They grew up in Chojnice (Pomerania) and have been listening to stories about the Valley of Death since childhood. They knew that somewhere there were still the remains of the victims shot by the Germans in the mass execution. Years later, they decided to prove it. And it worked. Scientists have found three burial pits with almost a ton of human bones in them. They also established the identity of two murdered women – Irena, courier of the Home Army, and Anna, with whom her children and husband probably died.
Anna Stołowska was arrested by the Grudziądz Gestapo on the night of January 16-17, 1945. Together with her, the Germans took almost all of her family – husband Stanisław and children: Maria, Jan and Jerzy Szczepan. They were all arrested by the Gestapo in Grudziądz. After a few days, they were transported to Bydgoszcz and, together with other prisoners, were “evacuated” in an unknown direction. Only his son Tadeusz survived, who was in forced labor near Bydgoszcz that night when they took his family.
Irena Szydłowska was arrested by the Gestapo on January 17, 1945. She was a courier of the Home Army. A few days after her detention, along with other prisoners, she was also taken to Bydgoszcz and most likely murdered. Her four-year-old son stayed at home, who later spent his whole life trying to find out what exactly happened to his mother. Unfortunately, he did not manage to find out about the details of her death, and he died in 2004. Now, however, his daughters, Irena’s granddaughters, have learned the truth.
According to scientists, both women were murdered by the Germans in the second half of January 1945, along with many other prisoners in the Igielskie Fields on the outskirts of Chojnice, called the Death Valley by the inhabitants. The bodies of the victims were burned to cover up the traces of the crime. The identity of the women was established thanks to wedding rings found by archaeologists. One of them had the initials of Stanisław Stołowski, Anna’s husband, and the date of their wedding: September 7, 1915. On the other one there was the inscription “CS” and the date “October 20, 1938”. This one belonged to Irena Szydłowska, who that day married Cyryl Szydłowski.
The inhabitants of Chojnice and the surrounding area named it the Death Valley after the first executions that the Germans organized there in the fall of 1939. This crime has been confirmed by historians. However, the residents knew that there were more victims. In the second half of January 1945, they saw a glow of light that resembled a fire, and there was a “terrible smell of burning” on the city. They suspected that Poles, arrested earlier by the Gestapo, had died there. And they were right. It was during this time that Anna and Irena, among others, died.
The truth about the deaths of women was established thanks to research in a project that was originally named Death Valley Archeology.
They had known what had happened here since childhood
Work on the outskirts of Chojnice lasted from May 9 to December 15, 2020. The Death Valley Archeology project was created, among others, by the inhabitants of Chojnice and the surrounding area, who since childhood listened to stories about what happened there. The research was led by Dr. Dawid Kobiałka, who is associated with the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences
– I was born and raised in Chojnice. I was just over 400 meters to the Valley of Death. I had a daily view of the Valley from the second floor of the block where I lived. We used to go sledging there in winter with my friends, this place was well known to me – says Kobiałka.
He adds that for many years a mass has been held at the commemorative cross and altar on the 1st of September on the occasion of the beginning of the school year. It is also a commemoration of the outbreak of World War II and the victims murdered by the Germans in the fall of 1939 and at the end of January 1945.
– When I became a doctor of archeology, I was deeply convinced that mass murder sites, such as the Valley of Death, have never been, are not and will not be fully explored. I knew that these material traces of the crime must be somewhere on the outskirts of Chojnice – says Kobiałka. – Mass murders leave a massive amount of material traces that can be discovered by archaeological research methods – he explains.
He adds that he was thinking about research five years ago. However, it was not until 2020 that funds were obtained from the ministerial program “War graves and cemeteries in the country”. At the beginning, the research team consisted of only a few people – most of them were born or raised in Chojnice.
The research team included Filip Wałdoch, PhD student in archeology in Poznań, his wife Ewelina Ewertowska, who is also a PhD student in cultural anthropology and ethnography in Poznań. It was she who talked with the inhabitants about, among other things, how they would like to commemorate the place where the Poles died. Dr. Przemysław Zientkowski, as a clerk in the town hall, is responsible for issues related to science and culture in the region – he helps to organize formal research issues. Dr. Joanna Rennwanz is an archaeologist and deals with the analysis of macroscopic plant remains – last year she proved that the wood secured on site was Scots pine, which does not grow in this area. According to the researchers, this means that the Germans had to bring wood to cover up the traces of the crime and burn the victims’ bodies – therefore, these executions were probably carefully planned.
From the very beginning, the work has been documented by photographer Daniel Frymark, also from Chojniczan. The Volunteer Fire Department in Chojnice also helped in the research.
– A member of the research team was also my cousin, policeman Daniel Nita, who is currently an archeology student. Besides, my father Józef Kobiałka helped us a lot. For the last eight months, he went to Dolina three times a week to check whether the area of future works was definitely not disturbed – adds Kobiałka.
Almost a ton of human bones
Officially, the field research began on May 9, 2020. Already On June 13, the cremation grave was discovered. According to the doctor, there is information in the documents that there is such an object somewhere, but so far the specific location was not known.
Archaeologists also found hundreds of artifacts that uncovered further mysteries of the January 1945 crime – including a watch that stopped after 5 o’clock. If researchers confirm that the hands stopped when the watch was destroyed, it is possible that the time when Germany could they shot victims in the Death Valley in the second half of January 1945.
Thanks to the discoveries of the Head of the Departmental Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation in Gdańsk, prosecutor Tomasz Jankowski initiated an official investigation to confirm whether an execution took place in Pole Igielskie in 1945. As determined by investigators, in the so-called The “evacuation column” were mainly people arrested in late 1944 and early 1945 in Bydgoszcz, Grudziądz and Toruń.
In a short time, the Institute of National Remembrance informed about establishing the identity of Irena Szydłowska. On July 19, investigators informed about the completion of exhumation works in the Death Valley. They then summed up the research and informed about the identification of the second victim – Anna Stołowska. Anna’s husband and children have not yet been identified. Scientists suspect, however, that they probably all died there together.
Archaeologists found three burial pits in which less than a ton of human bones and their fragments were deposited. More than 4,250 artifacts or their elements, most of which belonged to the victims, were also discovered.
Now, for the next months, the experts will analyze the data collected during the work.
The Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk asks for contact from people whose relatives lost their lives at the hands of officers and collaborators of the Third Reich in Chojnice and the Chojnice poviat.
The Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk renews its request to all people whose relatives lost their lives at the hands of officers and associates of the Third Reich in Chojnice and the Chojnice poviat, to report to the Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk in order to report on the history of their relatives and possibly provide the material. for identification tests to be carried out by the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin. Contact: Institute of National Remembrance, Gdańsk Branch, al. Grunwaldzka 216, 80-266 Gdańsk, phone no. 58 660 67 30.
Exhumation activities and archaeological research were carried out by archaeologists, anthropologists and ethnologists from the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań, the University of Life Sciences in Wrocław, the University of Łódź, the forensic expert Joanna Chociej and prosecutors, historians and substantive employees of the Departmental Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation in Gdańsk.
The research project, which is part of the investigation carried out by the investigative department of the Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk, was co-financed by the Minister of Culture, National Heritage and Sport from the Culture Promotion Fund. It is also co-financed by the Chojnice City Hall.
Main photo source: IPN Gdańsk