Rise of the Nazi-Grave Robbers

Talis Esmits digs for remains of World War II combatants, while members of the Legenda group and volunteers stand watch.
Inspired by shows like Battlefield Recovery, profiteers are digging up World War II gravesites in search of memorabilia. Preservationists want to stop them.

Talis Esmits was felling trees near his home in Latvia when he received a phone call about two dead Nazi soldiers. The caller, a national guardsman in the Courland Peninsula, a horn of forested land between the capital, Riga, and the Baltic Sea, said that a friend had unearthed the remains while driving his tractor and wasn’t sure what to do. It was a Wednesday in March. Esmits told the man to leave the bones where they were and that he would come pick them up.

A few days later, Esmits drove a white van rapidly down a country road. A stout 52-year-old, he had dressed for the occasion in golden army boots, a replica World War I hat, and dark-green camouflage. Esmits is the co-founder of a Latvian volunteer group, Legenda, that exhumes the scattered and forgotten bodies of World War II combatants for proper burial. In the van sat his crew of six diggers and a flatulent 150-pound Italian mastiff named Bagram, all of them violently jostling back and forth on the bumpy road while Rebecca Black’s song Friday played on the stereo. Most of the diggers were also dressed in camouflage and wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Latvian army. Toward the rear, Viktors Duks, a professor of screenwriting at Riseba University in Riga, slouched and moaned about a hangover. Further up, Andris Lelis, a 22-year-old militaria seller, cheerfully pointed out battle sites next to the road. “There are still probably lots of bodies in that farmer’s field,” he said.

Each year, Esmits handles about 700 human remains in Latvia; he sometimes also works in Russia and Lithuania. “Everybody knows that he is the guy you call if you find a body,” Lelis said. Esmits started Legenda in 1999 with Duks and Viktors Lelis, Andris’s father, who was also in the van that day. They had all met when Duks was trying to have some skeletons removed from his grandparents’ property in Baldone, 20 miles outside Riga. “In Latvia, it is normal for you to have dead soldiers on your yard,” Esmits said. “When people came back to their homes after the war, they saw there was a dead soldier here and a dead soldier there, and they just buried them.”

During the final months of World War II, Latvia was the site of especially bloody battles between German and Soviet forces. Approximately 350,000 Nazis were cut off here from the rest of the German line in the autumn of 1944, in what became known as the Courland Pocket. In the months that followed, about 100,000 of them were killed.

After Latvia came under Soviet control in 1945, authorities had little interest in exhuming dead soldiers, and today, 26 years after independence, numberless bodies are still buried in the country’s forests and fields. That has left well-meaning volunteers like Esmits’s group to exhume, identify, and rebury dead soldiers.

But in recent years, the often illicit market in Nazi memorabilia has intensified, creating a new class of diggers across eastern Europe that is at odds with Esmits’s work. Of particular interest are relics—items dug up from the ground. “When we first started, the market for relics was a local one—you couldn’t even call it a market,” Esmits said. “Then the internet appeared, and Europe and the world opened up, and many things changed.”

Andris Lelis responds to a strong signal from his metal detector. The moment he pulled his hand out of the water, he realized he had ripped the safety lever off a Soviet F-1 hand grenade. Fortunately, it did not detonate.
Photographer: Reinis Hofmanis for Bloomberg Businessweek

Some $50 million in military memorabilia is sold each year, according to an estimate by the Guardian, and Nazi items fetch a premium. There are two distinct tiers. At the high end are large vehicles, such as tanks, and rare items with direct connections to specific, notorious Nazis, which are sold by a small number of international dealers to wealthy collectors. In 2015, for example, Hermann Göring’s sweat-stained uniform was sold by a British auction house for about $126,000. In 2011 an Orthodox Jewish man bought the diaries of Josef Mengele at auction for $245,000.

At the lower end are objects such as medals, uniforms, helmets. In the decades after the war, such items sold through militaria conventions, flea markets, and catalogs. Many pieces came from the homes of former soldiers, in more or less pristine condition, and prices were cheap—a Wehrmacht helmet might have cost $20. The arrival of EBay in the late 1990s allowed anyone to become a seller, and the market saw a surge in items, especially from the formerly inaccessible Eastern bloc. Sellers say that in recent years, as the number of living witnesses to the war has dwindled, they have noticed more collectors deciding to hold on to their items permanently, driving up prices for genuine Nazi memorabilia. “It’s a limited quantity,” Andris Lelis said, “and you can’t manufacture new ones.” Wehrmacht helmets have almost quadrupled in price over the past three years. That’s prompted more people from Latvia and elsewhere in the region to dig for relics, sometimes racing Esmits to a freshly discovered pile of bones.

