Dear Party Comrade Bormann,
We have cleaned up the Jewish question in the Netherlands, insofar as now we only have to carry out decisions that have already been formulated. The Jews have been eliminated from the body of the Dutch people and, insofar as they have not been transported to the East for labor, they are enclosed in a camp.
Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart
On September 29, 1943 the last Jews were found and brought to the Dutch camps. After that date there were no Jews left in the Netherlands except for those already in prison or in hiding. There were constant raids on homes and businesses by the SS until 1944, as the last remaining vestiges of Dutch Jewry were identified and shipped to Auschwitz.
However, until that date there was much work to be done. Measurements to be taken. Blood and other biologicals obtained. Photographs processed. Data collected. The prison camps and transit camps were gold mines of anthropological material. For anyone conducting a
study of the differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, places like Westerbork and Ommen were ideal. The added benefit of a captive population of Roma would only make the prospect of studying the prisoners even more attractive.
Along with the predominantly Ashkenazic Jews of the Netherlands there was a sizeable population of Portuguese, or Sephardic, Jews in Amsterdam. With both of these “racial types” so easily available, it was an opportunity that Georg Anton and Hella Pöch could not pass up. As friends of the Reichskommissar for the Netherlands—fellow Austrian Arthur Seyss-Inquart—they had unfettered access to the Jewish prisoners.
Hella Pöch was easily the more famous—and more experienced— of the two. She had been married to the father of modern Viennese anthropology, Rudolf Pöch (1870—1921), who made use of prisoners of war for his anthropometric research during World War One. Rudolf Pöch was also one of the first anthropologists to make use of the modern inventions of the motion picture camera and audio recording equipment in the field. Some of his films and recordings—especially of the Bushmen of Southern Africa—have survived to this day. He also visited Indonesia and Australia, from 1904—1906. But there is much more to this story than this simple recitation of facts would suggest.
The Pöch Alliance
In May of 2008 there was a flurry of controversy during a workshop in Vienna concerning the legacy of Rudolf Pöch. Organized by Maria Teschler-Nicola, Director of Anthropology at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the workshop was acutely nomenclatured “Archival Horizons: Landscapes of knowledge and borders of perspective within the multimedia estate of anthropologist and explorer Rudolf Pöch.” It was intended to be a celebration of Pöch’s contribution to the field of anthropology, but it quickly turned into a condemnation of his bizarre practices in the field; practices that included grave-robbing and the mutilation of corpses. In what would become an eerie precedent for Nazi Rassenkunde (“race science”), Pöch had begun a collection of human bodies and skeletal material for exhibits in Europe, exhibits that would reflect the growing preoccupation of German and Austrian anthropologists with the idea of racial “purity.”
The authors of a book on the rapacious practices of European anthropologists in Africa were invited to participate in the workshop. Ciraj Rassool and Martin Legassick had written Skeletons in the Cupboard: South African museums and the trade in human remains, 1907—191799. It is a sobering account of the way in which anthropologists literally stole corpses from their graves, in some cases fresh graves, in order to expand or deepen museum collections in South Africa and abroad. These were bodies of indigenous Africans—notably the Khoisan of Southern Africa, composed of the Khoe and San tribes, the latter often referred to as “Bushmen”—and in Pöch’s case in particular, they were collected illegally and transported in barrels or drums, in some cases after their heads had been severed from their bodies and their limbs mutilated in other ways to make it easier to fit in the barrels (packed in salt) and ship them out of the country and back to Austria.
This was not the end of the story, however, for these corpses were then
subjected to further indignities. In some cases, plaster casts were made of the bodies and these were then painted and hair and animal skin applied, to serve as models in museum dioramas. As the bodies decayed and became less amenable to study, they were macerated— the flesh removed from the skeletons—and the skeletons retained for further investigation and display.
According to workshop organizer Teschler-Nicola, Pöch had collected “80 skeletons, 150 skulls and made 50 casts. He saw 1000 Bushmen who spoke 10 different languages, and measured the bodies of 300.” 100 Teschler-Nicola then located two of these remains in the private collection of Emil Breitinger (1904-2004), an anthropologist who had pro-Nazi sympathies during the war.
