MALBORK, Poland — The damp mud falls away easily from the long thighbone jutting out of the dirt wall of the trench at the gentle prod of the shovel’s tip. Beyond the mass grave filled with the skeletal remains of some 2,000 people, presumed to be Germans who died in the closing months of World War II, stands the red-brick fortress of the Teutonic Knights that was once one of Germany’s greatest landmarks until it was forced to cede the territory to Poland after the war.
Until then, Malbork was the German town of Marienburg, and the authorities believe the dead men, women and children buried together here were inhabitants of the city, along with refugees from places farther east, such as Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, fleeing the devastating Soviet counterattack that would eventually capture Berlin. Several dozen of the skulls have bullet holes, which prompted speculation of a massacre when the first bodies were found last October, whereas now the talk centers on cold, hunger and most of all typhus, which was rampant at the time.
Europe has more than its share of mass graves, a reflection of the extraordinary scale of violence of the previous century. But throughout the Continent the public is far more used to Germans as perpetrators rather than victims, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Germany itself.
Yet there are signs in the former German territories such as Malbork that an understanding of the human suffering, in particular of civilians, is beginning to gain traction, balancing slightly the long-held grudge of collective guilt toward the German aggressors who began the war.
“We cannot be indifferent to what has happened here,” said Radoslaw Gajc, 30, a native of Malbork and a city worker who right now is assigned to removing the bodies. “It’s clearly very important, and we approach it with great seriousness and respect,” he said, adding that he had lately been studying up on the end stages of the war.
“It’s something that has really led to a lot of interest in the Polish public, and even a lot of compassion for the people who died,” said Fritz Kirchmeier, spokesman for the German War Graves Commission, who traveled with a colleague to Malbork to discuss with city officials on Thursday plans either to move the bodies to an existing graveyard or to build a resting place in town. The German war graves authority in November began to bury German soldiers killed in World War II in a graveyard in the town of Cheb in the Czech Republic.
Mr. Kirchmeier, who has spent 16 years with the group, which tends to the final resting places of some two million war dead in more than 800 cemeteries, calls the local sympathy a new phenomenon. “For us, that’s a development that we greet positively, and one that still would not have been possible even 10 years ago,” he said.
That is not to say that the question of German suffering does not remain a politically delicate one. The German and Polish governments are once again engaged in a high-profile dispute over plans for a permanent exhibition on the fate of the Germans who were expelled from their homes. The row is deemed important enough that a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said the German leader would probably discuss the matter with Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland when they meet in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday.
After World War II more than 12 million ethnic Germans, and by some estimates up to 16.5 million, were uprooted across central and Eastern Europe, and more than 2 million are believed to have died or been killed in the often violent process. The mass grave here was dutifully reported in the German news media, but in the usual muted fashion, because discussions of German suffering provoke strong responses among the victims of Hitler’s aggression and smack of revanchism to a public sensitive to the complex web of memory and guilt.
“It all hangs on this notion of universal guilt, that Hitler’s atrocities were so great that nothing could be said in defense of the Germans,” said Giles MacDonogh, a British historian and author of the 2007 book “After the Reich,” which detailed the suffering of the German population during the postwar occupation by the allies. “There is still this definite feeling that it is not intellectually respectable, not socially respectable to dwell on these matters.”
The mass grave in Malbork came to light purely by accident, as construction crews were preparing the site for a planned luxury hotel. The construction is part of a larger plan to redevelop the area, including building a new modern fountain, complete with music and lights, that has workers tearing up the streets downtown just a stone’s throw from the grave.
Indeed, the bodies were not hidden in a forest or farmer’s field far outside of town, but right there in the historic center, directly in front of one of the largest tourist attractions in Poland. At first, workers found only about 70 skeletons, which were then interred in a local cemetery. Then a rainstorm washed away more of the soil, revealing several additional bones, including another skull. A systematic search for remains began, and as of this week just over 1,900 had been found.
Because the dead were buried naked — with two small pairs of eyeglasses the only personal effects found among all the bodies in the grave — it is unlikely that the exact identities of the victims will ever be known. But the local archaeologist in charge of the site, Zbigniew Sawicki, said in an interview that they were all but certain that the bodies were those of Germans.
Most of the victims appear to be civilians, not soldiers, he said, and there were very few Poles living in the area during the war; they came after, mostly looking for new homes because they had been forced out of territories in what was eastern Poland before the war and is now western Ukraine. “The people here have the same history, the same experience of displacement, being forced from their homeland,” said Piotr Szwedowski, a town official.
Sitting in a car, windshield wipers clearing the mix of snow and rain pelting the grave site, Mr. Szwedowski, 43, who has a German grandmother, said there was one thing he always tried to remind himself.
“We forget that behind every one of them stood a person,” he said, “a person with a body and soul.”
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