“It’s time for these soldiers to rest in peace, with dignity. And for their relatives to have a place to pray,” said Jerzy Romel, a Pole who has put aside the deep-rooted hatred stemming from Nazi Germany’s World War II occupation.
Along with fellow volunteers who have answered the call of the Pamiec (Memory) foundation, he is trying to locate, identify and rebury some of the hundreds of thousands of German troops who died in Poland.
At the site, the diggers were carefully lifting the bones by hand, placing them on stretchers and then wrapping them in blue plastic bags.
Poles have never forgotten the brutality of World War II.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and carved up Poland in 1939.
On the German side of the line, around six million people were killed, half of them Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
In 1941, Germany turned on its erstwhile ally, and fought its way deep into the Soviet Union.
But by the summer of 1944, Soviet forces were rolling back the Nazis in Poland and driving towards Berlin, whose defenders surrendered in May 1945.
Sixty-three years after the end of the war, at least 1.2 million German soldiers and civilians are still unaccounted for.
Efforts to resolve their fate were hampered by the tense post-war relations between West Germany and the Soviet-led communist bloc, of which Poland was a part.
But the fall of the region’s regimes in 1989-1991 opened the way for the restoration of official German cemeteries and a renewed drive to locate long-lost battlefield burials.
Three million German soldiers died in eastern Europe, 500,000 of them in Poland, and many lay forgotten for decades.
“Since 1990, Pamiec has exhumed and reburied the remains of more than 160,000 German soldiers from World War II,” said the foundation’s head Iza Gruszka.
Excavation director Maciej Milak said his team had expected to find just 270 bodies at Hel, but that the total was closer to 1,000, making it one of the largest burial grounds discovered in recent years.
“Lots of the soldiers had fractured or even amputated legs. They were probably mutilated by Soviet shelling,” he said.
“We think there’s another mass grave at Hel, somewhere under the dunes,” he added.
Tomasz Loz, a history student from nearby Gdynia, was carefully combing the site with a metal detector. “It’s crucial to find dog-tags with the soldier’s identification number,” he said.
Suddenly his detector began to beep, and he carefully dug into the sand, producing a dog-tag from among the bones.
“Number 2000. A round number!” Loz exclaimed, before decoding the details struck in the metal. “He served in the 34th infantry company. Blood group A. This man must have died at the hospital around 200 metres (yards) from here, because he was buried in just his socks.”
The body will be reburied in a few months at Glinna, near Szczecin in northwest Poland, the location of one of 13 German military cemeteries under the care of Pamiec.
All the personal items found at the site, ranging from the dog-tags to wedding rings, penknives and watches, will be sent to Kassel in central Germany, home of the Volksbund, or German war graves commission.
The ultimate goal is to identify the soldiers, track down their relatives and hand over the items. Pamiec’s task is tough because the touristy Hel peninsula has long been a magnet for misguided history buffs as well as treasure hunters looking for lost valuables.
Many dog-tags have disappeared into the hands of collectors or simply been thrown away.
“We know that the soldiers died between March and May 1945. The last one died on May 9. They must have been buried in a hurry because the graves aren’t deep,” said Milak.
In the final months of the war, between 150,000 and 300,000 German soldiers and civilians were crammed onto the peninsula.
Thousands of them died in vain attempts to escape by sea, notably on the Wilhelm Gustloff, a converted cruise ship which was sunk by a Soviet submarine on January 30, 1945.
Hel was only taken by the Soviet army on May 9, a day after Germany’s official surrender.