*The following blog was created by students in Professor Mitchell’s Dean’s Scholars in Globalization Class during Spring semester, 2015: “Disabled People and the Holocaust”. Each student has written an entry for exhibitions, museums, and memorials attended during a 10 day trip to Germany. The primary goal of our investigations was to examine the medical mass murder of disabled people in psychiatric institutions from 1939-1945. The killings led directly to the murder of 6 million Jewish, Roma/Sinti, and Gay people in the Holocaust.
Julia Barrett: Day One: Introduction to “Disabled People and the Holocaust” Blog
I have found that when trying to express my thoughts and feelings about our class trip to Germany during this past Spring Break, I am often at a loss for words. In the last museum we visited, the museum at the site of the Wannsee Conference House, one of the final exhibits displayed quotes from different survivors of the Holocaust. One quote by Primo Levi, a survivor, poet, and writer imprisoned at Auschwitz, said, “I felt as if everyone should ask us [the Holocaust survivors] questions, read from our faces who we were and humbly listen to our story. But no one looked us in the eye, no one took up the challenge. They were deaf, dumb and blind, shut inside their ruins as if in a fortress of deliberate ignorance, still strong, still able to hate and despise, still trapped and caught up in a web of arrogance and guilt.”
Before arriving in Germany, I expected most of Levi’s words to hold true today. I thought the German people would be ashamed of the recent and atrocious history of their land. I thought they would not have a detailed historical recollection and perhaps even be unwilling to discuss the genocide that took place during World War II. I was absolutely wrong. This “fortress of ignorance” that Levi experienced after the war has clearly been dismantled. While of course we know that there are individuals today who deny the human atrocities that took place during this time in European history, the amount of information that the German people are willing to exchange is incredible.
Our trip was filled with a very full schedule. We set off each morning in our spacious, wheelchair accessible bus and ventured through East and West Berlin, Brandenburg, Potsdam, Bernburg, Wittenburg, Pirna, Dresden, and Wannsee, into the many different museums, memorials, and other cultural sites on our itinerary. We expanded our knowledge about the treatment of disabled people during the Holocaust, about the T4 Euthanasia Program, and we even learned about the history surrounding the Berlin Wall, the Stasi security forces in East Germany, and Frederick the Great, just to name a few.
Many weeks before our travels began, we extensively studied the psychology of Nazi doctors and the “science” behind the eugenics that the Nazis practiced during this era. I have never had an experience like this: We took all that we had learned, applied it, and used our senses as well as our minds to comprehend what we were learning. We were able to hear the German language, see and touch the camps, institutions, and hospitals we had read about and even use our sense of smell.
While the idea of using one’s full range of sense to gain knowledge sounds positive and beautiful, I cannot deny that much of the knowledge gained on this trip was neither positive nor beautiful. It is a very difficult thing to look at these dark areas of history and admit that humankind is capable of such terror. When asked what I was studying in Germany by my math professor, my explanation prompted him to tell me that he had never even been to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He believed “that period in history was simply too sad to study.” I couldn’t (respectfully) disagree more. There is no doubt that this period of history is sad and disturbing. It is unbelievably sad and horrifyingly disturbing. But it is not “too sad to study.” In fact, I believe it is so sad that it must be studied. During an interview, I was asked whether or not I thought it was possible for another Holocaust to happen again. My answer was yes. Without looking at the Holocaust and the events surrounding the Holocaust through a moral lens, one is left only looking through a logical lens. Unfortunately, the processes the Nazis used to carry out the systematic murder of disabled, Jewish, homosexual, and Roma/Sinti people (among many others) make logical sense.
In my many years of learning about the Holocaust as a Jewish American in religious and public schools, I had never once learned about the treatment of disabled people during WWII. I did not know that this group—not the Jews—was the first to be subjected to the horrific method of death by gas chamber and I knew nothing about coercive sterilization laws and the lethal medicine surrounding eugenics. It is often said that history has the tendency to repeat itself. However, I believe that this statement only really comes true in two ways. The first: people are aware of positive and effective historical events and seek to mimic and apply those successful actions of the past to current situations. The second: people are ignorant and unaware of negative and ineffective historical events and therefore are unable to see and stop similar forms of destruction today. Unfortunately for many aspects of history, it is likely to follow a cyclical pattern due to reason number two.
Our course of study, in particular, has taught me that there is far more I can learn and that, unfortunately, there are many people who continue to be unaware of the struggles disabled people face in this world; a world that continues to be inaccessible physically and socially in so many ways. Education is the first step in bettering our world and with classes such as Professor Mitchell’s Disabled People and the Holocaust, students belonging to the next generation of world leaders will have the knowledge to prevent a Holocaust from ever happening again.
Mehreen Arif at the Berlin Mauer (Berlin Wall)
Memorial to the Nazi book burning of 20,000 volumes on 10 May 1933 in Babelplatz
Alex’s blog =Brandenberg and Psychiatrie Museum, Saturday March 7, 2015
Day 2: The Psychiatrie Museum and Brandenberg T4 Memorial Center
We began the second day of our studies in Germany by going to the Psychiatrie Museum. The Psychiatrie Museum is part of a large operational psychiatric institution that treats a wide range of patients with disorders from Alzheimer’s to depression to substance abuse. A section of the complex is even reserved for forensic patients (patients with criminal records and court-orders to receive therapy) surrounded by a concrete wall, razor wire, and which is off-limits to visitors. The grounds themselves are quite beautiful and serene, cozy but impressive structures arranged in a symmetrical organization, grand and elegant trees framing the sky, a tranquil pond reflecting the scene back to the viewer, and a soft breeze gently rustling leaves while making ripples along the water’s surface; it can almost make one forget about the terrible things that happened here.
As we walked through the complex, our guide, Dr. Hauer, points out a quaint brick building where forced sterilization occurred between 1933 and 1939. There are also lovely dormitories where patients are still segregated based on money, gender, and disorder. Near the end of the campus tour we come upon an unassuming research building that once held a large brain collection from T4 victims who were used as research objects to justify the “progress” of murder as a benign medical intervention. The campus encompasses a slew of perfectly agreeable buildings whose very pleasantness seems to defy and cast doubt on their very own terrible histories.
Although drowned in history, this site clearly is not a typical tourist site nor is it a place that actively informs of its past even as it is heavily aware and non-evasive of that past. While it is difficult to ascertain the exact reasoning or causes of this seeming neglect to inform without in-depth research into the site’s memorialization project, the fact that such neglect has occurred is problematic when considering the dearth of public knowledge on such content and the seeming – though perhaps unintentional – embarrassment of, and resulting desire to, hide such a past. Indeed, sometimes it feels as if the complex is engaging in a collective thought suppression where it acknowledges that such events took place but refuses to properly process and examine its own reaction or relationship to these events. Among these contradictory impulses such events take place outside of time, real but disconnected from the complex’s current medical and therapeutic identity.
However, as determined as the complex may be to bury such a past, eeriness pokes through and brushes against the visitors’ feet. While others may ignore such a discomforting past, we seek to dig it out and wrench it into the light. We examine its discarded corpse and scrutinize its resemblance to its contemporary descendant. Although psychological and psychiatric practices have certainly moved away from many of the ideas that supported such cruel actions such as eugenics and have implemented measures to ensure such practices can not reoccur (for instance, the necessity of consent and privacy laws), issues of mental stigma, over-medicalization of treatment, pathologizing labels, and the generally dehumanizing effects on those with mental disorders still exist and persist beyond the past into the present. Just as the museum complex cannot exorcise its past, neither can the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Social work and medicine also have to be enfolded into this deadly perversion of the healing professions into death-dealing operations.
Conversely, the second place we visited, the T4 memorial in the old Brandenburg killing center in the center of the ancient town, presents a more open and informative account. It is clear that this site has a more direct objective of education and memorialization than the Psychiatrie Museum. A grey, stout building alongside a modest parking lot occupies the site. Inside this building is a museum where information is more or less thrown at visitors, presumably in an attempt to expose the random visitor to facts and a dizzying amount of historical information for the uninitiated. While it is a pleasant change to see such an open account of the past, this presentation of information proves overwhelming to the point where it distracts from the emotional context and results in an over-emphasis of historical details. While this overload of history creates a detached response to the events, seeing the spot of the killing next to the museum helps make real the events.
The actual building for the converted gas chamber was destroyed during the war, but there are markers where it once stood and many of the surrounding buildings are the same that watched over mass executions during the site’s operational period from September, 1939 to the end of that same year. Grafeneck replaced Brandenburg when townspeople complained about the nuisance of the smell and human hair falling from the air into the streets. The memorial site re-creates much of the original setting, though not quite the same atmosphere, as existed during the T4 program.
During our tour we are reminded that wiping away the site cannot wipe away its past or its memory. Like demure gravestones, these markers mark not just the building’s former foundation, but the terrible loss of human life that was allowed to take place inside a state-operated city jail. The proximity of the mass killing center to the heart of city life creates a reminder that this atrocity was real. Visiting this killing site helped us solidify and contextualize the acts which went on during the T4 program, thereby eliminating the sense of de-realization that might otherwise haunt such historical analysis.
Tour discussion at the Brandenburg T4 Memorial Center
Psychiatrie Museum on the Brandenburg Psychiatric Hospital Campus
Mehreen’s blog = Topography of Terror, T4 Memorial and Dr. Petra Fuchs, Sunday March 8, 2015
Topography of Terror, Petra Fuchs and the Newly Opened T4 memorial
Our third day marked a trip to the Topography of Terror exhibit (an exhibit now occupying the site of the bombed out former SS Headquarters). It was a rather atypical museum experience for me. The site is an indoor and outdoor museum in Berlin located on Neiderkirchnerstrasse on the former grounds of the Gestapo and SS headquarters which were destroyed during allied bombings near the end of World War II. I gradually realize while visiting the site that Berlin is a city which has established and re-established itself dramatically in the year’s since World War II. Berlin’s museums and exhibitions like the Topography of Terror and the T4 memorial are erected in the exact same locations where heinous crimes were plotted by the Nazis. I now better understand why memorialization efforts occur at the historic sites of the perpetrators. It is important to appropriate and reconstruct such modern, urban spaces to detach them from the location’s past, but also to enable memorialization through a cyclical process of forgetting and remembering the violence experienced by so many lives. The visitor is encouraged to remember the victims and the crimes of the past while being reassured that they will not happen again. This assurance, according to Zygmunt Bauman, is the problem in that it encourages us to misrecognize the ways in which violence is an inherent part of modernity’s accomplishment.
