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

ANDREW BRADFORD

The story of Charlie and Kathy Bradford

"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

“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 Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum; www.aushwitz.org

 

Sunday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted on January 25, 2013 at 11:35 AM  

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.  

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

 

 

Andrew Bradford Author Blog

See also: 

On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember Disabled People who perished in the Nazi Aktion T-4 Programme

 

 

 

About John McArdle

Co-founder of Black Triangle
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23 Responses to Nazi persecution of people with disabilities and what this means for us today

  1. Pingback: On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember Disabled People who perished in the Nazi Aktion T-4 Programme | Black Triangle Campaign

  2. Tom says:

    This is not my country any more. I am ashamed to be British. My wife and I have a suicide pact. She has a part time job, I don’t have any. I have several physical ailments, but my biggest problem is depression. Recently, I was tricked out of all of my family savings by an experienced con artist. That would never have happened if not for my mental state. ATOS hasn’t got to me yet, but they will. We’ve cried all night about the mess we’re in – we cannot afford to heat our home sufficiently to keep warm. We cannot survive on any less than we have now. I’ve tried to downsize but the market is flat. I’m just as appalled and disgusted by the right wingers – as with the left, for their silence. No one will miss us.

    • JJ says:

      Tom. We have sent you an email. Please check your inbox. Love & solidarity, John.

    • Judith says:

      Tom,pls hold on to a bit of hope,trust me we have been dreadfully bullied too in UK,and I cant quite believe what is happening,we must try and keep on,because being evil is always that,and those who are ignoring our peril,will have their own shocks in store before too long I think,I agree,Im ashamed of UK and for those letting this continue,good luck to you both

    • Becki says:

      Tom, you have to hold on. Things will get better even if you dont think so right now. there is only one you in the whole universe, you are special. Even if you feel you have no value, you are loved and unique. The site administrator has full permission to give you my email address if you need to talk. x

    • Broken says:

      I’m so sorry Tom. I understand exactly how you feel and if I could ever offer any help, please ask. Being in this terrible situation…you feel that there is no-one who cares…but maybe I was wrong in thinking that too. People who understand will care. Please let me know if there’s any way at all I can help you.

  3. SG says:

    Tom, both of you, please hold on. You would be sorely missed! They cannot continue with this onslaught unchallenged, and people are mobilising to help one another, physically, emotionally, financially.

    I’m falling asleep now but others will be awake soon and hopefully have practical advice. Whereabouts are you?

  4. The eugenics movement started because of a misunderstanding of how genetics works. It was assumed that some people are genetically normal and others aren’t. We now know that each individual is genetically unique, but the old idea of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ persists. As long as it does, it will continue to plague public policy.

  5. Linda says:

    When you consider they would have done away with someone like Stephen Hawking, it just shows how daft eugenics is. The father of a severely disabled child said to me once, at least he will never grow up to rob a bank or harm another human being.
    Tom, hang in there. The tide will turn. This government wont be in power forever.

  6. Pink Parrot says:

    I suppose by the crazy rationale of eugenics, the eugenicists should have got rid of themselves first, being ‘faulty’ ie having no humanity, no hearts, no souls.
    Did the BBC mention anything about Holocausts day on the news, relating to disability (or are we ‘cleansed from history too?)
    As others have said Tom, do hang in there, the tide is turning, slowly, but it is. The truth is seeping out little by little, truth always comes out in the end, nothing lasts forever, and this regime’s days are well and truly numbered.
    We’re not on our own during these dreadful times, thank God for the internet.

  7. GEOFF REYNOLDS says:

    GEOFFREY REYNOLDS left an annotation (28 January 2013)

    Gone are the days when you needed to use an easily recognizable mode of ending someones life…..
    No need for firearms,knives or poison….
    It could start with the receipt of a seemingly innocent brown envelope containing a deadly recipe concocted to take away the very reason for living…..
    A death sentence generated and sent to the most weakest and vulnerable in our society by the most heinous and cowardly in our society…..
    The assailants hide behind bureaucracy and ill thought out guidelines and hastily drafted, corrupted laws.
    Meanwhile the impact becomes more and more apparent as the clock ticks and the victims multiply…
    Statistics will be used to try and mask the injustice but consciences will carry the burden. It is never erased.

