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Sun, Oct 02, 2005

Aero-Views: What Happens When Your Airfield Has A History

Workers Find Holocaust Remains At Stuttgart Base

By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

Over many years I occasionally trod the ground at Stuttgart Army Airfield in Stuttgart-Echterdingen, Germany. A macabre discovery at the airfield has unnerved all of us who served there or visited there, however briefly. Workers rebuilding the entrance of the field, as part of an upgrade for new security standards, found a shallow mass grave last Monday, and exhumed human remains Monday and Tuesday.

The 34 bodies found are believed to be slave laborers who were prisoners at the nearby Echterdingen subcamp of Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp. The prisoners at that camp were predominantly Jews, rounded up from across Europe to be worked to death under Naziism's "racial" policies. The camp provided labor details from among its weak, starved, sickly inmates to the airfield -- then, as now, a civil airfield that doubled as a military air base -- from November, 1944, to at least February, 1945.

In early 1945, the airfield was seized by French troops under General Leclerc, and later handed over to Americans as the Western Allies adjusted their occupation sectors.

The German police, the very organization which carried out much of the Holocaust under Nazi command, now responds to a very different (and, thank God, more humane) regime, and immediately opened an investigation into the deaths of these 34 poor wretches. When evidence emerged that at least some of the victims were murdered, and two or three of them actually buried alive, prosecutors designated it a homicide investigation.

Speaking to local press, police spokesman Ulrich Heffner and investigator Norbert Walz described what they have learned so far, and what the investigation is doing.

The investigators face daunting challenges. Most witnesses are long dead, and any that are alive are quite old. Some of those responsible may have faced justice already, and some may have evaded it to the end of their mortal lives.  In addition, the Nazis were fairly effective in destroying evidence of their crimes (effective enough that there's still a gang of die-hard conspiracy buffs who believe the whole Holocaust was a frame-up, despite evidence like this turning up continually.)

The best witnesses may indeed be the remains themselves. The investigators are hopeful that they will be able to get usable DNA sequences, which may lead now or in the future to identifying these remains. While 34 victims are an insignificant microdot against the staggering numbers of 20th Century war, genocide and democide, identifying and properly burying these remains would be a  symbolic victory for civilization. The Nazis wanted these people vanished and forgotten -- it might have taken sixty years, but that evil end is thwarted.

These are not the first mass graves to turn up at the airfield. In October, 1945, 66 bodies were found buried in adjacent woodland, and records indicate that the Nazis cremated at least 19 more. As the Third Reich collapsed, Nazi prisoners were often executed to prevent them from being liberated by advancing Allied armies -- and to seal their lips.

But in this grave, as in the Holocaust itself, most of the dead appear to have died of starvation and disease, particularly typhus, which exploits malnutrition and unsanitary conditions.

Thousands of American soldiers stood unknowingly atop this grave. The military field, adjacent to the city airport, was often used as Exercise Director Headquarters for the annual "Flintlock" special warfare exercise in the 1980s, and was a good place to hitch a helicopter ride somewhere in Germany in those days.

The airfield was built starting in 1936 on a field that was famous locally as the site where Graf von Zeppelin's LZ-4 airship crashed and burned in 1908 (a stately obelisk marks the spot.) On one side, it is Stuttgart's civil airport, and on the other, it's a military field. Even during World War II civil aviation and the military shared the field; night fighters and the Luftwaffe glider-towing school made their home at this field.

During this period, slave labor, among other things, filled bomb craters on what was then a single paved runway and a parallel grass landing field. With most American troops being withdrawn from Europe, the future of the American military presence on the airfield is in some doubt. It will most likely be returned to German authority in the near future. In the meantime, an excavation near the camp entrance is marked by police: "Tatort" (Crime Scene.)

UPDATE: Last Thursday, "The Committee for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries" wrote to the head of the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg (in which Stuttgart is located,) and demanded an immediate end to the excavations. "These martyrs, who lost their lives sixty years ago through the hand of German officialdom, now must suffer a second time, because German authorities have opened a murder case."

The committee objects to the disruption of a long-quiet grave, to evidentiary processes applied to the skeletal remains, and above all to the possibility that remains will not be reinterred but held as evidence. To further complicate the matter, there are two such Committees, one in London and one in Brussels, and it emerged over the weekend that they disagree with one another on how the remains should be handled. The Brussels groups wants them immediately reinterred, and the ground where they had lain consecrated as a Jewish cemetery.

The German officials promise to conduct the investigation in a manner that comports as well as possible with Jewish belief, and respect for the dead. To that end, the police have been directed to cooperate with and seek guidance of the rabbinate. "We do not know if they are really Jewish, but for religious reasons we have to be especially careful," said Horst Haug, a spokesman for the Baden-Wurttemberg state police. Stuttgart rabbi Netanel Wurmser is advising the police.

"They will be buried at a special place, a cemetery. It is all so new, this case. We are especially occupied with digging right now," Haug told the European Stars and Stripes. Fortunately, no new bodies have turned up since last Tuesday. Spokesmen for the US military have referred all questions to the German authorities, and individual soldiers and airmen have been directed not to discuss the case with the press.

It is likely that the rabbinical disagreement will be resolved amicably and soon. Rabbi Lev Matusov of the Rabbinical Center of Europe praised the German authorities for their cooperative and sensitive handling of the matter.

For Adolf Hitler, Hell certainly includes German Police seeking advice from Jewish rabbis to ensure a fitting and decorous reinterment of concentration camp murder victims -- while what's left of him is sitting in a file cabinet somewhere in Moscow.



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