More than 70 years after the end of World War II and the horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis, an international team of scholars that includes a School of Public Health researcher has created the first known set of ethical and procedural guidelines on how to handle human remains from the Holocaust.
Michael Grodin, professor of health law, policy & management, professor in the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights, and director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, will be the main contact for the new initiative, which was unveiled in a report published in late November.
The initiative is designed to provide guidance to archaeologists, anthropologists, excavation techs, curators of museums and collections, historians, and any other parties who encounter possible Jewish remains. Additionally, the recommendations are applicable for all remains of possible victims of human rights abuses throughout the world.
Grodin, who is also a medical ethicist at Boston Medical Center, says that the complicated questions of what to do when remains are found are acutely important.
“Jewish law requires the utmost in respect and dignity of the dead requiring a quick and speedy burial in a Jewish cemetery and ritual mourning,” Grodin says. With the release of the report, scholars have documented a “step-by-step procedure for recognizing and implementing sensitive guidelines for dealing with remains found in Europe. There are forensic requirements by the secular authorities as well as critical religious requirements by Rabbinic authorities.”
A key part of the report is the “Vienna Protocol” by Rabbi Joseph A. Polak, Hillel rabbi emeritus at Boston University, which outlines the steps that should be taken upon the finding of any Jewish or possibly Jewish remains. The protocol also addresses the use of images such as those presented in the Pernkopf atlas, an elaborately illustrated anatomy text that likely used executed victims of the Nazi regime as dissection subjects.
The protocol takes its name from the University of Vienna, where Eduard Pernkopf conducted intricately detailed anatomy studies from 1933 until his death in 1955. Pernkopf was an avowed member of the Nazi party, and in early editions of the atlas, some artists signed their names with swastikas and other Nazi symbols that were airbrushed out of later editions.
William Seidelman, a physician and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, says that the revelations of the ethically murky history of the Pernkopf atlas created considerable interest in the controversy itself but little academic examination of the issues surrounding the use or display of the images. Copies of the atlas—including the early ones with Nazi symbols—are still found in many medical school libraries, including at BU.
“The ‘Vienna Protocol’ is one of the few, possibly the only, serious scholarly analysis of religious precepts that would apply to the question of the use of the images from the Pernkopf atlas,” says Seidelman, who co-edited the report with Sabine Hildebrandt of Harvard Medical School and Lilka Elbaum of BU Hillel. “To the best of our knowledge, it is without precedent.”
Hildebrandt, a teacher of human anatomy and scholar of the history and ethics of anatomy in the Third Reich, says that after the political background of the Pernkopf atlas was revealed, many former users of the book felt ethically compelled to stop using it.
“Some were deeply conflicted about this, as they felt that they lost an important tool in education and patient care. The ‘Vienna Protocol’ now offers a clear ethical framework of conditions that must be fulfilled before any images from the Pernkopf atlas can be used in an educational or clinical setting,” Hildebrandt says.
The report also includes “Recommendations/Guidelines for the Handling of Future Discoveries of Remains of Human Victims of Nazi Terror,” a collection of recommendations from a special symposium at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem that took place in May 2017. While various sets of recommendations on the handling of human remains were previously authored by museums and professional organizations such as anthropologists and the German Physicians’ Chamber, Hildebrandt says this is the first such document that includes the Jewish perspective.
Seidelman emphasizes that the symposium helped create a document that is unique in both its religious rigor and its inclusiveness.
“While the question arose with respect to potential Jewish remains, the ‘Recommendation/Guidelines’ and the ‘Vienna Protocol’ could be applied in instances where the victims were not Jews,” Seidelman says. “Their application is potentially universal. They reflect an attempt to restore the identity and biography of persons whose very existence and personhood has been denied and their bodies exploited irrespective of who they might have been as a person.”
Hildebrandt says she hopes the “Vienna Protocol” and the recommendations will “become the ‘go-to’ document for all incidental discoveries of human remains from historically sensitive contexts, as well as guidelines for systematic investigations of existing museum and specimen collections.” She contends that the document is “eminently relevant, as it is widely applicable not only in the Jewish context, but also in all other investigations of human remains from victims of human rights abuses.”
The team plans to widely publicize the document, with an emphasis on Germany and Austria, says Hildebrandt, so that all agencies involved in the handling of human remains, from construction workers to police and forensic institutes, are “informed about the pertinent aspects in the Jewish context and beyond and feel confident enough to allow for transparency in the process.”
With three recent discoveries of Holocaust-era remains in as many years, scholars expect similar findings in the future. Says Seidelman, “This may be just the beginning. Institutions which held human remains from the Nazi period were reluctant to investigate and document their collections. In many instances, in both Germany and Austria, such examinations are still in early stages. There may be more to come.”