BERLIN - The families of fallen German World War II soldiers will travel to Russia on Aug. 3 for the opening of Germany's last big war cemetery on the Eastern Front.

Around 200 people will attend the opening near the Russian town of Smolensk. The remains of five soldiers, representing the 30,000 already re-interred at the site, will be symbolically buried by the German War Graves Commission and its Russian counterpart.
"We expect 70,000 will be buried here by the end," Fritz Kirchmeier, a spokesperson for the commission told USA Today.

The graves will remain unmarked except for a few symbolic crosses. However, granite blocks will include the names of the 16,000 soldiers the commission has managed to identify by cross referencing dog tags found on the soldiers' bodies and archives in Berlin.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the German War Graves Commission, responsible for locating and maintaining German war gravesites abroad, has exhumed and reburied 760,000 German soldiers, who died on the Eastern Front.

While the organization, which began its work in 1919, will continue the search, it expects the number of soldiers recovered to decline.

"We've been working in Russia since the beginning of the '90s and in Eastern and Southeastern Europe," said Kirchmeier. "We couldn't work there before and the work will continue, but over the next few years we won't rebury as many as in the past. We're expected to find another 150,000 by 2017."

The bodies of a further 250,000 dead soldiers will remain in difficult-to-reach areas, although Kirchmeier expects that some will be found during building or excavation works not related to the commission.

The commission employs 566 people and thousands of volunteers in the search for German war gravesites in Europe and North Africa. Since 1991, the commission has repaired and constructed 330 World War II cemeteries in Eastern Europe.

The search for sites on the Eastern Front, where nearly three million German soldiers died, is particularly complicated because of the sheer number of lives lost and destruction of gravesites in the wake of the war.

"There were people who plundered the graves because they hope to find something that they could sell," said Kirchmeier.

Conditions for soldiers on the Eastern Front, which stretched from northern to central and later to Southern Europe, were desperate, particularly for prisoners of war, says Jim Bjork, a senior lecturer in Eastern European History at King's College in London.

"There was a deliberate policy of mistreatment of prisoners," said Bjork. "Millions were deliberately killed after being captured. I can imagine because of the overall conditions, most remains would have been unrecovered or to a large extent unrecoverable."

The search for Germany's fallen World War II soldiers is not without its critics and the war commission has sometimes faced local opposition where memories of the Germany's war crimes are still fresh among the older population.

"When we first started our work in Smolensk there were problems with locals," said Kirchmeier. "There were many protests. But we convinced people that we were not there to build a patriotic memorial or hero's grave. Over time, resistance faded."

Despite the criticism, the commission will continue to work for the recovery of the soldiers whose fates remain unknown to their descendants and relatives.

"There are still thousands of families who are affected," Kirchmeier said. "Two hundred people will be there (at the opening of the grave) including the sons and daughters of fallen soldiers and for them this is an important moment. They are in their 70s and for the first time will have a grave to visit."

By Jennifer Collins

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