Bundestag remembers Nazi 'euthanasia' victims

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02:29 mins.
27.01.2017

Bundestag remembers 'forgotten' Holocaust victims

Those sterilized and killed by doctors in Nazi Germany have been the focus of a moving ceremony in the German parliament. Relatives of victims told harrowing stories of how their family members were put to death.

The German parliament remembers the victims of the Holocaust every year on January 27, which is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. But for the first time, the commemorations emphasized the approximately 300,000 people who were murdered in Nazi euthanasia programs.

The President of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, recalled that 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting held to organize and plan the mass murder of European Jews. Lammert said the conference reflected the "technocratic, cynical inhumanity" of Nazi Germany.

But mass killings were already well underway before the 1942 conference. Doctors had been sterilizing people diagnosed as genetically ill since 1934, and systematic mass murder of such people had been taking place since 1939 as part of what became known as Action T-4. Those who didn't fit in with racist Nazi ideals of health were sent to six killing facilities in Germany and Austria.

"Euthanasia began with the denunciation of people as useless mouths to feed," Lammert told the audience, which included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German President Hans-Joachim Gauck. "Barbarism of language is barbarism of the spirit. Words became deeds."

Human Rights | 26.01.2017

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

The world remembers the victims of the Holocaust

On January 27, 1945, the Soviet Red Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. In 1996, then German President Roman Herzog marked it as a day to commemorate the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. In 2005, the United Nations named it a day of international day of remembrance. Since then, people gather across the world to remember those who lost their lives.

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Oswiecim, Poland

Dozens of Auschwitz survivors commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day and paid homage to the Holocaust's victims by returning to the camp 72 years after it was liberated. Survivors placed wreaths in front of the camp's infamous shooting wall. Around 1.1 million people were murdered or died at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, 90 percent of them were Jewish.

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Berlin, Germany

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World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Berlin, Germany

The Vice-President of Germany's parliament, Claudia Roth, laid a wreath commemorating the Sinti and Roma people murdered by Nazi regime. Next to the Jewish communities, the Sinti and Roma were also widely persecuted and then deported to concentration camps. Still, today they continue to make up one of Germany's largest ethnic groups.

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Jerusalem, Israel

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wore a kippa as he entered the synagogue at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem a day prior to International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 26. In his speech, Netanyahu addressed the threat posed by Iran and pointed to new US President Donald Trump as a strong ally of Israel's.

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Moscow, Russia

The Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, attended a candle lighting ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Although the Soviet Union suffered a number of anti-Semitic controversies, Moscow openly received tens of thousands of Soviet Jews from the Pale of Settlement into its newly industrialized cities.

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

York, United Kingdom

At York Minister in England, Canon Chancellor Christopher Collingwood lit 600 candles in the shape of the Star of David. In 1942, the Archbishop of York was one of the first people to condemn the Nazi Holocaust. Long before the Holocaust, the city witnessed the worst Jewish massacre in British history when, in 1190, some 150 Jews were targeted and killed in a series of anti-Semitic riots.

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Rome, Italy

Italian Holocaust survivors Sami Modiano, right, and Piero Terracina embraced each other during a commemoration ceremony in Rome's Capitoline Hill. Dozens of guests, including Rome mayor Virginia Raggi, attended the ceremony.

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Zagreb, Croatia

A wreath from Croatia's president, prime minister and the parliament speaker was laid at the monument for Jewish WWII victims in Zagreb's "Mirogoj" cemetery. However, Croatia's Jewish community boycotted Friday's remembrance ceremony, accusing the conservative government of not doing enough to curb pro-Nazi sentiment in the EU's newest member state.

World commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Vilnius, Lithuania

Holocaust survivor Edmund Zeligman lit a candle during a commemoration ceremony in the synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania. Around 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews were massacred during the country's three-year occupation by the Nazis. No country saw a larger share of its Jewish community executed in the Holocaust.

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Navahrudak, Belarus

A number of Belarusian students marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day by attending the Belarusian Jewish Resistance Museum in the city of Navahrudak. In 1941, under Nazi occupation, German soldiers established a Jewish a ghetto at the site where the museum now stands.

Lammert criticized the fact that most of the doctors involved in the killings had not been made to pay for their crimes against humanity and violation of the Hippocratic Oath, which he cited. He said he regretted that euthanasia victims had often been ignored in post-war Germany's attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past. And he added that every victim represented an individual human story.

