Genetic testing has revealed the identities of five Polish soldiers who died defending the Westerplatte peninsula in what is now the Polish city of Gdańsk on the first day of the Second World War.
The soldiers were killed in a bombing on 1 September 1939, during the start of the German invasion. The remains were unearthed in archaeological work last year, and their identities – including names and ranks – announced today, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the war.
— portal tvp.info 🇵🇱 (@tvp_info) September 1, 2020
At the start of the war, Polish forces held out for seven days in the defence of Westerplatte, which was then part of the Free City of Danzig. After German victory in the battle, the bodies of most Polish soldiers where reburied in the nearby Zaspa district cemetery.
However, some were left on the peninsula, and remained there due to no archaeological works taking place at the site until 2016. The remains of the five newly identified soldiers were found buried at a depth of just 20-50 centimetres beneath what had been Guardhouse no.5 in the Polish garrison.
A team of scientists at the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin in northwestern Poland used testing to compare the DNA of the dead soldiers to that of suspected living relatives.
As a result, they were able to identify the deceased as Corporal Jan Gębura, Sergeant Adolf Petzelt, Corporal Bronisław Perucki, Senior Rifleman Władysław Okrasa, and Legionary Józef Kita.
They were among nine sets of remains discovered at the site since archaeological work begin. Four are still awaiting identification.
When all nine have been identified, their bodies will be reburied at a cemetery constructed on the peninsula by the Museum of the Second World War, reports TVP Info. The ceremony will likely take place in 2022, according to deputy culture minister Jarosław Sellin.
Speaking at a press conference today, culture minister Piotr Gliński said that “the defenders of Westerplatte, young people who were able to give their lives for the Polish cause”, constitute the “roots of Polishness”. Earlier on Tuesday, Gliński met with the families of the Westerplatte defenders.
The announcement comes on a symbolic day, as Poland commemorates the 81st anniversary of the German invasion that marked the outbreak of the Second World War. President Andrzej Duda also visited Westerplatte, where he handed identification notes to the families of the soldiers.
During his speech, Duda said that those who defended Westerplatte are a “great and wonderful symbol of the heroism of Polish soldiers”, but also act as a “warning to the whole world of what imperialism means”.
The German invasion of Poland “resulted in millions of people dying or being murdered, caused the Holocaust and everything else most tragic during the war”, said Duda, quoted by TVN24.
Poland suffered some of the greatest human and physical losses of the war. Around six million of its citizens died as a result of the conflict – the vast majority of them civilians and around half of them Polish Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
As part of today’s commemorations, the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, visited the western town of Wieluń. It was the site of Luftwaffe bombing on the first day of the war against civilian targets, including a hospital, that left hundreds dead in what is considered the first German Nazi war crime of the conflict.
“Here the Germans’ barbaric plan manifested itself: genocide and extermination,” said Morawiecki this morning, quoted by Polskie Radio. “Today Poland is the guardian of this memory, Poles are the keepers of truth. It was us who stood up for European values.”
The conservative government that Morawiecki leads has, however, itself faced accusations that it is seeking to distort the history of the war, and in particular to emphasise only Polish victimhood and heroism.
In 2017, it ousted and replaced the former director of the World War Two museum in Gdańsk, as part of a takeover of the institution criticised by renowned historians Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder, who were on the museum’s board.
The following year, it sparked a diplomatic crisis with Israel and the United States after passing legislation – widely known in English as the “Holocaust law” – that criminalised false attribution of German Nazi crimes to the Polish nation or state.
Norman Davies:Attempts by the Law&Justice government to hijack the II war museum are Bolshevik in style and paranoid https://t.co/7PjKk6XPeh
— Tomasz Bielecki (@TomaszBielecki) April 24, 2016
Main image credit: Bundesarchiv (under public domain)