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   Opinion|The Nazis' First Victims Were the Disabled
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     * 175

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The Nazis' First Victims Were the Disabled

   By Kenny Fries
     * Sept. 13, 2017

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     * 175

   Credit...Dadu Shin

   I sit facing the young German neurologist, across a small table in a
   theater in Hamburg, Germany. I'm here giving one-on-one talks called
   "The Unenhanced: What Has Happened to Those Deemed `Unfit'," about my
   research on Aktion T4, the Nazi "euthanasia" program to exterminate the

   "I'm afraid of what you're going to tell me," the neurologist says.

   I'm not surprised. I've heard similar things before. But this time is
   different -- the young man sitting across from me is a doctor. Aktion
   T4 could not have happened without the willing participation of German

   I have a personal stake in making sure this history is remembered. In
   1960, I was born missing bones in both legs. At the time, some thought
   I should not be allowed to live. Thankfully, my parents were not among

   I first discovered that people with disabilities were sterilized and
   killed by the Nazis when I was a teenager, watching the TV mini-series
   "Holocaust" in 1978. But it would be years before I understood the
   connections between the killing of the disabled and the killing of Jews
   and other "undesirables," all of whom were, in one way or another,
   deemed "unfit."

   The neurologist does not know much about what I'm telling him. While he
   does know that approximately 300,000 disabled people were killed in T4
   and its aftermath, he doesn't know about the direct connection between
   T4 and the Holocaust. He doesn't know that it was at Brandenburg, the
   first T4 site, where methods of mass killing were tested, that the
   first victims of Nazi mass killings were the disabled, and that its
   personnel went on to establish and run the extermination camps at
   Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

   Three years earlier, when I first arrived in Germany, I was
   consistently confronted with the treatment of those with disabilities
   under the Third Reich. But I soon realized I had to go back even
   farther. In the 1920s, the disabled were mistreated, sterilized,
   experimented on and killed in some German psychiatric institutions. In
   1920, the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and the jurist Karl Binding
   published their treatise, "Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy
   Life," which became the blueprint for the exterminations of the
   disabled carried out by the Third Reich.

   In Dr. Ewald Melzer's 1923 survey of the parents of the disabled
   children in his care, they were asked: "Would you agree definitely to a
   painless shortcut of your child's life, after it is determined by
   experts that it is incurably stupid?" The results, which surprised
   Melzer, were published in 1925: 73 percent responded they were willing
   to have their children killed if they weren't told about it.

   I am also Jewish. At the Karl Bonhoeffer psychiatric hospital in the
   Berlin suburb of Wittenau, where the exhibition "A Double Stigma: The
   Fate of Jewish Psychiatric Patients" was held, I learned about, as the
   exhibition title suggests, how Jewish patients were doubly stigmatized
   by being separated from other patients, denied pastoral care, and were
   cared for not at the expense of the Reich but by Jewish organizations.
   Jewish patients were singled out for early extermination; by December
   1942, the destruction of the Jewish patient population at Wittenau was

   The young neurologist in Hamburg did not know this history.

   It is only at the end of my talk with the neurologist that I notice he
   wears a hearing aid. I want to ask if he knows about "100 Percent," the
   film produced by deaf Germans to show they could assimilate and be
   productive citizens who worked. Did he know the hereditary deaf were
   singled out not only by the German authorities but also by those with
   acquired deafness who tried to save themselves? Too often, even those
   of us with disabilities do not know our own history.

   Not many people know about disability history in the United States.
   They do not know that in the United States in 1927, Justice Oliver
   Wendell Holmes wrote that "three generations of imbeciles are enough"
   as part of his opinion in Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court
   ruled that compulsory sterilization of the "unfit" was constitutional.
   This decision has never been expressly overturned.

   Many Americans still do not know about the so-called "ugly laws," which
   in many states, beginning in the late 1860s, deemed it illegal for
   persons who were "unsightly or unseemly" to appear in public. The last
   of these laws was not repealed until 1974.

   Why is it important to know this history? We often say what happened in
   Nazi Germany couldn't happen here. But some of it, like the
   mistreatment and sterilization of the disabled, did happen here.

   A reading of Hoche and Binding's "Permitting the Destruction of
   Unworthy Life" shows the similarity between what they said and what
   exponents of practical ethics, such as Peter Singer, say about the
   disabled today. As recently as 2015, Singer, talking with the radio
   host Aaron Klein on his show, said, "I don't want my health insurance
   premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality
   of life can have expensive treatments."

   These philosophers talk about the drain on "resources" caused by lives
   lived with a disability, which eerily echoes what Hoche and Binding
   wrote about the "financial and moral burden" on "a person's family,
   hospital, and state" caused by what they deem lives "unworthy of

   Experts point out the recent Republican health care proposals would
   strip Medicaid funding that helps the elderly, the poor and the
   disabled live healthier and more dignified lives. A recent New York
   Times article quoted the Rev. Susan Flanders, a retired Episcopal
   priest, as saying: "What we're paying for is something that many people
   wouldn't want if they had a choice. It's hundreds of dollars each day
   that could go towards their grandchildren's education or care for the
   people who could get well."

   In the article, Flanders, whose father had Alzheimer's, is described as
   "utterly unafraid to mix money into the conversation about the meaning
   of life when the mind deteriorates." Practical ethicists are similarly
   unafraid to do this. As were the Nazis. Third Reich school textbooks
   included arithmetic problems on how much it would cost to care for a
   person with a disability for a lifetime.

   Three years ago, I was the only visitor at a museum dedicated to the
   history of the Reinickendorf area of Berlin. The museum building was
   once part of Wiesengrund, which, in 1941, housed the "wards for expert
   care" of the Municipal Hospital for Children.

   Down a hall with fluorescent lighting, in a white-walled room, were 30
   wooden cribs. On each of the cribs was a history of a child, some as
   young as a few months old. This was the room in which these infants and
   children were experimented on and killed: the 30-bed Ward 3, the "ward
   for expert care" at Wiesengrund.

   My heart raced; my breath shortened. I couldn't stay in that room for
   long. The room evoked the first four weeks of my own life spent in an
   incubator. Nobody knew if I would live or die.

   What kind of society do we want to be? Those of us who live with
   disabilities are at the forefront of the larger discussion of what
   constitutes a valued life. What is a life worth living? Too often, the
   lives of those of us who live with disabilities are not valued, and
   feared. At the root of this fear is misunderstanding,
   misrepresentation, and a lack of knowledge of disability history and,
   thus, disabled lives.

   Continue reading the main story

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