HALL, Austria — Forensic crews scraping away dirt from the remains of the Nazi-era psychiatric patients were puzzled: The skeletal fingers were entwined in rosary beads. Why, the experts wondered, would the Nazis — who considered these people less than human — respect them enough to let them take their religious symbols to their graves?
It turns out they didn’t.
A year after the first of 221 sets of remains were exhumed at a former Austrian hospital cemetery, investigators now believe the beads were likely nothing more than a cynical smokescreen, placed to mislead relatives attending the burials into thinking that the last stage of their loved ones’ lives was as dignified as their funerals.
But skeletons don’t lie. Forensic work shows that more than half of the victims had broken ribs and other bone fractures from blows likely dealt by hospital personnel. Many died from illnesses such as pneumonia, apparently caused by a combination of physical injuries, a lack of food and being immobilized for weeks at a time.
Neither do medical records, which show that medical personnel cursed their patients as “imbeciles,” ”idiots” and “useless eaters.”
Indeed, there is now little doubt that for many of the dead — mentally and physically disabled people considered by the Nazis to be human garbage — their final months were hell on Earth.
Nazi extermination of the mentally and physically deficient has been documented since the end of World War II. But information gathered from the hospital cemetery in Hall, an ancient Tyrolean town of narrow, cobble-stoned alleys, cozy inns and graceful church spires east of Innsbruck, has filled out the picture in chilling new ways.
Historians, anthropologists, physicians and archaeologists say the Hall project represents the first time that investigators can match hospital records with remains, allowing them to identify, for example, cases in which patients had broken ribs, noses and collarbones that were not listed in their medical histories, suggesting that the patients had been beaten by those responsible for their care.
Faced with the horrors of the findings, those involved in the probe struggle to maintain the detached attitude of an investigator.
“At first, I sat here and worked through these documents in a relatively dry manner from the point of view of a scientist,” psychiatrist Christian Haring said. “But as you read on at some point, you suddenly find yourself in a world where the goose-bumps appear.”
Anthropologist George McGlynn said more than half of the sets of remains have broken bones, many of them unexplained in the patients’ medical records.
“Why is a stubbed toe talked about in three different (documents), but six rib fractures that cause terrible pain isn’t even mentioned?” he asked.
While such injuries did not kill directly, they may often have led to death. Many of the patients are listed as dying of pneumonia, and McGlynn said the “scary conclusion” is that rib injuries combined with sedation and forced immobility — patients are suspected to have been strapped to their beds for weeks at a time — may have generated fatal incidences of the disease.
“Nobody is being executed here, like you see in concentration camps,” he said. “It was done in a more sinister, insidious way — people are loaded up with drugs until they get a lung infection.”
Forensic examination of the bones shows infection that started at the skin level then “goes right into the muscle and all the way to the bone,” McGlynn said.