Patricide, Photography, and Audrey Hepburn

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On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

People who have read The Jump Artist sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer—and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsmann’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:

Meixner was a professor of pathology at the Institute for Juridical Medicine in Innsbruck and an expert witness in the Halsmann trials. Defense attorney Franz Pessler’s account of the trial in Der Fall Halsmann points to Meixner as one of the most spirited advocates for Halsmann’s conviction. In turn, Meixner was a focus of opprobrium from academics all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He published impassioned defenses of himself and of his reasons for condemning Halsmann.

He has a convincing record as a fascist and an anti-Semite. Before joining the medical faculty at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner had been an active member of Vienna’s openly anti-Semitic fraternity, Burschenschaft Olympia. And in 1946, when the war was over, Meixner was recommended for forced retirement by the “investigation committee” of the University of Innsbruck because of his reputation as a “radical Nazi.” (See Oberkofler, Gerhard and Peter Goller, Die Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck: Faschistische Realität [1938] and Kontinuität unter postfaschistischen Bedingungen [1945], Eine Dokumentation, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1999, p. 121.)

There is also convincing evidence of his transgressions against medical ethics. According to Oberkofler and Goller, directors of the University of Innsbruck archives, Meixner received a Nazi decree titled “Re.: Transfer of Corpses of the Executed to the Institutes of Anatomy” and affirmed it with his signature on March 18, 1939 (Oberkofler and Goller, pp. 12-14). The decree dictated that the corpses of Nazi prisoners executed without trial and then denied burial rites be delivered to Austrian universities for scientific use.

There is no data on how many corpses were transferred to the University of Innsbruck medical school under the decree sent to Meixner (and to a couple of others on the medical faculty). Nor is it known what may have been done with such corpses. However, it is well known that the Nazi policy on executed prisoners was exploited significantly at the University of Vienna. A University of Vienna inquiry, made at the behest of Yad Vashem, revealed in 1998 that Dr. Eduard Pernkopf acquired 1400 cadavers from Nazi executions for his anatomic studies. Pernkopf had been an active member of the Nazi party since 1933, and in the original editions of his world-famous anatomy text, his artists signed their names with swastikas and SS symbols.

Staff at Yad Vashem informed me that their correspondence with the University of Innsbruck on this subject will remain classified under Israeli law until 2020. It will be interesting to see what other non-consensual uses of human remains belong to Karl Meixner’s curriculum vitae; he certainly demonstrated significant credentials along these lines during the Halsman trials. According to newspaper reports, Meixner had Philippe Halsman’s father’s head separated from his body and, over the defense’s formal protests, he kept it in a jar at the Institute as a specimen. “I had repeatedly requested that the head of Max Halsmann be released for burial,” Franz Pessler writes on p. 76 of his essay on the trial, published in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. Meixner displayed the head to Franz Pessler before the second trial and again to the jury during the second trial. See Pessler, pp. 53, 76-77. (For photographs of the severed head, see Meixner, “Lehren des Halsmannprozesses,” Beitrage zur gerichtlichen Medizin, Vol. 10, 1930, pp. 62-76, and Heindl, “Der Mordprozeß Halsmann,” Archiv für Kriminologie, Vol. 92, No. 5/6, Jun 1933, pp. 185-188.)

Max Halsmann’s head remained there in formaldehyde until 1991, according to an article in November of that year in The Jerusalem Report. (See Wise, Michael Z., “Vienna’s Dreyfus Case,” Jerusalem Report, Nov 21, 1991. p. 4.) It appears Max Halsmann’s head was part of a collection audrey hepburn halsmanof body parts and dead animals which Meixner had carefully tended and stocked. “In his capacity as morphologist, Meixner gave particular attention to the completion of the Juridical Medicine Museum, pushing for an expansion of its collection. Meixner also achieved the expansion of the Institute itself by establishing a facility for animals and a workshop.” (From Hundert Jahre Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck 1869 bis 1969, p. 273. You can also find Karl Meixner’s face in this volume, pictured in plate no. 43. In 100 years of faculty photographs at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner is the only doctor of medicine to sit for a formal indoor portrait with his hat on. He glowers like a B-movie police inspector.)

Meixner died on March 6, 1955, just 4 months before Philippe Halsman would make his 75th Life Magazine cover, a photograph of Audrey Hepburn on her farm in Rome under a pair of white doves.

Posted on April 13, 2011

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