BERLIN--For half a century, survivors of cruel experiments at Nazi death camps have been seeking a formal apology--as well as more details about the research abuses they endured--from Germany's scientific societies. On 7 June, a few of those victims finally got an explicit apology from the head of the country's premier basic research organization, the Max Planck Society, on behalf of its forerunner, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG), some of whose scientists were implicated in the nefarious research.
The historic overture came here at a symposium on human experimentation sponsored by the Max Planck presidential commission that is investigating the KWG's activities from 1933 to 1945. At the opening ceremony here, Max Planck president Hubert Markl offered survivors of concentration-camp experiments "the deepest regret, compassion, and shame at the fact that crimes of this sort were committed, promoted, and not prevented within the ranks of German scientists."
Markl stated that "there is scientific evidence proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that directors and employees at Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes co-masterminded and sometimes even actively participated in the crimes of the Nazi regime. ... The Max Planck Society, as the Kaiser Wilhelm Society's 'heir,' must face up to these historical facts and its moral responsibility."
Markl's admission was followed by emotional speeches by two victims of Nazi physician Josef Mengele's infamous "twins" experiments at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Of an estimated 1500 sets of twins in Mengele's experiments--during which he would inject one twin with a pathogen or toxic substance and use the other as a control--fewer than 200 individuals survived the war and only about 80 are alive today. "We were used as human guinea pigs," said Eva Mozes Kor of Terre Haute, Indiana, who barely survived Mengele's abuses along with her twin sister, Miriam. Although Mengele didn't work for the KWG, he collaborated on some projects with KWG scientists (Science, 2 June 2000, p. 1576).
The commission is continuing to sift through whatever evidence it can turn up. Although many documents of Nazi crimes are irretrievably lost, some survivors say that as full an accounting as possible of the misdeeds will ease their minds and, perhaps, help prevent future atrocities. "Human beings made Auschwitz," says survivor Jona Laks. "It was here, amongst us. And there is no guarantee that it will not return--anywhere."