After three hours of driving, Esmits and the Legenda crew entered the grim, empty village of Priekule. Some buildings were still pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes from the intense fighting that took place here during the war. “Everybody leaves for Riga or Europe,” Lelis said. “The only people who stay are people who can’t afford to leave, or drunks.”

The contact for the soldiers’ bones, a man in a motorcycle jacket, was waiting alongside a jeep in a parking lot, smoking a cigarette. There’d been a hiccup, Lelis explained. The farmer had decided that he didn’t want Esmits’s men on his property and had dug up the bodies himself. Esmits grabbed two plastic bags, jumped in the passenger seat of the man’s car, and disappeared, leaving his diggers to wait impatiently in the van. Ainis Barkovics, a greasy-haired warehouse worker, fell asleep with his face against the window, a relic swastika belt buckle shining at his waist.

Bagram slobbered on Lelis’s neck. A spindly and eerily composed young man with Justin Bieber hair, Lelis has sold militaria online for about six years. While his business makes him ineligible to be a full member of Legenda, which is strictly noncommercial, he’s one of the group’s most eager volunteers. His specialty is Nazi dog tags, which he digs up in areas where soldiers surrendered to the Soviets. “I do not rob anything from bodies,” Lelis said emphatically. He said he’d been one of the first relic sellers in Riga to make use of EBay, but that over the past five years, perhaps spurred by the European debt crisis, the number of competitors had increased dramatically. Other sellers noticed how successful he’d been, he said, though he also had the sense that demand for Nazi objects was growing around the world.

For Lelis, the digging is mostly a way of connecting with his country’s bleak, complicated history. “The history of Latvia,” he said, “is the history of war.” The country has been occupied at various points by Swedes, Russians, Germans—or as Lelis’s father put it, “Everyone has been through Latvia except Genghis Khan and the Martians.”

During World War II, the Soviets arrived first, deporting thousands of Latvians to Siberian work camps. Then came the Nazis, who murdered approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews, most infamously in Bikernieki Forest. Each side conscripted locals to their armies, and today many Latvians including Lelis have an ambivalent relationship to both. “Each side did terrible things,” he said. As a militaria dealer, however, he had no qualms about selling reminders of that history to foreigners.

Esmits returned, carrying only one bag of bones. The farmer, it turned out, had mixed the two remains together when he ran them over with his tractor, rendering them impossible to tell apart. Esmits casually threw the bag into the back of the van, next to a napping Duks. The grayish-brown remains, after 70 years in the dirt, would have easily fit into a school backpack. “The skulls are in tiny pieces because of the tractor,” Lelis said matter-of-factly.

Fortunately, the farmer had recovered the soldiers’ dog tags—pieces of zinc embossed with numbers and the soldiers’ units. The two relics showed that one man was a member of the 36th Infantry Division’s veterinary company and the other a member of the fourth company of Infantry Ersatz Battalion 9. Nazi dog tags like these would fetch around $60 online, while similar tags from SS units could go for several hundred dollars—more than a teacher’s monthly salary in parts of eastern Europe.

Esmits said he would pass the information—as well as the tags themselves—to the German War Graves Commission, known as the Volksbund. Every year, the Volksbund supervises the exhumation and reburial of almost 30,000 lost German soldiers around the world. “We believe all people have the right to a worthy grave,” says Fritz Kirchmeier, the commission’s spokesman. “There are lots of people who want to clear up their relatives’ fates. Before 1990 we couldn’t work in Eastern Europe, and now many of these descendants are 70 years or older and in a phase where they want to clear up these questions and find some inner peace.”

German rifle grenades, a boot, drinking cup, mess kit lid, and gas mask recovered from a trench.
Photographer: Reinis Hofmanis for Bloomberg Businessweek

For the Volksbund, grave robbing remains a persistent problem, especially in Russia and Ukraine. “Grave robbers blight our work,” Kirchmeier says. Many illegal diggers dutifully give over information to officials if they come across a dead body, he says, but others “open graves and then take out anything they can sell—steel helmets, pieces of equipment, medals, belt buckles, personal mementos belonging to the dead, sometimes even the skull, leaving the rest of the bones on the forest floor.”

Yngve Sjodin, a Norway-based militaria seller who sometimes digs with Legenda, says he was confronted with a “black digger” during one of his first digs for soldiers in Latvia, in 2014. “He screamed at us that it was his forest,” he says, “and started attacking the guy next to me.” He adds, “The driving force for the black diggers is money, which they need to survive, or party, or whatever.”

Robin Schäfer, a former collector and a military historian from Germany, says the problem is endemic, especially in Russia. “It’s gotten to the point where official diggers who are exhuming bodies in Russia need to post guards at night,” he says. The country has become particularly attractive to grave robbers because of its large numbers of German war dead and the presence of blue clay in its soil, which can allow items to remain pristine after decades on a rotting corpse.

