Scientific Murders


The Assignment


Two anthropologists, Bruno Beger and Hans Fleischhacker, arranged in June 1943 to perform anthropological measurements and studies on prisoners in the concentration camp Auschwitz. The sponsor of their project was the SS scientific organization Ahnenerbe, or “Ancestral Heritage.” Since April 1942, this research foundation had been reporting directly to the SS leader Heinrich Himmler. It promoted archeological, anthropological and historical research and participated in systematic theft of art, as well as experiments on human beings. Among others, the Munich and Strasbourg universities belonged to the beachheads of Ahnenerbe.


At the Reich University in Strasbourg, the anatomist Professor August Hirt worked for Ahnenerbe performing research considered to be of military importance, including human experiments in the concentration camp Natzweiler-Struthof. Hirt had in mind to take the skull collection, which had been kept at the Strasbourger University since the 19th Century, and to update and expand it “in accordance with contemporary points of view,” as he explained in a letter in January 1945. At that time, “contemporary points of view” included, as part of the Nazi ideology, asserting the existence of a separate, distinct Jewish race. Therefore, the skull collection was to be expanded through the collection of skulls from humans of Jewish descent. From the very beginning, Hirt had planned to do this using criminal methods. [1] Under the influence of Ahnenerbe, he came to a modification of the original project he had conceptualized early in 1942. Instead, he was to collect entire skeletons of Jews. The victims for his studies would no longer be found in Russian POW camps, as Hirt had originally planned, but rather from among the prisoners in Auschwitz. The plan was temporarily delayed due to a typhus epidemic that swept through Auschwitz; however, on April 28th, 1943, Sievers was notified by Adolf Eichmann that there was now “especially suitable material available,” and that, in this respect, “the present time would be particularly beneficial for these investigations.”


At Munich University, Ahnenerbe ran a center for teaching, research and expeditions on Inner Asia, which had been named the “Sved Hedin Institute” since January 1943. Originally, it exclusively served for the evaluation of the Tibet Expedition of 1938 and ‘39. The head of the institute, a captain by rank in the SS, was the zoologist Ernst Schäfer, who had led that expedition. His deputy Bruno Beger, who had also taken part as an anthropologist on the Tibet Expedition, was occupied with further race-anthropological studies on the “Inner Asian race types” and their “transitional members.” Ahnenerbe chief executive Wolfram Sievers tasked him with selecting and measuring 150 Jews in Auschwitz for Hirt’s planned collection. [2] For official use the operation was named after the contractor: “Operation Beger.” Sievers began to put together a team of anthropologists in May 1943, to which originally Hans Endres (Tübingen), Hans Fleischhacker (Tübingen) and Heinrich Rübel were to belong, in addition to Beger. However, SS Sergeant Endres and SS Captain Rübel were not available. For “Operation Beger,” there remained SS Captain Bruno Beger and SS First Lieutenant Hans Fleischhacker, as well as the Munich taxidermist Willi Gabel, who had received his delegation for “casting of Inner Asians.”


Collections everywhere


Because the National Socialists defined Jews as a separate race, they wanted to find characteristics that would prove their assertion. Anthropologists in Vienna made use of the liquidation of Jewish cemeteries to dig up skeletons and bring them into their institutes. In the anthropological department of the Vienna Museum of Natural History, the scientists collected 22 skulls of Jews and boasted in 1939 of having the largest collection of Jewish skulls in the German Reich. Whenever possible, the Viennese anthropologists correlated the data from gravestones with other available data.


On November 8th, 1937, the propaganda exhibition “The Eternal Jew,” a display taking up 3,500 square meters of space which had been put together by anthropologists, opened in the Bibliotheksbau building of the German Museum in Munich. Over 400,000 visitors were counted in only two months. They saw among the exhibits plasters of heads from Jews, which were presented as ideal types. One such plaster came from the Jewish Communist Werner Scholem, who was sent to the concentration camp Dachau in February 1937, where anthropologists took an impression of his face.


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The exhibition was also shown to 350,000 visitors in Vienna, where one exhibit prepared by Viennese anthropologists in September 1939 had the title: “The physical and mental appearance of Jews.” The exhibition’s maker Josef Wastl wanted to prove, in his own words, that Jewry “differs greatly from the German population in regards to both physical and mental aspects.” For the exhibition Waslt also used fingerprint and photographic records, which he had received from the Viennese police department.


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In the Viennese Museum of Natural History’s storehouse, several employees found several hundred so-called life masks and filled-out anthropological data entry forms in the end of the 1990s. They had been taken of Jews, taken and interned for several days in the Vienna Stadium for the purpose of this study by Wastl and his “historical commission,” just before their deportation to the concentration camp Buchenwald in Autumn 1939. Recorded from Wastl there is also a correspondence with the head taxidermist of the Anatomical Institute of the Reich University Posen. This head taxidermist prepared corpses of concentration camp victims who had been brought to the crematorium to be burned for purchase order. On March 4th, 1942, he wrote to Wastl in Vienna: “I can offer you Jewish skulls m./ 20 - 50 years for the price of RM 25.-, for which the exact age and place of birth can be given. (...) I can also deliver plaster death masks of the concerned individuals along with the Jewish skulls for the price of RM 15.-. I can also prepare plaster busts of especially typical East European Jews, so that one can see the form of the head and the often truly unique ears. The price of these busts would be between RM 30.- and 35.-.” Two days later they were ordered, and the bill in the museum was put under the title: “Upkeep and expansion of collections.”

