Remembrance after 1945
The suffering of the Soviet prisoners of war was not over when they were liberated from German captivity. They were faced with the pervasive suspicion of having committed treason against the homeland. As a result they initially had to undergo 'filtration', screening by Soviet security services. Those accused of having collaborated with the Germans were sent to camps run by the secret police.
Those who aroused no suspicion were discharged and sent home, reintegrated into the army or incorporated into labour battalions. But as 'repatriates' they were fundamentally distrusted for a long time. This often went hand in hand with various injustices such as job discrimination, restrictions on where they could live, problems in gaining admission to higher education, and similar indignities.
The Soviet occupying forces soon became aware of the widespread deaths among Soviet prisoners of war. Interrogations of arrested members of the Wehrmacht also provided additional information. Initial exploratory exhumations performed in June 1946 on the basis of this information failed to yield conclusive results. The Sächsische Zeitung nonetheless reported more than 140,000 dead in June 1946. Its front page story 'Zeithain's Forest of Death' was published in the politicised atmosphere of the upcoming referendum on the expropriation of 'war criminals and Nazi activists'. Press reports urged readers to draw conclusions from the crimes in Zeithain and to vote 'yes' in the referendum.
On 1 August 1946 the Soviet military administration in Saxony finally ordered an investigation into the crimes at Zeithain. The commission of experts assembled under Soviet Major General Khorun consisted of Soviet officers, members of the People's Police and Soviet and German coroners. Former NSDAP members were conscripted to open the mass graves at the Zeithain camp. The commission estimated the number of dead Soviet prisoners of war at about 35,000 based on sample exhumations. Yet additional evidence (interrogations of former camp guards, testimony of former prisoners, reports from the head office of the German railway about transports arriving at Jacobsthal railway station, etc.) led the commission to conclude that at least 70,000 people must have died in the Zeithain camp. In later years the assessment of the total death toll in Zeithain changed repeatedly.
On 8 August 1946 the Soviet military administration in Saxony decided to establish a memorial at the site of the former Zeithain camp. Between 1946 and 1949 Zeithain Memorial Grove, the memorial in existence today, was created at the site of the first mass graves at the former 'Zeithain Russian cemetery'. The other three fields of graves were also landscaped as cemeteries. Until the Russian troops withdrew in the 1990s, three of the four cemeteries of the Soviet prisoners of war lay within a restricted military area and remained inaccessible to visitors. As a result, public commemoration centered on the Zeithain Memorial Grove.
The culture of remembrance practised at Zeithain did not recognise the camp's non-Soviet victims. The Jacobsthal Italian military cemetery, which also contained the graves of Polish and Serbian victims, became overgrown. The Soviet Army's continued use of the grounds for military exercises eventually eradicated all outward signs of the cemetery.