'They were denied a grave': Microscopic remains of Nazi victims given final resting place

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'They were denied a grave': Microscopic remains of Nazi victims given final resting place
Archive photo from 1997 shows Bundeswehr soldiers laying a wreath for war victims at the Berlin-Plötzensee memorial. Photo: DPA

More than 300 tiny pieces of human tissue from political prisoners executed by the Nazis and dissected for research were buried Monday at a Berlin cemetery, more than 70 years after World War II ended.


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 the Third Reich anatomy professor Hermann Stieve.

Stieve dissected and researched the bodies of inmates killed at the Berlin Plötzensee 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 2pm at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in central Berlin with a Catholic and a Protestant priest and a rabbi present.

Descendents of the victims attended a multi-religious ceremony, before the remains were finally laid to rest at Berlin's Dorotheenstadt cemetery on Monday afternoon.

Saskia von Brockdorff, whose mother Erika von Brockdorff was murdered at Plötzensee, told AFP the burial provided "good closure".

"Now I know where I can mourn my mother, because she was executed on May 13th, 1943, and we always went to Plötzensee (to mourn her). But that's not really a good place to remember her, at least not for my soul. I'm now glad I can come here," said the 81-year-old.

The grave is near an existing memorial to victims of the Nazis. The samples were interred in one small coffin measuring 30cm x 30cm x 40cm.

"With the burial of the microscopic specimens... we want to take a step toward giving the victims back their dignity," said Karl Max Einhaeupl, the 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 as there are many graves and memorials for the victims of Nazism there, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which is organizing the special 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."

SEE ALSO: Remains of Nazi prisoners to be buried in Berlin decades after war

Noose and guillotine

More than 2,800 people held at Berlin-Plötzensee prison were put to the guillotine or hanged between 1933 and 1945, and most were then sent for dissection at 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.

Hermann Stieve. Photo: Wikicommons

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, told AFP.

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.

Most of the 300 specimens found in Stieve's estate stemmed from women, adds a plaque to commemorate them, which does however not list the names of individual victims at the request of relatives.

Among those executed at Plötzensee were 42 resistance fighters from the Berlin group Red Orchestra. Stieve is believed to have dissected at least 13 of 18 executed female Red Orchestra fighters.

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.

By Hui Min Neo



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