When Rassool and Legassick introduced this evidence at the workshop there was general shock and dismay. What had begun as a celebration of the accomplishments of the man generally considered the founder of the “Vienna School” of anthropology, ethnology, morphology and anthropometrics was cast in the light of a racist who looked upon the bodies of dead Africans as just so much “material” for his research. That Pöch had conducted these disinternments without any kind of official permit from the South African government only further reinforced the idea that he was some kind of ghoulish graverobber.
This would not be the end of Pöch’s outrages, however. When World War I began, he had the idea that the prisoner of war camps would be an
excellent source of “material” for his racial studies, for these prisoners came from all parts of Europe and even the East. Like a young boy in a candy factory, Pöch ran amok in the camps, taking measurements and photographing candidates for his race studies.
To understand the rationale behind this, one has to become familiar with the ideas on race current in the German-speaking academic world at the time. The basic concept was that there were only a handful of “pure” races. Other ethnic groups represented admixtures of these “pure” races. Take the example of the primary colors: red, blue and yellow. Mix red and blue together and you get purple. Mix red and yellow together, and you get orange, etc. Thus, secondary colors are created from mixtures of the primary colors. The idea of race was quite similar. One had to examine a subject and attempt to discern the mixture of races present in their anatomical structures, etc. extending even to the genetic. This same approach would be taken by the Third Reich when it came to identifying the Mischlinge: the mixed Jewish and Aryan persons. Just as the color orange implies the presence of red and yellow, certain anatomical characteristics would imply the presence of “tainted” Jewish blood.
Rudolf Pöch died in 1921 at the age of 51, leaving the chair of anthropology that he created at the University of Vienna vacant. By that time, however, he had married Hella Schürer von Waldheim, a young, 28- year old assistant 23 years his junior. Hella Pöch (1893-1976?) became involved in creating paternity tests, ostensibly for determining paternity in general civil cases in the courts. This type of research, however, would have other applications once the Reich had been established. Until then, however, Hella Pöch devoted herself to a wide range of race studies, including her well-known survey of the Volhynian population of Ukraine.
This was an attempt to isolate an ethnic group from a region that had been heavily populated by German immigrants. Her focus was on the “pure” Volhynians, i.e., those who were not German, Jewish, or Ukrainian. Her methodology included family surveys, a system taught to her by her late husband. Parenthetically, after the German invasion of Ukraine in June of 1941, there were massacres of the local Jewish and other populations in order that Germans from the Reich, as part of the Lebensraum program, could colonize the region. One wonders what part Hella Pöch’s fieldwork in Volhynia contributed to the identification of the ethnic groups to be
exterminated, for her perspective was on determining that the Volhynians were members of an “Asiatic” race, and thus not Aryan.
The Journal of the American Medical Association for June, 1934 has a brief article in which Hella Pöch is mentioned as one of the presenters at a joint session of the Gesellschaft fur Rassenkunde (the Society for Race Science) and the Anthropologische Gesellschaft (Anthropology Society) of Austria, in a program entitled “Composition of the Jewish Population in Vienna, from the Standpoint of Anthropology.”101 Pöch based much of her report on the methods devised by her late husband and used during his Bushmen research in Africa as well as his work in the prisoner of war camps during World War One. The thrust of the conference was to present the findings of the participating anthropologists that the Jews seemed to represent “at least seven distinct racial types, and possibly three more”. This conference took place in 1934, a year after Hitler came to power in Germany but still long before Anschluss made Austria part of the Greater German Reich. This political climate gave rise to an unintentionally sardonic remark in the JAMA report that “Since scientific research may still be carried on in Austria unhampered by politics, which is an impediment in Germany, the results of such a discussion should be interesting.” How a study of Vienna’s 200,000 Jews in terms of racial “types”—based on Rudolf Pöch’s blatantly racist method of collecting African corpses, robbing graves of their bodies—could be seen as “unhampered by politics” is perhaps a greater characterization of the place and time than anything that could be said in its defence.
Although Hella Pöch was still a little careful in pre-Anschluss Austria, she was not so careful when it came to the Reich. According to historian Brigitte Füchs, Hella Pöch was deeply involved in questions of race science since the 1920s, when she conducted an anthropological survey of 850 people in order to prove the “Nordic” character of the Austrian population.102
The years 1934-1938 saw Hella Pöch traveling frequently to Germany where she nurtured good relations with the Rassenpolitischen Amt der NSDAP (The Race Policy Office of the Nazi Party). By the time Anschluss made Austria part of the Reich, Hella Pöch was already well established in her field as a bona fide race scientist.
