The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remains of Holocaust experiment victims found at French forensic institute

Undated photograph of the University of Strasbourg. (Library of Congress)

Nazi anatomy professor August Hirt wanted a Jewish skeleton collection.

In 1942, he set in motion a scientific study at the Anatomical Institute of Reich University in Strasbourg to try to prove Jews were an inferior race. Anthropologists went to Auschwitz to select Jews for “medical experiments,” which included detailed measurements and documentation of skin, hair and eye color, according to research. Ultimately, 86 were sent to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp and gassed. Their bodies went to Hirt’s lab.

It’s a historical horror French doctor and historian Raphael Toledano has been researching for years, working to find evidence of Hirt’s torment. Tissue samples taken from Hirt’s victims were thought to be stored in a private museum in Strasbourg, forgotten in the forensic science collection at the university. Toledano wanted to find them. But it wasn’t until now that he was able to.

Toledano had stumbled upon a letter six decades old, describing the specimens — specimens intended to be used as evidence to prosecute Hirt for his crimes. Officials said skin samples of one victim showed bruising from apparent abuse and samples from another victim’s intestine and stomach showed they were underfed.

Toledano said he approached the university about it a few years ago but was told the Nazis left nothing behind. He tried again earlier this month.

Toledano said he was led to a locked storage room on the campus.

“It was a small room displaying jars, skulls, bullets and gas masks,” Toledano told The Washington Post. “We started looking for the jars and after a few minutes, we found the first jar … containing pieces of the skin of one victim of the gas chamber. After several minutes, we found the other jars — two test tubes with the contents of the stomach and the intestine of one victim.”

Toledano, along with Jean-Sebastien Raul, director of Strasbourg’s forensic science institute, uncovered the specimens July 9 in jars and test tubes inside a glass cupboard in a locked room at the university. One jar, which contained five pieces of skin, was labeled with a note that the remains were from a victim at Natzweiler-Struthof for Hirt’s experiment, Toledano said. Two test tubes contained “potato peels” of intestine and stomach and were documented with an autopsy number — No. 107969 — which related to a number tattooed on the arm of one victim, a milkman from Berlin, he said.

“How could we still find in the museum of the facility the remains of Jews killed by Hirt 70 years ago?” Toledano said. “It’s terrifying.”

Raul said the University of Strasbourg, which houses one of France’s most prestigious medical schools, never intended to hide the samples from the public. He said the collection contains many forensic cases that involve stab wounds, hanging and suffocation, for example, to help educate forensic scientists and students.

“I didn’t know we had it,” he told The Post.

It was 1943 when German anthropologists selected 109 Jews for examination. They measured their heads and made casts of their faces. They took photographs and X-rays. They drew blood. Eighty-six were loaded into a train and taken to Natzweiler-Struthof in France’s Vosges Mountains, where they were forced to march through the Natzweiler village on the way to their death.

One night in August, within the camp’s double barbed-wire prison, Hitler’s soldiers shoved them into a gas chamber, according to research by German journalist Hans-Joachim Lang. Camp commandant Josef Kramer later reported, “With the aid of several SS men, I completely undressed [15 women] and pushed them into the gas chamber. … When the doors closed, they began to scream,” according to Lang’s study. “I saw that the women continued to breathe for about half a minute before they fell to the floor.”

Many victims at the time were forced laborers, political prisoners and prisoners of war, according to Lang’s research. Over the years, Lang has worked to identify the 86 and tell their stories.

Their bodies were indeed taken to Hirt’s anatomical institute, according to the study, but because Hirt lacked the equipment he needed to carry out his experiments, the bodies were forgotten there until World War II’s bloody end. When America liberated Strasbourg, the bodies were found — some untouched; others cut up or burned, buried in bins of distilled alcohol, according to Agence France-Presse.

After autopsies, the bodies were buried in a mass grave.

The specimens uncovered this month were samples taken by Camille Simonin, who served as Strasbourg’s director of the forensic science school after the war, as evidence of Hirt’s crimes.

“The evidence that has been found has absolutely nothing to do with the preparations performed by Hirt for anatomical purpose on the victims,” Raul, the institute’s current director, said. He said the samples were collected during autopsies and kept in a private forensic science collection at the university as evidence “to show to future generations what has been done.”

Ahead of a French military tribunal in Metz, France, Simonin had been tasked to perform autopsies to “establish the conditions that had led to the death” of the victims, according to AFP. He penned a letter in 1952 to a judge who planned to put Hirt on trial, referencing jars that contained samples — evidence against Hirt — and asking the judge whether they could be useful in court. It’s unclear whether they were used in trial, Raul said.

Hirt quickly became a fugitive, hiding out in the Black Forest in southwest Germany, according to Lang’s research.

Back in the United States, the Nuremberg war trials had already come and gone. Transcripts reference the skeleton collection at the institute, outlining the medical experiments, which included freezing “to test human resistance to extremely low temperatures,” mustard gas, malaria, epidemic jaundice, poisons as well as sterilization “to test techniques for preventing further propagation of the mentally and physically defective,” among other things.

“In addition to these experiments,” according to transcripts, “over 100 concentration camp inmates were killed for the purpose of obtaining their skeletons. Their ghastly remains were found in Strassburg by Allied troops.”

Ultimately, Hirt committed suicide. Unaware of this, French authorities in Metz sentenced him to death, according to French and English reports.

Some six decades later in 2013, Toledano ran across the letter in military archives and tracked the samples to the University of Strasbourg.

“I told [Raul] about the discovery I made from the letter,” he said. “I told him that if these remains of Jews killed by Nazis were still in his museum, I wanted them to be returned to the Jewish community to be buried. He was very astonished by my request and said he had never seen these jars in the museum.”

The university said it will give the remains to local authorities and the Strasbourg mayor’s office said it plans to return them to the Jewish community in Strasbourg, according to the Guardian.