“If we do not talk about it, if we do not remember, then the world will never know. And that has made me speak about it.”
—Henry Meyer, Holocaust Survivor
Worthy of a Voice: People with Disabilities during the Holocaust
An online exhibit on the Nazi Persecution
of People with Disabilities, 1933 - 1945
Worthy of a Voice:
People with Disabilities during the Holocaust
How did the Nazi Party Create an “Us v. Them” Society?
“If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill ‘unproductive’ fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail….”
-Bishop Clemens von Galen of Muenster
Under the guise of creating a physically, mentally and racially pure society –influenced greatly by discriminatory policies from around the world –the Nazis attempted to rid the world of those deemed inferior, including people with disabilities.
In this exhibit, we will demonstrate how the Nazis created an “us v. them” mentality in Germany and occupied Europe. This turned neighbor against neighbor resulting in the murder of over 200,000 people with disabilities between the years of 1933 and 1945.
Nazi Officials at a health exhibition, Dresden 1935.
With the rise of the National Socialist Movement –eventually the Nazi Party –those who did not fit into the Aryan ideal were seen as “unworthy” of life and blamed for Germany’s problems.
These populations included Jews, people of mixed ethnic backgrounds, and people with disabilities.
Through Creating a Scapegoat
In 1923, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party failed to overthrow the Weimar government during the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler was arrested, convicted of treason and sentenced to five years in prison, but served only nine months.
As support for Hitler grew, he continued to increase the fear felt against those labeled ‘impaired’ and ‘ethnically impure’ and blamed them for the ills of society.
This scapegoating paved the way for discriminatory policies and eventually murder.
“Heckling Hitler” cartoon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1930.
Beer Hall Putsch, Munich 1923.
Through Erasing Art and Culture
In May 1933, the Nazis organized a book burning in Berlin to destroy books seen as unfit for the general population.
In June 1937, the Nazis organized the "Degenerate Art" exhibit. The exhibit served two purposes: to showcase art that was deemed dangerous to the German culture; and to highlight how ‘different’ and ‘strange’ these artists were in contrast to the Aryan ideal of the Nazis.
Poster for the “Degenerate Music Exhibit” of 1937.
Berlin book burning, May 1933.
What is a scapegoat and how did people with disabilities become scapegoats in Nazi Germany?
How can our society help to break down these barriers today?
How did Germany’s economic troubles
impact Hitler’s rise to power?
The Nazis sought to create an “us v. them” society. What could ordinary Germans have done to break down these barriers?
A Testimony of Escape and Survival
Faced with a hip injury caused at birth, Robert Wagemann was labeled by the Nazi authorities as physically disabled.
His mother Lottie (pictured with Robert) overheard Nazi officials’ plans to “put him to sleep,” during an annual physical examination. As a result, Lottie and Robert fled town to avoid further danger.
Lottie and Robert found shelter at his grandfather’s home, where he and his mother stayed during the remainder of the war. After the war, Robert moved to the United States, where he raised a family of his own.
How did the Nazi Party and its Officials Spread their Ideology throughout Germany and Austria?
This cartoon depicts the supposed financial burden of a person with disabilities when compared with a family of five.
Through Legislation -
A Timeline of the Nazi Persecution of
People with Disabilities
The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring of 1933 stated that anyone with hereditary illness could be sterilized. This gave Nazi officials the authority to decide who was worthy and who was not.
The list of conditions warranting immediate sterilization included: mental illness, severe physical disabilities, deafness, and chronic alcoholism.
Eventually, the Nazis began to regulate so-called moral behavior as well.
In 1933 and 1935, the Law for the Encouragement of Marriage and the Marriage Law were passed, respectively, further solidifying the Aryan ideal (like in the picture to the left) in German society.
These laws in addition to the Nuremberg Laws, which initially impacted the Jewish population, paved the way for future discriminatory Nazi policies.
from around the World
Eugenics was a term coined by British physician Dr. Francis Galton (pictured above) in 1883 to describe hereditary traits that mark certain members of society more ‘useful’ than others.This practice gained popularity in the United States and abroad, and was a strong influence on Nazi policy.
Watch Professor Benno Mueller-Hill discuss the Nazi rationale behind the use of eugenics and genetic separation during the Holocausthere
As a means to influence the German people, the Nazis spreadpropaganda
through books and films, painting people with disabilities as less than and different.
Films such as Ich Klage An, (I Accuse; pictured right) and Das Erbe (The Inheritance) portrayed the need to rid society of of those with disabilities.
