Masks: An Attempt about Shoah
By a coincidence, William Pfaff’s article “Eugenics, Anyone?” in which he described the killings at Steinhof, Vienna’s “model” psychiatric hospital, where until 1945 handicapped and “antisocial” children deemed “unworthy to live” were put to death by Nazi eugenicists and medical doctors, appeared in The New York Review [November 9] just as a remarkable exhibition was being shown in Vienna at the new Jewish Museum in the Dorotheergasse. On display were death masks and busts of Jews who were killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp outside Posen, then in German Silesia. Posen, renamed Posnan, became Polish after 1945.
The exhibition provides chilling evidence of how, under the Nazis, human beings became mere “things” or “specimens,” for the progress of pseudo-scientific research. The death masks and the actual skulls of the victims had been, as it were, mail-ordered in 1942 by one Dr. Josef Wastl, then head of the department of anthropology of Vienna’s renowned Museum of Natural History, from his colleagues at the University of Posen. From the correspondence on view in Vienna, it seems clear that the Posen faculty of anatomy were in the business of supplying such busts and the dissected skulls of dead Jews, Poles, and other Untermenschen to interested eugenicists throughout Europe. One of the caretakers at the faculty testified after the war that corpses from the nearby concentration camp would arrive almost daily at the faculty and their cut-off heads were “thrown into a basket like turnips.”
Until quite recently the masks, busts, and skulls formed part of the Vienna museum’s permanent collection. The skulls were finally, and somewhat reluctantly, released in 1991 for burial. The masks and busts remained in storage until the recent exhibition.
The correspondence, which formed the basis of the “collection,” is now displayed together with the masks. On February 25, 1942, Josef Wastl asked the Anatomical Institute of the Reich University at Posen whether it was interested in selling a few Judenschädel (Jew-skulls) to the Vienna museum. Gustav von Hirschheydt, chief dissector of the Posen Anatomical Institute, wrote back on March 4:
As per your letter of 25.2.42 I offer you Polenschädel /m and f/ at RM [i.e., Reichsmarks] 25,- …Hyperbrachycephaly is rare among the Polish Leichenmaterial [corpse-material], Brachycephaly is more frequent, Mesocephaly and Dolichocephaly very numerous. Judenschädel /m/ 20-50 years old I can also offer you at RM 25,- their exact age and place of birth can be supplied. The latter, however, means little in the case of Jews. Together with these Jew-skulls I am able to supply plaster death-masks of the individuals concerned at RM 15,- of especially typical Ostjuden. I can also prepare for you plaster busts, so that one can see the shape of the head (before dissection) and the frequently rather unique ears. The price of these busts would be 30-35 RM but because of a scarcity of time and of plaster I could not supply very many.
G. v. Hirschheydt
Wastl promptly ordered…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.