Lessons from Germany and its disabled: Then and now
Los Angeles just hosted the 2015 Special Olympics. The Games featured competitions in 25 Olympic-type sports, including, aquatics, gymnastics, track and field, basketball, football (soccer) and many other summer sports. Some 6,500 athletes from 165 nations with intellectual disabilities from around the world participated.
According to organizers, the Games provide a world stage for ‘special’ athletes to demonstrate on the playing field their courage, determination and spirit of sportsmanship. “These Games will change the lives of people around the world who are mistreated and excluded because they’re ‘different,’” said Patrick McClenahan, President and Chief Executive Officer of LA2015, the Games Organizing Committee.
On the eve of the Games, the leadership of Germany’s official delegation paid a visit to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance. The delegation was led by Ulla Schmidt, a Vice President of the German Bundestag, a member of parliament and numerous other German diplomats and leaders of NGOs.
Our meeting opened with a spirted discussion on the Iran nuclear deal and the rush for German business leaders to fly to Tehran. We agreed to (politely) disagree.
But there was no debate as to which person would make the greatest impact that day. Meet Verena Bentele, a blonde, blue eyed, thirty something, who vigorously shook my hand and gave me her card which read: The Federal Government Commissioner for Matters Related to Disabled Persons. I was informed that she is a 12-time paralympics Gold Medalist. You see, Ms. Bentele is blind.
Our discussion quickly shifted from today’s headlines to German history.
In 1939, before the Nazis decided on the genocidal ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish Question, just weeks after the invasion of Poland that plunged the world into WWII, Hitler gave the order for large scale “mercy killings” (ie; murder) of Germany’s mentally and physically infirm. Initially Aktion T-4, was to be applied to newborns and the very young but soon it was expanded to gassing anyone who was diagnosed as suffering from such disorders as schizophrenia, epilepsy, retardation, encephalitis, and neurological conditions, as well as the criminally insane, and those institutionalized for more than five years.
Six killing centers were established including a well known psychiatric clinic. The euthanasia program was eventually headed by an SS man named Christian Wirth.
At Brandenburg, a former prison was converted into a killing center where the first Nazi experimental gassings took place. The gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms, but were actually hermetically sealed chambers connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. Patients were generally drugged before being led naked into the gas chamber. Each killing center included a crematorium where the bodies were taken for disposal. Families were then falsely told the cause of death was heart failure or pneumonia.
If this sounds like a precursor to Auschwitz Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor, it was. The use of these gas chambers served as mass murder training centers for the SS. They would later apply the technical knowledge and experience gained during the euthanasia program to pursue their program of exterminating the entire Jewish population of Europe. Christian Wirth, Franz Reichleitner, and Franz Stangl, were among these most notorious SS officers who ultimately ran Nazi death camps where millions of Jews were gassed and turned to ashes.
Unlike the mass murder of Jews, which elicited no discernable protests, the killing of nearly a quarter of a million disabled Germans, did. Led by a heroic public protest by a Catholic Bishop, Clemens von Galen, who labeled the Euthanasia program as “murder,” Hitler was actually forced to suspend Aktion T4 in late August 1941. This industrial-sized mass murder program was ended even as the genocide of the Jews would soon begin in earnest.
I told the German delegation that I had accompanied Simon Wiesenthal, the late Nazi hunter on many of his speeches in the US. Inevitably came this question: “were you surprised by how many Nazis there were?”
“No,” came the answer from a man who weighed only 90 pounds when US troops liberated him at Mauthausen Concentration Camp and who lost 89 members of his family during the Holocaust. “But I was bitterly disappointed by how few anti-Nazis there were!”
Each member of Germany’s Special Olympics team is a living testament of what people with disabilities can contribute to society, if only given a chance. Germany’s commitment to help the disabled find their place in the mainstream of society in 2015, is a measure of how far the nation has come since the Nazi era. We can only hope that all Germans who celebrate their athletes’ achievements will also lead the vocal opposition of anti-Nazis, every time the hateful Nazi ideology rears its genocidal head.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center