Anyone approaching Ulm University from the north won’t be able to avoid the Jewish-born physician Professor Hans Hirschfeld (1873 – 1944). The renowned haematologist was among the world’s leading scientists in his field in the 1930s. In 1942, he was deported by the National Socialists to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he was later murdered. On the initiative of Ulm University, the City of Ulm has now dedicated a place to this distinguished researcher, the Hans Hirschfeld Roundabout.
The new roundabout, which connects the streets Albert-Einstein-Allee and James-Franck Ring, was inaugurated with a public ceremony on Montag, 4 October. More than 200 people, including around 140 invited guests, gathered to pay tribute to Hans Hirschfeld. Among them were members of the federal and state parliaments and the city council, distinguished representatives from the State of Israel, the Jewish community and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, representatives of the city and community of Ulm and numerous university members, primarily professors.
The students of Ulm University had a fixed role in the ceremony as well. Following a welcome address delivered by Mayor Gunter Czisch, the students unveiled the slab and new street signs that the City of Ulm had erected for Hans Hirschfeld. “The city, the state and the University are working together to honour this exceptional physician and researcher in order to bring him back into our awareness,” said Czisch. In her opening address, Minster of Science Theresia Bauer recalled the arson attack at the Ulm synagogue one year before, and went on to highlight some fundamental truths: “As we dedicate this place, we honour the physician Hans Hirschfeld and demonstrate that he, his work and his research have not been forgotten. But we also want to call attention to the mechanisms of repression and forgetting that often prevailed in post-war Germany, and to those who actively supported them, possibly even in order to benefit themselves.”
The memory of Hans Hirschfeld and his work were actively eradicated
At least in part due to the active erasure of his scientific achievements and publications, Hans Hirschfeld and his contribution to medical research in Germany had been completely forgotten. Prominent founders of Ulm University played a disreputable role here as well, such as renowned physician Professor Ludwig Heilmeyer, a colleague of Hirschfeld’s who unscrupulously helped himself to Hirschfeld’s legacy of publications. Professor Florian Steger, a medical historian based in Ulm, called attention to this dishonest takeover within the scope of the University’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2017, and he also recently published a comprehensive political biography on Ludwig Heilmeyer.
In his opening address, University President Professor Michael Weber emphasised that universities bear a special responsibility in their autonomy and must therefore not only be committed to science, but also to the constitution. “Hans Hirschfeld Square should not only remind us of the past. Rather, it should also serve as a warning for the present and for the future. It should be a symbol for excellent scientific work and for commitment to academic integrity and to the values of our free democratic constitutional order.” Professor Thomas Wirth also directed his message toward the future, while remaining committed to the past. The dean of the Medical Faculty sees a great opportunity in the naming of this central square at the gateway to the campus on Oberer Eselsberg. It could be understood as an appeal to everyone – to researchers and teachers, but also to the citizens of Ulm, to put an end to the forgetting and denial.
Professor Barbara Traub, speaker of the board of the Israeli Religious Community of Württemberg, recalled the centuries of cultural and scientific enrichment that Jews have contributed to Germany. To her, it is a matter of utmost importance to jointly pull Hans Hirschfeld, an outstanding scientist and special human being, back out of oblivion. “German-Jewish history is not over; we all continue to write it,” said Traub, who is also a member of the board of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Traub was followed at the speaker’s podium by Professor Peter Voswinckel, a medical historian who has been in charge of the historical research centre and archive of the German Haematology and Medical Oncology Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Hämatologie und Medizinische Onkologie, DGHO) in Berlin for many years. To mark the occasion of the DGHO’s 75th anniversary (2012), Voswinckel investigated the historical dark sides of the professional association and made a significant contribution to the scientific rehabilitation of Professor Hans Hirschfeld. “Denied Honour” reads the title of the anniversary brochure, which is dedicated to the father of German haematology. It is symbolic for all of the scientists in this field who were eradicated by the National Socialists and suppressed and forgotten by their colleagues. Prior to his deportation, Hirschfeld believed the world would not allow such things to happen to him. “And then Hirschfeld was dead and his work forgotten. How could this happen?” asks Voswinckel.
Invitation to attendees to share the complex heritage with the family
A member of the family spoke at the ceremony about origins and connections to the past. Cultural anthropologist Dr Jan Watzlawik related how all of those deceased continue to live on in the family, whether they are publicly visible like Hans Hirschfeld or not. Among them were those who were murdered, those who emigrated and experienced a great deal of suffering, and even those who were the perpetrators. “Origin is not always easy”, said Watzlawik, who invited the attendees to share with his family in this complex heritage.
Sven Fauth from the Ulm University Students’ Council (Verfasste Studierendenschaft) spoke on behalf of the student body. Fauth called attention to the fact that today, many truths continue to go unspoken. “But the past determines what is today. We as students have to decide in which tradition we want to live,” said Fauth.
Michael Lutzeier brought the dedication ceremony to a close with a musical contribution on his baritone saxophone, playing Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”. The main initiator for the naming of the square was thanked several times. Professor Peter Gierschik, director of the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, had launched this special initiative in close cooperation with the City of Ulm, the city archive director Professor Michael Wettengel and Dr Nicole Wenge, director of the Documentation Centre Oberer Kuhberg (Dokumentationszentrum Oberer Kuhberg, DZOK). Special roles were also played by Professor Peter Voswinckel and Professor Florian Steger, medical historian from Ulm. “For us, it’s about showing a belated sign of recognition for an outstanding haematologist, who was robbed of his life, his dignity and his honour. In addition, we want to sensitise young people in the here and now to early signs of intolerance and of social and religious discrimination,” explains Gierschik.
Hans Hirschfeld exhibition in the University Forum
Following the hour-long dedication ceremony, the DGHO Hans Hirschfeld exhibition was opened in the University Forum. The tour was accompanied by Professor Voswinckel, who had put together numerous original historical documents for the exhibition. These included testimonies of Hirschfeld’s scientific work and extensive materials from the National Socialist bureaucracy that were used in the destruction of his livelihood, such as asset lists, inventory lists and a “home purchase contract”. Hirschfeld and his wife were not sent to a nursing home, but to a concentration camp, where Hans Hirschfeld died on 26 August 1944. His wife survived and followed her children out of the country following the war. The exhibition will be on display in the University Forum through mid-November and then afterwards, it will be moved to the DZOK.
Biographical information on Hans Hirschfeld is available here (in German only).
Florian Steger and Jan Jeskow: Ludwig Heilmeyer. A Political Biography, Steiner Verlag 2021 (link)
Text and mediacontact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann