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.
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the work went on quietly; the Soviet-backed leaders of East Germany didn’t much care whether Hitler’s army received a proper resting place. German fascist aggression killed millions of Russians and instigated the Holocaust -- why, the thinking went, should the German army be granted even a semblance of respect?
“I excavate Russian soldiers too,” Kowalke said. “Some Germans get mad at me for that. They say, ‘How can you do it? Look what the Russians did to us.’ But I tell them, ‘Don’t forget history. It was the Germans who marched into Poland and started all this.’
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re Russian or German to me. The dead deserve a bit of honor. They were mostly all young, you know. I can tell how old they were when I hold their bones. Bones have a different feel at different ages.”
Kowalke is, perhaps, the most frequent visitor to the cemetery. He knows it well, remembers how it flowed from a church graveyard and spread through the forest, taking shape the way a knitted shawl grows from a bag of yarn. He looked toward the tree line; beyond, cars raced north and south on the autobahn, their sounds a soft, distant thrum in a cemetery where rows read like this: Gottfried Puchinger, 5/7/1920 to April 1945. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown. Helmut Kruse 5/29/1916 to April 1945.
“I don’t judge the dead,” Kowalke said, “but God knows them all.”
HE has delved all over the east German map, but he has also turned soil from Romania to the Balkans, and is mystified by the breadth of a war that scattered German bones, and those of millions of others, across countries and continents. Collecting them all may never happen. Kowalke works with 20 or so other volunteer diggers, but the war veterans are dying out and the desire to remember, long a sensitive topic in Germany, has faded with younger generations.
On a clear morning not long ago, Kowalke left the cemetery to dig a shallow hole in a stand of pine at the rim of a farm field. He had gotten a call from the guys with metal detectors who hunt for munitions and bombs. The woods are full of unexploded things -- bullets, grenades and tank shells. But there was something else out there, a faint ping as if from a belt buckle or a button. Kowalke arrived in his car and the guys nodded; he is like them, a scavenger of sorts.
They pointed. Kowalke worked his spade, slicing it easily into soil marbled with sand and clayish dirt. He broke shallow roots, breathing through his nose, finding a rhythm, muscles hardening beneath his zip-up fading green coveralls. Scrape, scrape, plunk.
“A bone,” he said.
He pulled up a dark clump, a boot, German by make he could tell because of the nail studs in the heel. He lifted more, a shin bone. He brushed the dirt from it, put it into the box. He took his shovel, but went slower; the strange, dark harvest came.
“I’d say he was between 30 to 35 years old. No doubt he was a German,” said Kowalke, holding the jawbone and examining the teeth. “Russians didn’t have these kinds of fillings. Given his age, you have to assume he was married and probably had children. They probably never knew where he ended up.”
More digging. An ammunition clip, then another. And then a crushed skull, breaking apart in Kowalke’s hands. He took a hoe, raked the dirt for small bits.
“I can’t think about who he was or might have been,” he said. “It’s better not to speculate, but concentrate on details.”
His hands work the soil, his fingers like rippling sieves. But nothing, nothing he had hoped for; no dog tags, no ring, no rifle, no wisp of identity. Kowalke piled the bones into the box and carried it to his car. He measured arm and leg bones and determined that “this man was 1 meter 68 centimeters tall. All of him fits in a small box.”
He opened his briefcase, pushed aside the picture of his father and filled out the death ledger. By the space for a name he wrote 1,968. He stapled the lid on and slid the box into his car. He rubbed the dirt from his hands and drove toward the cemetery, and another marble marker chiseled with the word: Unknown.