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Memories in the forest

WWII and archaeology

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A tree with carvings dated to WWII near Chycina, Poland. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
A tree with carvings dated to WWII near Chycina, Poland. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

By Dawid Kobiałka, Kornelia Kajda, and Maksymilian Frąckowiak

It was springtime in 1944. Deep inside a forest in Nazi Germany, a prisoner of war carved his name into the trunk of a tree. His surname was WOLSKI. This was no one-off event: in fact, there are dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of similar carvings with names, surnames, initials and other texts on trees. Who carved them, and what archaeological evidence can they add to our understanding of the Second World War?

The archaeology of the Second World War is a fascinating and fast-growing body of research. Archaeologists explore and document different material aspects of WWII, conducting field surveys and excavations of archaeological sites dated to the period. These include prisoner of war camps, concentration camps, trenches, battlefields, common graves, bunkers, and shelters, to mention but a few.

By collecting 'trivial,' banal, rusted, day-to-day things used by soldiers and prisoners of war, archaeologists are very often able to shed new light on the grand narratives of WWII. These artefacts are material memories of WWII. They offer a glimpse into micro-histories of people, landscapes and things.

However, a lot of things and places related to WWII are still hidden and forgotten in European forests. They includes bomb craters and shell craters, trenches, shelters, bunkers, so-called foxholes, dug-outs and so on. Of all these artifacts, the most overlooked are probably the tree carvings made by prisoners of war and forced labourers.

In 2013, our team of archaeologists found an example of such carvings in the forest around Chycina, a small village located in western Poland (fig. 1, 2). All in all, we discovered at least 55 carvings that can be dated to WWII.

The carvings from Chycina can be considered as the archaeological record that helps us to broaden our knowledge of how people lived and struggled in the recent past.

There is no coincidence in the fact that the beeches with carvings are located exclusively alongside the trenches. Surviving historical data confirms the fact that there were many prisoner of camps close to Chycina where Nazi Germany imprisoned the Allied soldiers.

The prisoners were used as free labour force. People from the same country were generally kept together; Poles were kept in one place; Russians were imprisoned in a designated camp, and so on. However, they may have been brought together to dig the trenches.

We think that the carvings that we discovered and analyzed are the heritage left by some of men who were imprisoned in these camps. Some of them were forced to dig out kilometres of trenches, including those around Chycina. It seems that during short breaks between hard work some of them carved their names on the trees.

At least two things seem to support our interpretation. First, dates like "1944," "24.8.1944" and "26 VIII 1944" relate to the period when Nazi Germany started to strengthen the eastern border from an unavoidable arrival of the Red Army. Part of the plan was digging out hundreds of kilometres of trenches.

Second, carvings written down in Polish, German, the Cyrillic (Russian and Ukrainian) and English seem to suggest a multinational group of people. These different carvings and the trenches should therefore be interpreted in relation to each other.

A map of Poland showing Chiycina
Figure 1. Location of the site.
One of the trees with carvings dated to WWII. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 2. A tree with carvings dated to WWII. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

Lands around Chycina were part of the Festungsfront Oder-Warthe-Bogen during the Second World War, a line of German fortifications that was built to protect the east border of Nazi Germany. Hundreds of kilometres of trenches (fig. 3), among others, were dug up by prisoners of war, forced labourers, and local people.

Remains of a trench near Chycina. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 3. Remains of a trench near Chycina. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

During one of our surveys of the network of trenches from the Second World War near Chycina, we noticed an interesting coincidence. Along one trench there is a line of ten old beeches with carvings dated to the last few years of WWII. We were able to decipher and document carvings that are precisely dated, including: "1944," "24.8.1944" and "26 VIII 1944" (fig. 4).

Tree palimpsest with different carvings. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 4. Tree palimpsest with different carvings. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

There are also carvings with Polish names and surnames, for example: "KOSTKA" or "Kr. Turek." A lot of initials appears on the beeches like: ‘M.W’, ‘B U.’. Due to the carvings, we are able to identify some of the prisoners who were kept in the camps around Chycina. We can remember these people through the carvings they made.

Close to the "B U." carving and the date "1944" is another mark: "ŁÓDŹ." Łódź is the name of a large Polish city (fig. 5). Interestingly, the name of this city is the only one we found on the trees alongside a carving "P[O]LACY," which means Poles. In fact, the memoir of one Polish prisoner of who was kept in a camp close to Chycina indicates that many Poles were taken from Łódź (Chmielewski 2009).

A carving ‘ŁÓDŹ’ with a date "1944." Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 5. A carving ‘ŁÓDŹ’ with a date "1944." Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

We documented words carved in other languages as well. There are carvings written in the Cyrillic, including "XYИ" ("dick") "СТЕПАН" ("Stephen" in English), and "ШИ[…]КНА" (a surname) (fig. 6).

There are also words in German on the beeches. One German carving is most likely a declaration of love. It is made of a heart carved on the bark with an inscription inside that reads "Lude[…]dorf," with two dates: "24.9.1944" and "1944" (fig. 7).

Finally, there is one British name (Simon) (fig. 8). Some of the trees are quite literally palimpsests (text carved over other text) with many carvings (see fig. 6):

  1. Grz. Kli[…]wicz
  2. Kr. Turek
  3. KOSTKA
  4. WOLSKI
  5. Kubiak
  6. M W.
  7. JU
  8. A
  9. 26 VIII 1944
  10. XYИ 194[…]
  11. XYИ […]
  12. Inside the image of heart: 24. 8. 1944. […]oizi[…] Lude[…]dorf Rup[…] 1944
  13. Image of heart pierced by an arrow
Many carvings in many languages. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 6. Many carvings in many languages. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
A declaration of love. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 7. A declaration of love. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
A carving made most probably by a certain Englishman called Simon. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.
Figure 8. A carving made most probably by a certain Englishman called Simon. Photo by Dawid Kobiałka.

Tree carvings from WWII are unique archaeological evidence. There are memories that only the trees hold because there is no historical data concerning who precisely dug out this part of the Festungsfront Oder-Warthe-Bogen or when it was done. It is only because prisoners carved their memories onto the beech trees that were able to decipher the names of some of the workers (e.g., "Kr. Turek") as well the date the work was carried out (August 1944).

This does not alter our grand narrative of WWII, but the carvings are an example of intimate memories of the harsh time of WWII. The carvings from Chycina can be considered as the archaeological record that helps us to broaden our knowledge of how people lived and struggled in the recent past.


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