Why did Nazi policy attempt to control art, culture, literature and music in German society?
How did propaganda affect the German people’s response to the persecution of people with disabilities?
Describe why Nazi propaganda emphasized marriage and family life as part of the “Aryan ideal.”
What can each of us do to combat hateful language that we hear today?
How did the Nazis Target People with Disabilities?
A poster of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship and racially defined who was and was not Jewish.
of the Greater Good
By Claiming It was
As the Nazis continued to spread their message of discrimination throughout Europe, they sharpened their focus on people with disabilities.
The Nazis set up the “Hereditary Health Courts” in order to carry out forced sterilizations throughout Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.
These courts had a judge and two doctors who assisted in the sterilization of those individuals.
Listen to Paul Eggert, Helga Gross and Dorothea Buck discuss their forced sterilization and alienation from their families here
for the “Wellbeing”
This poster, distributed by the Nazi Party, emphasized the financial burden placed on society by those deemed unfit.
Nazi officials twisted language to make their case for persecution of people with disabilities. How is the phrase ‘worthy of life’ an example of this?
How did the Nazis legalize hate?
How can we advocate for people with disabilities today?
Helene Melanie Lebel:
A Testimony of Deceit and Loss
Helene Lebel first showed signs of mental illness at the age of 19. As her condition declined, she eventually had to give up her law studies and job as a legal secretary. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, and placed in Vienna’s Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital.
In 1940, Helene’s condition improved, and her parents assumed she would soon be released. However, Helene was transferred to the Brandenberg Euthanasia Center, where she was immediately killed.
The Euthanasia Program was started at this address-Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin-and so it became known as the T-4 Euthanasia Program.
Gnatentod - The Act of ‘Mercy Killing’
As Nazi policy continued to target those with disabilities, Hitler realized that sterilization and other preventative measures halted the growth of a healthy Aryan state.
In 1938, Hitler received a plea from the family of Gerhard Kretschmar, an infant who was born blind and missing limbs. In response, Nazi officials implemented ongoing "mercy killings" of children with disabilities.
As Hitler explained, the death of a child was preferable to both the child and to society. Phillip Bouhler, chief of Hitler’s Chancellery was then placed in charge of theT-4 Euthanasia Program.
Euthanasia killing center, Hartheim, Austria.
T-4: The Nazi Euthanasia Program
Initially, infants and young children were targeted, and placed in 6 asylums and facilities across Germany and Austria.
Of those children targeted, approximately 5,000 were killed between 1939 and 1945. Many of these deaths were ordered by doctors who did not even see or interact with the children.
Soon, the T-4 program expanded to include adults with disabilities. As a result, over 70,000 men and women were killed in these asylums; others died from starvation and neglect. In the end, approximately 200,000 men, women and children with disabilities were murdered by the Nazis.
Registry from Hadamar euthanasia center listing false causes of death.
Why did doctors create a distance between themselves and the children they targeted?
Why were children the first victims of the T-4 Program?
How can we provide a voice for those lost during the T-4 Program?
A Testimony of Familial Loss
Antje Kosemund’s sister Irma was born with severe physical and mental handicaps. As Antje recalls, Irma was always a pretty, happy child.
However, when Irma was three years old, her parents could no longer care for her and placed her at the Alsterdorf Institute. This Institute was a long-term care facility set up by the Nazis to "care" for people with disabilities.
Until her death at the age of 13, Irma, along with the other children, were routinely abused and neglected by the hospital staff.
Listen to Antje talk about Irma and her treatment here
What was the Public Response
to the Nazi T4 Program?
Personnel of T-4, the agency created to administer the Nazi Euthanasia Program. Berlin, Germany, date uncertain.
Hadamar Euthanasia Facility:
In the town of Hadamar, thick black smoke rose daily from the Euthanasia facility because of the onsite crematorium.
Daily transports brought patients in but never out. As a result, the residents of Hadamar became more aware of the euthanasia facility. However, no one spoke out or protested.
Local children would even taunt each other that bad behavior would result in their ‘ending up in the Hadamar ovens.’
When Lothar Kreyssig (above), a German judge, spoke out against the euthanasia programs, it cost him his job.
Karl Bonhoffer, a renowned psychiatrist and his son Dietrich, a Protestant minister, protested against the mass killings. They pleaded with church-affiliated institutions to not send children to T-4 hospitals.
Bishop Clemens von Galen of Muenster rallied Catholics against the mass killings, claiming in a sermon that he had attempted to file charges against the Muenster police for their role in the killings.
