Case Studies

Searching for burial places of communist crimes’ victims: the case of Captain Stanisław Sojczyński

Olgierd Ławrynowicz, University of Lodz, Institute of Archaeology, 04. December 2019

The search for the burial sites of the victims of communist crimes with the use of archaeological methods dates back to the beginning of 1990s. Examination of mass graves of Polish officers shot on the territory of the Soviet Union in 1940 started in Mednoye near Tver and in Katyn near Smolensk in Russia as well as in Piatykhatky near Kharkiv and in Bykovnia near Kiev in Ukraine. The methods of archaeological research, applied by prominent Polish research scientists Andrzej Nadolski, Marian Głosek and Andrzej Kola, were so successful that archaeologists ever since have nearly always taken part in Polish search for war and post-war crime victims. 

Olgierd Ławrynowicz. Picture: University of Lodz, Institute of Archaeology.

For the last 10 years, the search for the burial sites of victims of communist crimes in Poland has focused on finding and exhuming people who lost their lives as a result of Soviet and later Polish communist systems’ repressions in the years 1944–1956. The victims were often soldiers, heroes of the fight against the Germans in World War II. After the war, many of them did not accept the new political system and continued to operate in underground military organisations.

One of the best known heroes was Captain Stanisław Sojczyński. During the war he commanded a unit of the Polish underground Home Army (AK) and made a name for himself after rescuing prisoners from the Gestapo detention ward in Radomsko. After the Red Army entered western Poland in winter 1945, he decided to continue the resistance, this time against a new invader and the newly established communist authorities. He founded the Underground Polish Army (KWP), one of the biggest post-war underground military organisations. During one mission he released 57 prisoners from the headquarters of the Department of Public Safety in Radomsko.

16 soldiers of security forces were killed, including a few important officers. In June 1946 Stanisław Sojczyński was arrested and in December, during a show trial in Łódź, he was sentenced to death. The execution was carried out on 19th February 1947, three days before an amnesty was declared which would have saved Sojczyński’s life. On that day 5 members of his staff were executed as well. The bodies were not given to the families and the place of burial was kept in secrecy.

It became possible to raise the issue of commemorating Stanisław Sojczyński and his companions after the changes of 1989. On the request of veterans’ organisations an investigation was started with the aim of punishing those responsible, determining the circumstances of his death as well as the burial site of the bodies.

In 1993, prosecutor Henryk Szwed, who assisted in the execution of Stanisław Sojczyński, was interrogated. A site inspection at the military firing ground in Brus in Łódź was organised, during which Henryk Szwed indicated the alleged place of shooting and burial of Sojczyński and his companions. The indicated place was in front of a small handgun range. In 1994, first searches within this area were carried out, with simple survey excavations. Marian Głosek participated in the works as a consultant and he suggested the use of a geological drill. Even though the exploration did not bring any positive results, the idea of using a geological drill proved successful during the works taken up by Marian Głosek in the same year in the Katyn Forest.  More complex works concerning other hypotheses near a large firing range were carried out in 1997, supervised by Marian Głosek. They also failed to find the burial place.

It was 11 years later, in 2008, when the military firing ground was bought from the Polish Army by Łódź authorities and a large-scale investigation started. Again, these works were managed by Marian Głosek with the participation of the academics and students of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Łódź. The objective was to finally confirm or exclude that location as the burial place of Captain Sojczyński. For this purpose, a layer of earth was removed with a bulldozer from an area of 7,000 m2.

No relics that could be connected with the place of execution or burial were found. Thus it was concluded that the testimony of prosecutor Szwed was false. Interestingly, in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance there is a note made by a Polish Army officer dated from 1994, informing that the small handgun range was only constructed in 1965, almost 20 years after the execution of Captain Sojczyński and his companions. Two years ago we obtained an aerial photo of the military firing ground from 1949, which shows that the discussed firing range is not there. It seems that the search of burial places in this area was a wrong track.

