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Sunday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi persecution of people with disabilities and what this means for us today


 

Almost two years ago, on a bitterly cold, snowy day in March I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were on a short break in Cracow at the time. I was in two minds whether to go or not; one part of me said that this not a tourist attraction, and treating is as such devalues the horrors that went on there. But another part of me said that I should see what went on; If we don't try to understand what happened, it can happen again.

 

All Auschwitz visits are guided. Joachim, our guide told us about the history of this terrible place with sympathy and conviction. In particular he told us that many of the officers who ran the camp were never prosecuted; after the war they went back to Germany and resumed their civilian lives as though nothing had happened. The obituary of one camp medical officer describes him as one of the most eminent, and most caring gynaecologists in Stuttgart.

 

The Museum gets over a million visitors each year, so there are several different routes that an individual guided tour can take to avoid congestion. On the route our group took, one of the very first things that you see is the Museum's collection of over 400 false legs, false arms, crutches, leg-irons and other surgical appliances. I hadn't expected this. One of my childhood memories as a very small boy is going into my parents bedroom early in the morning when they were still in bed and seeing their crutches and leg irons and my father's leather and steel spinal corset by their bedside. Now I was looking at hundreds of these appliances, all looted from those who had been exterminated. I took a deep intake of breath.



 

 

This picture is provided by courtesy of the Aushwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum; www.aushwitz.org


My mother and father, both of whom were seriously disabled by polio when they were toddlers, were twenty seven and thirty three in 1939 - just the right age group to have ended their lives in this hellish place if they had they been born in another European country or if the Nazis had invaded Great Britain. It is estimated that close to 250,000 disabled people were murdered under the Nazi regime. Persecution of people with disabilities began in 1933, but mass murder commenced in 1939. In 1933 the ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ allowed for the forced sterilisation of those regarded as ‘unfit’. This definition included people with conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Prisons, nursing homes, asylums, care homes and special schools were targeted to select people for sterilisation. It has been estimated that between 1933 and 1939, 360,000 individuals were forcibly sterilised.

 



Andrew Bradford with his parents, Charlie and Kathy Bradford in 1953

 

The organised killing of disabled children began in August 1939 when the Interior Ministry required doctors and midwives to report all cases of newborns with severe disabilities. All children under the age of three who were suffering from conditions such as Down’s syndrome, hydrocephaly, cerebral palsy or ‘suspected idiocy’, were targeted. A panel of medical experts were required to give their approval for the ‘euthanasia’ of each child. In the first few months of the program this was usually achieved either by lethal injection or by starving the child to death.

Many parents were unaware of the fate of their children, instead being told that they were being sent for improved care. After a period of time parents were told their children had died of pneumonia and that their bodies had been cremated to stop the spread of disease.

 

Not everyone who was selected for euthanasia died. Robert Wagemann and his family were Jehovah's Witnesses. The Nazis regarded Jehovah's Witnesses as enemies of the state for their refusal to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, or to serve in the army. Robert's family continued its religious activities despite Nazi persecution. Because of this Robert was born in gaol where his mother was imprisoned briefly for distributing religious materials. His hip was injured during delivery, leaving him with a disability. When Robert was five he was ordered to report for a physical in Schlierheim. His mother overheard staff comments about putting Robert "to sleep." Fearing they intended to kill him, Robert's mother grabbed him and ran from the clinic. The family was hidden by relatives until the allied victory. You can hear Robert talking about his experiences here.

 

Following the outbreak of war the programme expanded. Disabled and chronically sick adults were now included in the programme. A more efficient method of extermination was now needed as the previous methods of killing by lethal injection or starvation were too slow to cope with larger numbers. The first experimental gassings took place at the killing centre in Brandenberg and thousands of disabled patients were killed in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms. Now that a fast and effective method of mass-murder had been developed it could of course be used to exterminate gays, Gypsies, political opponents and of course over six million Jews.

 

*****

But the Nazis weren't alone in thinking that the lives of people with disabilities had no value. they drew some of their thinking from the ideas of the Eugenics movement, which had its followers all over the world, including the United Kingdom. In 1930, Julian Huxley, secretary of the London Zoological Society and chairman of the Eugenics Society wrote:

 

 

'What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.'

 

 

In the early 20th century, many public figures, including political leaders such as Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt; birth control pioneers Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, and intellectuals such as H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, Linus Pauling and Sidney Webb supported the idea of eugenics.

 

They believed that anyone disabled or 'deficient' was a threat to the 'health of the nation'. The aim of eugenics was to eliminate human physical and mental defects altogether, in order to build a stronger society. People with disabilities would be segregated from everyone else in the name of 'perfecting' the human race. Between 1920 and 1940 compulsory sterilisation programs in mental asylums took place on a number of countries including Belgium, Brazil, Canada and Sweden.


Eugenics was discredited in most of the world by the revelation of what had happened in the German camps, but Sweden only stopped the sterilisation of asylum inmates in 1975. But many people will have forgotten just how discredited these ideas became by 1945. Worryingly, in 2012 in Great Britain, Geoffrey Clark, a local government candidate for the UK Independence Party in a by-election in Gravesham, Kent posted this on his website:

 

“Consider compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Downs, Spina Bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, will render the child a burden on the state as well as on the family.”

 

Although UKIP suspended Clark's party membership when this hit the news, it was too late to cancel his candidacy. He came second to the conservatives with almost 27% of the vote.

*****

 

Our guided tour ended on the bleak plain of Birkenau, where hundreds of wooden buildings that housed those queued up for the gas chambers once stood. At the end of the tour Joachim, our guide told us how to get back to our coaches. I was standing next to him when we began to walk back and we struck up a conversation.

 

Joachim told me that Auschwitz guides are sometimes heckled. Most of the hecklers deny that anybody was ever killed at Auschwitz or any of the camps. Guides are trained in how to respond to hecklers, and he wasn't too worried about putting the deniers down - the evidence to contradict them was all around them. The hecklers that he and his colleagues found really difficult to deal with were those who agreed that this was indeed a death camp, but that Hitler was right.

 

I'm going to finish this piece with pastor Martin Niemöller's Holocaust poem, which although it doesn't specifically mention disabled people, reminds me of the reason why I did decide to visit Auschwitz and why we all need to be consistently vigilant in our opposition to holocaust deniers and politicians like Geoffrey Clark. If ideas like his become acceptable in mainstream politics the future looks very bleak for vulnerable people.

 

First They Came - Martin Niemöller


First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

 

Poem (c) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The Holocaust.” Holocaust Encyclopaedia: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392

 


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