No Certainty on Origin of Human Remains Found on Campus

Freie Universität Berlin, Max Planck Society, and Berlin State Monuments Office present the findings of their investigation into human remains found on Freie Universität land

No 033/2021 from Feb 23, 2021

At an official public information event, experts from Freie Universität Berlin, the Max Planck Society, and the Berlin State Monuments Office (Landesdenkmalamt Berlin) presented the findings of their investigation into human remains found on the grounds of Freie Universität Berlin in recent years. The remains, which were first discovered in 2014, consist of around 16,000 human skeletal parts and bone fragments. A research team lead by archaeologist Professor Susan Pollock has analyzed the remains using a non-invasive osteological technique. The findings show that the bones are from male and female humans of all age groups. Adhesive residue and evidence of labelling on many of the bones, together with a lack of any sign of modern medical interventions, would usually signal that the bones could have originated from anthropological or archaeological collections, but not in this case. Professor Pollock explained that the way in which the bones present as a whole differs from the kind of collection that was typical for the nineteenth or first half of the twentieth century. As a result, the possibility cannot be excluded that some of the bones might originate from a context directly linked to National Socialist crimes. Overall, however, it is not possible to reconstruct their origin. The Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma were involved in the deliberations on how to deal with the remains. More than 350 people from Germany and abroad registered to take part in the digital information event.

In 2014, human skeletal parts and bone fragments were found during construction work on the outdoor area of the University Library of Freie Universität Berlin, in the vicinity of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Following the discovery, Freie Universität Berlin, the Max Planck Society, and the Berlin State Monuments Office worked in partnership to investigate the findings, carrying out archaeological excavations in 2015 and 2016. The archaeologists discovered thousands of human bone fragments together with animal bones and other objects.

Most of the animal bones - some of which were mixed up with the human remains - are from rabbits and rats, animals that were often used for experimental purposes at the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. A forensic analysis of the morphology and pathology of the bones shows that it is highly likely that the animals were bred for laboratory research.

Among the objects found were small plastic tags inscribed with letters and numbers, and a large fragment of a plaster cast of a man’s body. Plaster casts of faces, heads, hands, and feet were frequently made for purposes related to colonialism or research in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, usually in situations involving oppression of some kind. The plaster cast found at the site can almost certainly be dated to the period from 1917.

However, Professor Pollock emphasized that the original provenance of the human remains and the plaster cast cannot be known with any certainty. What is clear, however, is that they were certainly left on the site after being held at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Pollock notes, "Even if we cannot know exactly where these people came from, we can only feel a profound sadness that they were abandoned and buried on the grounds of the research institute in this way. Their treatment speaks of an utter disrespect for human life."

The concluding discussion considered ways in which the remains might be buried with dignity in a non-religious ceremony, and a possible memorial site on the campus of Freie Universität Berlin.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics housed medical-ethnological collections of various types. Many had colonial origins. Among other things, it provided a "scientific" legitimation for National Socialist racial policy. Over the past few years there have been numerous national and international discussions about the remains, both in the media and among experts. They were discussed, for example, at a symposium at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem.

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