    Link to this

    • Judith says:

      I have to say the brown envelope is a deadly weapon,and they keep sending them knowing one might hit the mark,one sent my BP up to 250 over 150…….did I seek help,no because….no one wants to know……UK you are very strange these days,I dont recognise you

      • Alex says:

        I got a nasty brownie today. I simply dont have the will or energy to ‘fight’ the apperachniks anymore. The only ‘flight’ option I feel I have is to burn the remains of my chattels and light the charcoal co2 oblivion machine. I’ll be saving the country some money, it’s my civic duty LOL.

  8. DAVID SHAW says:

    If we fail to learn the lessons of the past , we are condemned to repeat them. It seems in Eton they did not learn history at all. For they are repeating the past , and all of the suffering and consequence that it will bring. But they forget that those who carry the flag of Nazism will pay dearly for their actions. There is no ratline, their is no support, Cameron, miller, osborne, McVey, Freud, IDS , every one of these pathetic, weak and intolerable individuals will pay a very high price for their crimes.

  9. Becki says:

    Tom, you have to hold on. Things will get better even if you dont think so right now. there is only one you in the whole universe, you are special. Even if you feel you have no value, you are loved and unique. The site administrator has full permission to give you my email address if you need to talk. x

  10. Graham says:

    Our local MP went to Belgium and was caught in his party dress SS uniform! Aiden Burley, he is one who I believe would Gas us all, I feel let down by this country, they help anyone wants work ..I applied for 1600 in the last 10 yrs and heard from non.. my debts are 40k so maybe my time is here too? my ATOS Death form came Saturday, wish me luck, if they can get me a job, then all good, but some how I don’t think so.. Oh and what do we go on when our 12 month work benefit runs out? what then…

  11. Broken says:

    I’m like Tom and his wife. I’ve been ill for a long time and I’ve always tried to fight to keep myself going but now, I’ve no fight left. I know Cameron and his evil minions won’t care but I’m sure I’ll be another statistic by the end of the year. The terror of wondering when that dreaded envelope is going to drop through the door has taken away any fight I had left. Like so many others, I see suicide as the only way out. It seems to be illegal to be ill in this terrible country these days and so many people who work agree with the government. No-one seems to care enough to stand up for ill people who can’t do it themselves.

    I’m so sad and broken and I just can’t see any way out.

  12. Pingback: Nigel Farage flees barrage of abuse from Edinburgh protesters: UKIP Party leader takes shelter in police riot van as demonstrators chant ‘Ukip scum off our streets’ | Black Triangle Campaign

  13. Humanity2012 says:

    Too Many Boneheads with their Heads in the Sand

    Too Much Selfishness

    Tax The Rich Hands Off The Poor

  14. “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 would ask these hecklers one question.

    “how about evil people, you think we should kill them too?”

    • a says:

      Just over a year ago Atos decision was to take me from incapacity to work related ESA, without an interview. I have several degenerative, debilitating conditions, each of which should have prevented this. I tried to appeal but was told it is incumbent on me to supply them with consultants letters at £50 a time. This I could not afford, the appeal process became irrelevant.
      Halfway through February I found out my ESA had expired at the beginning of the month! No one bothered to notify me of this. Immediately I found I had a thick form to fill in to begin a new claim from scratch, I completed the form the same day and submitted it to DWP.
      I have had no money since the beginning of February. No acknowledgement my claim is being processed. The only serious advice I’ve had (from a social worker) is to find a food bank!
      What happens when the inevitable services bills come in?
      I know I’m not alone in this BUT I am alone, with nowhere to turn.
      There isn’t an hour in the day when I’m struggling with thoughts of ending my life, (I have the means to do so).
      All the expensive think tanks have deliberately manufactured these policies and this evil government has put them into practice with glee. None of the other parties are doing anything to minimise what’s going on. Indeed most of them think it’s a great thing to be doing and have no wish to tackle this form of genocide, which it clearly is, by proxy; ie. it’s all our own fault! And Joe public has been brainwashed by their propaganda to agree.
      I unfortunately have lived nearly 60 years too long. This is a country with no national compassion. Everyone has a selfish agenda.
      The only thing I feel ashamed of is my country.
      I cannot condone anyone killing anyone for any reason.
      But it’s not difficult to imagine others who don’t share my opinion.
      Hindsight and posterity are luxuries some of us don’t have, because it will be too late by then.