Heroes Come to Life in Anatomy Journal

By Michael Kaufman

You probably never heard of Elfriede Scholz or Irene Wosikowski. I hadn’t heard of these two heroic women either until I learned about them from a most unlikely source: an article in the current issue of the journal Clinical Anatomy titled, “The Women on Stieve’s List: Victims of National Socialism Whose Bodies Were Used for Anatomical Research” by Sabine Hildebrandt, M.D. I also never heard of “Stieve’s List” before I read the article by Hildedbrandt, a lecturer in the division of anatomical sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor.

The list everyone knows about with regard to the Nazis is (of course) the one kept by Oscar Schindler for the purpose of saving lives. Professor Dr. Hermann Stieve (1886-1952) was no Oscar Schindler. Rather, Stieve, a leading anatomist at the University of Berlin and the Berlin Charité Hospital “exploited the killing programs of the Third Reich to conduct studies on the female reproductive system,” according to William E. Seidelman, M.D., professor in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto, who has researched the complicit role of the medical profession in Nazi atrocities.

The “perturbing category of eminent exploiters” includes “illustrious universities, research institutes and, in one documented instance, an eminent museum — whose quarry were the cadavers of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazi terror,” wrote Seidelman in an article published in 1999 in Dimension (a journal of Holocaust studies). “These macabre spoils of Nazi slaughter remained in these institutions’ collections (anatomical, pathological and anthropological) for decades after the end of the war.” They are “tangible evidence” of the shameful role played by medicine and medical science in the crimes of the Nazi regime.

“When a woman of reproductive age was to be executed by the Gestapo, Stieve was informed, a date of execution was decided upon, and the prisoner told the scheduled date of her death,” said Seidelman. “Stieve then studied the effects of the psychic trauma on the doomed woman’s menstrual pattern. Upon the woman’s execution, her pelvic organs were removed for histological (tissue) examination. Stieve published reports based on those studies without hesitation or apology.”

Incredibly, after the war this monster lectured medical students on studies he had conducted on the migration of human sperm, studies performed on the bodies of women raped before their deaths in Gestapo execution chambers. According to Seidelman, “Stieve discussed this research before an audience of appalled but silent medical students in East Berlin.” Despite his horrific past, Professor Dr. Hermann Stieve was dean of the faculty of medicine at the prestigious Humboldt University in Berlin; a lecture room and sculpted bust were dedicated in his honor at the Berlin Charité Hospital.

As described in Hildebrandt’s article, Stieve gave post-war authorities a numbered list of the names of women whose bodies he had used for research purposes. (The document is now in the Federal Archives in Berlin.) The anatomy department in Berlin received bodies directly from the execution sites. (Documentation on the executed prisoners is kept at the Memorial Site for the German Resistance in Berlin.)

Hildebrandt is not the first anatomist to write about Stieve’s list. But she is the first to try to put a story and name to all the victims who have remained anonymous since their bodies were used for anatomical teaching and research during the Third Reich. “Only with a story and a name,” she explains, “is it possible to make these persons visible as individuals with full lives and hopes for a future that was denied them.”

Her study presents a group portrait and recounts selected biographies of the 174 women and eight men on Stieve’s list. Most were women of reproductive age, two-thirds were German. The majority were executed for political reasons. At least two pregnant women, 34-year-old Hilde Coppi and 20-year-old Liane Berkowitz, were members of the Berlin-based resistance group Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra). Their executions were postponed until after the delivery of their children and some time was allowed for breastfeeding.

Elfriede Scholz, number 105 on Stieve’s list, was born in 1903 in Osnabrück. She was the sister of Erich Maria Remarque,  pacifist author of All Quiet on the Western Front, who had emigrated from Germany in 1933. Scholz worked as a seamstress, and, according to Hildebrandt, “was twice unhappily married and lost an infant daughter to a heart condition in 1923.” During the last years of her life she lived and worked in Dresden. In the summer of 1943 she was denounced by neighbors after saying she would shoot Hitler willingly if given the opportunity.

Scholz was arrested and charged with “undermining the military.” Senior judge Roland Freisler told her during the trial that “your brother unfortunately escaped us, but the same will not happen with you.” She was found guilty and executed on Dec. 16, 1943. Her brother did not learn of her death until 1946 and only later learned from press reports about the fate of her body at the hands of Stieve.

Irene Wosikowski, number 179 on Steive’s list, was working for the French resistance when she was betrayed by a German informer and taken into custody July 26, 1943. Born in Danzig in 1910, Wosikowski lived in Kiel and Hamburg, where she joined a communist youth organization. She fled Germany in 1934 and after time in Moscow and the Czech Republic, moved to Paris, where she worked as a newspaper correspondent while working with French resistance groups.

In 1940, Wosikowski and other German nationals were interned by French authorities in a camp in Gurs, from which she fled to Marseille and continued her political work until her betrayal. “Despite severe and continued torture by the Gestapo in Marseille and later in Hamburg,” writes Hildebrandt, “she did not give up the names of her colleagues.” Irene Wosikowski was sentenced to death on Sept. 13, 1944, in Berlin and executed on October 27.

Scholz and Wosikowski are but two of many heroic victims described by Hildebrandt: “The women and men on Stieve’s list came from all walks of life—they were domestic and industrial workers, homemakers, teachers, and academics, some were politically interested, others not. None of them volunteered to be dissected as Stieve’s research subject. On the contrary, many wanted their remains to rest with their families.

“This history is a reminder to modern anatomy that ethical body procurement and the anatomists’ caring about the body donor is of the utmost importance in a discipline that introduces students to professional ethics in the medical teaching curriculum.” It is also a reminder of the heroism of Elfriede Scholz, Irene Wosikowski and countless others who died resisting fascism.

Michael can be reached at michael@zestoforange.com.


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2 Responses to “Heroes Come to Life in Anatomy Journal”

  1. Valerie Lucznikowska Says:

    Thank you Michael for this revelation.

  2. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    A shocking story. Thank you for the enlightenment.

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