The exhumation of a Stalinist-era mass grave in the heart of the Polish capital Warsaw believed to contain the remains of around 200 victims of a post-war campaign of communist terror resumed this week following a winter break.
“During the first phase of work last summer we managed to exhume the remains of more than 100 victims,” Krzysztof Szwagrzk, an official with Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), who is overseeing the project, told Agence France Presse at the site.
Last year the IPN exhumed the remains of 117 suspected victims of a 1948–56 Stalinist-era reign of terror against Polish anti-Soviet activists from the mass grave at Warsaw’s Powazki military cemetery for DNA testing.
The project, which began in June 2012, aims to find the remains of General Emil Fieldorf, the head of Poland’s anti-Nazi resistance army, and Witold Pilecki, a Polish partisan who claimed to have infiltrated the Auschwitz concentration camp during the war.
After the war, both resistance fighters were accused of high treason and sentenced to death by Poland’s communist authorities loyal to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Their place of burial has remained a mystery until now. Surviving family members have long hoped that DNA testing could establish the identity of remains found in Stalinist-era mass graves.
All the exhumed remains will be tested and their DNA compared against a database of 300 samples provided by several families.
“Tens of thousands of Polish families are still trying to find out where their loved ones were buried. We believe that some 50,000 people fell victim to the Stalinist-era reign of terror in Poland during the 1940s–50s,” Szwagrzyk told AFP.
The exhumation work at the Powazki site is part of a nationwide research project launched in 2011 and focused on identifying the victims of Stalinist crimes.
“Over all these years, I got used to the idea that Dad didn’t have a grave,” Pilecki’s son Andrzej told AFP at the Powazki site.
“I thought we’ll never find him (…) but today, my heart’s beating faster. I would like to know where I can light a candle and lay flowers for him,” says Andrzej, who last saw his father as a young child in 1947.