In the opening months of the Second World War, Nazi forces executed over 30-35,000 civilians in the Pomeranian region of Poland – the first large scale atrocity in the country. Despite efforts to hide these crimes, research is shedding light on these massacres over 80 years later.
Archaeologists working in ‘Death Valley,’ one of at least 400 locations these massacres took place, have uncovered a mass grave and hundreds of artifacts such as victims’ possessions.
Lead author Dr Dawid Kobiałka, from the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the other researchers also explored archival material worked with the local community to gain more insight into these events.
“As a kid living near Death Valley, I used to play with my friends there,” said Dr Kobiałka, “Three decades later, I discovered a mass grave of approximately 500 Poles there.”
These war crimes, which gave Death Valley its name, were part of a coordinated campaign in which the Nazis executed 12,000 civilians in the area around the village of Piasńica from late 1939 to early 1940. Many historians consider this a prelude to the later Nazi genocides.
The Nazis returned to Death Valley, which is located near Chojnice, in 1945 to hide their crimes. Shortly after the war, the remains of 168 of the victims were uncovered at the site. However, it was commonly known that not all mass graves from 1939 were found and exhumed, and the grave of those killed in 1945 was not exhumed either.
The Crooked Forest (Nowe Czarnowo, West Pomerania – Poland)
At first, Gryfino Forest looks to be a run-of-the-mill field of trees. And then you see it: a group of 400 pines, each with a mysterious, dramatic bend close to the ground.
The trees’ unusual but uniform “J” shape is likely the result of human intervention—probably farmers who manipulated the trees with the intention of turning them into curved furniture. The pines, planted in 1930, had around ten years of normal growth before being distorted. An alternative theory holds that regular flooding caused the unusual shapes.
Miners at Wieliczka carved its rock salt deposits without interruption from the 13th century until the 1990s. Over the centuries, workers slowly turned the seven-level subterranean mine into a majestic salt city replete with life-size rock salt sculptures of saints, biblical wall reliefs, and tableaus depicting their daily lives.
In the early 1900s, the workers undertook their most ambitious project: an underground church named after Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners. The 331-foot-deep (101 m) St. Kinga’s Chapel features a sculpture of Christ on the cross, depictions of scenes from the New Testament, a wall relief of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and two altars. All are carved from salt. Hanging from the ceiling are five chandeliers that miners crafted by dissolving salt, removing its impurities, and reconstituting it into crystals as clear as glass.
Another memorable sight on the tour is the placid subterranean lake in the Józef Piłsudski Chamber, softly lit and overseen by a statue of Saint John Nepomucene—the patron saint of drowning. Take a moment of reflection before you bundle into a small, dark miners’ cage with five other people for the long ascent back to the surface.