1939-2019: Graves at the Roadside

„Resting place for 76 Russsian soldiers who died here in captivity. 1939-1945“

Memories of the global apocalypse, unleashed by Nazi Germany on this day 80 years ago, seem to fade. War talk („complete annihilation“) is common again in press briefings and twitter messages. But it takes sometimes only a stroll into the forest, just meters away from a small country road, to bring back the horrors of a war that was started with Germany’s raid on Poland on 1st September 1939.

A granite monument with the names of some of the victims identified.

On the narrow road leading from the village of Heiningen across the Oderwald forest to Salzgitter town in Southeastern Lower Saxony, a small sign guides the wanderer or passing cars to a „Kriegsgräberstätte“, a site of war graves. On such a lovely late summer day (it is hard to imagine that it might have been similar on the eve of that fateful Friday in 1939) we walked to a small strip cleared at the fringes of the forest. Enclosed by a wooden fence we found three granite stones with names of 39 men engraved on little plaques. 37 corpses are still not identified, but it is an ongoing task, as an information table at the entrance told us. The men were prisoners of war from the former Soviet Union, sent to the Salzgitter steelworks as forced laborers. They were put in a series of small camps, one in the village of Heiningen just a kilometre away down in the Oker valley.

Someone had left a lantern at the foot of the granite stones. A little angel kneels reading from a book. A blue porcelain ball was placed between two of the granite stones. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V., a non-profit organization that is devoted to identify and secure graves of war victims all over Europe, has put up a documentation table, in cooperation with local voluntary agencies. It provides background information about forced labor in the Salzgitter region. The name plaques include the victims‘ birth dates and the date when they were killed, mostly in 1942 and 1943. The Nazis were not just a terror regime, but also ardent bookkeepers. They kept information about their victims on index cards, including their photos. One of those cards is displayed on the information table: The 22 years old Nikolai Ewus was murdered at a construction site on 27th October 1941, only a few months after he came to Heiningen.

Even when the war front in 1939 was still far away, nobody in the homeland could escape its horrors. Sons, husbands, fathers were involved in fighting, killing or being killed. Most local graveyards in Germany and Europe have special sites for war victims and fallen men. We pass them by when visiting the graves of our dear ones. But on a day like 1st September we should pause before them, perhaps read their names and year of birth, so many of them having died so young. 80 years is a long time ago, but never too long not to remember.

War graves at a grave site near Trier (Germany)

Links to websites:

Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V. (in English)

Outbreak of Second World War. THE GUARDIAN, 1 September 2019 

Gedenktag in Warschau/Polen. Sueddeutsche.de, 1. September 2019