The Czech army has removed cardboard coffins with the remains of 4,300 German soldiers and civilians killed in World War II from a disused factory where they had been kept while awaiting a final resting place.
How the soldiers and civilians died in the final days of World War II often remains a mystery
Many of the bodies were first discovered in mass graves and then transferred to 3,700 small cardboard coffins, some containing the remains of more than one person. The remains, which were moved to a military training base west of Prague on Wednesday, were then stashed away for eight years in the factory while German authorities worked to relocate them.
The cardboard coffins were "discovered" in the northern Czech industrial city of Usti Nad Labem by the local press last month, sparking a political outcry in the Czech Republic as well as Germany, with the mass-market Bild newspaper calling the situation a "scandal."
The Czech army and the German war graves authority, Volksbu n d Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), signed an agreement Monday allowing the remains to be stored at the military base until 2008 -- although a final resting spot has not yet been announced.
"This is our undertaking towards the German soldiers," said Czech defense ministry spokesman Jan Pejsek at the factory. "We are trying to find a solution to this affair."
Cause of death ofte n remai n s u n k n ow n
Proper burial ceremonies will take place when a final resting place is determined
The bodies of soldiers and civilians were found at sites across the Czech Republic over the last 10 years, the VDK spokesman Fritz Kirchmeier told AFP, adding that 35 mass graves were discovered on Czech soil.
How the soldiers and civilians died in the chaos of the final days of World War II is still a mystery in most cases, Kirchmeier said. They could have been the victims of reprisals by Czechs as the era of German rule came to a close.
"You know what happened here at the end of the war," he said, referring to reprisals against German soldiers and the German-speaking population.
The Czech Republic was one of the last battlegrounds in World War II, with Prague the last major city to be liberated.
Civilia n s ofte n mixed with soldiers
Up to a third of the remains could be civilians.
"We find soldiers and civilians together in mass graves," Kirchmeier said. "Often it is impossible to identify them."
Kirchmeier hopes heightened interest will help find a suitable cemetary
The VDK had intended to bury the remains at a Prague cemetery but this project was cancelled last October after it was ruled too expensive.
"We tried to keep the existence of this temporary factory site secret, for security reasons, and so that we could work in a quiet atmosphere," Kirchmeier said, visibly disconcerted by the sudden publicity surrounding the remains. "We are not very happy about this."
I n creased i n terest i n war dead
One positive aspect though has been a surge in German interest about its war dead, Kirchmeier said.
"A lot of people have contacted us," he said. "They have said, for example, 'My grandfather died in Russia, can you give us some information?' We are getting a lot of questions like this."
The VDK has responsibility for around two million German war graves from the two world wars in 830 cemeteries across Europe.
The publicity could also hasten the search for a final burial place for the Czech remains, he added.
The authority is now weighing up "six or seven offers" in the Czech Republic.
"We hope to find a place within the next two months, but it will take another two years before we can finally bury them," Kirchmeier said.