At the Topography of Terror museum a picture that I vividly recall is “The last Jew in Vinnitsa, 1941.” Roughly 17 Ukrainian military officers trained by the SS are silent onlookers to a mass grave. An officer is pointing a gun at the head of the last Jew in Vinnitsa who is perched on the side of the grave awaiting his death. Our tour guide, Sebastian, asks us to comment on the picture and I only feel disgust about every aspect of the image. Both the victim and the shooter are aware of their roles in society — prey and predator, scapegoat and shooter. It’s a diabolically staged affair that seems deterministic in its outcome. The last Jew knows that his fate is death and shows no signs of struggle. The shooter shows no signs of remorse or uncertainty. The photograph also brings to mind how Nazism expanded its orchestrated regime not just in Germany but across Europe.
Dr. Petra Fuchs, a German historian of pedagogy, an expert on disability and National Socialism, and a friend of our Professors, joins us on the tour and provides a lecture afterwards. She sheds light on the use of perspective and photography as a preservation method and introduces us to a book by Wilhelm Werner who was a double victim of forced sterilization and euthanasia. We talk about bioethics and how Nazi doctors knew about the illegality of their practices but were incapable of putting an end to the killing. We wonder how a society transforms healing into a murderous frenzy against disabled people, Jewish people, Sinti/Roma people, and homosexual people. The killing logically extends out to encompass political dissidents and those amorphously classified as “asocial.”
Our group along with Dr. Fuchs then visits the T4 memorial at Tiergartenstraße #4 that had recently been dedicated to the extermination of disabled people in September, 2014. What frustrates me about this memorial are the clear blue glass panels adjacent to the multimedia information display. Dr. Fuchs explains the idea behind the blue glass as being akin to the blue sky and open to interpretation. If one stands behind it you can almost see a tainted reflection of yourself. But I feel as if doing something more with the glass panels – adding quotes, pictures of victims, survivors – would make local Berliners stop and reflect every time they sweep by the street on their bicycles or on foot. This is something that I realize only after visiting the memorial in person. The information on display near the glass wall does justice to the commemorative aspect of the memorial by providing photos and details on the biographies of disabled victims and includes pictures of many of the perpetrators as well. The display also includes braille and audio accessibility. Thus, it represents not only a memorial for the loss of disabled people but also serves as a reminder of our commitment to those with disabilities today who might desire access to their own past.
All in all I think engagement with the past through such educational memorials is significant in embodying Germany’s past, relating it to the future, and transferring grief and remembrance from which future generations may learn. Reading about Nazi history through our assigned texts — Robert Lifton, Bernhard Schlink, Martin Sherman, Gotz Aly, and Henry Friedlander’s books among others — informed me of the missing link between the extermination of disabled people as a precursor to the Holocaust. However, visiting all the sites in person reinforced a desire in me to never forget and educate others about this link and to honor every disabled, gay and Jewish life lost in battle to Nazi extremism. I am grateful to GWU, the English department, Prof. David Mitchell and Prof. Sharon for offering my peers and I a once in a life time opportunity to experience Germany through such a multidisciplinary lens.
Tour discussion at the Topographie of Terror (former site of SS Gestapo Headquarters)
The blue glass wall of the official T4 memorial in Berlin. The information display can be seen on the right with the Berlin Philharmonic Hall in the background.
Maria’s blog =Jewish Museum and Otto Weidt’s Blind Workshop; Monday March 9, 2015
The Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened in September 2001, chronicles the Jewish experience in Germany from the Medieval Ages to the present. Daniel Libeskind, the architect for the new World Trade Center, designed its jagged exterior purposefully as an eyesore and symbol for the rift that resulted in Jewish history due to the Holocaust. It stands alongside the museum’s other building, a Baroque-like villa covered in a mustard exterior; together they operate as testaments to the rich Jewish history in Berlin and Germany as a whole. Our tour guide for the museum, Dima, chooses to focus on four objects to narrate German Jewish history: a medieval portrait of a German Jew with garlic in his hand, a painting of a Renaissance Jewish traveling peddler, an 18th century painting of a German (Jewish) family, and a baptismal bowl owned by a Jew in the mid-19th century. Dima’s tour provides a short and sweet history of an exceedingly complex topic. For me, the most memorable aspect of the entire Jewish Museum was the “Garden of Exile”. Walking from the museum’s interior out into the garden, which is not a garden at all but rather tall concrete blocks and hard cobblestones, really places me in an out-of-body state. I will never feel the emotional and psychological toil of the Holocaust upon its victims, but the Garden disrupts the visitor’s ability to stay physically comfortable. The grey skies and clouds above add to the gloomy mood. You occasionally see your classmate, but they appear distant because the tall concrete blocks shadow your vision the entire time. You can’t see the tops of the concrete blocks, so you feel paranoid that someone might be watching you from above. The gravitational pull to one side of the Garden constantly makes you walk with greater concentration to counterbalance the awkward pull of gravity away from center. Green algae accents the blocks, which I like because it reminds me that life can exist and grow even in the most dismal of places. Not every aspect of the Holocaust was clean; on the contrary, it was quite dirty.
