Czech WWII resistance fighters' remains may still be in use at German medical faculties

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The corpses of some of Czechoslovakia's most celebrated war heroes may be serving as models in anatomy classes in Germany and Austria to this day. Thousands of political prisoners were murdered at the Ploetzensee detention and execution centre outside Berlin during WWII. Among them were nearly seven hundred Czech and Slovak resistance fighters, whose bodies were immediately sent on to medical universities and institutions within the Third Reich.

Condemned prisoners at Ploetzensee spent their final hours in shackles before crossing the small courtyard leading to the execution chamber, to be beheaded by guillotine or hung in groups of eight on the gallows.

In the first weeks after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia that began on March 15, 1939, dozens of high-ranking Czech military officers in the resistance movement Obrana Naroda (Defence of the Nation) met such deaths within Ploetzensee's prison walls. During the course of the Second World War, many hundreds would follow, as the list of crimes meriting capital punishment was expanded from murder and high treason to include 25 other offences.

The so-called "People's Court" of occupied Czechoslovakia -- the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia - sentenced thousands of suspected resistance fighters and their family members to death.

Josef Srstka, an army colonel who through Obrana Naroda helped the families of Czechoslovak resistance fighters, and soldiers fighting with the Allies, was killed at Ploetzensee on the 1st of June, 1943, along with his good friend General Alois Machacik, the wealthy entrepreneur Gustav Svoboda, and Vaclav Adam, a captain assigned to the Czechoslovakian ministry of defence.

More than 670 such Czechoslovak resistance fighters alone were murdered in Ploetzensee, from where fresh corpses were routinely delivered to Nazi doctors for study.

This dark chapter of history has come under renewed scrutiny following calls from German medical students and researchers at Berlin's Humboldt University to purge anatomical stocks of unwitting donors -- victims of Nazi persecution.

By the mid-1980s, medical faculties and institutions in Western Germany and, to a lesser degree, Austria had completed this morbid task, by tracing the origins of corpses used for the study of anatomy and forensic medicine. Verified and presumed victims of Nazi persecution --including Czechoslovaks-- were then given proper burials.

But at Humboldt University, on the Communist side of the Berlin Wall, no such inventory took place. In recent weeks, university researchers presented the Czech Embassy in Berlin with evidence that the remains of Czechoslovak political prisoners executed at Ploetzensee were still being studied at Humboldt - a fact they find unconscionable.

The daily Mlada fronta Dnes broke the story in the Czech media this week with the sensational headline that among them could be the bodies of national heroes Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik -- British-trained paratroopers who in May 1942 assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia known as "The Butcher of Prague."

Reinhard Heydrich
The severed heads of sergeants Kubis and Gabcik were kept at the Gestapo's Prague headquarters until the end of the war. Their bodies, and those of their fellow paratroopers -- all of whom committed suicide with a single bullet to the head, after exhausting their ammunition in battle with Nazi troops -- were sent by special train to Germany for study by Nazi criminal police. What eventually became of their remains is a matter of historical debate.

The Czech embassy in Berlin is backing a proposal by German academics to hold an international conference this February in hopes of putting this dark chapter of history -- and its victims -- finally to rest.