By Sgt. Christopher CaseSeptember 28, 2018
Few images conjure the vision of evil as old photographs of Nazi troops executing civilians in a secluded forest or concentration camp. For many, those images are reminders of a horrible past that will never fade away. An example of those atrocities are remembered in Barbarka forest in the Barbary sector of Torun, Poland. Annually, a memorial takes place to remember those who were killed and perhaps find some peace while vowing to never again allow such heinous acts as these to occur.
Torun, Poland, September 7, 1939. The armed forces of the German Wermacht entered and began an occupation. To "cleanse" the region of everything Polish and instill an atmosphere of German superiority, an auxiliary force, paramilitary in nature, was organized. This force, comprised of local citizens of Germanic lineage, was tasked with carrying out the job of arresting the upper class citizenry of Torun such as bankers, landowners, priests, educators or any others deemed potential resistors to the occupation.
Those arrested were then taken to Fortress VII, a former Prussian fort in Torun where they faced horrible conditions such as little or no food nor clean water and were forced to sleep in cells with standing water. As the number of prisoners grew, room had to be made to accommodate them. The solution?
On October 28, 1939, mass executions of prisoners began in the forest of Barbarka, about two miles away with groups of prisoners being taken once, sometimes twice a week. After being transported to the forest, they were made to line up facing freshly dug -- using prisoner labor -- mass graves where they were promptly executed with rifle shots to the back of their heads. Those not killed outright, were either bayoneted through the heart or finished off with pistol shots.
Estimates of the number of those killed has varied though it thought to be around 2,000. It has been difficult to ascertain the exactly since there weren't many records found. Additionally, when the Germans received word of Russian advance, many graves were exhumed and the corpses burned in an effort to avoid discovery of there murderous acts. However, one grave was discovered with 87 bodies. It was apparent how they died when one could see holes in skulls or chests. In the end, only 300 names have been identified.
For the past 78 years a ceremony has been held to remember these acts and those have been affected by them. Colonel (retired) Roman Klosinski present for the memorial though not from Torun, stated,
"This was a far reaching tragedy. Everyone knew it was happening but were helpless to react." He was a boy during this time and was later, a Soldier stationed in Torun and is well-acquainted with the event.
This year, the 79th, is a special one as it marks the first time that an American unit was present.
For Klosinski this is seen as absolutely special as well as positive as it shows that the Americans are dedicated to the partnership with their Allies and sharing in their history. Klosinski said,
"It was the Americans who tried the German war criminals and brought justice to many of them and their horrible deeds."
After a history of the site was narrated and translated, wreaths were laid by surviving family members, city dignitaries and Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Dennis and Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathon Ballard, Commander and Command Sgt. Maj. respectively of 1-82 Field Artillery Regiment. For the Soldiers in attendance, it provided an introspective moment.
Sergeant Marquinton Knight, an Alpha Battery cannon crew member, said,
"It's important to remember what's important in your life and not take anything for granted." He continued, "It's important to remember these people's pain and honor their memories."
Specialist Kelsey Wolgamot, also an Alpha Battery cannon crew member, said,
" This memorial remembers a sad event in human history." she added, "It's important to remember how horrible this was and ensure that it never happens again."
This was not the end of 1-82's participation as they also received an invitation to attend the Polish Armed Forces day celebration starting with a Catholic church mass to celebrate an important religious event, Day of Assumption. The standing room only mass offered scripture as well as an opportunity to take communion. After the service concluded, a parade was formed comprised of Polish military, a formation of 1-82 Soldiers led by Captain Matthew Hernandez (HHB), Police, Firefighters, EMT's and dignitaries to include Mayor of Torun, Michal Zaleski and Marshal (think Governor) Piotr Calbecki.
The parade wound it's way through the Torun city center with the destination being the monument of Marshal (General) Jozef Pilsudski who is credited with defeating the Soviet Russian army at the Battle of Warsaw, August 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War.
Soviet forces invaded Poland in the summer causing the army to retreat in disarray. Marshal Pilsudski in command of all Polish forces, rallied them along the Neman river. Using this natural barricade as well as brilliant strategies, defeated the overwhelming numbers of Soviets troops and threw them back east from their jump-off point. This defeat was momentous as Marshal Pilsudski has been credited with stopping the westward spread of communism in Europe.
After speeches, a volley firing by the Polish military and the laying of wreathes, the ceremony concluded. The celebration ended with a walk down to the waterfront where the Vistula river flows free and unabounded. At the waterfront there were many static displays featuring both Polish as well as American equipment. It was an enjoyable experience to see the local citizenry climbing over vehicles
and trying on combat equipment with 1-82 Soldiers providing assistance and answers to the many questions. It seems as if the populace embraces the presence of the US military in its town.
According to Marshal Calbecki, it is absolutely a positive to see the Americans in the area.
"I think that Polish people feel safer having the Ameircans here. They feel friendship and solidarity with the American Soldier." he continued, " If you look back at our recent history, it was a dark time when we didn't feel so independent. We certainly hope you will continue to come here."
Marshal Calbecki says he understands the difficulties facing the Soldier when coming to Poland.
"I realize that it must be difficult to leave one's families and loved ones. But it is my hope that we make everyone feel welcome."
It was a whirlwind two days albeit memorable.
Specialist Sherica Jenkins, an Alpha battery Supply Specialist had this to say.
"It's important to remember these types of events and hopefully some of these awful events in history don't repeat themeslves." she concluded, "It was an honor to participate. This was a great opportunity to experience so many events and learn about our host nation's history."