In the late afternoon, we traverse through a graffiti decorated alleyway in East Berlin to enter a small museum which stands in honor of Otto Weidt and his Blindenwerkshop or “Blind Workshop”. As our tour guide, Franzciska, informs us, Otto Weidt was a blind man who set up a workshop to make brooms and brushes for the German military during World War II. He strategically hired disabled (blind and deaf) Jews, who would automatically be killed if the Nazis found them because of their disability and religious affiliation; he set up the workshop to employ, house, feed, and hide them. He paid off Nazi inspectors so that they would not disclose the whereabouts of his workshop. Unfortunately, one of his Jewish workers took a walk outside after hiding for many months in a secret room behind a false closet. During the walk he ran into a former acquaintance who was also Jewish. Naturally, he trusted his friend and talked about the workshop and its purpose, but what he did not know is that his friend was secretly working for the Nazis as an informant. As a result of this mishap, Otto Weidt’s workshop closes and 15 workers are sent to the death camps. Only five of those workers survived, but Otto’s efforts are still admirable. His story helps to individualize and further humanize the entire vast experience of the Holocaust.
Both sites are very memorable because the Jewish Museum’s “Garden of Exile” poignantly places its visitors in proximity to the Holocaust victim’s psychological and emotional experience, while Otto Weidt’s Blindenwerkshop exemplifies the intersection of “Disabled People” and “the Holocaust”. Our group tries to piece together the puzzle of the relationship between medical mass murder and the destruction of 6 million Jewish people in Nazi occupied territory beyond the borders of Germany.
Garden of Exile in the Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany
Brush-making Machine at the Otto Weidt’s Blind Workshop
Alyssa’s blog = Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Tuesday, March 10
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp lies about an hour north of Berlin on the outskirts of the town of Oranienburg. The camp has a relatively long history, having operated in some form or another between 1933 and 1950. The camp opened first as the Oranienburg concentration camp, but was replaced by Sachsenhausen following the SS takeover. After the war, the site would later be operated as a special camp by the Soviets. Of the total 200,000 people imprisoned there, 30,000 prisoners died or were killed at the camp. Oddly enough, the concentration camp is surrounded for the most part by residences, and I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could become accustomed to living next to a concentration camp with any knowledge of what happened there.
A wall of concrete stands as the entrance in front of the museum, separating it from the houses just up the street. Once inside of the museum, we’re led into a white room and our guide, Tobias, leads us through his presentation. We’re obviously familiar with the larger narrative of the Holocaust, but Tobias does provide us with a rich history of the camp specifically. We ask him if the site is in any way related to the T4 program, but he says he can’t think of any relation. Following the lecture, we make our way to the gates of the camp and ask about the building just beyond the fence that surrounds it. Apparently, the building used to be an SS training center and housing facility, and now serves as an academy for the federal police, who continue to live and train next to the site so as to remind them of the crimes committed by SS police officers there. At first, it seems reassuring that those working near the camp are constantly reminded of its history and that the modern attitude towards the Holocaust encourages the remembrance of the war crimes committed by the National Socialist government. What’s concerning, though, is that eventually, after being faced daily with the camp and the history of the atrocities that took place there, and with it being surrounded by residences, the space is somewhat normalized, somewhat domesticated, somewhat less horrifying.
We enter the prisoners’ camp through a gate that bears the infamous phrase “Arbeit macht frei” built into a tall white building called ‘Tower A’ that is situated at the base of a triangle. Tobias’ description of the tower as a symbol of the ultimate power of the SS guards over the prisoners reminds me of Foucault’s panopticon; from the tower, the guards were able to see in between the barracks that were constructed in a semi-circular fashion within the triangle. For the prisoners, there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to achieve any sense of privacy.
Outside of the barracks, Tobias explains that in the early 1990s, a section of the building had been replaced because of a neo-Nazi attempt to burn down the building in retaliation for Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to the camp. The damage done by the neo-Nazis was never fully repaired so as to remind visitors of modern anti-Semitism. In a section reserved for special prisoners of the camp hang plaques for the various groups of victims, including homosexual individuals, held at Sachsenhausen. Towards the back of the camp stands an obelisk erected by the GDR following the end of World War II to commemorate political prisoners. The memorialized victims are represented on the obelisk by upside down triangles that were used to identify them, while the camp was under the control of the National Socialists. The camp admirably tries to weave together the threads of the different groups of victims who suffered there, but trying to conceptualize them, all of them, is overwhelming.
At the conclusion of our tour we stand outside of the infirmary and Tobias suddenly remembers that there is a connection between Sachsenhausen and the euthanasia program. In the early 1940s about 300 prisoners were selected and sent to Sonnenstein, a euthanasia center that we’ll visit later on during our visit, to be killed under Action 14f13 (the program for the killing of “handicapped Jews” that eventually replaced the T4 program). It’s alarming that this additional connection was an afterthought in that the systematic murder of disabled individuals was not an integral part of Sachsenhausen’s narrative despite bringing together so many diverse groups of victims, disabled persons are not immediately included. It’s a part of the story we, as students interested in this particular topic, had to ask for, a part that Tobias couldn’t recall until we stood outside of that building. It was disappointing, frankly, and unfortunately part of a larger pattern we would observe throughout our time in Berlin.
Rodrigo’s blog =Memorial at Bernberg T4 Killing Center, Wednesday, March 11
The Bernburg T4 Memorial Center is situated approximately two and a half hours west of Berlin. Bernburg was the third killing center opened as it replaced the converted city jail building in Brandenburg due to public complaints about the smell of burning bodies. At Bernburg more than 9,000 disabled people and another 5,000 prisoners from concentration camps were killed over a period of 20 months from November, 1941 to July, 1943. Today Bernburg continues to operate as a psychiatric hospital that primarily treats people with severe drug addictions. Even more strangely there is also a maximum security prison on the grounds and a mini golf course for patients, visitors, and their families.
Upon entering the memorial center our blonde guide leads us into the grey powerpoint room and another guide, an older brunette woman who only speaks to us through the first guide, disappears. We are treated to an introductory overview of the systematic murder of disabled people in psychiatric institutions beginning in 1939 as World War II commenced. Listening to someone talk over a powerpoint with a group of T4 scholars is like listening to an amateur quartet play Bach: the music is still beautiful but you miss the technical precision of the experienced musician. We knew the information on that powerpoint because it was filled with information about Bernberg’s past and the legacy of eugenics which began in the U.S. However, we had not come to Berlin for a rehearsal of Bernberg’s past. We wanted to know how the memorial used this site and what it’s relationship to disabled lives in Germany today entailed: Do you show the patients this exhibit? Do you show the staff? How much do they already know? Our guide says student groups come here to deal with the philosophical questions of whether or not a person’s worth is directly related to their ability. The weird thing about that philosophical question is that it’s already been solved.
This is the second thing that’s important to know about this place: there’s a tendency to define what is true by what is happening. So these school children come here and they come in contact with these questions and therefore Bernberg can say that these questions are still being asked. But we know that this debate places the emphasis on questions that are “philosophical,” but not necessarily transformational of existing attitudes about disabled people. To entertain this question one effectively keeps the weighing of disabled peoples’ humanity active, and therefore, still in play culturally. Perhaps because it is located in a functioning psychiatric hospital the whole memorialization effort perpetuates a concept of disability as shameful and “charitable” toward human suffering as its message. We leave worried about the impact of this approach on past and future visitors.
It took a moment for us all to go to the gas chamber in the basement. There was a step and Professor Mitchell couldn’t go into the exhibit area with his wheelchair. Consequently, he ended up spending the time talking to the other guide, the one who hadn’t spoken with the group and seemed in charge of the memorial effort. We looked through a window to see where the room had been filled with people and it was impossible to imagine 65-70 people crowded into such a small space. It involves something akin to a thought experiment when someone tells you to imagine one million grains of sand and then to imagine one million and one. You can’t do it. It’s something you can’t visualize because you’ve never had to deal in those numbers and the individual identities immediately become too abstract for contemplation. The gas chamber also has this suburban 1950’s tiling—black and white check — that reminds one of how something seemingly banal can so easily transition to a sight of mass death.
In the plot twist of the trip it turns out Professor Mitchell is actually talking to the memorial director, Frau Hoffman. She says that when she was younger her mother gave her the task of ensuring the preservation of the T4 history in Bernburg and now here she is all those years later supervising the memorial. That’s the last thing that’s important to know about this place: no matter how faulty or lacking in productive representation of disability, each memorial is the result of a grassroots effort, every piece has been developed by individuals with limited money, time, and access to research resources. We leave with a respect for the desire to keep a devastating chapter of history open when most public sentiment has argued to close it once and for all.
Tiles in the Bernburg Gas Chamber
Basement Hallway at the Bernburg T4 Memorial Center
Julia Barrett’s Blog on the Memorial to Murdered Jews in the Holocaust:
The official Holocaust Memorial, known more formally as “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, is a plot of land filled with grey, square, stone columns, or stelae, ranging in size. Like almost all of the T4 memorializations we saw, this Holocaust memorial was built in 2005, over 60 years after the Holocaust. Peter Eisenmann, the architect of the Holocaust memorial, must have had a clear symbolic intention but like many artists, he refuses to share his view of the memorial with the general public. Rather, Eisenmann wants the memorial to have its own meaning to each individual that visits.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located on Cora-Berliner-Straße, just south of the Brandenburg Gate in the eastern part of the German city of Berlin. But what’s more interesting than it’s proximity to the Brandenburg Gate is that this memorial is located just minutes from where a very significant bunker once stood–the bunker where Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in 1945. Something very odd and, at first, quite disturbing about both this site and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews is that normal life flows smoothly through these places. Because of very poor signage and a lack of written information, one could pass both sites without ever knowing what they had come across. I am not the only one who was shocked by what seems like a very significant lack of information surrounding these sites. In an article from The New Yorker, a reporter was quoted saying, “Of course, the very placement of such an exhibit at the heart of the German capital hints that the commemoration is a distinctively German subject–but there’s nothing about the [exhibit itself] to indicate that the murderers were German (or worked for Germany) and that the murdered victims were Jews.”
I do agree with this criticism to a certain degree, but while walking through the Holocaust Memorial I was able to find great symbolism. From one side of the memorial, it is possible to see directly across to the other side, however, once one enters into the memorial, the ground beneath her begins to descend. With the columns growing taller and taller around her, it becomes impossible to see where she is going and if she has made several turns she will not know if she is truly heading for the exit any longer. When people were forced to enter the horrors of the machinery of the Holocaust, they may have had an idea of what was coming, thought they could see to the other side, but they did not know what true horrors lay ahead. They could not see that the ground would descend beneath them and once they did realize, it was too late. They were trapped in the middle of what, like the memorial, seemed like a never-ending maze. I am sure that this fear and discomfort I felt was very unique to this memorial. The problem remains, however, that most people would not feel as I felt if they happened upon the memorial. Without prior knowledge about the site, I most likely would have seen it is a fun, modern, maze-like art piece to run around in and on top of.