Some people are of the opinion that the goal of the prosecutor Szwed was not to betray his work-related secrets until death, like many other functionaries of the communist regime.

Another clue for the archaeological team in 2008 was the area behind the bullet catcher of the firing range. In 1965, a burial place of 41 people shot by the Germans at the beginning of World War II was discovered. It was puzzling as to why in the 1960s, upon discovery of such a vast mass burial place containing numerous personal objects, including documents, research works were not continued. One could expect that other similar graves could be discovered there. It seemed highly probable that excavation works were stopped by the order of the Security Service, which was afraid of burial places of post-war communist crimes’ victims being found.

During excavations in 2008 within this area, Marian Głosek’s team found another victims’ burial place – Łódź civilians, representatives of the educated class, mostly killed in November 1939 with a close-distance shot to the back of the head. In the following years, 5 similar graves were discovered. All of them were more than 2 m deep. They contained the remains of about 20-40 men. Numerous personal objects were found in the graves, the remains of good quality clothes and shoes.

A totally different burial site was discovered nearby in 2009, containing just 4 skeletons of men aged from 20 to 50. The human remains, practically deprived of any personal objects, were buried in quite a shallow grave, 1 m under ground level. All the victims were killed with a close-distance shot to the back of the head, similarly to the mass graves from the time of German occupation. However, this technique of mass murder was common for both Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian states. The way the skeletons were arranged suggests that the men were already dead when thrown or dragged to the pit.

When trying to determine the time of killing of the people from this grave, particular attention should be drawn to the shells and bullets found in the grave, since portable material remains and personal belongings do not allow the specification of the time of death. Numerous bullets and shells were discovered in the grave. The time of burial can only be estimated on the basis of the latest dated relics. Earlier shells or bullets (including German ones) could appear in the area because it was a firing ground before, during and after World War II.  

A large number of 7.62 bullets found directly on or under the skeletons is puzzling. It can be assumed with high probability that these are the bullets of Soviet produced Mosin rifle. Rifles of such type were used by the Army in western Poland only after 1945 and were not used by the Germans. At the same time, directly above the skeletons, a shell (not shot) was found with “IV 710* 45” marking. This is a shell of Soviet production made in 1945 in Podolsk near Moscow. The bullets and the shell indicate that the 4 men were killed after 1945. Also characteristic for the post-war times was bad a condition of teeth and worn-out shoes.

Parallel investigation carried out by prosecutors from the Institute of National Remembrance showed that captain Sojczyński’s group was shot in two rounds. First the commander – Stanisław Sojczyński and his deputy, Sergeant Marian Knop, were shot. Later four other companions followed: Henryk Glapiński, Ksawery Błasiak, Albin Ciesielski and Stanisław Żelanowski. It is very likely that the grave discovered in 2009 contained these people. However, so far it has not been confirmed, despite the genetic tests made. 

On the basis of the witnesses’ memories, other attempts to find Captain Sojczyński’s burial place were made within the military firing ground and its vicinity. However, they were unsuccessful. The research site is extensive and covered with a wild forest that grows thicker in time. Thus the subject of the burial place of Captain Sojczyński in this area has not been dropped yet.  

It cannot be excluded that the grave of captain Sojczyński is located in a totally different place.  In recent years, the employees of the Institute of National Remembrance, under the supervision of Krzysztof Szwagrzyk, have carried out exhumations at the Doły Graveyard in Łódź, where the bodies of people sentenced to death by the military court were brought. The records in the graveyard register of the necropolis contain information about the time and place where the convicts’ bodies were buried. However, these investigations are complicated as the graves of the victims of communist regime are located underneath later graves of civilians from 1960s-1980s. This is the case in other Polish cities as well.

The search for the burial place of Stanisław Sojczyński and his companions continues. The excavation at the Brus military firing ground will probably resume.  Paradoxically, despite the (thus far) futile attempts to find these graves, the Polish hero who resisted two totalitarian regimes is still remembered and commemorated.  

