly 80 years, the graves were opened to exhume the bodies and move them to a cemetery for German soldiers in Siemianowice Śląskie. This is a brief story of the cemetery and the investigation of the site.
It was known that the graveyard contained the bodies of over 130 individuals that died in the area of Kielce, the administrative centre of the region, and other towns such as Opoczno, Iłża, Przysucha and Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski. First individuals in Końskie were buried in 1939 – they were German soldiers killed near Inowłódz. Later, other German casualties of war, gendarmes and Police officers, German occupation administration officials, road accident and suicide victims were buried at the site. Last burials took place in January 1945, and soon after the Russian Red Army took over the area. In short time afterwards the cemetery was shut and the graves were levelled to the ground. Since then the area served as an open park. However, lately it was decided to finally move the remains of German soldiers, as a revitalisation of the park was planned. Last spring the area was excavated by Fundacja Pamięć, which is authorised to conduct all exhumations of German soldiers in the area of Poland. The remains of the individuals were moved to the largest cemetery of German soldiers in Siemianowice Ślaskie, and the artefacts discovered during the investigation were transferred to Kessel, Germany, to Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission).
The cemetery, known as Wehrmacht Ehrenhain des Friedhofes Konskie or Ehrenfriedhof Konskie was established in the city centre, possibly to give more dignity to the site through such location, and to honour the dead in more distinct manner. In September 1939 four first individuals were buried – German Nazi soldiers that were killed in Kruszewiec, near Opoczno (Schütze Hubert Johna, Oberschütze Heinrich Wichmann, Unteroffzier August Schwab and Feldwebel Paul Wozniak). To dig the graves a group of 40-50 local Jewish men were herded – they were allegedly beaten and mistreated by German soldiers with rifles during digging. A panic broke out at some point, which ended in Leutnant Brunon Kleinmichel opening fire at the crowd, killing 22 Jews and injuring 8 of them. This episode was witnessed by Leni Riefenstahl, a famous a German film director, documentarist, and propagandist, who visited the town that day. The men were buried over next couple of nights at the local Jewish cemetery. Later, three more individuals, gendarmes (Feldgendarme) killed near Piotrowe Pole, were added to Ehrenfriedhof Konskie. They were killed in an ambush by four Polish Army soldiers, who opened fire when the Germans were riding on their horses through a crossroads 500 metres away from Piotrowe Pole village. Part of the German squad escaped, leaving three dead and one wounded. Polish soldiers covered the wounds of the German and sent him back to his unit to report that they were ambushed and fired upon by Polish Army soldiers and not local civilians – Poles intended to save the local population from any revenge by the Nazi occupants this way. Later same year more people were added, including a German Gefreiter who died in a car accident under the influence of alcohol.
In spring 1940 a wide series of exhumations took place, which meant to relocate the fallen German soldiers to new, official cemeteries such as the one in Końskie. In this case, they were the late patients of the local hospital who died of wounds. Among them were also Polish Army soldiers taken captive. Other German victims included a soldier killed by a shot to a stomach in an undisclosed location, 9 soldiers killed in Kazanów, 1 in Czermno that stepped on a land mine, 1 buried earlier in Iłża and 1 in Przedbórz. By the end of 1940 there were 32 single graves of German soldiers at the cemetery in 4 different quarters.
In 1941 only two more soldiers were added, including one Gendarm that was allegedly “shot to death by bandits” – by “bandits” the Nazi occupation regime called Polish underground freedom fighters who actively fought with the German army. In 1942 only one person was added but in 1943 the highest ranking individual at the cemetery, a Major called Julius Wenusch, was buried, after also being killed by “bandits”. Later burials were of fallen German soldiers, killrf by Polish freedom fighters near Dąbrówka, Przysucha, Małoszyce and Małachów. By the end of 1943 there were allegedly 49 buried, but there were possibly around 60 in fact, since a Zugwachtmeister called Aloysius Augustinus Gerke was buried listed with number 60.