In early 2008, Schäfer traveled to a forest outside the town of Tosno, in northwestern Russia, to search for the remains of his great-uncle, Heinrich Gilgenbach. Schäfer knew that Gilgenbach had been sent to the Russian front as a pioneer in the German infantry in 1942. “It may sound trivial, but for his grandson, it was very important that we would one day find him,” Schäfer says. “He has a photo of his grandfather in his bedroom and the letter his grandmother received when he died, with her dried tears on it.”

Official records said that Gilgenbach was shot in the chest by Soviet partisans on March 21, 1942, two months after arriving, and spent his final moments saying “his farewells to his wife and daughter” before “dying in the arms of a soldier.” Using information from veterans and German diaries, Schäfer pinpointed Gilgenbach’s remains to a regimental cemetery in the abandoned Russian village of Glubochka. During the war, the Germans usually buried dead soldiers near the front, and after the German retreat, the village had been abandoned. “There were three grave hills,” he says. “It was covered in grass, untouched.” Schäfer alerted the Volksbund to the location of the cemetery and his great-uncle’s remains, but by the time a team of German army reservists and Russian soldiers arrived to exhume the bodies, the cemetery had been plundered. “The bones had been scattered, and the dog tags were gone,” Schäfer says. Of the 600 supposed soldiers that were buried in the cemetery, only about a dozen complete human remains and two dog tags were recovered. Neither of them belonged to Gilgenbach. Schäfer assumes his great-uncle’s items were stolen by grave robbers who sold them to collectors. The Nazi soldiers “may be the oppressors, the conquerors, the criminals,” Schäfer says, “but in the end they are also just people that someone loves.”

Since joining the European Union in 2004, Latvia has developed fitfully. In the Courland, the farms are gray, the fields are largely empty, and there are few manufacturing jobs. Progress elsewhere has been hampered by corruption or flawed big projects, like Riga’s hideous national library, which looks like a cruise ship mated with a shovel. In the capital, a former Hanseatic trading hub with stunning art nouveau architecture, perhaps the most visible growth industry is stag parties. In the EU era, cheap accommodation and passport-free travel—flights from London to Riga can cost as little as $40—have made a common sight of packs of bloated British men in sweatpants, lumbering from pub to pub in the city’s Old Town. More recently, Riga has also begun attracting a different class of visitor: relic hunters.

Europe has some 10,000 to 15,000 amateur metal detectorists, and for those interested in military history, the Courland’s isolated and largely untouched battlefields make for ideal scavenging. “In Latvia, you can drive into a forest where nobody will see you for 20 kilometers,” says Schäfer, “and nobody will inspect you” at the border. Metal detectorists use Facebook groups and online forums to share information, and on YouTube, a search for “Courland digging” yields hundreds of videos. Some clips depict people excavating helmets and discovering that there is still a skull inside.

The rise of relic tourism is a source of concern for the Legenda crew. Since digging licenses are usually available only to Latvian residents, almost all metal-detecting tourists are digging illegally, and so may be disinclined to report bodies they find to the authorities.

Esmits pauses in a forest clearing in search of a lost German cemetery.
Photographer: Reinis Hofmanis for Bloomberg Businessweek

Back behind the wheel of his van, Esmits mentioned another factor in the surge in interest for Nazi kit: Battlefield Recovery, a reality show about metal detectorists that recently aired on Channel 5 in the U.K. The program follows a memorabilia dealer named Craig Gottlieb and three amateur British diggers as they travel around eastern Europe, digging for Nazi relics and remains. For several episodes, Gottlieb came to the Courland. Legenda arranged the permits and the locations for the show, and it did most of the behind-the-scenes digging. “It’s very good,” Duks screamed over the engine noise from the back of the van.

Even before Battlefield Recovery, Gottlieb was the most recognizable face in the Nazi memorabilia market. A fast-talking Florida native and Ayn Rand devotee, he runs one of the world’s biggest Nazi militaria websites. Gottlieb gained notoriety in 2014 for selling a trove of Adolf Hitler’s personal items, including stationery, books, and clothing, for as much as $3.5 million. These days, most people know him as a star of the History channel’s Pawn Stars, a reality show about a Las Vegas pawnshop.

Gottlieb’s participation in the relic-hunting show has made him a uniquely reviled figure among conflict archaeologists. The early promotional materials for Battlefield Recovery, which was originally titled Nazi War Diggers and set to air on National Geographic Channel before being canceled unaired, showed a cast member wrenching a bone out of the ground with his hands and presenters confusing a leg bone with an arm bone. In an affront to archaeological technique, one episode featured another cast member sticking a pole into a suspected mass grave. Tony Pollard, the head of the Center for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, told the New York Times about the promotional materials, “I have never seen such a casual and improper attitude toward the treatment of human remains.” Gottlieb compares the uproar over the show to criticizing a tennis player for having poor golf skills. “We were doing battlefield recovery, not archaeology,” he says.

