Nazi “euthanasia” and forced sterilisation in one family’s memory – a reflection on the collective repression of memories and their increasing recollection

Sigrid Falkenstein

Ladies and gentlemen!

Today’s commemorative event is particularly poignant for me, given the fatal link between my own family’s history and the history of German psychiatry in the last century. As in many of the victims’ families, my family repressed their memories of events and never spoke about the forced sterilisation and “euthanasia” that took place. You could say that this mirrors the collective process of denial in German society.

It was and is incomprehensible: the planned, organised mass murder of hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people, perpetrated by those who were supposed to protect them, heal them and care for them. Why have we been silent on this issue for so long? How could we shy away from our responsibility?

Professor Schneider, as President of the German Association for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy (DGPPN) you are the first to officially acknowledge the perpetrators’ guilt. You have expressed shame and sorrow, and asked the victims and their families for forgiveness for the suffering and injustice they were exposed to in the name of German psychiatry. I don’t think it is going too far to describe this as a historical milestone, and I thank you for this.

The victims were not an anonymous mass – they were individuals, who were excluded, humiliated and finally murdered. Like my Aunt Anna, each one had a name and face – yet for decades these were wiped from memory.

It is only recently that my aunt reentered my family’s collective memory. Until 2003 I had only seen her in a few family photos and knew little about her. My grandparents, Friedrich and Anna Lehnkering, were middle-class restaurateurs in the Ruhr area. They had four children. Anna, who was sometimes called Änne, was their only daughter. My grandfather died in 1921, just one year after my father was born. Anna was six years old at the time. I was told that she, too, died young.

I was therefore shocked when in 2003, I stumbled across Anna’s name on an online list of the victims of the Nazis’ “euthanasia” programme. The research I then conducted with the help of Anna’s medical records from the Federal Archives in Berlin revealed a whole new version of her life story. In 1935, she underwent forced sterilisation under the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. She had been diagnosed “congenitally feebleminded”. From 1936 to 1940, Anna was a patient at the Bedburg-Hau mental hospital.

Her medical records include numerous entries – sometimes in unspeakable language – that document her psychological and physical decline. On the day she was admitted, Anna was described as calm and good-natured. To substantiate claims of her “congenital stupidity”, she underwent an “intelligence test” that included strange questions like: “What is the difference between a child and a dwarf?” To this, her heart-warming answer was: “Children go to school and play. Dwarves wear pointy hats.

The records go on to say that Anna cried a lot during her first weeks at Bedburg-Hau and wanted to go home. Who could blame her? She is then described as an increasingly difficult patient. Notes about her include that she “refuses to work”, that she “encourages disobedience in other patients”, that she is “unhygienic”, and that she “has to be disciplined.” Just how treacherous language can be is shown in remarks like “she blubbers; she is foolish”. The worst of all these callous comments is the note that describes Anna as “a burden”. At the end of her time at the mental hospital, she bore clear signs of malnourishment and of tuberculosis.

As the records did not reveal where or how Anna died, I targeted the administration at Bedburg-Hau. After a long silence, I received a brief message informing me that on 6 March 1940 my aunt was transferred to Grafeneck, where she passed away on 23 April 1940.

I now know what really happened. Transferred, passed away – such harmless words! Not even the date of her death was correct! In a period of just four days in March 1940, Bedburg Hau’s 1,600 plus patients were deported en masse so the facilities could be used as a military hospital. Along with 455 other patients, Anna was deported to Grafeneck, where she was murdered in a gas chamber disguised as a shower. And it was actually a physician who turned on the gas.

The “Aktion T4” programme in Grafeneck marked the beginning of the systematic, industrial mass murder that would culminate in the Holocaust.

Anna fulfilled her murderers’ selection criteria perfectly. She was not only “incurably hereditarily diseased” according to Nazi ideology, but was considered “economically unusable” and therefore “human ballast”, a “useless eater”. With the simple bureaucratic act of marking a red plus sign on a form, some medical experts here in Berlin whom she had never met designated her “unworthy of life” and sent her to her death. Anna was just 24 years old.

Those are merely the facts – the harrowing images that lie beneath them elude our imaginations.

Somehow, my family knew nothing of this story. It seemed to me as if these terrible events had been completely erased from memory. My father can only remember fragments of his sister’s life. These are mostly happy memories from his childhood and youth. He told me that Anna was very sweet and good-natured. She had learning difficulties and therefore went to a special school. Later she helped their mother out with the family business. However, there are “black holes” in my father’s memory when it comes to the period from 1936 to 1940.

Perhaps a photo can help explain. It shows my father as a boy of around 12 looking affectionately and protectively at his sister. Just a few years later – when he was 16 – Anna was separated from her family. He was a 19-year-old soldier, far away from home, when she was murdered. He couldn’t help her; he couldn’t protect her. I can only speculate that it is his feelings of guilt and shame that caused these “black holes” in his memory.

I found other explanations for these gaps and this incredible mass “forgetting” after I had delved into the history of Nazi eugenics and taken a look at my family’s “genealogical chart”.

The genealogical chart encompasses 24 people. It is mostly based on denunciations and hearsay, and is a mixture of truth and lies. Aside from Anna, three other relations were designated “hereditarily inferior”. Among them was my grandfather who had died in the early Twenties – he had been an alcoholic and was therefore deemed “debauched”. The descriptions of individual family members’ character traits are ludicrous – it is hard to believe that such pseudoscientific nonsense was ever written by physicians.

