Scientists start identifying the brains taken by Nazi researchers.

Science magazine reports on a new mission for German scientists, who are working to identify the human remains stored for study by Nazi euthanasia centers:

During World War II, as part of its racial hygiene program, the Nazi regime systematically killed at least 200,000 people it classified as mentally ill or disabled, historians say. … Now, a new initiative is seeking to reconstruct the biographies of victims used in brain research. Starting this month,the Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany’s top basic research organization, will open its doors to four independent researchers who will scour its archives and tissue sample collections for material related to the euthanasia program.

The project’s impetus is MPG’s desire to take moral responsibility for unethical research that its forerunner, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), conducted on euthanasia victims and their remains. “We want to find out who the victims were, uncover their biographies and their fates, and as such give them part of their human dignity back and find an appropriate way of remembrance,” says Heinz Wa?ssle, an emeritus director of the neuroanatomy department at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and head of an MPG committee overseeing the new investigation.

Despite numerous accounts of ghastly experiments and high-profile prosecutions of doctors during the Nuremberg trials after World War II, historians involved in MPG’s new investigation say they still don’t understand the full extent of research that top institutes conducted in cooperation with killing programs. “Historians of euthanasia generally took their research to the point of death of the victims,” says Paul Weindling of Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. “What was not reconstructed was that a proportion of victims”—he estimates 5%—“had their brains withheld for research.”

A survivor at the Hadamar Institute in Germany in 1945. In 1941, more than 10,000 disabled adults were gassed and cremated at the killing center.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of Rosanne Bass Fulton
Germany to probe Nazi-era medical science
By Megan GannonJan. 5, 2017 , 9:00 AM
Soon after Hans-Joachim was born, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. The infant boy suffered from partial paralysis and spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. In 1934, when he was 5 years old, his parents admitted him to an asylum in Potsdam, Germany, where clinical records described Hans-Joachim as a “strikingly friendly and cheerful” child. But his condition did not improve. He spent a few years at a clinic in Brandenburg-Go?rden, Germany, and then, on an early spring day in 1941, he was “transfered to another asylum at the instigation of the commissar for defense of the Reich”—code words meaning that Hans-Joachim, then 12, was gassed at a Nazi “euthanasia” center. His brain was sent to a leading neuropathologist.

During World War II, as part of its racial hygiene program, the Nazi regime systematically killed at least 200,000 people it classified as mentally ill or disabled, historians say. Stories like Hans-Joachim’s have largely been lost to history. Now, a new initiative is seeking to reconstruct the biographies of victims used in brain research. Starting this month,the Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany’s top basic research organization, will open its doors to four independent researchers who will scour its archives and tissue sample collections for material related to the euthanasia program.

The project’s impetus is MPG’s desire to take moral responsibility for unethical research that its forerunner, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), conducted on euthanasia victims and their remains. “We want to find out who the victims were, uncover their biographies and their fates, and as such give them part of their human dignity back and find an appropriate way of remembrance,” says Heinz Wa?ssle, an emeritus director of the neuroanatomy department at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and head of an MPG committee overseeing the new investigation.

Despite numerous accounts of ghastly experiments and high-profile prosecutions of doctors during the Nuremberg trials after World War II, historians involved in MPG’s new investigation say they still don’t understand the full extent of research that top institutes conducted in cooperation with killing programs. “Historians of euthanasia generally took their research to the point of death of the victims,” says Paul Weindling of Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. “What was not reconstructed was that a proportion of victims” — he estimates 5% — “had their brains withheld for research.”

In the 1980s, journalist Go?tz Aly correlated brain tissue slides collected by Julius Hallervorden, the World War II–era director of the neuropathology department at KWG’s Institute for Brain Research here, with a group of 38 children who were murdered by the euthanasia program one day in October 1940.

Hallervorden remains a focus. He accepted hundreds of brains of euthanasia victims, a U.S. intelligence officer testified at the so-called Nazi doctors’ trial in Nuremberg, but was never prosecuted. Instead, he retained his KWG post after the war and continued to study the “wonderful material” from the killing centers, as he described it when debriefed by the intelligence officer.

In early 2015, Wa?ssle set out to identify victims whose remains ended up in Hallervorden’s “Series H” collection, which included slices of Hans-Joachim’s brain. In the process, he came upon a cardboard box containing about 100 brain sections. He confirmed that at least some were from euthanasia victims: Not all the Nazi-era slides were interred at Waldfriedhof after all. A search at the psychiatry institute also turned up more slides.

Over the next 3 years, the investigators will attempt to uncover any remaining specimens and link them to clinical records at hospitals and asylums, university archives, and KWG scientists’ files, now scattered across a couple dozen institutions. Weindling says he and his colleagues hope to identify as many as 5,000 victims.

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We’re still – *still* – figuring out what all went on in the Third Reich. I wonder if they’ll find a section of my grandfather’s brain among these.

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