At the same time, new concepts of a more holistic research appear. They refer to places connected to the tragic fate of the victims of Nazi and communist repression. One of such places is the headquarters of the Secret Political Police on Anstadta Avenue in Łódź, where Captain Sojczyński and his companions were interrogated and imprisoned.

In 2019, thanks to the cooperation between the Lodz Special Economic Zone, the University of Lodz and the Institute of National Remembrance, an interdisciplinary research of the place was carried out with the participation of historians, archaeologists, ethnologists and architectural historians. The objective was to discover and describe the history of the headquarters of the communist security services, which was situated in the building from 1945–1956. Before the war, the building housed a Jewish school and during the war, a Gestapo headquarters. Under the German occupation, a restricted zone was created, blocking both street entries. The headquarters was located in a former school building. In addition to offices, a remand prison was established in the basement. In the neighbouring buildings flats for secret police officers were arranged.

A day after Łódź was captured by the Red Army, i.e. on 20th January 1945, Colonel Mieczysław Moczar with 94 officers of the Secret Political Police from Białystok arrived in the city. They established the headquarters of the District Public Political Service in Łódź in the building taken over from Gestapo. In the basement, just like during the German occupation, a remand prison was established where anti-communist underground military activists were tortured and murdered.

The neighbouring buildings housed administrative rooms and flats of security officers. On both ends the street was fenced with barriers and patrolled by guards in sentry boxes. A petrol station as well as garages and storage sheds were located at the back of the headquarters. Upon entering the building at 7 Anstadta Avenue, one had to hand their ID documents through a small window in the wall, and if entrance was granted, one could enter through the guardhouse. From this level, through a separate entrance, it was possible to get to the prison cells in the basement. Petitioners only had access to the ground floor, because the first floor was separated by the railing and another guard post. Only security officers had access to the rooms on the first and second floor.

After the political thaw and reorganisation of security services, the main building on Anstadta Avenue was turned back into a school in 1959. Until today the building and its surroundings conceal traces of crimes and probably also remains of the victims of both totalitarianisms.

As part of the project, historians from the Institute of National Remembrance made a search in the archives. They also conducted in-depth ethnographic interviews with the living witnesses of the events in the years 1939-1959 and with people whose biography and (also contemporary) experience is connected with the research place – the former Gestapo headquarters and the communist security office. In the conducted ethnographic interviews the researchers from the University of Łódź referred to the memories and recollections. The collected witnesses’ accounts referred to their individual experience as well as the memories of their family; they made it possible to reconstruct the history of the place in the aspects that historic publications sometimes fail – in the biographical, personal, and emotional context.  

Archaeological research carried out by the Łódź University researchers brought to light a lot of new information. Their goal was to identify fixed relics and discover potential burial sites of Nazi and Stalinist crimes’ victims. The research consisted of drawing up an inventory of the preserved buildings, inspecting with geophysical methods and making survey excavations. Using the excavation method, around 10% of the main area of the former Office of Security was researched. Facilities from the time of war were found as well as many objects that, according to the research, were brought here at the time of the Jewish school, the Gestapo headquarters, and the Communist Office of Security.

As a result of the research, 29 utility objects were discovered, including elements of hydrotechnical construction (probably from the time of war) and over 3,000 artefacts as well as over 1,000 animal bone fragments. These historical objects indicate that the researched part of the complex was used for food supply purposes. Interesting truncations were made, which contained parts of files printed paper in German, Polish and Yiddish.

We hope that the analysis of these artefacts, combined with archival analysis and ethnographic research will allow create a more complete image of the past of the place that has a great importance for the residents of Łódź.

The research was accompanied with educational activities, such as workshops for current pupils and exhibitions presenting the results of the research activities, providing information about the German occupation and the Stalinist era in Łódź.

We also hope that projects like this will sooner or later reveal the burial place of Captain  Sojczyński and his companions.

The text is based on the conference paper, presented by the author at the international conference "Necropolis of Communist Terror".

Picture of  Stanisław Sojczyński: Wikipedia