In this context one can see the making of plans for a collection of Jewish skeletons at the Reich University Strasbourg.


Anthropologists in Auschwitz


In quick succession the scientists named for “Operation Beger” („Auftrag Beger“) arrived: Wilhelm Gabel on June 6, 1943, Bruno Beger on June 7th, and Hans Fleischhacker on June 11th, three days after he finished his habilitation at the Tübingen University. In the so-called main camp (Depiction 3), which with the exclusion of Block 10 was a men’s camp, the scientists obtained a work room in Block 28. In Block 10 (Depiction 3), in which experiments on the prisoners took place, they selected Jewish women, and in Block 21 (Depiction 4), a sick bay, they picked out Jewish men. The scientists then performed their anthropological repertoire on these prisoners. After the war, Fleischhacker stated: “These studies were comprised of head and facial measurements, important bodily measurements such as height and wingspan, etc., but also the recording of skin-, hair-, and eye color with the help of definition charts and the measurement of countless morphological characteristics such as the shape of the head, forehead, back of the head, nose, mouth, ear, etc.” Additionally, he photographed and filmed, as “the exact anthropological photography especially occupied” his work.


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The commission broke off their measurements early, allegedly out of fear that they would become infected with Typhus fever. After the anthropologists had left after a few short days  of work, 29 women and 60 men had to spend the time before departure waiting in quarantine. Finally, on July 30th, they left Auschwitz in the direction of Alsace in a railway car. On August 2nd they arrived at Rotau. Shortly thereafter, 29 Jewish women and 57 Jewish men passed through the gates of the concentration camp Natzweiler-Struthof. Three men had died during the trip. They are believed to have been Hans Israelski, Erich Markt und Günter Stamm. [3]


86 Murders in the Gas Chamber


Shortly before this, August Hirt had instructed the Natzweiler Struthof camp’s director Josef Kramer “that these persons should be killed with deadly gases in the camp’s gas chamber, and then their corpses should be brought to the anatomical institute, so that he could have them at his disposal.” So testified Kramer in court later on. The gas chamber was located outside the smaller camp area in a nearby building of the Struthof hotel. It had once been a cooling chamber, and had already been co-opted for poisonous gas experiments on prisoners, and was specially re-equipped for the murders.


It was on Wednesday, August 11th, 1943, at 9 o’clock in the evening, when SS men brought the first 15 of the 86 Auschwitz prisoners, all women, to the gas chamber. The room was 2.40 meters wide, 3.60 meters deep and 2.60 meters tall. Kramer reported at his hearing: “With the help of other SS men I undressed [the 15 women] completely and pushed them into the gas chamber. (...) As the doors were closed, they began to yell. [Then] I pushed a certain amount of salt into the chamber through a pipe, which came in through the peephole above and to the right. Then I closed the opening of the pipe with a cork affixed to the end of the pipe. This cork had a metal pipe. The metal pipe pushed the salt and water into the chamber (...). I lit the inside of the room (...) and observed through the peephole, what (...) was taking place. I saw that the women were breathing for about another half minute, before they fell onto the floor. After I turned on the chimney ventilation, I opened the doors. I found these women lifelessly laying on the floor.”


After three rounds on just as many evenings, Kramer completed the process of killing all 86 persons on August 19th, 1943. SS men transported the corpses to the Anatomical Institute at the Reich University Strasbourg, where they were conserved in the basement and placed in tubs by Hirt’s helpers. Due to the missing maceration device Hirt put off the assembly of the skeletons until the postwar period. [4]


Directly before the liberation of Strasbourg (November 21st, 1944), Hirt allowed, with instruction from Berlin, the destruction of the corpses. However, due to the shortness of time, this was never fully completed. The liberators found 17 complete bodies and the quartered torsos of 69 corpses in the anatomy basement. Their heads were burned in the city’s crematorium. After French coroners performed autopsies in July 1945, the complete bodies were laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery Strasbourg-Cronenbourg, and the remaining body parts in the city cemetery Robertsau. The transfer of their remains to the mass grave in Cronenbourg took place only in September 1951, on which exactly four years later a memorial stone was placed.


The Names of the Numbers


The names of those who were killed could not be engraved in the stone, because they were not known. Henri Henrypierre, an Alsace coworker in the Anatomy Institute, had taken the corpses in, and in doing so he noticed numbers on their left underarms, which he then secretly wrote down. He testified these details multiple times at witness hearings after the war, even at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal. On 13 of the 17 corpses and on three body parts, the coroners found the same numbers, and knew as little about what they could mean as did Henrypierre. Even though it soon became known that the numbers came from the concentration camp Auschwitz, it still took until 1970 that one of the 86 victims were identified thanks to these numbers: Max Menachem Taffel. The number is visible on a photo that was taken during forensic investigations. (Depiction 5) The identification was made by Hermann Langbein, the chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, with help from the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen. On January 14, 1995, Hermann Langbein was the first recipient to receive a letter from Hans-Joachim Lang, saying he was determined to resolve the fates of the 86 other Ahnenerbe victims. On October 21st, 2003, he read the names of all 86 victims for the first time in public at an open colloquium of the Cercle Menachem Taffel in Strasbourg. [6] In a grand ceremony at the Jewish cemetery in Cronenbourg, a suburb of Strasbourg, a memorial with all 86 names was unveiled at their gravesite. (Depiction 5)  


[1,2,3…] Square brackets refer to research questions that are answered in the appropriate place, for those interested and who want to delve into the issue further.