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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 the investigation into human remains found on Freie Universität grounds

№ 033/2021 from Feb 23, 2021

At an official public informational event, Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the Max Planck Society and the Berlin State Monuments Office (Landesdenkmalamt Berlin) presented the findings of the investigation into human remains found on the grounds of Freie Universität Berlin since 2014. The remains consist of around 16,000 human bone fragments. A research team lead by archaeologist Professor Susan Pollock analyzed the remains using non-invasive osteological techniques. The findings show that the bones are from people of all age groups and both biological sexes. Remains of glue and evidence of labelling on some of the bones together with an absence of modern medical interventions suggest that the bones may have originated from anthropological or archaeological collections. However, the assemblage as a whole differs from collections that were typical for the nineteenth or first half of the twentieth century. The possibility cannot be excluded that some of the bones might originate from a context directly linked to National Socialist crimes. Overall, it is not possible to reconstruct their origins conclusively. The Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma were involved in a first round of 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 bones were found during construction work outside 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, arranging for archaeological excavations in 2015 and 2016. Archaeologists discovered thousands of human bone fragments together with animal bones and other objects.

Most of the animal bones – some of which were mixed with the human remains – are from rabbits and rats, animals that were known to have been used for experimental purposes in the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Both their morphology as well as pathologies visible on the bones show that these animals were bred for laboratory research.

Among the associated objects were small plastic tags that were inscribed with letters and numbers as well as a large piece of a plaster cast of a man’s body. Plaster casts of faces, heads, hands, and feet were frequently made in colonial and other coercive contexts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The plaster cast found at the site dates no earlier than the year 1917.

However, Professor Pollock emphasized that the original provenance of the human remains and the plaster cast cannot at present be specified with any certainty. What is clear is that they were housed in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology prior to their disposal. Pollock notes, “Even if we cannot know exactly where these people came from, we must deplore the fact that their bones were discarded with a callous disrespect on the grounds of the institute.”

The concluding discussion included suggestions for a dignified burial in a non-religious ceremony as well as different possibilities for a memorial on the campus of Freie Universität Berlin.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics housed medical-anthropological collections of various types. Many had colonial origins. The institute was one of the most important establishments providing a “scientific” legitimation for the murderous 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.