Recovering mortal remains

Joachim Kozlowski recovers and re-buries around 200 dead every year in the Brandenburg soil; today we meet him on a SafeLane site where two soldiers have been uncovered.

Bird song, a cloudless sky and the sun breaking through the trees on a clearing area at Halbe.  Nothing else.  What in this moment seems like paradise, was hell on earth almost exactly 75 years to the day – the scene of the Battle of Halbe.

Within just a few short days it’s estimated 30,000 German soldiers, 10,000 German civilians and Soviet forced laborers and 20,000 Soviet soldiers died.  But only about 26,000 victims have been recovered to date

Most of the victims’ remains have still not been recovered – let alone identified.  And the more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to find the bodies and identify those whose lives were lost.  

Joachim Kozlowski works as a transfer manager for the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German War Graves Service.  He is one of those who stays tuned for news from Halbe.  He knows that families still wait for news of their lost ancestors.  For them, if remains of a relative are found it would be a contribution to reconciliation and closure.

His current job ties in with his previous roles as a medic in the German Army, and as a teaching rescue assistant at the German Red Cross.  In addition to uncovering and later reburying the bones of the lost soldiers and civilians, Kozlowski sees his work as a contribution to reconciliation.  “As a young paramedic, together with Russian and German soldiers, I recovered casualties from the Second World War in Oderbruch.” explains the 48-year-old today.

Joachim Kozlowski recovers and re-buries around 200 dead every year in the Brandenburg soil.  “The dead were largely safe in the west of Germany.  In the east on the other hand, many victims were simply left behind.  There was no interest in the dead of the war – especially not in the members of the Wehrmacht” (the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany) says Kozlowski.

Finding bones requires metal remains

Today, Joachim Kozlowski is kneeling in a hole using a scanner like they use at the airport, a small shovel and a hoe; he is gently and methodically clearing sand and soil aside.

SafeLane’s explosive ordnance disposal teams have been on site since November 2019, and are searching an area of ​​around 40 hectares for unexploded bombs; it’s a heavily contaminated area.  If bones are found, work is stopped immediately, and the police or the regulatory office are informed.

Dog tags make identification possible

“Soldiers often still had their weapons with them where they fell, they had metal in their boots, maybe a flashlight in their pack.  Perhaps their clothes had metal belt buckles and buttons.  Many who died also had personal metallic objects with them – such as coins, a chain, a framed picture or a wedding ring,” explains Joachim Kozlowski.  The metal helps SafeLane find them.  

The most important find for Joachim Kozlowski is, however, identification tags – because these enable unambiguous identification and gives ancestors certainty that a relative has been found.

Lives pass away, dignity remains

Joachim Kozlowski searches the places where SafeLane employees have probed.  “My job is to completely recover an individual’s bones, and in this way, to support relatives of those who died.  After all, human dignity should extend beyond death.”

The mortal remains lie in the way the individual came to their first burial.  In the current case, the dead man’s bones are quite mixed up.  Instead of uncovering them in anatomical order, Joachim Kozlowski only finds individual bones: upper arm, ribs, thoracic vertebrae, kneecaps, metacarpal bones, skull.  The remains of a shoe are found with the socks in it.  This is fortunate as Joachim Kozlowski has all the foot bones together in one: “This soldier must have been killed by considerable fragments from the impact of grenades.”

GPS data for documentation

When his device falls silent and he cannot find any more bone parts, Joachim Kozlowski climbs out of the pit.  All skeletal parts are in a grey box, just long enough to accommodate a thigh bone.  Joachim Kozlowski records the exact GPS data to document the location of the find.

The skeleton of the upper body is better preserved in the next hole.

Kozlowski diagnoses a broken arm from earlier times and a well-preserved set of teeth – which would be typical of a Soviet soldier.  But finding the buttons of a German naval uniform contradicts this.  “Perhaps a Soviet soldier has put on the jacket of a fallen German here,” suggests Joachim Kozlowski.  The dog tag would give a clue, but sadly, one is not found.

Some soldiers would have thrown away their ID when fleeing to hide their identity in the event of capture.  Others would have tried to accommodate them safely – for example in a shoe or in the spare glass compartment of their gas mask pocket.

Careful preparation work by SafeLane staff

For Joachim Kozlowski, professional and dignified preparatory work by the ordnance disposal teams is critical.  Looking at the current site prepared by SafeLane, he says: “The grave site was optimally prepared for me here.  After the probes struck, the soil was carefully and methodically removed with a shovel without disturbing the grave.  When bones came to light, the work was stopped and the police informed immediately.”  Last but not least, he says working with SafeLane is always without pressure or stress; he is given time and space to do his job in required peace and quiet.

Unfortunately, what should be a matter of course is not always like this: “Some people just keep working on finding bones, tearing their bones out of the ground with prongs.  In the worst case, the bones are then looted and finally buried so deep that they can no longer be found later or only buttons remain.”