A psychiatric research institute in Munich has been accidentally archiving body parts once used by Nazi doctors. The human components, mostly brains, were discovered during construction work at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry last year, and the grim tale behind this inadvertent storage was revealed this week on Israeli-run Army Radio, according to 9 News.
Just preceding and during the Second World War, this particular institute was linked with warped Nazi theories of racial eugenics, and as part of this ideology, it requested human body parts to examine. Many of these were sent by the Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele, who was one of the most deranged and disturbed members of the Nazi regime.
Known as the Angel of Death, Mengele – as part of a team of doctors – selected victims to be killed in the concentration camp’s gas chambers, along with performing violent and deadly experiments on prisoners. The brains of many of those who died were shipped off to the Max Planck Institute, and they have unfortunately been using them without realizing.
Officially, the brains were part of the estate of one Julius Hallervorden, a Nazi Party member who served as the institute’s head of neuropathology. He later went on to conduct similarly awful experiments on victims, including children, during the course of the Second World War. These samples only reached the institute in 2015, and at the time, the dark history behind them was not made clear.
“The investigations into the brain sections belonging to the estate of the doctor and brain researcher Julius Hallervorden… have prompted the President of the Max Planck Society to launch a total review of all those Max Planck Institutes that still own collections of human specimens,” the organization announced in a statement.
“The Max Planck Society will also appoint a project with a view to establishing the identities of the victims based on the available files and records,” it adds, advising that “the human specimens discovered as part of the total review should, wherever possible, subsequently buried with names.”
Image in text: Josef Mengele, pictured just before 1945. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Previous attempts to locate such controversial brain samples originating from the Nazi era had taken place in the 1990s, and all uncovered specimens were buried in a mass grave. It seems that some, however, slipped past further checks back in 2001. The institute admits that the classification of brain samples back then was carried out “too superficially,” and that brain sections “could clearly be allocated to ‘euthanasia’ victims.”
“It is our duty to give an identity to the dead,” President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann, somberly concluded.
The two doctors at the center of this controversy had very different lives after the Third Reich collapsed in 1945.
When interrogated by an American neuropsychiatrist that year, Hallervorden was remarkably open about his involvement in the program, and he declared that it was not his concern where the brains came from. “They came bringing [brains] in like a delivery van from the furniture company,” he explained.
During the post-war period, he held a research position at the institute, and he eventually died on May 29, 1965.
Mengele left Auschwitz on January 17, 1945, shortly before it was liberated by Red Army troops. Assisted by a network of former SS members, he managed to flee to Argentina in July, 1949, avoiding all attempts at capture and prosecution until his death on February 7, 1979.
He drowned off the coast of Brazil, and was buried under a false name, but his remains were exhumed in 1985 and confirmed to belong to him during a subsequent forensic examination.
Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele's experiments. The children pictured here were liberated by the Red Army at the start of 1945. USHMM/Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain