There are five inconspicuous wooden boxes that are lowered into the ground by the men at the Dahlem forest cemetery in Berlin. But the bone boxes contain around 16,000 human bone fragments – and a heavy historical legacy.

The bones were found during several excavations since 2015 on what is now Freie Universität. The exact origin of the bones could not be finally clarified. There are connections to National Socialism, the Auschwitz death camp and the concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele, but also to colonial history.

“Broken, thrown away, buried in burrows,” says the director of the Berlin State Monuments Office, Christoph Rauhut, when describing where the bones were found. “Today we want to bury them with dignity.” Around 100 people gathered on the forecourt of the cemetery chapel on Thursday. In a non-religious and non-Eurocentric memorial service, the people remembered the victims. It was said that an agreement had been reached with the victims’ associations. But there are also survivors who would have preferred a different, more religious celebration.

“The inhuman practice of research racism did not provide for a burial for the remains and threw them in pits,” said Daniel Botmann from the Central Council of Jews at the funeral service. “Today we carry to their final resting numerous lives whose voices and biographies have been erased.”

But who exactly was buried in the bone boxes is not known – also because the associations refused to examine the finds further. “Specifying the victims according to certain groups would ultimately only reproduce the racist methods and ideologies of the past,” said FU President Günter Ziegler. “But that also means that we can no longer assign names or faces to the victims. But we can remember them.”

Bone fragments from excavations since 2015 were buried – but the first bones had already been found by chance during construction work at the FU in 2014. At that time there was criticism that they were cremated without in-depth investigations.

In the years that followed, more bones and bone fragments came to light during excavations. According to the research, they came from people of all ages. Remains of glue and inscriptions were found on some of the bones, which indicated an origin from anthropological or archaeological collections.

The place where it was found is particularly tricky: the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics used to be located in the vicinity. Body parts that the concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele sent from the Auschwitz death camp to Berlin were examined in the institute. After the end of the war, the facility was discontinued and parts were transferred to the Max Planck Society.

According to the FU, these are bones from “victims from crime contexts”, and some of the bones could also come from victims of National Socialist crimes. “Auschwitz cannot be ruled out as the place of origin of individual bones, but the investigations into the finds also point in the direction of the colonial past and racial political violence,” said Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews. The Central Council of Jews is part of the working group that discussed what to do with the finds.

The probability that some of the fragments go back to Nazi victims cannot be dismissed out of hand, said Dotschy Reinhardt from the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, who was also part of the working group. “The trail leads back to a collaboration between the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and the Auschwitz Birkenau camp doctor, Josef Mengele.”

The legacy calls for a critical examination of history, said Christoph Rauhut from the State Monuments Office in Berlin. It could be the basis for a culture of remembrance that does justice to the memory of the victims. “As we all know, this was not the case here at first,” said Rauhut. The first bones were discovered in a pit.

An inscription on the grave reminds us of the history of the buried: “In memory of victims of crimes in the name of science” it says. Many of those present bowed to the tomb and threw white roses into it. “We don’t know the names, faces, identities or stories of the individual people we bury today,” Ziegler said. “It’s a lot of people. They have all been victims of crimes committed in the name of science. No grass can grow over it. We have an obligation to remember.”

From 2024, a permanent exhibition at the sites where the bones were found on the university campus will commemorate the crimes committed in the name of science.

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