Drought in Poland Reveals World War II Artifacts in River

8-28-15 Vistula River
The dried Vistula riverbank is seen in Warsaw, Poland, on August 19. Poland's longest river hit its lowest water level in more than 200 years because of a drought ravaging the country, a weather official said. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The receding water levels of the Vistula River in Poland this summer have revealed remnants of Jewish tombstones as well as a Soviet fighter plane from World War II with remains of its crew inside, the Associated Press reported.

A drought has brought the country's longest and largest river to record-low levels. When the water drops in places to a height of 20 inches, compared to its usual level of roughly 6.5 feet, as it did this August, objects that have been languishing on the riverbed for decades—and sometimes centuries—reveal themselves.

"The Vistula River is hiding no end of secrets. They are everywhere," Jonny Daniels, the founder and executive director of Jewish foundation From the Depths (which has offices in the U.S., U.K., Israel and Poland), told the AP.

Pieces of the Soviet bomber that were found in a Vistula tributary near the village of Kamion are being examined at the nearby Vistula River Museum in Wyszogród. So far, the museum has found fragments of Soviet uniforms, a parachute, a sheepskin coat collar, parts of boots, a pilot's pistol, radio equipment, and heavy ammunition in the plane, said museum director Zdzislaw Leszczynski.

"For now we have managed to find the instrument panel, the engine, a wheel and a well-preserved radio set," he said, according to BBC News, although "the plane was so battered that it's impossible to determine which model it is for the time being." However, based on the winter uniforms and markings on the plane, Leszczynski said it was likely the plane crashed into the river in January 1945, when the German army was retreating westward. There are plans for more work Saturday to continue recovering the wreckage from the riverbed.

Less than an hour and a half's drive away, in the capital city of Warsaw, another reminder of World War II emerged from the Vistula—remnants of Jewish tombstones engraved with Hebrew letters. According to the AP, their origin is believed to be the Brodno cemetery, which today houses only 1 percent of the 300,000 tombstones it contained before the war after the cemetery was pillaged by the Nazis during the war and the Soviets afterward, both of whom apparently used the headstones for building materials.

As Daniels implied, this is not the first time the Vistula has brought forth historical artifacts. Just last week, the AP reported that Warsaw authorities were promoting an effort to clean up garbage and recover pieces from two bridges that once spanned the river: the 18th century wooden Poninski Bridge, which was destroyed soon after the turn of that century, and the early 20th century Poniatowski Bridge, part of which was blown up by the Nazis in 1944. Warsaw's official tourism site says that when the Poniatowski Bridge was reconstructed after the war, its "stone benches were not replaced—you can see the original pieces, which are still at the bottom of the river, during low tide."

Pieces of Jewish gravestones were also found in the river in Warsaw in 2012, when water levels reached a then-record low. That same year, the relatively empty river also revealed large pieces of elaborately carved marble believed to have been looted from Polish rulers by Swedish invaders in the 17th century.

"The drought helped us a lot because what had been lying underneath is now at the surface," Hubert Kowalski, deputy director of the University of Warsaw Museum, said at the time. "Now we have evidence, the best material evidence of the Swedish invasion so far."

Though it's not a surprise that such objects are hidden in the banks of the river, the task of locating and recovering them is challenging under normal conditions and in particular when the river is so full it comes close to overflowing (like in 2005 and 2014).

Abnormally high temperatures over the last several weeks and low rainfall in Poland have combined to bring about a drought which has caused barges and tour boats to stall in the shallow waters of the Vistula and some farmers to lose their crops. The weather also burdened the country's power grid since the use of fans was high and the river—which power stations use to cool their generators—could not do so properly. But it also has an archaeological and historical silver lining, allowing these artifacts to be discovered, retrieved and examined.

In the case of the Soviet fighter plane found this week, the finding goes beyond preservational value. Russian Embassy spokeswoman Valeria Perzhinskaya told the AP that based on the markings on the debris, it's possible the plane's crew could be identified and properly buried. Similarly, Daniels says he hopes to return the remnants of Jewish gravestones to the cemetery.