Geneticists to recreate faces of troops who died at beginning of WWII

Geneticists at Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin are studying four skeletons to try to determine where the men came from in biogeographic terms, their eye colour and hair colour. Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939

Geneticists are using wide-ranging DNA studies to find out what Polish soldiers who died during fighting on Westerplatte at the start of World War II looked like.

The Westerplatte peninsula on the Baltic coast, by Gdańsk, was the site of the first clash between Polish and German forces during the Nazis’ invasion of Poland in 1939. 

On 1 September, the German Schleswig-Holstein battleship opened fire on the Polish garrison stationed on Westerplatte without warning.

Scientists have found seven skeletons (full or partial) that appear to have belonged to Polish soldiers who died defending the peninsula in 1939.Marcin Gadomski/PAP

This autumn has been productive for archaeologists in Westerplatte: since they began this round of research on 12 September, they have found seven skeletons (full or partial) that appear to have belonged to Polish soldiers who died defending the peninsula in 1939.

Now geneticists at Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin are studying four skeletons, which are almost complete. 

Dr. Andrzej Ossowski said that the skull bones are well preserved so reconstructing the faces would probably be successful. Marcin Bielecki/PAP

In addition to standard DNA analysis, the genetic tests will try to determine where the men came from in biogeographic terms, their eye colour and hair colour.

“This will be necessary for us to reconstruct their appearance. The skull bones are well preserved, so we will probably succeed,” said Doctor Andrzej Ossowski of the University, adding that this will be attempted for all the skeletons discovered.

To identify the skeletons, Ossowski and his colleagues will need to compare their DNA to that of surviving relatives of the soldiers who defended the peninsula. Jan Dzban/PAP

Ossowski is the coordinator of the Polish Genetic Database of Victims of Totalitarianisms, which was established in 2012. Using forensic genetics, it identifies the remains of unidentified victims of the Communist and Nazi regimes. 

To this day, nobody knows where some of the Polish soldiers who died on Westerplatte are buried. Historians have created a list of fifteen names.

Dr. Ossowski said: 'We know little about them, and facial reconstruction and research could help raise awareness and knowledge of the heroes.'Marcin Gadomski/PAP

To identify the skeletons, Ossowski and his colleagues will need to compare their DNA to that of surviving relatives of the soldiers who defended the peninsula. 

The Westerplatte peninsula on the Baltic coast, by Gdańsk, was the site of the first clash between Polish and German forces during the Nazis’ invasion of Poland in 1939. On 1 September, the German Schleswig-Holstein battleship opened fire on the Polish garrison stationed on Westerplatte without warning.Public domain

The doctor has called for them to come forward and contact the World War II Museum in Gdańsk or the Polish Genetic Database of Victims of Totalitarianisms, among other institutions. 

Polish soldiers being taken into captivity after the capitulation of Westerplatte. Public domain

“We know little about them, and facial reconstruction and research could help raise awareness and knowledge of the heroes,” Ossowski added, referring to the soldiers.