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Laura Tradii

Fieldwork in Germany

My research explores the activities of search, exhumation, and commemoration of WWII German soldiers in rural Oderbruch (Eastern Germany), the largest battlefield on German soil. The Red Army marched through this region in 1945, in the long attack that culminated with the liberation of Berlin. The corpses of soldiers were often quickly buried in gardens, craters, and trenches. During the Russian occupation and the socialist GDR, the dignified reburial and public commemoration of the “fascists” and “criminals” was prohibited. Although most families were affected by losses, the topic became a “taboo”.

After the Reunification, local inhabitants reclaimed their right to talk about this long-silenced history. Focussing on the treatment and disposal of the bodies of German soldiers, my research analyses the way the experience of war in this region, its repression during the GDR, and the failed incorporation of this history in the wider body of national memory after the Reunification are related to a contemporary context of social abandonment and political radicalisation.

These photos focus on a particular aspect of my research: the search, exhumation, and bioanthropological analysis of Russian and German fallen soldiers carried out by an association of local, German, and international volunteers.

Technical details: All photos were taken with an all-mechanical Minolta A5 film camera. None of the images have been edited.

“Oderbruch is one big cemetery”

The narration is always the same: it was very warm in April 1945, and the corpses were buried “on the spot”, “in every hole”, “in gardens”, under the surveillance of the Russian liberator/occupier. Through a war now primarily conceived in terms of its material traces, the space of death forcefully invaded that of daily life, in a chaotic alchemy which left profound marks in local sensibilities towards the landscape of Oderbruch and its traumatic past. Without any systematic clearing of former battlefields, the dead, their equipment, and ammunition have been resurfacing for 74 years.

This family wanted to build a garage and found a dozen bodies in their front lawn. The family sits, chats, and jokes with the volunteers of the Association for the Reburial of the Fallen in Eastern Europe. Stories are exchanged about bodies found in back yards and gardens. The group is allowed to dig on the family property for four days.

Reading the Earth

The archaeologist interprets the earth, its textures, and its layers: the earth is manipulated and codified with spray paint, tags, and numbers to enable accurate interpretation and documentation. But among such scientific procedures, the ritualistic function of exhumations is manifest: small coffins, engraved with a cross, contain the exhumed remains, and the necessities of treating the dead with due respect while extracting them from the soil are continuously negotiated.

These remains emerge into the sunlight again after 74 years. At the bottom of an opened-up trench, the archaeologist makes the bones visible for photographic documentation by flattening the ground around them.


Reading the Body


Together with dignified reburial, identification is the primary aim of exhumation activities. Identification is spoken of not only in terms of “giving back a name” to the formerly unknown dead, but of reconnecting them to their families, suturing genealogical gaps.

Absorbed in her work, away from the curious passer-byes, a member of the group of volunteers carries out the bioanthropological analysis of the remains. The analysis table is placed near a big window: the bright light makes the smallest details inscribed on bones visible: age, injuries, physical build, all is documented. Like the personal objects carried by the dead, these details too can contribute to successful identification.