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75 years after the final battles of WWII in Europe, the search for the soldiers who fought them goes on

75 years after the final battles of WWII in Europe, the search for the soldiers who fought them goes on


  • Seventy-five years after the Soviet army marched through eastern Germany toward Berlin, residents are still searching for the remains of the troops who fought those final battles.
  • Volunteers seek to identify as many as possible in order to give families closure, to give the dead their names back, and to make the cost of war tangible for future generations.
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KLESSIN, Germany (AP) — Thomas Siepert looks across the verdant grain field, glowing in the sun after a spring thunderstorm, as windmills slowly churn in the distance.

Wild boar piglets trundle across the road into town and a hare pops out and dashes away. Yet the serene scene belies the slaughter there 75 years ago as German troops fought furiously — and futilely — to stave off the Soviet Red Army that was approaching the Nazi capital.

“It seems so idyllic, but it’s a huge cemetery,” Siepert said. “That shouldn’t be forgotten.”

But for decades, many of those who died there were forgotten, some buried where they fell and others dragged by civilians in the months after the war into trenches and foxholes they had themselves dug, and covered over.

For the last 15 years, volunteers like Siepert from around Europe have been trying to rectify that, devoting vacations to excavating long-buried trench lines and military positions in the search for those who never made it home.

During 19 digs across a square kilometer (less than half a square mile), members of the Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe have found 116 German and 129 Soviet soldiers.

They seek to identify as many as possible — to provide closure for families, to give the dead their names back, and to separate them from the numbers in the history books in the hope of explaining the cost of war to future generations.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Siepert, a volunteer from the Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe, in a field that was a battlefield near the village of Klessin, in Germany, April 30, 2020.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


“On all sides, these are destroyed lives. These are all people who died senselessly,” said Albrecht Laue, chairman of the association. “If we talk about a huge slaughter with hundreds of thousands of dead, nobody can understand that. But if I talk about the story of a young 17-year-old soldier, that’s tangible.”

Laue, a 46-year-old businessman from Hamburg, got interested in the search when looking for the grave of his grandfather, which he located near where he died fighting in Russia in 1942 as a young lieutenant.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Laue, center, chairman of the Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe in an unearthed trench during a search for fallen WWII soldiers near the village of Klessin in Germany, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


Siepert, 47, an engineer from nearby Frankfurt an der Oder, remembers as a child having regular lectures in school about avoiding the grenades and other munitions still found in the area, and wondering why.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Siepert compares an aerial photo of the village of Klessin in February 1945 and a photo taken in April 1945 of the village after artillery damage, April 30, 2020.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


Other volunteers include anthropologists, archaeologists, excavators and the disposal experts needed when munitions are found.

They hail from all over, including Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

“We couldn’t, and also don’t, want to look for soldiers from a specific nation,” Laue said. “That’s the interesting thing when one finds one of the dead; one never even knows at the beginning if it’s a German or a Soviet.”

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Laura Tradii, left, social anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, and Werner Schulz, right, an excavation technician, exhume the remains of a Soviet soldier near Klessin, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


In February 1945, they were bitter foes.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Schulz makes a note of the bones of the remains of a Soviet soldier on a diagram to confirm they are the bones of one person, near Klessin, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


The village of Klessin sits on a height 1.2 miles from the Oder River. German military observers used it to call in artillery strikes on Soviet troops as they streamed across a pontoon bridge in the build-up before the final push on Berlin.

Recognizing the strategic importance of the hamlet, 60 miles east of Berlin, the Soviets made it a target. The Nazis resolved to hold it, moving in a unit of soldiers, augmented by officer cadets and older “Volkssturm” militia, scraped up as the number of military-aged men dwindled.

The fighting pitted 400 Germans in Klessin against about four times that number of Soviets, with the Germans supported by a unit of Panther tanks in the neighboring village of Podelzig, nearby artillery and air-dropped supplies.

Fierce combat raged for nearly two months, often hand-to-hand, as the Soviets attempted to take the village, firing off 62,000 mortar rounds and artillery shells.

Exactly how many were killed or listed as missing is not known, but the casualties were enormous, Siepert said.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Tradii, center, and Schulz, left, exhume the remains of a Soviet soldier near the village of Klessin, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


“On March 20, German troops tried to break through there to make a corridor,” he said, pointing to a field between Klessin and Podelzig where the Soviets had laid a minefield and other defenses after encircling the village. “There were 150 missing from that single attack, as well as 50 killed. Seventy made it through.”

On March 23, 1945, the beleaguered German soldiers attempted a breakout under the cover of darkness. About 60 made it, and the others were captured or killed.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

The remains of a Soviet soldier is exhumed during a search for fallen WWII soldiers near the village of Klessin in Germany, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


German tank commander Lt. Hans Eimer was listed as missing after the breakout attempt. Eimer had led his Panther tank into Klessin the week before on his 22nd birthday to support the garrison, but the vehicle ended up being knocked out and he was wounded and trapped in the village.

Germany WWII battlefield soldier remains recovery

Tradii, left, and Schulz, right, cover the remains of a Soviet soldier near the village of Klessin, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


Eimer’s younger brother, Fritz, had died in fighting that January. After the war, his sister Margarete had long urged Laue’s group to try and determine the fate of her only other sibling.

Eimer’s remains were located by Laue’s group in 2016 by chance and identified by dogtags. The group told Margarete before she died in 2018 that her brother had made it 250 meters (yards) out of the village before he was killed, and lay with two other soldiers.

This year’s spring dig has been postponed due to lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Some work is still underway on a memorial site being established amid the rubble of the original farm buildings.

Germany WWII soldier memorial

Small coffins with the remains of fallen German soldiers in a mass grave during a funeral service in Wuhden, Germany, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


Hermann Kaiser, a member of the small community association behind the memorial, said he remembered finding military material as a kid growing up in the area, happily throwing on an old steel helmet and fighting “war” with his friends, while not understanding they were playing on graves.

Germany WWII soldier memorial

People from nearby villages and volunteers from the Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe at a funeral service for a fallen German WWII soldiers in Wuhden, Germany, October 2, 2019.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber


The hope is with the memorial to make sure that others do understand.

“We want to present what happened here 75 years ago, what war means, show the younger generation that war destroys everything,” he said, looking at the cratered landscape and rubble of the memorial. “And if we can do that in the place where it happened, it’s unforgettable.”

Read the original article on Associated Press. Copyright 2020.

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