‘Behind all the numbers there are human fates’: Germany mourns 80,000 pandemic victims at memorial

Germany held a national memorial service on Sunday for its nearly 80,000 victims of the coronavirus pandemic, with the president urging the country to put aside deep divisions over Covid restrictions to share the pain of grieving families.

'Behind all the numbers there are human fates': Germany mourns 80,000 pandemic victims at memorial
Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Angela Merkel at the service in Berlin in Sunday. credit: dpa | Christoph Soeder

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier joined an ecumenical service in the morning at Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a memorial against war and destruction, before attending a ceremony later at the capital’s Konzerthaus concert hall.

“Today, as a society, we want to remember those who died a lonely and often agonising death during this dark time,” said Steinmeier.

“I have the impression that we as a society do not make ourselves aware that behind all the numbers there are human fates, people. Their suffering and their deaths have often remained invisible to the public,” he said.

With pandemic curbs still in force restricting the number of people who can attend, the ceremonies were being broadcast live on public television.

As debate raged in Germany over measures put in place by Merkel’s government, including the limitation of social contact to halt contagion, Steinmeier said it was a “bitter truth” that such Covid restrictions had “also brought about suffering”.

Besides the pain of losing a loved one, restrictions in place mean that relatives are often unable to even hold their family members’ hands as they lay dying.

Others have been left grieving on their own, as funerals or memorials are curtailed.

Angela Merkel arrives at the Memeorial Church in Berlin in Sunday. dpa | Christoph Soeder

“We have restricted our lives to save lives. That is a conflict where there can be no way out without contradiction,” admitted Steinmeier.

But he also defended the actions, saying that “politicians must make difficult, sometimes tragic decisions to prevent an even greater catastrophe.”

“My request today is this: let us speak about pain and suffering and anger.
But let us not lose ourselves in recriminations, in looking back, but let us once again gather strength for the way forward.”

Candles of hope

Anita Schedel, the widow of a 59-year-old doctor who died from the virus, spoke of the ordeal of watching her husband first be hospitalised and then succumb to the disease.

“After he arrived in hospital, my husband phoned me to say ‘Don’t worry, I’m in good hands. We’ll see each other again’. Those were his last words,” she said at the ceremony.

“Until today, my memory is haunted by those long hospital corridors, the beeping machines and my husband marked by the illness,” she said.

Regional leaders had urged citizens to join in the remembrance including by lighting candles by their windows from Friday to Sunday.

“We want to be aware of what we lost, but we also want to find hope and strength together,” the premiers of Germany’s 16 states said in a statement.

‘Only makes it worse’

Sunday’s ceremony comes as health authorities warn that many more will succumb to the virus.

Europe’s biggest economy had come out of the first wave relatively unscathed but has struggled to take decisive action to end the current one fuelled mainly by the more contagious British variant.

Another 19,185 new infections were recorded in the last 24 hours, according to the disease control agency RKI, with the numbers of deaths also rising by 67 to 79,914.

Merkel’s government is seeking greater powers to impose tougher measures such as night-time curfews, in a bid to circumvent Germany’s powerful regional authorities, some of whom have resisted implementing tough restrictions.

But the amendment still has to be approved by parliament, where opposition parties like the pro-business FDP have vowed to vote against it.

Even junior coalition partner SPD is still seeking modifications, including for people to be allowed to go on walks during curfew hours.

 Merkel urged swift and decisive action.

“The virus doesn’t let you negotiate with it — it only understands one language, the language of resolve,” she told the Bundestag lower house on Friday at the start of a debate on the law amendment.

READ MORE: When could Germany’s nationwide ’emergency brake’ Covid measures come into effect?

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

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.

'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

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