No small matter: minute remains of Nazi victims buried
Tissue samples found on microscopic glass plates are rare concrete proof that prisoners’ bodies were sent for dissection
More than seven decades after World War 2 ended, about 300 tiny pieces of human tissue from political prisoners executed by the Nazis have been buried in a Berlin cemetery.
The samples – each a hundredth of a millimetre thin and about a square centimetre in size – were uncovered on microscopic glass plates by the descendants of Third Reich anatomy professor Hermann Stieve.
Stieve dissected and researched the bodies of inmates killed at the Berlin Ploetzensee jail, including those of executed resistance fighters – in part to examine the physical impact of fear experienced by women.
A ceremony was held, with descendants of the victims expected to attend, before the remains were finally laid to rest at Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt cemetery on Monday, with a Catholic and a Protestant priest and a rabbi present.
“With the burial of the microscopic specimens, we want to take a step toward giving the victims back their dignity,” said Karl Max Einhaeupl, head of Berlin’s university hospital Charite.
He said the burial was part of a historical project by the hospital to confront its role in the medical profession’s difficult relationship with Nazism.
The burial site had been picked because there were many graves and memorials for Nazi victims there, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which is organising the event with Charite.
Tuchel said the human tissue samples were among “the last remains of people who were victims of the Nazis’ unjust justice system ... They were denied a grave at that time, and so today a burial is a matter of course”.
Noose and guillotine
More than 2,800 inmates of Berlin-Ploetzensee prison were put to the guillotine or hanged between 1933 and 1945. Most were then sent for dissection to the Berlin Institute of Anatomy.
Stieve was the institute’s director from 1935 to 1952 and carried out controversial research on the female reproductive system.
Most of the 300 specimens found in Stieve’s estate stemmed from women, says a plaque to commemorate them, which does, however, not list the names of individual victims at the request of relatives.
Andreas Winkelmann, who was tasked by Stieve’s heirs to determine the origin of the histological samples, said it was unclear how many individuals’ remains were included in the batch of specimens.
About 20 specimens came with names, others only numbers.
The clues have, however, helped draw a firm link with the Ploetzensee victims.
Humiliating the victims
Crucially for the history books, the microscopic remains provided rare concrete proof that prisoners’ bodies were sent for dissection.
Winkelmann said the Nazis had sent the bodies to Stieve for dissection “not because they wanted to back Stieve’s research, but because it was a way to humiliate the victims once again”.
“First, by sending them to anatomy – something that not everyone wants ... and it was also a way to deny the victims a grave,” Winkelmann, a professor at Brandenburg Medical School’s Institute of Anatomy, said.
Adolf Hitler’s regime sought to dump the remains of executed prisoners in unmarked mass graves because it did not want sites where relatives could mourn the victims, and from where political demonstrations could ensue.
Among those executed at Ploetzensee were 42 resistance fighters from the Berlin group Red Orchestra. Stieve is believed to have dissected at least 13 of 18 executed women belonging to the group.He was never charged with a crime and continued his medical career after the war, like many other scientists who collaborated with the Nazis.Only the highest-ranking physicians under the Third Reich were prosecuted at Nuremberg in the so-called doctors’ trial for grotesque human experimentation and mass murder under the “euthanasia” programme.