In the early years of the Nazi regime, 300,000 disabled people were systemically slaughtered as part of a twisted euthanasia program. English Professor David Mitchell led his students on a pilgrimage to Germany to memorialize the largely unknown tragedy.
By John DiConsiglio
They are known as the killing centers—six buildings dotting the German countryside. Some are brick castles transformed into state mental hospitals. One is a dismantled jail. Others are psychiatric institutions guarded by razor wire. When English major Maria Willhoit first stepped through the gates of a killing center—the Bernburg psychiatric institution in Saxony—there was no denying the echoes of the past. Here, inside the antiseptic halls and cramped sterile wards, thousands of disabled people were systematically slaughtered by the Nazi regime in a little-known "euthanasia" program.
As part of English Professor David Mitchell’s Dean’s Scholars in Globalization course on Disabled People and the Holocaust, Willhoit and her eight classmates spent spring break on a heart-wrenching tour of German historical sites related to Hitler’s clandestine medical murder campaign. She walked through the same corridors where disabled people were stripped of their clothes and their belongings, and then led to their deaths. She peered into the same makeshift gas chambers and shower stalls, where the Nazis first tested their extermination technology on those who were diagnosed as deaf, blind or people with an array of disabilities from congenital impairments to psychiatric disorders.
“Being here, seeing how these victims died, I feel like we are memorializing them by remembering their experiences,” she said. “But there’s also a shameful feeling. How is it that so few people know what happened here?”
That’s one of the questions that Mitchell’s undergraduate students explored in their semester-long classroom seminar and on their 10-day trip to Germany. Students immersed themselves in readings and research on the Nazi medical murder program known as “T4,” a reference to the address of the public health administration building in downtown Berlin where the killing strategy was supervised. Throughout the class, Mitchell challenged students to not only understand the plight of the victims but to also grapple with hard questions about a relatively neglected Holocaust narrative: Why was there seemingly less outrage over the killing of disabled people than other Nazi murders? Why did many of those who participated in the extermination scheme escape prosecution? And why did it take 70 years to erect the first T4 memorial—a 79-foot-long wall of blue tinted glass unveiled in Berlin last September?
In addition to visiting a concentration camp and memorials to other marginalized Holocaust victims, students participated in discussions with German students and faculty at Humboldt University of Berlin and attended lectures by Holocaust scholars. But the emotional centerpiece of the journey was the killing centers. The students toured three sites: Bernburg and Sonnenstein-Pirna in Saxony, and Brandenburg on the Havel River near Berlin.
“It’s one thing to read about these places but it’s another to have a visceral, physical immersion in these tainted spaces,” Mitchell said. “There’s something powerful about being in the scene of an historical nightmare.”
Crimes on the Most Vulnerable
It’s a largely unwritten chapter in Holocaust history. Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi doctors, under the guise of medical advancement, killed 300,000 disabled children and adults. Throughout German cities and townships, disabled “patients” were identified by clinicians, psychiatrists and social workers, and required to register with Nazi officials. Diagnostic records characterized them as “useless eaters,” “lives unworthy of living” and “burdens upon themselves and the nation’s resources.” They were loaded into vans with black-painted windows—nicknamed “death buses” by local children—and transported to the killing centers, countryside hospitals and institutions just outside of picturesque cities such as Dresden and Potsdam. In Berlin, “death committees” of physicians determined whether disabled people should be released, or, if their documents were marked with an ominous red cross, taken to their deaths.
The killings began with disabled children as young as three, many of whom were starved to death in hospital beds or killed with lethal overdoses. As a direct pre-cursor to the Holocaust death camp murders, adults were herded into crowded air-tight chambers; those who relied on wheelchairs or crutches were carried inside by orderlies. Heavy metal doors slammed behind them, and the chambers flooded with poison gas. Afterward, some dead bodies were carted to a nearby crematorium; others were singled out by medical staff to perform autopsies for research.
Touring the chambers and autopsy room of Bernburg, junior English major Rodrigo Duran tried to separate himself from his emotions and view the facility from an academic standpoint. “We’re coming here as scholars. You acknowledge that it’s devastating, but you know that your job is to try to understand these events,” he said. But the relics on display at Bernburg—from the victim photos to a rusted metal leg brace—tested Duran’s resolve. “Just imagine how many people were taken into these rooms. They were wall-to-wall,” he shook his head. “It’s hard to comprehend.”
Depth of Knowledge
Mitchell, who has a disability, first envisioned the course with women’s studies professor and research partner Sharon Snyder in the early 2000s, while lecturing at the University of Frankfurt. During the trip, he and Snyder visited the killing centers. “The depth of my knowledge on this topic expanded significantly,” he said. “I wanted to offer students that same experience.”
Mitchell challenged students to use the power of the horrific settings as a jump-off point for exploring attitudes toward the disabled throughout history and into today. He and Snyder noted that Nazi euthanasia programs were influenced by American notions of eugenics in the early 20th century, which advocated coerced sterilizations and permanent institutionalizations.
The T4 program represented medicine run amok, the consequence of doctors serving the state rather than individuals, Mitchell said. “These people had bodies that didn’t work right and couldn’t be productive for the nation.” At the same time, as Duran noted, the program was built on long-standing views of the disabled as less than human. “They argued that Germany was a body, and the disabled were a tumor,” he said. “They needed to remove that tumor to make the body stronger.”
Indeed, many of the perpetrators were never tried for the crimes they called benign “medical interventions.” And while local townspeople may not have participated in the slaughter, Mitchell suggested that the stigma surrounding the disabled made it easier for many to rationalize the medical murders. “It’s difficult to imagine that someone living in Bernburg during the 1940s would not know what was happening down the road,” he said. “The smell of human flesh and bones burning is very distinct.”
Senior women’s studies major Faith Weis said the trip inspired her to “reclaim a historical narrative” for forgotten victims like the disabled. “History has to be seen through a broader lens,” she said. “We are uncomfortable talking about the disabled. But we’re going to have to learn how to talk about our differences if we are going to give them the historical context they deserve.”
The students who participated in the class and the trip were Mehreen Arif, Julia Barrett, Alexandra Bonagura, Rodrigo Duran, Jessica Hang, Alyssa Kopervos, Lili Sten, Faith Weis and Maria Willhoit.