Until the past decade, World War II was largely seen as unworthy of archaeological study, but that is rapidly changing. “Four or five years ago in the Netherlands, no serious archaeologist would be interested in World War II,” says Max van der Schriek, a Ph.D. candidate in modern conflict archaeology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. But as interest among archaeologists grows, they’re facing a constant battle against amateurs with metal detectors and shovels. Shows like Battlefield Recovery, they worry, will act as a how-to manual for aspiring diggers or grave robbers, making their work more difficult.

“For archaeologists, the context of the findings means everything: the way people died, the way people lived, the way battle evolved,” says Van der Schriek. “When people with a metal detector dig stuff up, there’s no context—a helmet is just a helmet. In 100 years we’ll look back at the Second World War in the same way we look at the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1,000 years it’ll be like the Roman times. But when you’ve destroyed everything that came before, there will be nothing left to investigate.”

To Esmits this stance is infuriating. “They’re living in a different reality,” he said, yelling as he weaved to avoid potholes. The van passed a group of teetering drunk men on the side of the road. “How are you going to find enough archaeologists to dig up 700 bodies every year? We could use better methods, but that would take more money and much more time. We are just volunteers with a dirty van that do this for free.”

Lelis agreed with him. “Maybe the archaeologists want to dig up a skull that’s been hit with a splinter and put it in the middle of a museum like they do with the Romans, but that seems very wrong and strange,” he said. “I think it must be more important to give a soldier back to family. That person is still alive in the memory of someone. Here, that history hasn’t died.”

Esmits pulled to a stop at an isolated forest clearing. The Courland region is still crisscrossed with the war’s trenches, bunkers, and craters. During the summer, the woods fill with clouds of mosquitoes, and the foliage becomes so dense you can barely walk, but on this March morning, the tall trees were empty and the ground was a quagmire of mud and gnarled branches.

Esmits’s men planned to search the woods for further undiscovered soldiers and relics, and as they fanned out with their metal detectors, their bleeps and bloops echoed through the trees. Although they have a policy of not selling anything they find when they locate bones, the Legenda members are all collectors of Nazi memorabilia and will happily take home a rare relic or two.

Lelis walked through the forest at a near jog, his detector going off every few seconds. He zeroed in on some ground near a crater and dug in his spade. A few seconds later, he held up a long metallic shard. “A splinter,” he said, from either a Soviet or German shell. During the war, artillery shells were loaded with shrapnel in order to maximize damage—the pieces could fly hundreds of feet before embedding themselves in a tree or a soldier. Until recently, dug-up splinters like this were worthless to militaria dealers. “Now I could sell it for up to $5,” Lelis said. “Some crazy American would put it in his living room.”

Latvian War Graves Commission bags at Esmits’s farm holding remains and personal identification of German soldiers.
Photographer: Reinis Hofmanis for Bloomberg Businessweek

Around noon, Lelis’s father located a grouping of about 10 large depressions, grown over with moss and filled with mud and leaves: a former bunker complex. All the group found were metal food canisters and ammunition, so they turned their attention to a nearby machine gun emplacement. Duks, examining a mortar shell, said, “I’ll turn it into a vase for Grandma.” His apartment in suburban Riga is filled with items, such as candleholders, that have been fashioned from recovered relics.

By 5 p.m., the Legenda group’s energy began to wane. One member found the remnants of a Panzerfaust, a shoulder-fired missile used by Germans to destroy Soviet tanks, but when Duks noticed a civilian cemetery nearby, the group quickly piled into their van and drove to another forest. “We don’t want people thinking we’re digging up the graves,” Duks said. Soon after, the battery in Lelis’s metal detector died, and most of the diggers passed out in the van. Duks resumed moaning about his hangover.

As the sun dropped below the horizon and a gentle rain began to fall, Esmits pulled the van into Latvia’s largest German cemetery, outside of Saldus. This is where many of the bodies exhumed by Esmits end up. The countless small crosses, each of which represents eight dead soldiers, stretched up a hill to a large metal cross. A total of 30,000 Nazi soldiers are buried here—double Saldus’s current living population. Some of the graves were decorated with flowers or small lights.

The bones Esmits had recovered from the farm would be buried here. Because the remains were inseparable, they would lie under the same cross, amid those of hundreds of other men he had recovered over the past year. He walked for five minutes, stopped at a far corner of the cemetery, and pointed proudly at an empty patch of grass. “All of the bodies buried here,” Esmits said, “are mine.”

Corrects transmission of excavated tags in the sixteenth paragraph.

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