Lili Sten and Julia Barrett at the Memorial to Murdered Jewish People, Berlin, Germany
Julia Barrett at the Memorial to Murdered Jewish People, Berlin, Germany
Jessica’s blog = Memorial to Murdered Jews in the Holocaust and Memorial to the Gay Victims of the Holocaust, Tuesday, March 10, 2015
After visiting the various memorials in Berlin, Germany, I realize that most are centered toward commemorating the victims. It is also interesting to note that each memorial is created with the purpose of being interpreted by the individual in different ways. This feature makes them “open” to interpretation in way that feels uncomfortable to one from the U.S. where memorials tend to be more directive. I will describe two memorials that I found to be unique to Berlin and that substantively reveal how Germans have dealt with their past.
First, the Berlin Memorial to Murdered Jews proves an extremely unique because of its sheer size and abstract conceptual design. The memorial is laid out with 2,711 huge concrete blocks positioned on a gradient. As you walk through the memorial, the blocks grow larger and larger. In the beginning appear uniform and relatively short. The first thing I notice is that it is very difficult to tell what the memorial is commemorating because there is only a small sign. If you enter the memorial on the far right, for example, you wouldn’t exactly know what the memorial was commemorating unless you had prior knowledge of its purpose before visiting. My interpretation of the memorial includes the idea that the Holocaust should be imagined as a timeline of “rising” events. For example, the walk into the memorial is symbolic of how the Holocaust occurred. First, small dissent against Jews and of estrangement from “different people.” This snowballed into a larger situation where Germans turned against all Jews and this led to the final solution. As you walk in the beginning, it is easy to escape because the concrete blocks are not that tall. But, as you continue deeper into the memorial the blocks become larger, the world closes out, the ground teeters uncertainly, and you feel isolated. This is representative of the feeling of those persecuted, as their world closed in on them and they soon became outsiders. It feels as if you could scream in the middle of the memorial and no one would hear you because of the tall concrete walls. It was also easier to lose the people you were with as you kept on because of the maze-like sidewalk. This might be representative of the lost families during the Holocaust, and how easy it was to lose someone upon whom you relied.
The next memorial situated across the street from the first memorial commemorates the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis. I feel that this memorial is quite important because the persecution of more than 100,000 homosexuals is often overlooked. The memorial consists of a large concrete block, very similar to the ones in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. On the front of the block, you can look through a glass window at a film playing. The film repeats the scene of two males kissing in the middle of the park. My interpretation of this is that the love that homosexuals had for each other was “boxed in” during the Holocaust. For example, you wouldn’t witness the film unless you searched on all sides of the concrete block in which the film is encased. Therefore, if you were on a side where you couldn’t see the film, you would be unaware of the exchange of affection occurring between two individuals when watching the film. This is representative of the suppressed feelings that homosexuals were forced to endure during their persecution. The scene reminded me of Martin Sherman’s play, Bent, which we read upon our return in that it details the ways in which gay people’s desire was criminalized by the Nazis.
Bernburg Autopsy Table
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Crematoria Ovens, Oranienburg, Germany
Lili’s blog = Sonnenstein-Pirna T4 Killing Center, Thursday, March 12, 2015
A Reflection of Sonnenstein
Perhaps 15 minutes outside of the city center of Dresden, bumping along cobbled roads, and winding our way up beautiful lightly forested hills, our group of CCAS Scholars in Globalization drove through a lovely old German town. Sonnenstein institution sits perched atop a tall hill with the most spectacular view of the wide river and the town of Pirna below. Even on a day that is overcast, such as the day we toured, the town’s quaint and sublime beauty struck me as ethereal in more ways than any other sites we visited. All of the other T4 sites (Brandenburg, Bernberg) and Sachsenhausen concentration camp have looked gray and drab, adding an element of anxiety, and leaving us with queasy feelings in our stomachs. But Sonnenstein is gorgeous. It looks like it could be the location of a bed and breakfast. This visual never ceases to strike me. How can such a picturesque place be the house of such heinous history where nearly 20,000 people (primarily those with disability diagnoses) were killed?
Sonnenstein was different from the other T4 cites in a number of ways. When discussing the site specifically during and after our tour, we all agreed that the Sonnenstein memorial operates in inherently different ways from the other disability memorial sites. First, the current site is a place for persons with disabilities to work (sheltered workshop), as well as an educational memorial of the horrific events that occurred at Sonnenstein. Unlike the other sites, which were rather apathetic about their current employees or residents touring the memorial, Sonnenstein is insistent on both employees knowledge about the memorial, as well as the persons with disabilities who work and reside there. Its emphasis is placed on the systematic nature of the murder of persons with disabilities in World War II. Our tour guide assured us that, while they have a heavy educational focus, they make sure to tell the current persons with disabilities who work there that this is all in the past. What struck me most about this educational tendency, was how inclusive it was, and how actively it sought, to educate persons with disabilities about a past that might have effected people like themselves. So often, disabled people (specifically, those who live with mental disabilities) are left out of discussions of their own history. Jews grow up learning of the past atrocities against their people, to preserve and to savor the culture that has been so hard-fought to keep and rebuild after the Holocaust.
But not for persons with disabilities. Their caretakers and memorial hosts seem to believe that they do not need this education, and that to know this history is to further repeat a needless degree of suffering. But the staff at Sonnenstein sees this differently; similar to the preservation of Jewish culture and history through education regarding the Holocaust, the staff of Sonnenstein believes that those who currently reside in the site not only deserve to be told, but must be told, in the name of historical accuracy and preservation. Also, the memorial appears to operate as a buffer against such a history repeating itself.
Another thing that struck me about Sonnenstein, was their commitment to art and memorials as a method and tool of remembrance. Outside, in addition to a large granite sculpture of a Christian cross, you can find individual tiles and stones painted with crosses in the primary colors. The crosses, which we were told span the entire town, each represent a life lost through the eugenic murders that occurred at the Sonnenstein site. They are placed in town so tourists see them, grow curious about their meaning, and find their way to visit the memorial site to which the lead. Each year, they need to be repainted, so the images do not fade with time and the wear of weather. This annual re-painting serves both as a way to involve the community, and a as a reminder to never forget what happened here. In this way, each individual life lost is commemorated and requires active upkeep to preserve the record of Nazi crimes against disabled people.
As we stand overlooking the river and the hillside, we are told that the ashes from the crematorium inside—which we had toured just moments before—were dumped down the hill carelessly. Whenever a family member would request ashes of a loved one murdered at Sonnenstein (the bodies were cremated prior to the death notification), a staff member would scoop up random ashes from the hillside and send them to the family. Inside the museum, there are bits and pieces of recovered items; jewelry, watches, glasses, shards, and trinkets, as well as tools used in the crematoriums. The personal belongings are the most emotionally difficult to observe. They evoke thoughts of how small we are as human lives, and how expansive the systematic mass murder of persons with disabilities grew. Rather than an exceptional difference of incapacity, disability became a way of referencing lives lived in vulnerable bodies — almost anyone could be caught up in the killing net. Sonnenstein, however, because of its positive values and structural differences, was a very good note to end our T4 study tours.
Sonnenstein Gas Chamber
Community Memorial Art Project at Sonnenstein-Pirna: One cross for each of the nearly 20,000 victims
Faith’s blog = Wannsee Conference Center, Friday, March 13, 2015
Just northeast of Potsdam (and southwest of Berlin) on an island in the River Havel stands the Wannsee [the W pronounced with a V sound to English readers and speakers] Conference House. Our tour group arrives on a bus outside its large stone and metal gates on an afternoon in mid-March two days before we leave Germany to return to the United States. It may seem strange to wait until the very end of our trip to visit a site that is known as the place where the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” was decided, or, more bluntly, where, in 1942, top National Socialist leaders decided that the extension of their current policies of repression, violence, and decentralized murder of Jewish people should be expanded to a centralized, policy of total extermination of every Jewish person the German government could, in Heinrich Himmler’s words, “get their hands on.” In other words the extension of the T4 killing technology and medical staff were relocated to the death camps in order to undertake the systematic murder of European Jewish peoples.
Shouldn’t our time in Germany have begun with a visit to this strange cottage on a sandy beach by water that looked like it was waiting for swimmers when the weather got a little warmer? Wouldn’t it have been more fitting for our journey to begin in the building where Nazi officials gathered with reports and statistics to justify the decision they would make to push the systemic murders they ordered to an even greater scale? I think it was actually fitting that the last location we visited was the Wannsee Conference House because while some might see the meeting that took place there on January 20th, 1942 as the beginning of genocide, to our class I think it really represented a result or conclusion of nearly 10 years of systematic dehumanization through sterilization, medicalized murder, and, above all, the implementation of eugenic concepts turned towards not only large groups of German citizens, but any person who happened to come into contact with the German mechanisms of power and control. In this view, Wannsee then becomes not a beginning, but rather another node along the long string that represents National Socialism in Germany on a small scale, and eugenic and racist ideology on a broader scale.
After exiting the bus, we enter through a small doorway inside a larger metal gate using a doorbell connected to the main building. We follow a driveway past a structure with what we have come to simply refer to as WCs (based on their labeling), but are known in English as public restrooms. Approaching the large building is like walking up to the small summer cottage of a rather wealthy person – the building is not actually very small or rustic, but it is slightly less ostentatious than a mansion and seems to fit in with the trees and nature around it. There is a large circular area for parking and easy drop off area for passengers that is no longer in use, but the area is kept up with trimmed shrubbery and manicured care. We enter through the large, very heavy front door. The entryway opens with a high ceiling, and a spiraling staircase that takes its path above our heads as we acclimate to being inside after our short time outside.
Most of us agree that the exhibit is chaotic, over resourced, and without a clear line of narrative to guide the viewer. On the bus, later, someone remarks that the Conference House is less like a museum and more like a book into which you can walk. The exhibit is spread out through the physical space, dense in written information, images, maps, and documentation laid out on every possible flat surface. For the most part, we wander around the museum by ourselves or in pairs, occasionally running into each other, and pointing out blocks of text or images of interest. There is something like the usually solitary activity of reading by oneself, or reading to another that is echoed in this space.
Unfortunately, the part of the museum that most relates to our trip, and talks explicitly about T4 and medicalized murder, is a temporary exhibition, hidden away up the spiral staircase on a wing of the second floor, across from the library. This setting aside and the requirement that the interested viewer dig deeply and explore more than just the primary exhibit about the Holocaust is representative of our entire trip to Germany.
The Wannsee Conference Center Entrance, Berlin, Germany
Exhibit quote by Lothar Kreysing at Wannsee on the impossibility of undoing a violation such as the Holocaust
Alexandra Bonagura in the Wannsee Conference Center Archives
Conclusion: The Holocaust as a Product of the Advance of Modernity
In Modernity and The Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman argues that the physical extermination of European Jewry was not a failure of modernity to curtail human savagery, but rather a realization of the severing of morality from mass production (even if the outcome of mass production was murder). Although Bauman does not mention the T4 program as evidence for his racial contention, we saw many examples to support this theory during our studies and travels abroad.
