Monday, April 21, 2008

The Forgotten German Holocaust Against People with Disabiities

It’s about time.

Reuters reported a little while ago that the town of Brandenburg, Germany, was to open a center commemorating the 9,000 or so people with disabilities murdered there just before and during the first few years of WWII.

When most of us think of the Holocaust, we recall ghastly black and white footage of emaciated corpses at Belsen, Birkenau, and Auschwitz and the anguished cry of “We must never forget.”

Rightly so.

But we have forgotten the dirty little secret of six other names: Brandenburg, Sonnerstein, Bernburg, Hadamar, Grafeneck, Hartheim.

You see, the Holocaust, as most people understand it, wouldn’t have taken the form it did had it not been for these locales.

I’ll bet you probably haven’t heard of these six places. Please remember them, always. They are the names of six institutions that housed a wide array of people with some form of disability – from those with severe and profound disabilities to those who had fairly minor medical conditions such as epilepsy. These places of social charity were hijacked by Nazi thugs and turned from havens of comfort and safety to death chambers.

The death program even had a name. Aktion T4, Hitler called it.

First major challenge: How to kill these people?

They tried a number of ways. Shooting patients in the back of the head (too messy). Tying a bunch of patients together and blowing them up with dynamite (way too messy). Poisoning (too slow). Starvation (way too slow).

What to do?

Why, gas, of course. No mess. Easier to disguise as something legitimate.

How about gassing disguised as showering? Sound familiar?

We’ll never know how many died, but we can account for about 70,000 deaths from recovered records. I’d bet there were many thousands more.

So now you know where the gas chambers of Dachau, Majdanek, and Buchenwald came from. Some of the unsavory characters that worked the chambers in the institutions graduated to more impressive death-making in the concentration camps.

In Aktion T4, disability was a death sentence. Later, in the concentration camps, it was being Jewish, or being gay, or being a gypsy.

Same tune, different words.

The whole story is here at Useless Eaters.

Check it out, it’ll help you remember those six not-concentration-camps-but-formerly-caring-institutional names.


Barb said...

Thanks for highlighting this Mark. You are so right, we cannot forget.

Yet people do and most are insulted to believe that there could be any remote similarity between the way people with disabilities were treated during the holocaust and what is happening now, with prenatal termination of the "imperfects".

We are a perfect and tolerant society. After all, there are wheelchair ramps and washrooms everywhere right?

The discovery of nuclear energy opened the door to ways that could be very helpful to mankind, yet also very destructive. We saw the destruction and were afraid. Everywhere there are tight controls on all aspects of radioactive products due to the potential to do harm.

By comparison, the field of genetics can be very helpful to mankind and also very destructive.
Yet, there is little monitoring or control on the prenatal tests that are being developed and the reason that unborn lives are being terminated. It is all considered a personal decision.

Thank you for having the courage to speak up about these issues.


Dr. Mark Mostert said...

Barb, thanks for your comments.

Our forgetting makes repeating our past missteps almost certain, unfortunately. That’s why we have to keep reminding people about where we’ve already been, so that they won’t head that way again.

I’ve expanded on this in the latest issue of Human Life Review; that there are several variables that from time to time coalesce to the detriment of people with disabilities, and that I believe now is such a time.

Your point about being tolerant of disability (wheelchair ramps, etc.) is well taken. As I’ve often said, we seem to be more tolerant of disability in society than ever, while simultaneously becoming increasing intolerant of imperfection. Of course, the less tolerant we are of imperfection, the less we’ll have to worry about accommodating people with disabilities in our society.

I’d be interested if any medical student or recently graduated physician could share with us just exactly whether the “do no harm” idea was ever strongly emphasized in their training. My guess is we’d be unpleasantly surprised.

You make a good point about more controls on genetic testing, etc. I think, though, the genie is out of the bottle. Now that we know we can use these tests for eugenic ends, I see no incentive to stop.

Helen said...

I already knew that these things had happened, and that "we" were the first to be killed.

I once read of a figure of 125,000 disabled people being murdered by the Nazi regime, but who knows how many?

In Britain,memorial to those who died is planned; and a play was written: