by Jefferson Chase, DW, 27 January 2017
In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly designated 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, declaring that “the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one-third of the Jewish people along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”.
Mr Chase reports on the 2017 remembrance ceremonies in the German Parliament (Bundestag).
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.”
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.
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.”
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The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand is based in the Wellington Jewish Community Centre.
Our focus this year is the 70th Anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials of doctors and lawyers. These were some of the smartest, most skilled and trusted people in German society who abused human rights in their professional capacity.
These trials charged Nazi physicians with “crimes against humanity” and violations of Hippocratic ethics. Amongst other charges, lawyers were charged with implementing and furthering the Nazi “racial purity” program through eugenic and racial laws. Most of the victims were Jews, Polish, Russian, Roma (Gypsies), many disabled or having mental illnesses.