One of the authors we read, Hannah Arendt, refers to the actions of the National Socialist Party during the 1930s and 1940s as acts that represent the “banality of evil.” If evil is truly normal or banal, why should it ever be punished? After all, things that are “normal” are usually not punished. Nurses are not punished for administering medication, doctors are not punished for diagnosing patients, bus drivers are not punished for driving buses; these things are normal even if killing is not. However, the problem with evil is not that it is in itself normal, but rather it can arise from normal people doing normal things. It is this distinction where the problem of assembly lines and mass production enters. The power of the assembly line is to normalize abnormal things. Two centuries ago it would have been abnormal for people all over the world to recognize and know a soft drink from Atlanta. Likewise, it would have been abnormal for so many to recognize a device that can contact anyone and access any information. But the modern assembly line has made Coca-Cola and smartphones not just a normal but essential part of modern life.
While the assembly line is mostly used for the creation of such amoral items, the National Socialist use of the assembly line resulted in the normalization of death. By making evil normal it then becomes expected and if it is expected it becomes easier to tolerate. For this reason, it is easy to understand how the various participants could participate in the assembly line of death, because it was just another normal thing to do, no stranger than driving a bus today. It is important to note, however, that to understand this process is not to forgive the participants in place of condemning the assembly line. Every participant is still responsible for his/her actions, and while it is easy to understand the process through which participants could participate and to even sympathize and pity them, this understanding cannot absolve them of their actions. The assembly line can be condemned, but it is the people, every single person who excused himself/herself as they helped send another person to death, who are responsible, and this responsibility must be taken in order to acknowledge that this normal is evil. The lesson from the T4 program is not that evil is banal, but that evil can come from anywhere including the banal, and an evil that becomes banal and normal can be one of the most powerful and destructive evils. The T4 program cautions against an acceptance of the normal and warns of how evil normal can become within our shared condition of modernity.
The “14f13” program, for instance, documented the killing of handicapped Jewish prisoners beginning in 1942. This quantitative euphemism was part of an elaborate record-keeping code used to track the means of death in concentration and death camps. The mass quantification of human deaths in this system of bureaucratic record keeping dehumanized the process even more. When we asked our various German tour guides and teachers about “14f13,” they quickly became uncomfortable and it was clear that many were uninformed. The order for 14f13, which truly meant sentencing a Jewish man or woman (usually disabled) to death by gas chamber, was kept on paper forms filed at a former Jewish villa on Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin. At this site, the origin of the T4 program — the practice of severing responsibility from those who applied the gassings by quantifying the killings into abstract code numbers — began and directly transitioned to the concentration camps and the killing of about six million Jewish people during The Holocaust.
One of the most common propaganda posters related to “Operation T4” that we saw over and over again in the museums and institutions was a man in a wheelchair with his caregiver in a white lab coat standing alongside him. Above both men, the number, 60,000, is in bold black and white letters appears. The “60,000” stands for 60,000 Reichmarcs, which the National Socialists estimated that each individual in an institution costs to instiutionalize for the German state. The 60,000 was more than a number; it stood for a larger belief that mentally and physically disabled persons imposed a burden on German society, their families, and themselves. The National Socialists stripped the humanity out of each individual and put a number in their place.
Throughout this semester in our readings, discussions, and experiences visiting historical sites in Germany the theme of distance and separation was a constant. When historians and presenters at sites were asked about T4’s connection to concentration and death camps, or T4’s connection to current institutional and cultural attitudes towards disabled people, particularly with regard to institutions and physical space, they frequently expressed reluctance to acknowledge a connection or, if they did, it was only in the most tenuous, vague language. This distancing from history was evident in our interactions with Germans and in some of the texts we read in class, particularly Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. Additionally, staff who worked at #4 Tiergartenstrasse, at the six killing centers (Grafeneck, Brandenburg, Bernburg, Sonnenstein, Hadamar, and Hartheim Castle), and at more than 40 hospitals that participated in “wild euthanasia” (the decentralized or second phase of disability killings) were all removed either physically or ethically from responsibility or guilt for the people they murdered. The workers at the main administrative building took great care, time, and energy into orchestrating a system of falsified documents, particularly death certificates. The doctors who decided who should live and die made their decisions based on a chart, form, or perhaps short physical inspection of a patient. The bus drivers transported people who were chosen for them. The nurses undressed and prepared the people for murder but they did not turn the gas nozzles. The workers who burned bodies in the crematorium were just cleaning up waste and bodies that were now lifeless. At every stage, the systematic killing encouraged specialization and disconnect much like a modern assembly line. No one person was so important that they did everything, rather, almost anyone could be trained to do one of the many tasks required for the whole operation to run smoothly. The T4 program truly was an expression of the mass production of death through the tools and best practices of a modern factory.
Discomfort is natural, not being able to place how you feel is good—it teaches us how to react, how to feel, and how to learn. Beyond the amazing opportunity to have these experiences, and work with such a wonderful group of students, educators, scholars, and overall inspirational human beings, our trip and studies have given this group the opportunity to learn about their own own pedagogical practices—how we learn and experience, and more importantly, what we take away from that knowledge and those experiences, and how we choose to utilize this knowledge in the future, both within academia, and within our own life practices, as someone who loves to learn and write, as a whole.