He was four years old when his mother, a courier of the Home Army, was arrested by the Gestapo. All his life he tried to find out how she died. Only now, 76 years later, did his daughters learn this secret. All thanks to Irena Szydłowska’s wedding ring, which archaeologists found in the Valley of Death. She died there with many other prisoners in January 1945.
The Igielskie Fields is an area on the northern outskirts of Chojnice. The inhabitants named it the Valley of Death after the first executions in the fall of 1939. This crime has been confirmed by historians. Today there is a commemorative cross and two altars. 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 bonfire, and there was a “terrible smell of burning” on the city. They suspected that Poles, arrested earlier by the Gestapo, had died there.
However, these were only stories passed down from generation to generation. The Red Army entered Chojnice on February 14, 1945, and according to the stories of witnesses, in the second half of January 1945, the Germans were killing Poles there. There was no evidence and this is what Dr. Dawid Kobiałka from the Foundation of the Friends of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences together with his team decided to confirm as part of the project Death Valley Archeology. The works took place from May 9 to December 15, 2020. They not only conducted archaeological research, but also talked to witnesses.
– These post-war accounts were very imprecise. Witnesses said that it could have been 600 or even a thousand people – says Kobiałka. – On June 13, 2020, we came across human remains. They were secured and submitted to a physical anthropologist for expertise, he adds.
It has been confirmed that these are human bones. Among them were also artifacts – pistol shells and personal belongings of the victims, which revealed more secrets about the crimes from years ago.
They have already met 120 names
Among the things found in 2020, there was a pin with the pre-war coat of arms of Toruń. This could confirm the thesis that members of the Polish underground from Grudziądz, Bydgoszcz and Toruń were to die in the Death Valley. – We assumed that this is not a coincidence. Another artifact was a medal, a baptismal souvenir with the image of the Mother of God from the sanctuary in Skępe, which is only 60 km away from Toruń – adds the doctor.
However, the wedding ring turned out to be the most valuable so far. It was thanks to her that the first victim was identified.
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. On June 1 this year, the exhumations began.
– As a result of an archival inquiry conducted by the historian of the Institute of National Remembrance, Dr. Dariusz Burczyk, it was found that, as a result of archaeological research, the probable place was discovered where at the end of January 1945 the Germans murdered a column of prisoners from the Gestapo prison in Bydgoszcz. The Germans, in the area now known as the Death Valley, killed an unspecified number of people, and their bodies were burnt, prosecutor Jankowski said.
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.
Doctor Dariusz Burczyk spent several months browsing through various archival documents and literature on the subject in search of information about people who might have been murdered in January 1945 in the Death Valley. Thanks to this work, he managed to compile a list containing the names of about 120 people – potential victims of this crime. – The completeness of the data of these people varies, but I tried, colloquially speaking, to extract as much as possible from the documents, i.e. first and foremost their names and surnames, dates of birth and possible marriages, maiden names of women, data of their spouses and parents, but also reasons and circumstances arrests, occupations or place of employment and residence. Everything that could later be useful for their possible identification – says Dr. Burczyk.
It was thanks to this list that it turned out that one of the rings found in the Valley of Death belonged to Irena Szydłowska.
“He was four when his mother was arrested by the Gestapo”
After the conservation work, the initials “CS” were read. The ring was small, the researchers were convinced that it belonged to a woman. The initials had to be her husband’s then. There was also the date of the wedding “October 20, 1938”. This was in line with the biography of Irena Szydłowska.
The woman was born on June 22, 1919. She had a husband, Cyryl Szydłowski, whom she married on October 20, 1938.
– On the basis of the collected testimonies of witnesses, it was established that Irena Szydłowska was arrested by Gestapo officers on January 17, 1945 in Grudziądz and after a few days, together with other detainees, she was taken to Bydgoszcz and most probably murdered, and her body was burnt. We only know about the murdered woman that she was a courier of the Home Army – describes prosecutor Janowski.
So the investigators had a wedding ring and found out who it belonged to. They still had to find Irena Szydłowska’s family.
– We checked the PESEL database, we selected the family. Unfortunately, we found out that Irena Szydłowska’s son is no longer alive, but based on his data, we were looking for an extended family. In the end, his daughters and granddaughters Irena Szydłowska were found. We contacted them directly – says the prosecutor.
As it turned out, the women knew that their grandmother had been arrested, but they did not know where and how she died.
– Their dad tried to find out what happened to his mother. She was four when the Gestapo arrested her. Unfortunately, he did not manage to know the details of her death, and died in 2004. Now his daughters have become acquainted with these circumstances, a bit with our hands – adds Jankowski.
Why were the Germans still killing Poles at the end of January 1945? As historians explain, according to the instruction of Wilhelm Koppe, the higher SS and police commander in the General Government, issued on July 20, 1944, prisoners in German prisons, which could be occupied by the approaching Soviet troops, were to be evacuated or liquidated.
– The bodies of those who were executed were burned by Koppe, it was also allowed to blow up entire prison buildings along with the detainees. In his instruction, Koppe noted that prisoners cannot be liberated. According to the historian, Professor Czesław Madajczyk, similar instructions were also issued for the remaining occupied Polish territories and the prisons there. According to the professor, in 1945 “about 1.5 thousand prisoners from the liquidated camps were murdered in the forest near Chojnice” – writes the researcher in one of the scientific publications
The Institute of National Remembrance asks for contact from people whose relatives may have died in the Valley of Death
The exhumation activities in the Death Valley are expected to last until the end of July 2021.
The Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk calls for contact to people whose relatives may have died in Chojnice and in the Chojnice poviat by the Germans.
The Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk asks 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, Branch in Gdańsk, in order to report on the history of their relatives and, if necessary, to make genetic material available for identification tests. Contact: Institute of National Remembrance, Gdańsk Branch, al. Grunwaldzka 216, 80-266 Gdańsk, phone no. 58 660 67 30.
The exhumation work in the Death Valley under the supervision of Dr. Kobiałka is carried out by a team of scientists 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 and the University of Łódź. They are supervised by the investigative department of the Institute of National Remembrance in Gdańsk. Parallel to them, ethnographic research is being carried out among the local community in order to gather the opinions of residents on the ways of commemorating the exhumed human remains and possible memories of the crimes of the end of 1945 in the Valley of Death.
The project was co-financed by the Minister of Culture, National Heritage and Sport from the Culture Promotion Fund and the Chojnice City Hall.
Main photo source: Death Valley Archeology