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A hidden homage to euthanasia victims

A WALK IN THE PARK! For his latest column, our resident park explorer visits a bleak reminder of the Nazis' systematic murder of the mentally ill.

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The Memorial for the Victims of the Nazi Euthanasia Programme is located behind the Philharmonie, across from the Tiergarten. (Photo by Maurice Frank.)

It feels bad writing about something so horrific in these trying, sad times, but while I roam the green spaces of Berlin looking for overlooked sculptures and memorials, it’s impossible to avoid reminders of the Nazis’ heinous crimes.

This one is important.

Until I cycled past, I had no idea the T4 – Memorial and Information Centre for the Victims of the Nazi Euthanasia Programme existed. The site memorialises and documents the systematic murder of people deemed “unworthy of life” – psychiatric patients, people with mental and physical disabilities. These included people with schizophrenia, alcoholics, “idiots” and people with a number of mental health conditions – real or not. Under Nazi ideology, pretty much anyone displaying behaviour divergent from the norm was considered worthless.

Forced sterilisation or killing of such people was talked about and actually performed well before Hitler’s rise to power, both in Germany and elsewhere. But nowhere went about first stripping the rights of and then murdering people with mental and physical disabilities as ferociously as Germany under the Nazis. By January 1934, the “Law for the prevention of offspring with hereditary illnesses” had been passed, paving the way for forced sterilisation, all in the name of “racial hygiene.”

This memorial seems to be inappropriately off the beaten path, considering the scale of the crimes.

It’s located across the street from the Tiergarten, behind the Philharmonie – the exact site of the villa at Tiergartenstraße where the Aktion T4 programme’s systematized killing was organised between 1939 and 1941.

The T4 programme had the characteristics of other Nazi atrocities. It began with a systematic, bureaucratic process of selecting the “unworthy”. In September 1939, as the first shots of the Second World War were being fired, the T4 office sent questionnaires to all psychiatric facilities in Germany. Doctors completed forms covering every patient’s physical and mental state, how long they had been in treatment, the severity of their condition and other information, such as whether they received regulars visits from relatives. Those with fewer family relations that seemed to care about them were selected first, because it was thought the relatives would complain less if they died. This, it was hoped by the T4 bureaucrats, would help keep the programme as secretive as possible. Another mandatory piece of information was the patients’ race. The word “Jewish” on the form was, of course, tantamount to a death sentence.

The questionnaires were sent back to Tiergartenstraße 4, where bureaucrats prepared lists of who should be killed. The selected victims were transported to six “death centres” around the country, where they would usually be killed immediately in gas chambers or by lethal injection administered by doctors and nurses. Their bodies were usually burned. Some 70,000 people were murdered in the programme, which officially ran from 1939-1941. How could hundreds of medical professionals go along with this? Government documents show that the official line was that the killings were being performed for the patients’ own good. The slogan “lives unworthy of life” had been long circulated in propaganda. Apparently those who had ethical objections kept quiet, by and large.

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The story of Ilsze Lekschas, a victim of the Nazis’ Aktion T4 programme. (Photo by Maurice Frank.)

As the war proceeded, the SS murdered thousands more people with disabilities in Eastern Europe. In Germany, too, tens of thousands were simply put to death by doctors and nurses in hospitals and nursing homes. Historians now estimate that roughly 300,000 people with mental and physical disabilities were killed in Nazi Germany. 

At first sight, the memorial is a little perplexing. There isn’t much to see apart from a long, blue-tinged pane of glass cutting through the space where the T4 headquarters previously stood. To one side, a long information panel details the T4 extermination programme and the fates of some of the individual victims, like this one about a young woman: “Ilsze Lekschas lived in Memel, East Prussia, which was occupied by Lithuania in 1923. From 1925, she underwent medical treatment because of religious delusions….After Memel was reincorporated into the German Reich, she was moved to the Prussian facility Rapiau. In May 1940 she was transferred to the Soldau transit camp and murdered by the SS Special Commando Lange in a gas van.”

Reading the tragic biographies (in German and English) and then listening to the audio recordings (German only) activated at the touch of a button, seeing the photos of the victims, looking out at the trees of Tiergarten in one direction and to the strange golden shapes of the Philharmonie in the other, a mixture of utter disgust, sadness and shame hits me. It’s a feeling I still get, even after having read so much about the history of that time, when I spend some time actually trying to face what took place in this country in the 1930s and 1940s.

I highly recommend a visit to this powerful memorial. Spend some time reading the biographies of the victims. Unlike at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, you will probably be alone, leaving you space to feel something. It’s impossible to leave unaffected.