A French University Confronts Medical Crimes and Its Nazi In Past

France — For decades, students at the prestigious University of Strasbourg have been exchanging rumors that the human remains of Nazi victims kept as anatomical or pathological specimens are still lying somewhere on campus.

There is suspicion. When Germany annexed Alsace in France in 1940, Germany invested money and resources to turn the university into a Nazi model institution: the Reichsuniversität Straßburg.

From 1941 to 1944, professors at the local medical school forced at least 250 people from concentration or extermination camps to conduct experiments, some with chemical weapons such as mustard gas or deadly diseases such as typhoid. 86 Jews brought from Auschwitz were killed in a nearby camp for the planned collection of skeletons.

But it is difficult to find complete information about what happened during those years.

“The position of medical school is, ‘That’s not our story,'” said Christian Bona, a medical historian at the university whose pre-war faculty and students were evacuated before Germany invaded. The common view, he said, was that “the wall is innocent” no matter what the Nazis did to them.

Now, however, that refusal to confront the past is called into question.

In May, the university published a 500-page report that fundamentally revised its self-image and said aloud what had previously been whispers: that the Alsatians also worked at the Reichsuniversität, that their professor’s medical crimes were widespread and that the school was closely linked to the concentration camp in which he worked. same.

The report, created by the university in 2016, was sparked by a controversy that erupted when the anatomical remains of a Nazi victim were actually found in a cupboard.

“There is a huge effort to become more aware of our history,” said Michelle Deneken, president of the university. “This is a turning point.”

Surprised, several former university officials contacted him after the report was published, claiming “Reichsuniversität is not our university,” but after reading the document changed course, he said, adding “it’s not as black and white as they thought.” . “

A dozen highly qualified international scholars, most of whom specialize in the history of medicine or Nazism, have worked closely on this report for more than five years.

They cleaned out boxes of documents and the remains of anatomical or pathological collections that were intentionally or unintentionally left in basements, attics, and warehouses on campus—in one case even hidden in false ceilings. They found about 10,000 clinical records; nearly 300 medical theses were analyzed; review more than 150,000 page files in archives worldwide; and create collaborative databases.

“We’re trying to reconstruct in detail how highly nationalized university medicine works, with huge numbers of students and huge research funds pumped into it, plus access to corpses,” said Paul Weindling, committee member and research professor at Oxford-Brookes – University.

The committee found that the university had closer ties than previously thought to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, about 40 km southwest of Strasbourg, where experiments were carried out on prisoners and people transferred from other camps such as Auschwitz. During the war, 52,000 people were held there, 20,000 of whom died. It was the only concentration camp on French soil.

“There has to be transparency about what and where happens in the NS context,” Weindling said. “The university is ready to accept that.”

This is not always the case.

When a 2015 book claimed that there were anatomical remains of Jewish victims on campus, angry school officials vehemently denied it.

But that same year, Rafael Toledano, a Jewish doctor in Strasbourg who was researching the Nazi era, came across a letter from Camille Simonin, a coroner and professor.

Mr Simonin has autopsied the bodies of 86 Jews who had been murdered in the gas chambers of the Natzweiler-Strutoff camp in 1943, at the behest of August Hirt, an anatomist at the university, to create a collection of skeletons intended to illustrate the Nazi ideology of racial hierarchy.

The bodies were found in a tank in the basement of the Faculty of Anatomy when Strasbourg was released in 1944. In his letter, Mr. Simonin wrote that he kept some of the bodies as evidence to assist prosecutors in post-war trials.