German war-dead find final resting place in Czech soil
The place is the town of Cheb, known in German as Eger, in the Sudetenland region near the Bavarian border. The new war cemetery, the largest and last burial site for German war dead on Czech territory, will be officially opened on September 11, some 65 years after the war.
Hundreds of plain granite crosses mark the graves. The people buried in them include 473 civilians who died either in internment camps or during the expulsion of ethnic Germans after the war.
The term Sudetenland refers to the regions of modern-day Czech republic that had been populated since the middle ages by ethnic Germans. On this pretext, German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler occupied the Sudetenland in 1938 in the run-up to World War II.
Under the Nazis, hundreds of thousands of Czech Jews were transported to concentration camps, and socialists, communists and other parts of the Czech population were persecuted.
Before interment in Cheb, the remains of thousands of the dead were stored in cardboard boxes in a bunker near the city of Pribram, in the Czech Republic's northern Bohemia region.
Inscriptions on the crosses speak for themselves: Paula Grimm, died 1946 aged 63. Elsa Dietz, died 1946 aged 16.
The reinterment in Cheb of victims like these has opened old wounds in the Czech Republic and is regarded by many as a silent indictment of wrong done to innocents, an issue the Czechs have often chosen to suppress.
Although Germany has thus far been unable to reach formal agreement on war graves with the Czech government, 11 burial grounds like the one in Cheb have been established since 1991.
The National Association for the Care of German War Graves, a humanitarian organization tasked with registering and caring for the graves of German war dead abroad, sees this as a sign of goodwill.
The mediators for the German war cemetery in Cheb, which covers 1.5 hectares, were Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and his former German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It initially sparked controversy but has now been accepted.
"The critics fell silent when the first coffins were interred," remarked Cheb deputy mayor Michal Pospisil, who said he viewed the burial site as both a memorial and a sign of reconciliation. "Actions like this jettison ballast from World War II."
The project has also benefited the adjoining municipal cemetery. The German war graves association provided 900,000 euros (1.14 million dollars) for renovations that included restoring tombstones of the town's ethnic German residents.
Only about half of the war dead buried in Cheb are known by name. One is Svatopluk Innemann, a pioneering Czech silent film director accused of having collaborated with the Germans. He was reinterred in Cheb in November 2008.
Another is legal historian Otto Peterka, onetime rector of Prague's Karl-Ferdinand University, the city's German university.
Wehrmacht soldiers can generally be identified by their military identification tags.
For relatives, the cemetery brings closure after decades of emotional distress.
"It's very comforting to know where my father has his last resting place," said Siegfried Wiedemann, a 68-year-old Bavarian with no memory of Urban Wiedemann, who had been listed as missing in action since the last days of the war.
Finally, in 2007, the son learned that his father had not been taken prisoner by the Soviets as assumed, but had died on April 8, 1945, in a military hospital near Prague. Now he lies in Cheb, just a few hundred kilometres away.
"I'd like to visit him there every year for as long as I can," the son said.
Both the German war graves association and Cheb officials want the war cemetery to be more than merely a memorial site for the 1,100 known relatives of the deceased. They also envision it as a meeting place for German and Czech youth groups.
The association's president, Reinhard Fuehrer, sees signs of further German-Czech rapprochement on the political horizon.
"We expect the new government in Prague to accommodate us because we need legal guidelines to recover Germans killed during the expulsion," he said.
The remains of at least 1,500 ethnic Germans killed during postwar expulsions on Czech territory have yet to be found. For them, Fuehrer said, there is space in the war cemetery in Cheb.
Skeletons exhumed near the Czech village of Dobronin recently could be those of 15 murdered ethnic Germans. Several men are said to have forced them to dig their own graves in May 1945 before either shooting or beating them to death. Czech police hope to determine the identities of the dead with the help of DNA analysis.
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