In 1944 three Luftwaffe soldiers were buried, who died in a car accident in Wólka Zychowa. In July a Gendarme and a soldiers, who died in Radoszyce, Końskie, Fałków and Sierosławice, were added. In August two soldiers who were killed by machine-gun fire, one by a rifle shot to the head, and a soldier who died of wounds in the local hospital were buried. By the end of August a number of German soldiers killed in a battle with the Polish Home Army near Antoniów were added. In October another three killed in a forest south of Poświętne – their graves exceeded a total number of 100 graves at the Końskie cemetery. By the end of October the number rose with burials of a Oberwachtmeister who committed suicide and Waffen-SS soldiers killed in a battle near Biały Ług village with a squad of freedom fighters led by Cichociemny (“Silent Unseen” – elite special-operations paratrooper of the Polish Army in exile, trained in Great Britain during World War II to operate in occupied Poland) lieutenant Adolf Pilch „Dolina”. Among the buried in later period same year was an Unteroffizier who died in a crash of a night fighter aircraft Messerschmitt Bf-110 G-4 near Żarnów.
The highest registered grave number bears “124”, therefore it was assumed that it is the lowest potential number of individuals buried at Końskie. The burials continued in 1945, however the documentation concerning them did not survive. When the Red Army occupied the area in its march to Berlin in January 1945 the local authorities decided to remove the German cemetery, but possibly due to epidemiological hazard and scale of the endeavour to be undertaken in the strict centre of a city only the surface elements were removed and the area flattened. In 1970 a portion of the burials were destroyed due to linear ditches dug for heating pipes and a square ditch for a public restroom. In 1990s electric cables for lanterns were dug in and lawns between paved sidewalks were added to the square. In 2012 a trench for a heating pipe was dug, allegedly not encountering any German soldiers’ burials.
The exhumation conducted by Fundacja Pamięć encountered remains of 116 individuals and a number of interesting artefacts. A total of 112 remains were discovered under 70-80 centimetres of soil within single graves and additional 4 were found in the area of the 1970s heating pipe dig. It is suspected that this trench damaged a series of graves, as it was estimated that a total number of 124-130 individuals were to be found. Today it is known, that some of the graves were irreversibly destroyed. Among the artefacts discovered within the graves were personal items such as scissors, condoms, documents put inside glass bottles, remains of uniforms, buttons, soldiers’ dogtags, helmets, daggers, combs, and military boots. A unique find was a glass bottle with a silver cup as a sealing, that was still filled with fluid, that turned out to be spirit, and a belt of Romanian scouts. Overall, remains of 124 identified and 6 unidentified individuals were unearthed. The latter were possibly buried in haste when the Red Army was to enter town. Among the individuals one Red Army guard was found, identified by his equipment. His body was probably added in the early days of Soviet occupation of this region of Poland.
Now the remains of the soldiers were moved to the War Cemetery in Siemianowice Ślaskie, which houses the largest cemetery of German soldiers fallen in the area of Poland during World War 2. The square at Końskie is to undergo revitalisation that should start as soon as the funding is approved. Meanwhile it turned out that one of the identified individuals was a German soldier, who was not listed among the official records concerning the cemetery. The man, called Walter Dittrich, was killed in Wołów. He was not recorded as being among the buried in Końskie therefore his family spent decades looking for his grave, knowing only that he was buried somewhere in the vicinity of Kielce. It turned out that his dogtags were among the small number of well preserved and clearly readable.
Walter’s family contacted Archaeofeed with news about the discovery after our initial story about the exhumations in Końskie, asking for more information about the recent excavations. The Staff of Archaeofeed hopes that the article above will be interesting and informative to anyone wanting to gain more information about this small portion of 20th century’s history, the gruesome era of World War 2 and search for historical truth.
(after Końskie.org.pl, Michał Huber, Konecki24, Odkrywca.pl, Grupa Poszukiwawcza, zbiory KW, Tomasz Gliński, Ryszard Cichoński, Fundacja Pamięć & TKN24)