Mass graves of Soviet POWs in the Bergen-Belsen POW cemetery, 2008. Bergen-Belsen Memorial (Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation)
The Bergen-Belsen POW Cemetery (Hörsten Cemetery)
Victims of the Bergen-Belsen POW camp are buried in a cemetery around 600 metres from the site of the former camp. Between 1941 and 1945, at least 19,580 Soviet POWS were buried there, mostly in mass graves. The majority of these prisoners died of starvation and disease in the winter of 1941/42. Additionally, 142 Italian military internees and nine Polish POWs are buried in individual graves in this cemetery.
The Soviet military mission had the cemetery redesigned in 1945. Its central element was an elaborate entrance consisting of a gate and a monument. Ukrainian sculptor Mykola Mukhin created the “Grieving Woman” relief sculpture for the monument, which was dedicated in November 1945. The section of the cemetery with the graves of the Italian military internees was redesigned in the early 1950s, when a stone monument was added. In 1958, the bodies of the Italian victims were reinterred at the Hamburg-Öjendorf Cemetery.
The cemetery’s current appearance is largely the result of the redesign measures implemented by the Lüneburg district government in consultation with the German War Graves Commission between 1964 and 1968. During this period, a new entrance was built, low mounds were created over the graves to give them all a similar appearance and new paths were laid through the cemetery, some of which crossed the graves themselves. A new monument was erected in the centre of the memorial park, and the Soviet monument was moved to a remote area on the edge of the cemetery. In 1980, unknown vandals destroyed the “Grieving Woman” relief sculpture. The Soviet monument was subsequently restored and erected in its current location with a replica of the sculpture. The reassembled original sculpture is now on display in the permanent exhibition of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial.
The Oerbke POW Cemetery
The cemetery for the victims of the Fallingbostel and Oerbke POW camps lies at the western edge of the Bergen military training area. This cemetery contains mass graves holding at least 14,000 Soviet POWS as well as individual graves for 232 soldiers from other countries, all of whom died in the two camps between 1940 and 1945.
The Soviet military mission had the 1.5-hectare cemetery landscaped in 1945. Ukrainian sculptor Mykola Mukhin created a marble relief sculpture for the central monument in this memorial park, as he did for the Bergen-Belsen POW cemetery. This monument was officially unveiled in July 1945.
Between 1962 and 1965, the Lüneburg district government redesigned the cemetery in consultation with the German War Graves Commission. The Soviet monument was removed in 1964 and replaced with a monument by the artist Klaus Seelenmeyer from Celle. The graves were levelled and covered with turf, and gravestones were put up for the victims whose names could be established. Additional monuments were added in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including a sandstone Russian Orthodox cross and Polish and French memorial stones. There are currently over 100 gravestones in the cemetery bearing the names of more than 900 French, Yugoslavian, Polish, Belgian and Soviet victims.
The Wietzendorf POW Cemetery
At the southern edge of the Munster military training area is the cemetery where 16,000 Soviet victims of the Wietzendorf POW camp were buried between 1941 and 1943. During the mass deaths in the winter of 1941/42 alone, around 14,500 Red Army soldiers died of starvation and disease in Wietzendorf.
By September 1945, the 2.4-hectare cemetery had fallen into neglect. The mass graves had caved in, and much of the cemetery was overgrown with heather. The Soviet military mission ordered the cemetery to be redesigned, and a new Soviet monument was unveiled there in December 1945.
Because the cemetery was located in a restricted military area that was not easy to access, it was eventually forgotten again. But following protests from foreign visitors and local residents, the Lüneburg district government had the grounds re-landscaped in 1968. The entire area is now covered by a lawn, meaning that the individual graves can no longer be discerned. In 1990, international youth groups helped build a second entrance and new access route to the cemetery so that visitors can reach it without entering the military training area.