SOLOGUBOVKA On a patch of gravel in a northern Russian meadow, a world away from her prosperous Bavarian home, Gertrud Kaes eyed a row of granite slabs engraved with thousands of names and anxiously worked her way along the Ks.
"He must be here somewhere," she sighed. Clutching a dahlia in one hand, the German housewife's fingers traced the list of names in search of two words: Adolf Kroepl.
The Wehrmacht corporal Kaes' uncle died here, south of Leningrad, in 1942, a year into the Nazis' 900-day siege of the city. He "passed away gently and peacefully," said the death notice the family received a year later.
That was the last they heard until this year when they learned that the remains of Kroepl were being exhumed and reburied in a corner of a foreign field that may now be forever Germany.
The Sologubovka cemetery, holding 22,000 German dead from World War II and slated to take 80,000, was opened at a ceremony earlier this month, providing a final resting place for Kroepl and thousands like him more than half a century after they died.
Some 70 km southeast of St. Petersburg on 12 acres on the fringes of the village, Sologubovka is the biggest German war cemetery anywhere, including in Germany itself.
Its opening marked the climax to a German quest to locate and rebury the fallen soldiers of the Third Reich all across Russia and Eastern Europe in the nine years since the collapse of communism.
"We've got projects like this in Poland, in the Baltic states, in the Czech republic, in Slovakia, in Hungary. All over the former Warsaw Pact in the countries where we couldn't work until 1990," said Fritz Kirchmeier of the People's Union for Care of War Graves, based in Kassel.
German researchers and forensic experts have been working systematically across the former communist bloc throughout the 1990s. An estimated 4 million German military personnel died between Berlin and Moscow in the war, just over half in what was the Soviet Union. Almost all the German war dead lay neglected for the duration of the Cold War, the sites virtually unknown.
So far 250,000 German war dead have been exhumed from unmarked graves and reburied. A German war cemetery was opened in the Polish port of Gdansk a couple of weeks ago, yet another in the Slovak capital, Bratislava in July.
They are among scores of such projects in a race against time to locate the dead. "The relatives of the dead are getting very old, and the eye witnesses who can tell us where the corpses were buried are also very old, so we have to speed up our work. We reckon we've got another five years," Kirchmeier said.
Four teams of six are working in the St. Petersburg area alone using Wehrmacht documents and witness testimony to trace the dead. When located, the corpses frequently have ID tags or other means of identification. The remains are reburied in Sologubovka.
The cemetery project including a new tarmac road paid for by the Germans, who are also funding the renovation of the village church has cost more than $1.5 million.
"We Russians are an affectionate people; it's good to see these Germans here. They're different from the Nazis," said Lida Titarenko, 67, a local woman who was enslaved by the German forces who occupied Sologubovka in 1941.
"The Germans destroyed this place. Now they're rebuilding it. That's good," she said without bitterness.
But while the Sologubovka villagers welcomed the Germans, digging up the past has also generated resentment, and opposition across the region. Russian war veterans largely boycotted last week's ceremony. "We can't agree to this," said Zoya Kornilyeva, deputy head of the St. Petersburg WWII veterans' committee. "The Germans are always preaching reconciliation, but we're not prepared for that. They go around paying big money and unfortunately our people fall for that."