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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

The Ashes of the Dead

75 women were gassed to death at the Bernburg Killing Center on March 31, 1941. The total number of people with disabilities murdered at Bernburg stands at 9,385 as of 2023.  All those people were cremated; how did the killing center handle the human remains?

The National Socialist medical establishment offered some families of the victims urns at no cost, but, for others, they charged 30 Reichsmarks.  In a rare, saved historical letter from Bernburg to Marie Lieschen Kratzien’s parents notifying them of Marie Lieschen’s death, the parents were informed they could receive her ashes in an urn at no charge but that they had to provide a certificate that a grave had been purchased.  And that the grave purchase certificate had to be sent to them within 14 days of the letter.  

We assume from the Kratziens' letter that Ruth’s parents were also offered the same parameters.  It is not known if Emma and Paul received an urn with Ruth’s ashes.  If they did not have a grave, they would have had to purchase a grave quickly during wartime, and with funds that may not have been available due to their precarious financial situation.  Even if her parents had received an urn, there was no guarantee it would have contained any of Ruth’s cremated remains. 

Arrows indicate the location of the two cremation ovens at Bernburg.

There were two cremation ovens at Bernburg and cremations were conducted one after another until all the victims killed that day were processed.  There was no cleaning out of the remains in the ovens in between cremations.  The ashes, when they were cleaned out, were intermingled, making it impossible to discern any one particular body’s associated ashes.  Employees dug ashes out of the communal pile to be placed into the urns that were sent to the victims’ families. 

As for Tante Ruth, her cremated remains were most likely hauled along with other ashes on a horse drawn wagon to the rubbish pit outside of town used by the hospital.  The rubbish pit lay off the western edge of the hospital property. This information came to light when a former employee revealed the manner in which the human remains were handled. The following information is summarized in an article about the ashes [my translation]:

Since 1919 the Mitteldeutsche Ton- und Kaolinwerke GmbH (middle German clay and kaolin factory Ltd.) created several clay pits between the villages Leau and Peißen to gain material for the brick production.  In 1925 the company withdrew. But the pits were left open and were later used by the inhabitants of the town and the hospital as a midden.  [The neighborhood of] Neuborna was founded in the early 1930’s when the nearby potash and rock salt mine in Bernburg-Gröna built small semi-detached houses for their employees.  Those houses were built on three sides of the biggest of those pits. The fourth side of this pit is a field which was owned by the psychiatric hospital and was cultivated by the hospital in order to guarantee the hospital ́s self-sufficiency. This field is now privately owned.
In 1962, the SG Neuborna 1962 e.V. (soccer club) was founded. They searched for an area where they could build their soccer field. They chose the old clay pit, because it was filled with waste over the years and therefore buildings on this pit weren't allowed. At that time people who have lived there for a long time must have known that there was ash from the “Euthanasia” institute in the pit. So, the city administration must have known it as well.
In 2012, when the soccer club celebrated their 50th anniversary the city officials must be aware of the ashes' existence in the pit. In advance of this anniversary the son of a resident of Neuborna telephoned the memorial Bernburg. He asked why the Memorial didn´t act concerning the ash under the soccer field. The problem was that despite the fact that the Memorial tried to find contemporary witnesses three different times, no one talked about it. Only a few older people, who had grown up in Bernburg, told staff members of the Memorial that they played with parts of bones in a pit outside Bernburg when they were children. But they never gave detailed information.
After the phone call a staff member of the Memorial interviewed [Name Redacted]. This person told the interviewer about the spillage of the ash, the routes of the horse carriages that transported the ash and the names of the coachmen. The names of the coachmen could be determined by using the staff index of the hospital.
Because of the difficult technical situation and the fact that the area is property of the city, there was a meeting with an employee at the Ministry of Interior in 2011.  The employee was responsible for war graves in Saxony-Anhalt and very experienced regarding reburials and test drilling. Because of the following reasons the meeting ended with the result to forgo the drilling:
- When the houses in Neuborna were built, the pit was more than 20 Meters deep.
- The majority of the soil material is clay.
- Many years before 1940 and 20 years after 1942 the local people and hospital continuously used the site as a midden.  Because of solidification of the ground clay and the municipal waste, the cremated remains would now be a part of an inseparable mixture.


Today, there is a hedgerow that grows next to the soccer field of Parkplatz am Sportplatz that lies over the pit that contains the ashes. When we first visited the site in late January 2020, forsythia had begun blooming in the hedgerow that runs along the cobblestone road.  Forsythia blooms represent anticipation of the spring sun after the long dark winter.  As we stood alongside that hedgerow, looking over the innocuous scene of a father and son practicing soccer kicks on the pitch at the far end of the field, a feeling of total peace flooded throughout my body.  I felt then, and I feel now, that peaceful sensation was Tante Ruth’s relief that her family had finally found her, 79 years after her death. 

To the east of this simple soccer pitch in the neighborhood on Neuborna in Bernburg Germany, lies a farm field with the dark Magdeburg Bōrde Loess soils of the Saale River’s ancient flood plain that each year is turned in rows to await spring planting.  The soft spring rains fall, the summer heat bakes the earth, the autumn leaves blow across the field and come to rest in the hedgerow.  And somewhere in this vicinity lay the cremated remains of over 9,000 euthanasia victims whose existence the Nazis attempted to erase, but whom we still remember.

The hedgerow next to the Sportplatz in Bernburg where the forsythia were blooming in January 2020.  Author’s photo.



Gedenkstätte Bernburg correspondence.

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