Archive for July 25th, 2009

July 25, 2009

A cold case heats up: The mystery of Rosa Luxemburg

On May 31, 2009 I posted an article about the discovery of a nameless, headless torso in the medical historical museum of Berlin’s Charité hospital. In it I relate how in the spring of this year the museum’s director, the forensic pathologist Michael Tsokos, announced his long-held suspicion that this body fragment could well be the mortal remains of the German-Polish communist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered by government troops and thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal in the wake of the failed Spartacus Uprising of January, 1919.

Tsokos was pinning his hopes on a DNA test for which he needed samples. Unfortunately, the possible sources I listed in the article, including a distant relative in Poland and a lock of Luxemburg’s hair supposedly preserved in the United States by descendants of one of Luxemburg’s lovers, all turned out to be dead ends. In the meantime, however, a previously unknown relative has surfaced in the Negev desert. 79 year-old Irene Borde is the granddaughter of Luxemburg’s brother. She grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to Israel in 1973. Today she works as a professor of process engineering at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. In mid-July she sent a lock of her own hair to Tsokos for comparison with genetic material extracted from the parched liver of the museum’s unidentified “floater.”

Rosa Luxemburg at the Charite

Is this “floater” all that is left of the
revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg?

One might expect a descendant of the woman whom the German Left today regard as their patron saint to cash in on her celebrity. And yet it shouldn’t surprise us that Borde has not exactly sought the limelight. Under Stalin, Luxemburg (who is best known for her anti-Leninist remark that “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”) was as hated as Trotsky, and even East German communists were less than comfortable with her legacy. “In the Soviet Union, our association with the name Luxemburg brought us nothing but disadvantages,” she told the German tabloid Welt am Sonntag. All the same, Borde calls herself “the guardian of the Luxemburg family legacy,” with a collection of photo albums, memorabilia, and family stories. Regardless of the results of the DNA test, she may prove to be a valuable source of information for historians.