May 28, 2024

Nazi prisoners’ bodies buried… in pieces  

A final resting place for 184 Nazi political prisoners

Tissue samples belong to 184 executed Nazi political prisoners have been buried in Berlin more than seven decades after their deaths.

The body parts were discovered at a property which had belonged to anatomy professor Hermann Stieve, of Berlin’s Charite Hospital.

Stieve experimented on bodies, mostly of women prisoners. He was particularly interested in whether stress had an impact on women’s reproductive cycles.

The prisoners were executed at Berlin-Plötzensee prison. They were immediately taken to Stieve’s laboratory for dissection. Afterwards he organised for cremation and interment.

Current CEO of Charite hospital Dr Karl Max Einhäupl said that the burial was part of an effort by the hospital to confront its – and German medicine's – difficult relationship with Nazism. “By burying the microscopic specimens at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, we want to help restore to the victims some of their dignity.”

The body samples were interred together in a tiny coffin.

Andreas Winkelmann, a professor of anatomy at Brandenburg Medical School in Neuruppin, told AFP: “Such small tissue samples are usually not deemed worthy of burial.” But the victims had been denied graves during the Nazi regime and their relatives had never known where they were buried.

Stieve was not prosecuted after World War II because he had never been a member of the Nazi Party. However, the regime gave a big boost to his research. “Before 1933, he was able to source the bodies of executed men, but no women; Germany was not executing women,” Dr Sabine Hildebrandt, an anatomist-historian, told the BBC. “Then, suddenly, during the Third Reich, women were being executed too.”

Her historical research has shown that of the 31 anatomical departments at universities in Germany and its occupied territories between 1933 and 1945, “all of them – without exception – received bodies of the executed from execution chambers”.

Nic Zumaran writes from Sydney.

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