The University of Strasbourg decided to hand over to the French city’s Jewish community the remains of Holocaust victims that were preserved as anatomy specimens.
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The remains, preserved in several glass containers, were discovered on July 9 at the university’s Institute of Forensic Medicine by historian Raphael Toledano after years of research and denials of their existence there by the university’s administration.
Toledano stumbled upon the 1952 letter from Camille Simonin, the director of the forensic science school at the University of Strasbourg, detailing the storage of tissue samples taken from some of the 86 Jews gassed for the experiments of August Hirt, a notorious Nazi anatomy researcher.
The autopsy samples were intended to be used to prosecute Hirt, who directed the construction of a gas chamber built specifically to provide victims for experiments carried out at the facility. At the time, Germans had replaced the French staff, which largely decamped elsewhere.
Strasbourg was liberated by the Americans, Hirt ultimately committed suicide, and the remains ended up in the highly specialized forensic science museum at the university, which has since become one of France's most prestigious medical schools.
Simonin's letter was directed at a judge who planned to put Hirt on trial, asking if the samples could be of use. It's not known how or whether the judge responded, said Jean-Sebastien Raul, the institute's current director.
One container had skin fragments that were removed from the body of a female Holocaust victim after she had been murdered in a gas chamber. Another contained the intestines and stomach of another female victim, according to a statement by the Strasbourg municipality.
Hirt, a SS captain who served as chairman of the Reich University in Strasbourg – the institution’s name under Nazi occupation – tasked two researchers in 1943 with selecting 109 prisoners for the collection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, to be transported and gassed at the Natzweiler-Struthof camp near Strasbourg. When allied forces liberated Strasbourg, they found 86 skeletons in Hirt’s collection and transferred them for burial at a local Jewish cemetery.
"It was a shock to discover that these jars were still there, that we put in a museum display a part of these Jews who were murdered by the Nazis," Toledano said.
The Strasbourg mayor's office said Monday it hopes to return the remains to Strasbourg's Jewish community for eventual burial in the city, which sits on the border of France and Germany.
Hirt was tried in absentia in 1952 in France and sentenced to death for his experiments. At the time French authorities did not realize that he had committed suicide at the end of World War II and presumed that he was hiding in Germany.
The remains discovered this month are to be buried at the Cronenbourg Jewish cemetery.