German authorities have unearthed the remains of 51 people, many of them children, in what may be a mass grave for murdered victims of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Local officials said on Thursday that the skeletons of 22 children and 29 adults had been exhumed from the grave in a Catholic church cemetery in the village of Menden-Barge. The exhumation process was still underway.
“We assume that these were victims of the Nazi regime,” state prosecutor Ulrich Maass said, pointing to signs that those buried met a violent end, especially the children.
The children’s tiny skeletons had been tossed into the grave without coffins and three of them showed signs of physical disability, he said.
Forensic investigators dressed in white anti-contamination suits used an excavator to dig out the bones at the picturesque cemetery. They took notes and photos of the scene, which was roped off.
Next to where the excavator was digging stands a stone monument commemorating the victims of World War II bombings — a sign that the reasons for the mass deaths may have been knowingly or unknowingly misrepresented by past officials.
During Hitler’s 12-year rule, which ended with the Nazi leader’s suicide in 1945, he oversaw the slaughter of six million Jews and other minorities across Germany and Europe.
'Cleansing' of mentally, physically disabled
People with mental and physical disabilities were murdered with poison gas and lethal injections as part of a program aimed at “cleansing” the German gene pool of those the Nazis deemed unfit for a master race of Aryan supermen.
Local church historian Theo Ostermann, who helped bring the grave to the attention of prosecutors, told WDR public television that local residents had long known that as many as 200 war dead were buried at the site but had kept quiet.
“It was at the unveiling of a war memorial in 2000 that a woman said something that caught my attention. She said that dead from a clinic in the neighboring village of Wimbern had been brought here,” Ostermann said.
“At this clinic, as is now well known everywhere, euthanasia was practiced,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office will now look for witnesses and documents from the period. Maass said he had the testimony from a former church assistant who said he saw corpses brought on horse-drawn carts and dumped into the grave.
However, he added it would be difficult to indict anyone 61 years after World War II and said it would be hard to detect traces of poisons that might have been used to kill the victims.
Maass said he would investigate whether the victims came from a nearby Nazi clinic which was established on the orders of Hitler’s personal physician Karl Brandt, who headed the Nazi euthanasia program and was executed after the war.
Once the investigation is completed, officials plan a memorial service at which the dead will be laid to rest.
“These dead will hopefully never again vanish completely from the consciousness of this village,” he said.