Historical Memorialisation of Nazi ‘Euthanasia’ Victims
The memorialisation of the mass ‘euthanisation’ of mentally and physically ill people in Obrawalde, in what is today in Miedzyrzecz (formerly Meseritz), Poland brings forth questions of memorialisation, traumascapes, and re-utilisation of places of trauma. At Obrawalde, an estimated 18,000 mentally and physically ill people were murdered through the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme. This brings forth the important question: what should we memorialise?
The still active psychiatric hospital, referred to now by its Polish name Obrzyce, memorialised the murders with a small plaque outside the chapel wall, placed there in 1948. On their website, the hospital provides a general account of the euthanasia programme during the Nazi period. The website’s history states that also POWs from various European countries were held there and killed and that school tours are held to learn about the events there. However it is striking, when considering the history of Obrawalde, that it is still an active psychiatric hospital today.
The murders took place in different quarters of Oberwalde, as women and children were murdered in the same quarters, while men in different ones. Usually, patients were first sedated to ensure that they would not struggle before they were taken into special rooms. A nurse commented at her trial on the manner in which these murders took place:
In general either the ward caregiver or I would sit the patient up in her bed, put an arm around her, and talk to her consolingly. So one of us would hold the patient in an upright position and the other caregiver would hold on to the glass with the medication. Then the patient either was able to swallow the liquid on her own or it was given to her with a spoon. If the patient was extremely restless, which also happened quite frequently, then three caregivers were needed for the procedure.
Let us turn now to first-hand accounts of the activities of Obrawalde to understand or attempt to make sense of what occurred there. One former Hitler Youth member named Dieter Protsch, who was stationed in the town during the Second World War writes:
The mentally insane we saw and pitied, were generally kept in prison-like cells to prevent injuries of the not-so-violent persons. Some were apparently euthanized following permission by immediate relatives and two competent doctors. I guess our exposure to this problem was meant to instill in us young people that in every healthy body lives a healthy mind and that this type of cleansing will maintain a healthy strong nation in the future. This system was generally accepted not only in German, but in many countries in Europe. We thought of it as nothing unusual until after the war, when the Russian Army claimed and depicted Obrawalde was a concentration camp. When we saw dead bodies lined up in front of the crematorium we considered a normal occurrence at this institution.
This account of the events at Obrawalde, written sixty years later, shows the effectiveness of the Nazi socialisation of young people. Protsch shows no remorse for what happened nor feels empathy for the sheer number of people murdered, refusing to believe the Russians.
In witness testimonies provided by the nurses who administered the killings, many refused to feel guilt for what they had done, as they claimed to have only been doing their duty. Erna Elfeide E, who was accused of murdering 200 patients, commented when asked if she felt the killings were legal:
They did not make me swear on a secret matter of the Reich and I was not sworn to silence…I considered the killings as injustices…I was brought up as a Christian. I already learned as a child what one may and may not do. I learned that one must not steal and must not kill. [I did not refuse to participate in the killings] because I was ordered to do it…I do and did in the past have a strong feeling of guilt but it is impossible for me to give a reason for not refusing. It simply was ordered and I had to execute the orders.
A place such as Obrawalde can be considered a place of “historical memorialisation”, or in other words, a place where people can come to commemorate the past together. However, Obrawalde is not a static place chained entirely to the history it is there to represent. The hospital is not akin to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, which are no longer active and serve as sites of reflection and the (re)traumatisation of second/third generation Nazi victims. The decision to keep using the hospital as an actual hospital shows another way of attempting to deal with a traumatic past.
Two interpretations arise from the way that Obrawalde has been memorialised: a) the decision to keep it as an active hospital enforces the idea that the past should be forgotten and b) the past should not “haunt” the present and there is no need for constant “historical memorialisation”, but it should not be forgotten. There is also the question of over-memorialisation of the past and finding a way to deal with the trauma of the past. These concepts are important to consider as we reach the end of the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, among others.