The remains of 86 Jewish Holocaust victims have been found at a forensic medicine institute in Strasbourg. Reports vary as to the state of the remains. Some say that fragmented pieces of skin are all that is left of some of the dead, while others claim that in some cases the bodies are physically intact. If is difficult to imagine how these remains could lie undiscovered at the institute for more than seventy years, we know that there is a long history of using human bodies in scientific research including forensic work.
The 86 people were killed during experiments conducted by the Nazi anatomist August Hirst and moved to the institute by him, possibly to be put on display. According to recent reports a forensic professor at the institute, Camille Simonin, in 1945 decided to keep the remains so that they could be used as evidence in the prosecution of Hirst. However, Hirst committed suicide and it seems that the existence of the 86 bodies was somehow ‘forgotten’ in the confusion of the immediate postwar years.
It was historian Raphael Toledano who discovered a reference to these remains in a letter by Simonin, and, following it up, found them at the institute earlier this month. That they were recovered via a paper trail is a reminder of the importance of historical research and the work of progressive museums, archivists and activists who challenge the display of human remains.
It is also a reminder that other human exhibits and research specimens may be hidden from view in the storage spaces of institutions that have lost of track of their possessions and histories.
As part of my Hirschfeld project I have been reading up on the Herero genocide, a brutal episode in Germany’s colonial history, which according to some historians paved the way for the atrocities of the Nazi regime. In 1904 German colonial forces in southwest Africa responded to an uprising by the local Herero and Nama people with extreme violence – commander Lothar von Trotha ordered a war of annihilation – and imprisoned the survivors in a concentration camp where they were subjected to forced labour, violence, random killings and medical experiments.
In 1908 Eugen Fischer, who would later gain infamy as a Nazi anatomist, visited the camp and conducted experiments upon the prisoners, which led him to formulate a spurious but influential theory about ’white’ European supremacy. The skulls and some skeletons were then sent to Germany for use at institutions such as the Institute for Pathology in Berlin and the city’s Charité hospital, which is where Hirschfeld had completed his medical training a decade earlier. In 2011, twenty skulls found in the Charité archive were returned to Namibia.
The uncovering in the twenty-first century of human remains in the archives and store rooms of major research organisations rightly makes headlines. If it sometimes enables the identification of the dead, and their burial under their own name, finding a material presence of lives extinguished so brutally can hardly be described in terms of closure. Perhaps more accurately the work of uncovering, rediscovery and research is a process of opening: of prising apart the ‘hidden’ doors behind which lie the dead we have yet to find.