My parents never spoke to me about their past in Germany. My mother’s sister, I was told, died of liver failure when young. Yet her absence was always present. Suspicious, I started to delve. It took me the better part of 50 years to find her.
When I finally acquired my mother’s papers, I ‘discovered’ that Anna, as I shall call her, had been in a mental hospital in the 1930s and, in about 1940, had been sent to Posnan in Poland, where she had ‘unfortunately died’. This, I was to discover, was the lie that the authorities at the Brandenburg euthanasia centre told most victims’ families and, significantly, the presiding court authorities. Actually, Anna was gassed at the Brandenburg killing centre in July 1940.
The 70,000 victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme - T4 Aktion in Nazi-speak - and the programme itself have received relatively little publicity either in Germany or Britain (see Anthony Grenville, ‘(Mis)understanding the Holocaust’, AJR Journal, May 2011). The programme, an extension of the sterilisation programme, itself a product of the German medical profession’s longstanding interest in genetics, was intended to ‘purify German blood’. Ninety-nine per cent of the T4 victims were deemed mentally subnormal. (One example was of a woman considered a touch slovenly over her housework.) The T4 programme was the first to gas its victims.
These are some of the forgotten victims of Nazi barbarism. There are many reasons for this. Few have chosen to campaign for the T4 victims, in comparison, for example, with the murdered Jews. Many families still prefer not to (or even no longer do) remember what happened to their long-ago, ‘not-quite-right’ relatives. Moreover, almost none of the doctors and nurses who had administered and taken part in the T4 programme were sacked post-Nazism: they in turn appointed people in their own ideological mould to succeed them.
There is another reason. Finally, in 2011 there was a memorial for the 7,000 murdered at Brandenburg and, for the first time in Germany, a book of the dead has been published. For this purpose, Astrid Ley and others had to go to court to win permission to release names held under the so-called rules of patient and doctor confidentiality. It is a crucial precedent.
I attended the commemoration in Brandenburg in September. I stood close to the ground where Anna was gassed. As I crunched over the gravel and dust where the prison and killing unit had stood, I thought: Here lie Anna’s ashes. The good citizens of Brandenburg had protested at all the smoke emanating from that long chimney, which worried the administrators of the T4 programme, who wanted their activities well concealed. So, some time after Anna's incineration the corpses were burnt elsewhere.
At the beginning of the T4 programme, it was ability to work which determined whether you lived or died. But between April and July 1940 the criteria changed to whether or not the patient was ‘Jewish’. The medical profession (who had the highest membership of the Nazi Party of any occupational group) had, during the Weimar Republic, increasingly defined the Jews as a threat to the German race. Of those murdered at Brandenburg, 10 per cent were Jewish. (In the Reich as a whole, the percentage of Jews was 0.8, in Berlin 3.8. Thus the 10 per cent figure both reveals not only the disproportionate number of Jews killed but also the fact that, as opposed to common mythology, most of the T4 victims were not Jewish.) It has not been established who took the decision to ‘prioritise’ the Jewish patients but it marks one of the first instances of systematised murder on the basis of being Jewish.
For anybody interested in the euthanasia programme, in particular in Brandenburg, the first and one of the key killing centres, I strongly recommend The ‘Euthanasia Institution’ at Brandenburg an der Havel: Murder of the Ill and Handicapped during National Socialism (edited by Astrid Ley and Annette Hinz-Wessels, Metropol Verlag, 2012, in English and German), which accompanies the Brandenburg memorial exhibition and from which I have drawn some of the above data. I would also like to thank Dr Ley for helping me to find my aunt.