Read about Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, the organization that Dr. Kreyssig started after the war here
The “End” of Operation T-4
In August 1941, as public resistance against the program grew, Hitler officially shut down Operation T-4. However, this order did not end the program, rather sent it underground. This left the fate of victims in the hands oflocal hospitals to decide
the fate of those with disabilities.
Heavily influenced by Nazi propaganda, these physicians continued to murder and persecute. In response, Nazi officials sent mobile gassing units (vans) to aid the cause.
Between 1941, when the T-4 Program was ordered to stop, and the end of the war in 1945, approximately 20,000 more people were murdered.
Adolf Hitler's authorization for T-4, signed in October 1939 but dated September 1, 1939.
The Doctors' Trial
On December 9, 1946, the Nazi Doctors' Trial began. 23 German physicians (above) were put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity for their involvement in the T-4 Program. Some defendants also committed inhumane medical experiments on concentration camp inmates.
Within 140 days, on August 20, 1947,16 defendants were found guilty; seven of which were executed.
View actual archival footage of the trial, including the verdict of the physicians here
Why would community members and leaders have been hesitant to protest against Nazi euthanasia policies?
What could have motivated people like Kreyssig & Bonhoffer?
How are Kreyssig & Bonhoffer similar to other examples of resistance during the Holocaust?
In what ways could the people of Hadamar have called attention to the Euthanasia Center?
When is it time to stand up and speak out against violence in our own communities?
LeZotte, Ann Clare. T-4: A Novel. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008.
Lifton, Robert J. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. Basic Books, New York, 1986.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Handicapped – Victims of the Nazi Era: 1933-1945” Educational Pamphlet. http://www.ushmm.org/education/resource/handic/handicapped.php
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.” Online Exhibitions. http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/deadlymedicine/narrative/?content=science.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Record Group RG-50.028*0083, Oral History, Euthanasia Collection, Interview with Robert Wagemann, 1992.A.0124.83.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Nazi Ideology and the Holocaust. Mount Vernon Printing, Washington, DC 2007.
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archives. Interview Code 36909, Oral History, Eugenics Policies Survivor, Interview with Paul Eggert, November 26, 1997.
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archives. Interview Code 37564, Oral History, Eugenics Policies Survivor, Interview with Elvira Manthey, et al, November 24, 1997.
Aryan – Previously used to describe a race of Indo-European people, this word was coopted by Hitler and the Nazi party to describe the so-called ‘pure race’ of white, Christian, Nordic people.
Eugenics – From the Greek term “good birth” this was a theory created by Dr. Francis Galton in the 19th century claiming that certain peoples or races were of more use to society based on their genes. This theory heavily influenced the Nazi ideologies and persecution of those with disabilities specifically, and in general those who did not meet the “Aryan ideal.”
Euthanasia – From the Greek term “good death,” the Nazis used this term to describe the murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children with disabilities under the false pretenses that their deaths were ‘mercy killings’ and would prove better for the deceased and for society.
Hereditary – Passed down by way of genetic information from one family member to the next.
Propaganda – Materials such as art, literature, music, and advertisement used with the specific and expressed purpose of altering the public opinion regarding a person, people, race, religion, or community.
Treaty of Versailles – The Treaty signed on May 7, 1919 officially ending World War I. The Treaty placed severe economic and military sanctions on Germany, as well as the 'War Guilt Clause' which blamed Germany for the damages of WWI.
Glossary of Key Terms
The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education is grateful to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for generously allowing us the use of images from their online collection. Please visit their website
for complete citations.
There are two exceptional individuals who deserve special recognition for their passion and dedication to this project:
Mr. Steven Anderson began this project as a Starfire intern with CHHE from January 2011 through June 2012. Steven spent many hours building the momentum for this exhibit and creating its framework which you see today. This exhibit would not have been possible without Steven's dedication.
Mr. Ariel Naveh, a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellow of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, spent countless hours researching text and images to build on the foundation created by Steven. Ari's creativity was critical to bringing this exhibit to fruition.
We'd also like to thank Dr. Danny M. Cohen who graciously donated his time and knowledge to provide CHHE with invaluable feedback. Any oversights are the responsibility of CHHE.
Sarah L. Weiss, Executive Director
Alexis Storch, Director of Educational Outreach
Hagit Caspi, Development & Community Relations Manager
Kate Morris, Education & Collections Associate
Trinity Ruggles, Office & Project Manager