NURSES' PARTICIPATION IN THE "EUTHANASIA" PROGRAMS OF NAZI GERMANY
The "Wild" Euthanasia Programs
Hitler ordered the organized euthanasia program for the adults to end in August 1941. The killings had become public knowledge and opposition to the programs came from individuals and churches; however, the children's euthanasia program continued without interruption and the stop order applied only to the killings in the gas chambers of the killing centers. "As with the children, after the stop order, physicians and nurses killed handicapped adults with tablets, injections, and starvation. In fact, more victims of euthanasia perished after the stop order was issued than before" (Friedlander, 1995, p. 151).
Just as the children had never been killed in gas chambers, but by medication or starvation, the "selected" adults were killed by physicians and nurses in designated institutions. This decentralized euthanasia program was called by the killers "wild" euthanasia (United States National Archives and Records, Record Group 238, Microfilm Publication M-1019, Roll 46). Killing hospitals were set up at Hadamar, Meseritz-Obrawalde, and Tiegenhof (Dziekanka) but killings were not limited to these institutions. Many handicapped patients were killed at other hospitals throughout the region (Friedlander, 1995, p. 152).
During the "wild" euthanasia phase, handicapped patients that were to be killed at the killing centers arrived by transport, often in the middle of the night. The staff selected for killing patients who were unable to work as well as "patients who caused extra work for the nurses, those who were deaf-mute, ill, obstructive, or undisciplined, and anyone else who was simply annoying" (Friedlander, 1995, p. 160). Those selected to be killed were "taken to so-called killing rooms where physicians and nurses killed them using orally-administered drug overdoses or lethal injections." "After they had been killed by the male and female nurses" (Friedlander, 1995, p. 161), fraudulent death certificates were prepared and the bodies were cremated. Families were notified of the deaths of these relatives and could receive an urn of ashes purported to be those of their loved one. In reality, the urns contained combined ashes of many people from the crematorium.
At the beginning of 1942, the first trains with about 700 patients arrived at Obrawalde. At the end of the year and especially in 1943 these trains arrived more and more frequently. From all parts of Germany patients were abducted to be killed in Obrawalde. All the nurses and orderlies - according to their statements - had to "unload" the patients. The ill persons were in horrible condition: many were emaciated and they were very dirty. This condition contributed to the fact that the nursing personnel were able to distance themselves emotionally from those people who had been brought into such a condition beneath human dignity and that the personnel, without considerable pressure, could be convinced to kill thousands of people (Ebbinghaus, 1987, p. 224). "When questioned, the senior nurse Ratajczak estimated that 18,000 people had been killed at Obrawalde. Her estimate corresponds to other statements. In later legal proceedings mostly a number of 10,000 patients killed by nursing personnel at Meseritz-Obrawalde is stated" (Ebbinghaus, 1987, p. 219).
Anna G. had been a nurse at the Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Treptow (Healing and nursing institution - a state hospital and nursing home) for more than ten years. When it closed, she and other nurses were transferred to Obrawalde. She was accused of participating in the killing of 150 patients.
When the round was finished, the patients selected by Dr. Mootz had to be taken to the extra room. Generally the nurse on duty had to undress the patients and take them to the extra room. Depending on the circumstances, there were different methods. If the patient was very confused or ill to such an extent that she didn't think about it, after having her undress, I just took her to the extra room. If the patients were in their right minds and could see through everything, we told them that their health condition had improved in a manner that they only would have to take a cure in order to get discharged. The patients believed us in most cases and undressed themselves voluntarily, so we didn't have any difficulties with them. We really wanted to make the last way as easy as possible for the selected patients. In this connection I remember that one patient was a strict Catholic and the last day she asked for a priest to get the last sacraments. I remember very clearly and can say with absolute certainty that the priest was informed before the killing and that the patient, who at least that day was completely in her right mind, got the last sacraments from the priest.
I can't remember that I ever appointed a younger nurse to help me. Young nurses deliberately weren't appointed to participate in the killings because we feared they couldn't be able to keep their mouths shut.
If my memory serves me right, the patients supposed to be killed weren't taken to the extra room together. I think the second patient was only taken to the extra room when the first one was starting to fall asleep. We then covered her with a towel.
The killing of patients was never done by only one nurse. Practical experience had shown that it was absolutely necessary for the killing to be done by at least two nurses. I will give the reasons for this necessity. Nurses are also only humans and the strength of their nerves is limited. I think the two nurses had to support and help each other when doing the killings. The killing of a person is a hard strain on the nerves of the person doing it. After all, it could have been possible that the strong nerves of one nurse wouldn't have been enough. I will express by this that one nurse could have fainted or she could have shrunk back. But when two or more worked together, the other would have helped to surmount the weak moment. But the cooperation was not only absolutely necessary for psychological, but also for practical, reasons. I didn't experience it one single time that a patient would take such a large quantity of dissolved medicine voluntarily. It's a fact of experience that medicine doesn't taste good and people generally are not readily prepared to take medicine. The same can be said with regard to injections. Almost all of our patients were scared of injections. In order to give the dissolved medicine, particularly the injections, the cooperation of at least two nurses was necessary.
When giving the dissolved medicine, I proceeded with a lot of compassion. I had told patients that they would have to take a cure. Of course I could tell these fairy tales only to those patients who were still in their right minds to the extent that they could understand it. I took them lovingly and stroked them when I gave the medicine. If, for example, a patient did not empty the entire cup because it was too bitter, I talked to her nicely, telling her that she had already drunk so much that she would drink the rest, otherwise her cure couldn't be finished. Some could be convinced to empty the cup completely. In other cases, I gave the medicine by the spoonful. Like I already told you, our procedure depended on the condition of the patients. Old women, for example, who had to be fed couldn't drink on their own so it wasn't possible to give them the medicine by the spoonful. They were not to be tortured more than necessary and I thought it would be better to give them an injection. In this connection, I would like to say that, like me, Luise E. [Erdmann], Margarete Ratajczak, and Erna E. thought that the patients were not to be tortured more than necessary (Ebbinghaus, 1987, p. 239).
The accused was asked if patients knew what was going to happen to them. She responded:
The patients didn't notice it for a long period. Later there were a few of them who did notice it. Possibly they realized that the physician pointed his finger to individual patients and talked about them to the senior nurse and those patients were taken to the so-called small room. It is also possible that the patients, or a few of them, observed that the patients didn't come back alive from that room. When I gave the above-mentioned patient the injection, I didn't talk to her anymore. The patient also didn't talk anymore. It was a patient in a condition that had to be described as bad. I think the patient didn't notice anything. In general, some patients anxiously already had lifted themselves in the bed. Some drank the medicine on their own. Also, the dose varied from one patient to the other.