Piaski: Mass Graves

Witness testimonies and archaeological evidence demonstrate how cultural genocide turned to mass killings in Piaski's new Jewish cemetery.

Authored by Caroline Sturdy Colls

Piaski ghettos housed c.6500 people by mid-1942

Jews from all over Europe were sent to Piaski – a small town 26km from Lublin in Poland – when two ghettos were established in 1940 and 1941 (for its location, see map at bottom of the page).

Following the desecration of the town’s new Jewish cemetery, the Nazis used this place as a shooting and mass burial site for c. 1000 Jews from Germany and other countries.

Map showing the location of the new Jewish cemetery in Piaski (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

In November 1942, the Nazis forced local firefighters to dig three ditches in the cemetery.

The Jews destined for execution were then killed next to the ditches and buried in them.  The deceased included men, women and children.

"They chased and beat them. And when she went with child, they shoot it, and this mother carried the corpse. And there everyone undressed to underwear, there was a plank. They stood on the plank. There was a mother with a girl on this plank, and this girl went with a doll. She did not know where she was going. But the mother knew. She fell to this pit and this Rudolf Abel, he was a terrible gendarme, stood near this pit and shot a machine gun. And she fell and pulled the child with her, because this child was holding her hand. And then he finished off. "

Witness Marianna Krasnodębska (2007)

The locations of the mass graves have been confirmed

By comparing historical sources and archaeological evidence, it was possible to identify and document the mass graves within the cemetery.

LiDAR data was freely available. It provided a digital terrain model of the site and allowed the dense vegetation to be digitally removed to examine the ground surface beneath.

LiDAR images of the cemetery showed two clear features with mounds and depressions, recorded as areas A and B in the image below.

A LiDAR image of the new Jewish cemetery. Yellow arrows indicate the current cemetery boundary, the red arrow indicates feature A and the blue arrow indicates feature B. (© GeoPortal and Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Human bones and fragments of shoes were found scattered on the ground above and in the vicinity of these features, likely following looting activity.

Modern aerial image showing mounds (red) and depressions (blue) mapped during walkover survey, overlaid with the plot of the bones (black dots) and shoes (red dots) discovered on the surface (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

One of many shoe fragments found alongside human remains in Piaski new Jewish cemetery (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

This information, together with witness testimonies, identified these locations as targets for further archaeological investigation and GPR was used in both areas.

The GPR data showed that both areas A and B contained anomalies consistent with pits.

Two features were found in Area A, one of which was square in plan. A U-shaped feature was recorded in Area B, consistent with witness testimonies. All of these features matched the locations of the surface features described above.

GPR results for Area A illustrated as timeslices (birds-eye views) showing the data from various depths (0.4m, 0.81m, 1.28m and 2.25m) and a location plan for the data overlaid onto a modern aerial image. (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University and Google Earth)

The GPR survey results for Area B. A GPR survey line (cross-section profile) from Area B (top left) and interpretation (bottom left); a timeslice (birds eye view) of the results from a depth of 0.48m (top right) and a location plan (bottom right) (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

It is possible that there are also individual burials in both areas, but tree roots, animal burrows and subsequent looting activity makes it difficult to confirm this.

Appropriate commemoration of the graves is paramount

The bones and shoe fragments found on the ground surface in the cemetery were collected and reburied in the cemetery with supervision from the Rabbinical Commission.

The areas containing these graves, as well as the whole cemetery in Piaski, requires greater protection to adequately protect them against further disturbance and acknowledge their significance as sites of cultural and physical genocide.

The map below shows the location of the cemetery (marked: Cmentarz Zydowski)

Piaski - Vandalism, misuse and neglect in the present

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Download the full archaeological report for more details about our work in Piaski's Jewish cemeteries and references

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