Germany to excavate mass grave site

More than 750 former Jewish prisoners slain by the Nazis believed buried in former camp of Lieberose.

jewish mass grave 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jewish mass grave 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
A birch-lined back yard believed to hold the remains of more than 750 former Jewish prisoners slain by the Nazis in the final days of World War II will be excavated by German authorities starting Wednesday. The work on the site of the former Nazi labor camp Lieberose, a subcamp of the better-known Sachsenhausen concentration camp, follows a lengthy battle with the former landowner. Joerg Schoenbohm, interior minister of Brandenburg state, said officials hope the efforts will help bring closure to any relatives of victims and send a signal to neo-Nazis and others seeking to deny the Holocaust. "We want to have clarity," Schoenbohm told reporters Tuesday. "We need to end the uncertainty surrounding the crime so that we will have time for mourning and remembering." Initial digging at the site, where the Nazis set up the Lieberose work camp in 1943, is to begin on Wednesday - the 64th anniversary of the liberation of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which is just north of Berlin. Although Lieberose was a subcamp of Sachsenhausen, most of its inmates arrived from Auschwitz. Those deemed too ill to work were sent back to the death camp in nearby Poland, which was occupied by the Nazis for most of the war, historian Guenter Morsch said. "Lieberose is part of the Holocaust," said Morsch, director of the Brandenburg memorial foundation. Morsch has carried out extensive research into the history of the camp, about 120 kilometers southeast of Berlin, and produced the expert report supporting suspicions of the mass grave's location, which would have been where the so-called recuperation barracks for the ill and infirm stood. He said the number of suspected victims is based on documentation and witness testimony indicating that 1,342 prisoners were deemed unfit to be sent on a forced march when the camp was evacuated ahead of the Soviet Red Army's advance in early 1945. In 1971, remains of 589 victims were found in a nearby village, believed to have been shot in a second wave of killings on Feb. 3, 1945. The others are believed to have been killed by the SS the day before, but their bodies have never been found. "The question remains, where are the other 753?" Morsch said. Research at 20 possible sites in the area combined with interviews from six witnesses led him to zero in on the vast back yard behind a simple two-story house flanked by flowering trees. A memorial for the camp - used by the Soviets after the war from 1945 to 47- runs across the back perimeter. But the property's owner, whose family were refugees from former German lands in Poland and settled the land after the war, refused to allow the search to take place although he moved to southern Germany more than a decade ago. After a lengthy court battle, authorities reached an agreement with the man - which included protecting his identity - on the autumn, allowing the municipality to acquire the land and begin work. To this day, he has not given a reason for his refusal, causing lingering anger among Jewish and survivor groups. "A survivor from Sachsenhausen who visited the site said, 'Whomever does not allow a memorial at such a site commits a crime himself,'" said Jewish Community representative Peter Fischer. Excavators are to use heavy equipment to remove the top layers of soil, then proceed with their bare hands, said Joachim Wacker of the state society for the protection and care of memorials. Authorities have initially planned three weeks for the work. Wacker said that if remains are found and identified as belonging to the victims, a rabbi will be called in and the site treated as a grave. Later, authorities hope to erect a memorial in collaboration with survivor groups, Jewish community leaders and others. "The ignorance and the silence about these murders must be broken," Fischer said.