BERLIN (AP) — Executed for standing up against Adolf Hitler's dictatorship and then denied graves so as not to become a rallying point for others, the partial remains of 300 Nazi resistance fighters were laid to rest Monday in a solemn ceremony in a downtown Berlin cemetery.
The small wooden box lowered into the square granite-edged plot included remains of Erika von Brockdorff, who was beheaded in the Nazis' notorious Ploetzensee Prison on May 13, 1943 — exactly 76 years ago — for her involvement in the famous Red Orchestra resistance movement.
"I'm just happy that there is now this place," reflected her daughter, 81-year-old Saskia von Brockdorff, after sprinkling handfuls of earth into the grave. "We always drove with my sons to Ploetzensee, but that is really a place of execution even if it is not what it was then, and I'm glad I can come here now."
The remains — fragments of tissue — were discovered two years ago by descendants of Hermann Stieve, the former director of the Berlin Institute of Anatomy at the Charite hospital.
Stieve wasn't a member of the Nazi party himself, but was complicit in their crimes, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, who was involved in the investigation into the remains and organizing their burial. Among other things, Stieve reached a deal with Nazi authorities to quickly receive the bodies of victims who had been executed for his research, in exchange for agreeing to leave no traces of their bodies behind.
"The Nazis worried that the graves of the resistance fighters could become martyrs' cemeteries, so to speak, and they wanted to avoid this," Tuchel told The Associated Press.
Stieve's main focus was on female menstrual cycles, and he wrote papers on how stress affected the female reproductive system.
The tissue samples discovered by Stieve's heirs were primarily taken from women, aged 20 to 40, and the doctor would have certainly known that they didn't die of natural causes, Tuchel told relatives and others who packed the small chapel at the Dorotheenstaedtischer Cemetery for a multi-denominational service by Protestant and Catholic priests and a Jewish rabbi before the burial.
"It was clear they were involved in the resistance and were executed for their activities," he said.
Overall, more than 2,800 people were executed by hanging or guillotine at the Ploetzensee prison during the Nazi era.
Not all of the 300 tissue samples, which were on a collection of microscope slides, were identified and Tuchel said the families asked that the names of the identified victims not be released. Von Brockdorff, however, agreed to talk with the AP about her story after the service.
She and more than 15 others sprinkled dirt into the grave, across from a memorial to some of the prominent leaders of the failed 1944 attempt to kill Hitler, while some placed flowers and said silent prayers.
Tuchel praised the courage of the Stieve family for coming forward with their discovery, knowing it would open new discussion and questions about their ancestor, who died in 1952.
"Now we can give those murdered back their dignity," he said.
Kirsten Grieshaber contributed to this story.