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Search for the fallen in a now-quiet forest

A volunteer sifts the earth outside Berlin for forgotten soldiers. So far, he's uncovered the remains of 20,000.

May 02, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Hammer, Germany — THE shallow hole widens and a man comes together like a puzzle: hips, fingers, ribs, vertebrae, teeth and crushed skull. A boot surfaces along with a rusted bullet clip. But no dog tags, no wedding ring, nothing to give him a name, so the bones go into a box where they are marked with a number written in white chalk: 1,968.

The one who filled the box is sweaty; his after-shave fades amid the dirt and the dust. His name is Erwin Kowalke. The villagers know him by his determined face and trim graying beard and the way he moves from shovel, spade to hoe. He collects the bones of the fallen from a world war that ended six decades ago, but one that, if you listen, still moans through the forests and across the marshes.

"I once dug a whole plane out of a swamp. The pilot was sitting in the cockpit. His leather jacket was pretty well preserved even after all those years, but he was burned," said Kowalke, a volunteer who has excavated the remains of 20,000 people, most of them German and Russian soldiers killed in fighting as Berlin collapsed toward defeat in the final days of April 1945.

The dead are hidden in this loamy earth, but they are his, and with quiet obsession he aims to find them, even if there are 20,000 more scattered beyond the windshield of his white station wagon, which bounces and swerves down forgotten country roads.

"People tell me to just let the bones sleep in the woods," said Kowalke, a member of the German War Graves Assn. who has been searching for skeletons for 43 years. "But I say to them that no matter what this generation did, without them you wouldn't be here.

"In these bones you see what war is like. I know war now. I'll tell you what it is. War is young men killing other young men they do not know on the orders of old men who know one another too well."

And so he digs, this compact 65-year-old man with a briefcase holding ledgers of the dead and an amber-tinted photograph of his father, a German soldier killed somewhere in France. What a boy didn't have he invents; the bones Kowalke collects honor his father and those days in 1944 when the man returned briefly from the front to visit his 3-year-old son. It was the last time they saw each other.

"He was tall," said Kowalke, "I still remember my small arms around his black boots. He arrived home on June 3 and three days later it was D-day in Normandy and they called him back."

KOWALKE grew into a fidgety man with two daughters and five grandsons; his wife, Gisela, calls him a "restless pensioner." His coveralls are neat and pressed and his boots, like those he recalls on his father, are shiny, as if each new day, despite the grime to come, must be faced with a meticulous spirit. When he brushes the dirt from a bone, he speaks of where joints and cartilage connect, and then his eyes, pale blue and flecked with brown, scan the parts of a man he never knew for clues to who he was.

He conjures old battles as if they've happened just last week, of how the Germans moved and how the Russians countered; for him history lies about 36 inches beneath the ground, the depth where he finds most of his bones.

The land he scours these days rolls out from the soldiers' cemetery in the town of Halbe toward the Polish border, about 30 miles south of Berlin. In this terrain thick with pine and broken by lakes and creeks, two Russian divisions closed in like pincers on the trapped 9th German Army. Tens of thousands died and the bodies of infantrymen were stacked along roadsides shadowed by starving dogs and storms of swirling flies.

Many were burned. Some were pushed into bomb craters, others were flung into rough graves dug by men in a hurry. The dead were lost, except their bones. Kowalke gathers them in black cardboard boxes the size and shape of an infant's coffin that he delivers to the cemetery. The earth claims much after 60 years, and if there are no identifying signs tangled amid the ribs, the bones are reburied, sometimes in a small ceremony, and given a marble marker that says: Unknown.

That mystery bothers Kowalke. Unknown. He hates the sound. But names often do survive, on zinc and aluminum dog tags, strangely preserved papers, trinkets zipped into shaving kits and in letters scratched on helmets.

"We identified one soldier awhile back. His 92-year-old widow from Berlin came to the cemetery in Halbe," Kowalke said. "When I saw that old woman in a wheelchair holding the box of bones that were her husband and saying, 'Oh, Werner, I know where you are. Now, I can have peace,' I knew that what I do matters."

He seems to understand that a man often finds his calling by chance. After the war ended, his mother married a farmer; Kowalke grew up in the fields, apprenticed as a carpenter and later worked as a machinist for irrigation equipment.

He knew the land, from the winter fields to the river grass. He unearthed his first German soldier in 1963, when his wife's father, who had asthma, asked him to help with some digging.

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