First published on TravelGumbo.com
“To be honest, I no longer try to calculate how things are going to turn out in this war. No one is going to escape unscathed. One must not be miserly with the little life that we have. Those who are anxious and fearful, they will be struck first. But one must not gamble with his life either for he will get what he has earned. That is the lesson of this war.” Reiner, October 31, 1944, front line trenches
Reiner disappeared some time after the Russians attacked his regiment on January 14, 1945. I once believed that he must have died on the battlefield in Lezenice, but Polish villagers found his body about 48 kilometers away in Grabowa. That means Reiner escaped the initial onslaught and moved south, either on foot or in some sort of vehicle. I don’t know which.
In 1997, Polish villagers dug up 157 German soldiers from two mass graves in a Grabowa forest, and they identified Reiner, and only 36 others, by an ID tag. Nobody, however, informed Reiner’s family who had been hoping for news for over fifty years. His mother died believing that the Russians had captured and held her son in a war camp.
Armed with a hand-drawn map to the mass grave, photographer Pawel Wyszomirski and I took off from Warsaw to Grabowa in his little red car.
I chose to go in January because I wanted to see Poland the way Reiner might have seen it before he died——frozen and white. In exchange for this visual poetry, I shivered in the snow every day while Pawel took photographs.(All contemporary photos are by Pawel except the ones I took of him.)
We had no trouble finding the yellow house and the forest on my map. We parked, pulled on boots, tightened our down jackets, and hopped out into ankle-deep snow.
We trudged to the far end of the forest and looked for signs of disturbed land. This idea was absurd, of course, because we couldn’t see the ground. But no matter. We kept looking for a cleared area until an uneasy feeling crept up on me.
I told Pawel that in America trespassers are at risk for meeting the nasty end of a rifle. He laughed at me and said, “In Poland, the weapon would be an ax.” All jokes aside, I was alert and nervous when a black SUV drove along the edge of the forest towards us.
“Do you think they’re coming after us?” I asked Pawel. He shrugged and went back to searching for ground clues. I repeated my question, looked up, and gasped. A man with a rifle stood glaring at us. He barked something, and I tensed every muscle.
“Pawel, do something.”
Pawel has many talents, photography above all. But a close second is greeting people and making them feel at ease. He did some fast-talking with the armed gentleman, and a minute later, the two turned around and walked out of the forest side by side. I followed behind, unsure if we were to be arrested or invited for coffee.
Pawel finally glanced over his shoulder and said, “This guy’s buddy helped dig up the German soldiers. He’ll show us where the grave is.”
I couldn’t believe our luck and thought that Reiner must be leading me on this journey. I still think so. I have encountered far too many “coincidences” not to believe in unseen connections.
We stood in the forest and examined the bent branches that surrounded Reiner’s grave. I still didn’t know how he died, but I was grateful to find and photograph the place where he was found. We came back in the evening, and I carried out a private memorial moment for Reiner.
Two days and two interviews later, I had more clues and just as many questions. One local man recounted a story that he claimed his mother witnessed. I realize the story comes second-hand, but it could be a clue to Reiner’s death. Or not.
The man’s mother had been made to work for the Germans during the war. She says that on or around January 16, 1945, Russian forces captured about 200 German soldiers.
They commanded the unarmed Germans to drop all of their identifying papers on the ground. The woman remembers seeing sheets of paper swirling in the wind. Then the Russians let the German men go free. But minutes later, they chased them toward the forest and fired on the fleeing enemy. Bodies dropped in the field, and a Russian woman shot each German in the head to finish him.
The local Polish villagers were forced to collect the dead Germans and bury them in the forest at the site of a former Austrian graveyard. Then, the Russians marched west toward Germany.
I’d like to have closure on my research and to publish Reiner’s story as a book with a clear ending. But one second-hand account and a dog tag do not answer all my questions.
That’s why I’m back in Poland again this July 2014. And I’m digging in the earth for shrapnel and bones.
(Drawing by Reiner’s father, Alfons)
Stay with me for two more Sunday “Finding Reiner” episodes and the conclusion, if I can call it that, to this WWII mystery.
To see more of Pawel Wyszomirski’s photographic work, click here: http://www.testigo.pl/members/pawel-wyszomirski/
(All photographs are property of the author and cannot be used without permission.)