Zbigniew Kulikowski stood at the crumbling edge of a muddy hole staring down at a trio of workers gently brushing the dirt from the yellowing bones of several intertwined skeletons.
In a little over a year of sporadic digging, more than 280 bodies have been pulled from burial pits in the sandy, red-streaked earth behind this century-old prison, anonymous victims of the Nazis, the Soviets or the Polish secret police.
Suddenly, a worker in a white safety suit scurried up, short of breath. More remains, he said, had just been uncovered in the back garden of a nearby apartment complex, built on what once had been prison property. Mr. Kulikowski, the prosecutor in charge of the case, gasped and grabbed his head with both hands.
“These are not burial grounds,” he said. “These are death fields.”
The grim past is never very far beneath the surface in Poland, where battling armies and ideologies left behind a catalog of 20th-century atrocities that the open, democratic Polish society of today is still discovering and coming to terms with. The bodies of victims have been discovered in hidden caches across Poland, including a few other sites in Bialystok, but nowhere in the numbers and level of ferocity that investigators are uncovering here today.
In some ways, the unearthing of the bodies at the Bialystok Detention Center — built by the Russian czar in 1912 and still in use today, with 680 prisoners serving time on all manner of charges — may reveal as much about Poland’s present as about its past.
The dead here were not only wartime victims of the Soviets and the Nazis, about which opinions are fierce and united, but also victims of Poland’s own postwar, Communist-era security forces, Poles killing Poles, about which attitudes are decidedly more complex.
Coming at a time when extremist ideologies are on the rise in many places in Europe, some worry that Poland’s far-right parties might want to make use of the newly discovered bodies — many of whom were almost certainly members of the anti-Communist underground — as heroes to stir nationalist emotions. Already, far-right leaders talk about the “forsaken” soldiers, the anti-Communist guerrillas whose memories, they say, have been swept under the rug in Poland’s rush to free-market prosperity.