The fate of a young man from Jõgeva County, Meinhard Edberg Ratassepp, became clear 74 years after he died when his remains, buried in a WWII mass grave, were unearthed in the Polish town of Nysa.
Ratassepp, who served as a grenadier in the pioneers battalion of the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, was buried in a mass grave in a convent cemetery along with 12 other casualties a few months before the end of World War II in March of 1945. During the time of the Opole region battles in Silesia in early 1945, the convent was home to a military hospital for wounded soldiers.
It is likely that Ratassepp, just 18 years of age at the time, was wounded in a battle that took place some 50-60 kilometers from Nysa in February.
The dead had been laid in the mass grave in an orderly fashion, with Meinhard seventh in line. However, there were signs of rushing as the final three bodies has been laid in the grave with their heads in the opposite direction. The remains of another soldier were found on top of one of the buried bodies.
“There were no items with Meinhard, no weapons or personal effects. He also did not have an identification tag with him. He was wearing hospital pajamas,” amateur historian Jacek Cielecki said.
Information that the young Estonian’s remains could be found in the Nysa convent cemetery reached Polish war graves society Pomost last year. Studying wartime archives, members learned that 11 German soldiers who had died fighting in battles in March of 1945 were buried on Rodziewiczowny street in Nysa. The documents included the name of Estonian Meinhard Edberg Ratassepp, born on October 26, 1926.
The grave was found by history enthusiasts Maciej Krzysik and Jacek Cielecki. Even though archival documents made no mention of the exact location of the grave, the memories of the elderly of Nysa helped.
When the grave was opened, it revealed the remains of 13 people, instead of the 11 suggested by the archives. Most of the soldiers served with the 20th armored division of the SS. Most soldiers found in the grave were identified and some had identification tag with them. Found with the remains were hospital attire, hypodermic syringes and medical thermometers. Some also had gear of war.
Distant relative of Meinhard Ratassepp, Helina Sepper, was pleasantly surprised when she learned her long-lost relative had been found. “We learned last year of documents suggesting Meinhard is buried somewhere in Poland, but nothing was certain,” she said. The documents were reported found by German war graves society Volksbund. Because Meinhard went missing at a very young age and Sepper has never seen him, there was little she could offer in the way of Meinhard’s description.
The warpath of Meinhard Ratassepp is relatively unknown. Research fellow at the Estonian War Museum Ülle Kraft said that the only entry concerning the young Estonian can be found in the so-called Neuhammer list as: RATASSEPP Meinhard 18.10.1926 Gren Pio Pat. 20.” This suggests Meinhard served in the 20th Waffen SS’ pioneers battalion in the rank of grenadier or private.
“The “Neuhammer list” is a document with the names of Estonian soldiers who were sent to the Neuhammer (now Swietoszow) training camp after the withdrawal of German troops from Estonia in the fall of 1944 to reform the 20th Estonian SS division. The source is a list drawn up in 1944-1945 and recorded on microfilm by the Americans after the war that is being held at the US National Archives.
Ratassepp had four brothers, two of whom – Eric Bernard and Endel Emil – are known to have perished in the war fighting for the German side.
The remains found in the mass grave at Nysa will be buried in the Nadolice Wielkie military cemetery near Wroclaw that is owned by the Volksbund society next year. Reburials take place once a year. Volksbund will notify next of kin beforehand and can arrange for remains to be brought to Estonia. A corresponding application will have to be filed.
Cielecki said that the area around Nysa has a lot of war graves that have not been studied. A mass grave believed to hold the remains of 20 Estonians will be opened next week.
Silesia saw fierce fighting from January to March 1945 between the Germans and the encroaching Red Army. A total of 2,500 Estonians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner in the fighting. The area belonged to Germany and settlements had different names, with Nysa called Neisse, at the time. The winners of WWII decided to give the area to Poland at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
The 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) was formed on the Nevel front in January 1944. The division took part in the fighting under Narva and in the Blue Hills in 1944 and further battles in Estonia after the front collapsed in the fall of the same year. The division was reformed in Germany in December of 1944 and had 11,000 members at the time, most of the Estonian.
As a hobby historian, Jacek Cielecki has studied the fate of Estonians who fought on the German side in Silesia. In 2015, he published a book called “Hope Trampled into the Mud” that speaks about the 20th Waffen grenadiers’ battles in 1945. The book was published in Estonian two years later.