Berlin Holds Funeral for Bone Fragments Linked to Nazi Research

Discovered in 2014, the remains of at least 54 victims were buried at a ceremony this week

Woman throwing flowers
A woman throws flowers on the boxes containing human remains at Waldfriedhof cemetery. Carsten Koall / Getty Images

At the Waldfriedhof cemetery on the west side of Berlin, a gray headstone sits behind piles of colorful wreaths and flowers.

The stone reads: “In memory of the victims of the crimes committed in the name of science.”

On Thursday, mourners in Berlin gathered at the funeral for at least 54 men, women and children whose bones were discovered on the site of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. According to experts, some of these individuals may have been victims of colonial-era and Nazi crimes.

“It is our duty, even if it has been a long time, to grant peace to all the victims, even if we do not know their names,” Günter Ziegler, president of Berlin’s Free University, tells Clément Kasser of Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Lowering the boxes
Mourners lowering the boxes into the ground at Thursday's ceremony Carsten Koall / Getty Images

The bones were discovered in 2014, when researchers collected roughly 16,000 fragments during an archaeological dig at the site. Some of the remains are two centuries old and likely came from all over the world, including from German colonial occupations in Africa. Almost all of the bones had traces of some form of adhesive or inscription still on them, suggesting that they were part of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s collections. 

But that was where the analysis stopped. The researchers decided against attempts to uncover the victims’ origins, reasoning that such research would too closely approximate the institute’s focus on racial classification.

Free University
A view of the Free University, the former site of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics Torinberl via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

“A specification of the victims by groups would ultimately only reproduce the racist methods and ideologies of the past,” Zeigler tells Geir Moulson of the Associated Press.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which stood from 1927 for 1945, was infamous for its connection to Nazi scientists, most notably Josef Mengele, who conducted experiments on human subjects at Auschwitz.

The institute “turned human lives into things, into research objects,” Susan Pollock, the Free University archaeologist who led the research, tells AFP.

A crowd of about 230 attended the ceremony, with representatives from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma and the Central Council of the African Community in attendance. These groups consulted with the Free University on the question of whether to conduct additional research on the victims. 

A plaque in German describes the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics. Torinberl via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Assembling mourners for the ceremony was “helping to ensure that the stories of the victims continue to be told or are even told for the first time,” Daniel Botmann, director of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, tells Reuters’ Martin Schlicht, Leon Malherbe and Sarah Marsh.

The remains were buried in five caskets, which pallbearers carried during Thursday’s funeral. The ceremony was intentionally devoid of religious or European symbolism, a decision made to better honor the wide range of cultures the victims represented.

“There are atrocities over which no grass can grow or should be allowed to grow,” Ziegler told the crowd, per AFP. “It is our duty to remember.”

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