A day trip to the gas chamber

The victims were bussed to their death under the pretext of a nice day out

A Berlin actor with Down Syndrome read aloud a letter from Ernst Putski, an inmate in the Hadamar euthanasia center. In it, Putski described appalling conditions in the facility and wrote that as many as 30 inmates a week were starving to death. The letter was confiscated by authorities in the Third Reich and only recovered after the end of Nazi Germany.

The philosopher Hartmut Traub recounted the life story of his uncle Benjamin Traub, who developed psychological problems after accidentally cutting off a finger and had to be institutionalized. He was deemed to have schizophrenia - a diagnosis tantamount to a death sentence in Hitler's Germany.

"They were called ballast existence, life unworthy of life," Hartmut Traub told the Bundestag, before describing in gruesome detail the final day of his uncle's life.

Philosopher Hartmut Traub recounted the life story of his uncle Benjamin Traub

On March 13, 1941, Benjamin Traub was taken with some 60 others to Hadamar under the pretext of a day trip. There they were medically examined, herded into a showering room and gassed to death with carbon monoxide. The gold teeth of the victims were extracted, and the brains of those considered "scientifically interesting" removed for further study. The bodies were subsequently burned. This procedure prefigured the methods used to systematically murder millions of people in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

"For six months, the dark clouds from the crematorium hung over the city, plainly visible for all to see," Hartmut Traub said. His uncle Benjamin was 27 years old when he was murdered.

Individuals, not a mass

Anna Lehnkering, left, was one of 300,000 victims

Relatives of euthanasia victims say that it is crucial to personalize the statistics about the number of people sterilized and killed.

"The victims were not an anonymous mass," author Sigrid Falkenstein told the Bundestag. "They were individual people who laughed or cried."

Falkenstein's aunt Anna Lehnkering was born with a learning disability. In 1934, she was diagnosed as "congenitally feebleminded," sterilized and committed to an institution. In 1940, she was sent to the Grafeneck euthanasia facility and gassed to death.

"Her death sentence was a bureaucratic act," Falkenstein said. "She fulfilled the criteria perfectly."

Falkenstein told the Bundestag that no one in her family ever spoke about Anna Lehnkering until she stumbled across her aunt's story by accident in 2003 and wrote a book about it. Falkenstein said that her father suffered from depression late in life  - a condition she attributes to the repression of memories of his sister. Anna Lehnkering was 24 when she was murdered.

Falkenstein called upon the German government to publish the names of all the euthanasia murder victims, something that has previously not been the case in Germany for reasons of privacy. Falkenstein said that should change.

"It's important to tell stories like those of Ernst Putzki, Benjamin Traub and Anna Lehnkering," Falkenstein told Merkel and the others in attendance. "It's a way of making history tangible."

Growing significance

Some 15,000 people were murdered and cremated in the Hadamar cellar

Euthanasia victims' advocates were very pleased that the Bundestag had recognized the suffering of this group of people.

"Family members were able to raise their voices, which for a long time were barely heard by the general public," Bernd Faulenbach, the chairman of the Association Against Forgetting and for Democracy, told Deutsche Welle. "The victims of medical murders used to be trapped in a 'shadow of memory,' as President Gauck so fittingly put it. It's only been recently that euthanasia victims have been given growing significance in the culture of remembering."

Hadamar, like the other euthanasia centers, are now museums and memorial sites. Hadamar director Jan Erik Schulte agreed that parliamentary recognition carried a lot of weight.

"For the memorial sites and above all for relatives, it's a very important gesture that the Bundestag is remembering a group of victims who are still among the least known to the general public," Schulte said to DW. "It is a signal to keep the memory of the victims alive and to make it clear that this was a very large group of people. They belong in the canon of Germany's remembrance culture."

And historians who research the euthanasia murders also welcomed the Bundestag ceremony.

"For a long time, the euthanasia victims were the forgotten victims," Maike Rotzoll, Deputy Director of the Institute for the History and Ethics of Medicine in Halle, told DW. "That's why it's enormously important for us that this ceremony took place in the Bundestag. I think it's also enormously important for the relatives, who experienced the topic being taboo for so many years, to be allowed to speak and for this group of victims to be honored in this way."

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