At some point she married Georg Anton Pöch (date unknown) and moved with him to Salzburg. The strange coincidence of her marrying two men named Pöch would not have escaped the reader; but the author must confess he has no explanation for this. The two men do not appear to have been related, but until further investigation is completed we must assume that they were simply two men named Pöch.
Georg Anton Pöch was a physician rather than a pure anthropologist like his wife, but he accompanied her to the Netherlands and together they applied to their friend Seyss-Inquart for permission to use the camps as the raw material for their dubious study of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish prisoners.
Prior to the war, both Georg Anton and Hella Pöch had published articles in peer-reviewed journals (some of them in English) concerning the epidemiology of disease, and inherited racial traits, among other things. For instance, Georg A. Pöch published—with the American Charles N. Leach of the Rockefeller Foundation—”A Diphtheria Immunization Campaign in Austria” in The American Journal of Public Health (February, 1935), while Hella Pöch delivered “A Contribution to the Muscular Anatomy and Certain Racial Distinctions of Bush Natives” to the Anthropological Society of Vienna, in Salzburg, in September of 1926.
By 1940, however, the situation had changed considerably. Germany had invaded the Netherlands, the war was on, and anthropologists had to make a living somehow. The Pöch couple went to Seyss-Inquart and asked to be allowed to examine the Sephardic Jews then at the Ommen transit camp. The idea was to take blood and other biological samples from the imprisoned Jews to conduct racial comparison studies with samples from the more numerous Ashkenazic populations of Central and Eastern Europe. The Reich Ministry of Education approved the project by March, 1941 and 6,000 Reichsmarks earmarked for the study, with more financial aid coming from Seyss-Inquart himself.103
The Pöch couple was excited about the potential for determining racial characteristics specific to Sephardic Jews. It would become a useful tool for extending the reach of the Nazi bureaucracy to encompass another sub-set of the Jewish “racial type.” If there were considerable differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic types, that meant that the racial profiling that had been taking place to date throughout the Greater German Reich and its occupied territories was missing some important variables.
The Nazis were determined to do whatever they had to do to eliminate the Jew from Europe (as Seyss-Inquart’s own statements to that effect make very clear) as well as from the rest of the world (as revealed by the Gestapo action in Indonesia as well as the determined efforts of the Argentine immigration authorities to forbid Jewish immigrants from landing in their country). To those who would deny the Holocaust, it is a simple matter of reading what the Nazis themselves had to say about their intentions towards the Jews (and the Gypsies, homosexuals, etc.) and the actions they took to eliminate the Jewish people from society, government, culture, and science and not only in Europe but around the world, in as much as they were able to do so. In order to be effective in this program, it was necessary to isolate as many ethnographic and anthropological variables as possible for racial markers. Heretofore, all the emphasis had been on the Ashkenazic Jew, which was the type most familiar to those living in Germany and Austria. The Sephardic Jew, with origins in Spain, Portugal and the Middle East, was less well known and thus it was important to identify them as quickly as possible for isolation from society and eventual elimination from Europe. Unfotunately for the Pöch couple, the deportation of the Jews from Ommen took precedence over their research project. It was evidently more important to kill the “material” than to study it. That did not deter them, however, for they had other—even more ambitious— projects in mind, such as asking leave to inspect all the large German prison camps for suitable research “material.” Again, they approached their friend Seyss-Inquart for support and again he gave his blessing, but by that time the war was making
increasing demands on both the camps and the Wehrmacht itself.
If it seems strange that anthropologists—scientists, after all, and in the case of Hella Pöch one of the most celebrated in her field— should be working for the government, one only needs to remember one of the twentieth century’s most popular fictional academics: Indiana Jones.
In the first Indiana Jones film, the rugged archaeologist is approached by US military intelligence in the years leading up to World War II to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. The idea that an academic, and an archaeologist (not a specialist in armaments or aerospace technology), would willingly work for the military never bothered the general viewing public who made Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the highest grossing films of its time. Yet, this is an issue that is controversial today for the Pentagon does have such a program currently in place. Known as