Historians exhume grave of pre-war commander-in-chief to solve decades-long mystery surrounding his death

The initial results of this week’s exhumation show that at a depth of about 2.5 metres, a burial crypt was discovered, with a sealed metal coffin containing the remains of a man. IPN

The coffin of Poland's 1939 commander-in-chief Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz has been exhumed in an attempt to answer decades-long doubts about the circumstances of his death and burial.

According to historical records, Edward Śmigły-Rydz died suddenly, allegedly of heart failure, while living undercover in Warsaw in December 1941.

He had come back to Poland secretly from internment in Romania after leading the decision to retreat from Poland following the Soviet invasion on 17 September 1939.

The Institute of National Remembrance said: “The circumstances of Marshal Śmigły-Rydz's death and the place of his burial have been shrouded in mystery and doubt for years.”Tomasz Trzaska/ IPN

He was buried at Powązki cemetery in Warsaw under the pseudonym Adam Zawisza.

His tombstone there bore this assumed name until 1991.

A new tombstone inscribed with the Marshal's full name was placed on his grave by the people of Warsaw in 1994.

It is said that a card with Marshal’s personal details was placed in the left jacket pocket for later identification of the body.

Tomasz Trzaska/ IPN

Around the chest area, an emblem with an eagle was found and an image of the Virgin Mary of Częstochowa, as well as pieces of clothing.Tomasz Trzaska/ IPN

However, the Institute of National Remembrance said: “The circumstances of Marshal Śmigły-Rydz's death and the place of his burial have been shrouded in mystery and doubt for years.”

The doubts concern his actual death and its immediate aftermath as well as his activities in Poland.

A day after he was reported dead, two men arrived at the apartment where he had been hiding, with several suitcases full of equipment to embalm his body.

According to historical records, Marshall Edward Śmigły-Rydz died suddenly, allegedly of heart failure, while living undercover in Warsaw in December 1941.Public domain

This has led to speculation by historians that Śmygły-Rydz was poisoned and the embalming process was carried out to remove blood from the body, which could contain evidence of the poison.

Some have suggested that the macabre mummification was carried out so that the Marshal could receive a more dignified state funeral after the war, or that it was an act of respect towards a much-admired man.

Other claims suggest that the Marshal did not in fact die at the beginning of December 1941 but much later.

Śmigły-Rydz had come back to Poland secretly from internment in Romania after leading the decision to retreat from Poland following the Soviet invasion on 17 September 1939.Public domain

When Śmigły-Rydz left Romania in secret in December 1940, the intelligence services of several countries went to great lengths to establish his whereabouts.

The government-in-exile in London under General Sikorski saw him as a challenge to their authority as he was linked to the pre-war political movement centred around Józef Piłsudski.

On Sikorski's orders, Śmigły-Rydz was searched for all over Europe. From the time of his escape from internment, at least a dozen orders were sent from London to establish the Marshal's whereabouts.

He was buried at Powązki cemetery in Warsaw under the pseudonym Adam Zawisza. A new tombstone inscribed with the Marshal's full name was placed on his grave by the people of Warsaw in 1994.CC BY-SA 4.0

Searches were carried out up to September 1943, not only in Poland, but also in Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Information from Polish intelligence in July 1942 indicated that the Marshal was living in Palestine.

On 26 July 1942, a New York newspaper reported that the Germans offered him the post of Governor, but he declined.

A German top-secret document stated that Śmigły-Rydz died on 11 February 1943 in Warsaw of a blood infection caused by an abscess in his leg.

Various claims dispute the official causes of death, with some even suggesting he was assassinated.Tomasz Trzaska/ IPN

The most sensational claims came from the late historian and journalist Dariusz Baliszewski, who wrote in 2017 that a death sentence on Śmigły-Rydz had been passed by the Polish underground authorities.

“The Marshal's sentence was not carried out: he was offered the choice of suicide or leaving the country. He refused, so he was sentenced to oblivion. Arrested by the Home Army (AK) at the end of November 1941, he was kept in hiding in inhumane conditions, which renewed the pulmonary tuberculosis of his early youth. Heavily ill, he was finally admitted to the municipal sanatorium in Otwock, and died there on 3 August 1942.”

The IPN is also interested in the theory that the Marshal’s body was exhumed by the communist authorities in the 1960s.

Tomasz Trzaska/ IPN

It is said that a card with Marshal’s personal details was placed in the left jacket pocket for later identification of the body.Tomasz Trzaska/ IPN

The initial results of this week’s exhumation show that at a depth of about 2.5 metres, a brick burial crypt was discovered, with a sealed metal coffin containing the remains of a man.

Around the chest area, an emblem with an eagle was found and an image of the Virgin Mary of Częstochowa, as well as pieces of clothing.

The remains will now undergo examination and genetic testing to definitively confirm their identity.