No matter how true or untrue the entries about my family are, like any other family mine is and was a colourful mixture of individuals with different dispositions, skills and inclinations whose development has been influenced by various external forces. In any case, the theory of our family’s “congenital stupidity” has no proven basis, as most of my grandparents’ descendants have had an excellent school or university education – although this is by no means a sign of “congenital intelligence” either!

After WWII, Anna was never mentioned in the family. Perhaps this is because there were other problems to deal with in the post-war period, like where the next meal was coming from. Perhaps the family – like much of society – had come to believe in Nazi doctrine on hereditary health. Whatever the reasons, they tried hard to keep up the façade of a “respectable middle-class way of life”, and the “hereditary inferiority” label certainly didn’t fit in with that. My grandmother suffered from severe geriatric depression in later life, and it is likely that the repression of the traumatic experiences within her family played a major role in this.

My aunt’s unimaginable suffering profoundly moved me. But I was also at a loss to comprehend my family’s and society’s silence on the issue. These experiences have motivated me in my research into the past.

Anna has now been commemorated in several ways:

  • I set up a website in her honour in 2004.[1]
  • Through it, the artist Ulrike Oeter found out about Anna and created the commemorative installation Aenne’s letzte Reise [Aenne’s last journey]. The clinic in Bedburg-Hau bought the artwork and since 2009 Anna’s face has thus featured in the clinic’s museum as a representative of all the other victims.
  • As a typical example of how people with disabilities were treated under National Socialism, Anna’s story is included in the school textbook Zeiten und Menschen [Times and people].
  • Following the logic that “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” a Stolperstein (literally “stumbling block”) was laid for her in 2009. [Translator’s note: A Stolperstein is a cobblestone-sized block laid outside the former house of a victim of the Nazi regime. They are inscribed with the victim’s name and details.]

Today Anna has a firm place in our family’s memory. I’m happy that my family were understanding about my research. My father in particular went through a painful – and hopefully liberating – process of remembering. On the day Anna’s Stolperstein was laid, he publicly acknowledged his disabled sister for the first time. He died just a few weeks later. The words he directed at me – “Thank you for all that you have done for Änne” – meant a lot to me.

The change in public perception of Nazi medical crimes certainly owes much to the internet and the opportunities it opens up for communicating and sharing information. Since starting the website for Anna in 2004, I’ve had frequent messages from the relatives of other victims. There is a common thread running through all these letters: the issue of forced sterilisation and “euthanasia” has always been a family taboo, sometimes right up to the present day. Not infrequently, shame and the stigma of being related to someone with a psychological illness or who is mentally disabled play a role in this. However, more and more relatives are now publishing books, websites and other documentation to help them come to terms with their family’s history and to give faces and names, and therefore some individuality and dignity, back to the victims.

For a long time and at all levels of society – in politics, administration, the judicial system, the Church and other institutions – any attempt to come to terms with the past met with resistance. This was also reflected in the media’s scant interest in the subject, which has now slowly started to revive.

Tearing down this wall of silence required a new, impartial generation that was not tangled up in the events of the past. In the early Eighties young doctors started asking awkward questions about the past, and were often attacked for fouling their own nest. An event like today’s is probably only possible because those young doctors are now in positions of power.

Now it is not just memorials in places where “euthanasia” crimes were committed that call these atrocities to mind. Recent years have also seen more historical research and greater efforts to encourage education on the subject.

However, remembrance work in our society is still largely driven by the tireless work of small local initiatives and concerned citizens. Among them are many people suffering from psychological illness and mental disabilities who know very well what it is to be socially excluded.

Almost 71 years after this systematic murder of sick and disabled people began, the issue has still not been properly addressed in the German culture of remembrance. When I say this I am thinking of the sorry state of the T4 memorial in Berlin, which still stands as a symbol for silence and “forgetting”. Along with many others, I advocate the construction of a central, national memorial and documentation site in Tiergartenstrasse, the place where the “euthanasia” murders were planned and organised.

In a time of controversial debates on medicine and bioethics, such memorials are important – not only as places of remembrance, but also as information sites. History teaches us what happens in a society that views human beings as mere objects for medical opportunities and, finally only assesses them according to their usefulness.

I had the great honour of meeting sculptor and author Dorothea Buck. She, herself labelled “inferior” and forcibly sterilised, left me with the following words: “Terrible happenings that are not remembered can reoccur any time living conditions appreciably decline”. In view of this, alarm bells should start ringing when – as recently – eugenic theories about socioeconomically valuable and less valuable life start to circulate in our country and when people start talking nonsense about the “congenital stupidity” of entire demographic groups.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a common responsibility to nip such developments in the bud and to challenge these inhuman views! We must learn from the past and use the memory of Anna and the other victims to help us shape an inclusive society built on solidarity, a society that values the individuality and diversity of all its members!

Prof. Schneider, today the DGPPN has made a very late but  nevertheless very important step. You have paid tribute to the victims, and therefore given them and their families the respect and honour they were denied for so long. For that, and for your promise to put your weight behind efforts to promote the dignity and human rights of all people, I would like to thank you and all those present who take these commitments seriously.

Sigrid Falkenstein, Berlin, November 2010