By Jonathan Silvers and Tom Hagler, The Sunday Times, Vienna.
The children’s executioner.
In Nazi Austria, parents were encouraged to leave their
disabled children in the care of people like
Dr. Heinrich Gross. If the youngsters had been born with
defects, wet their beds, or were deemed
unsociable, the neurobiologist killed them and removed their
brains for examination. Not only
was he never punished for the deaths, he was given Austria’s
highest medical award.
There are 417 brains here, deep in an underground vault of
the Steinhof psychiatric hospital in Vienna. All were
removed from the corpses of children deemed handicapped or
antisocial, the victims of a Nazi euthanasia program that
began in 1940 and ended with the war in 1945.
In most cases, the cause of death is the same: pneumonia.
[“Meticulous records” described, autopsy reports,
The death toll at the Steinhof children’s wing, called the
Spiegelgrund hospital, exceeded 1,000, which made it one of
the largest Nazi euthanasia centres ridding the Aryan race
of “defective genes” and the Reich of “useless eaters.”
The wartime staff of the Spiegelgrund hospital were almost
all Nazi Party members, and the case histories in the
Steinhof vault indicate they took a liberal view of what
Hitler called lebensunwertes Leben, or life unworthy
of life. Children were killed because they stuttered, had a
harelip, had eyes too far apart. They died by injection or
were left outdoors to freeze or were simply starved.
For more than two years, the second-in-command was a young
Austrian named Dr. Heinrich Gross. According to one witness,
Dr. Gross patrolled the wards in the brown uniform of the
Sturm Abteilungen, the Nazi Party’s militia.
For years Dr. Gross has lived in untroubled prosperity,
maintaining his innocence while consolidating his position
as a leading neurobiologist and expert on mental illness.
All but one of his fellow doctors at the Spiegelgrund were
convicted of war crimes, and his immediate boss, Dr. Ernst
Illing, was hanged. Dr. Gross, however, avoided a warrant
for his arrest on charges of complicity in mass murder and
later successfully appealed a conviction for being an
accomplice to the manslaughter of just one victim. There was
no further attempt to bring him to justice. Instead, Austria
awarded him its top medical prize.
But the past may finally be catching up with him. Newly
discovered archives of the Communist German secret police,
the Stasi, add to evidence that this eminent scientist was
directly involved in the killing of a large number of
handicapped children during the war, and of removing their
brains for research. As a result, Austria’s justice ministry
has reopened its investigation into his war record.
Almost as disturbing, Dr. Gross apparently continued to use
the brains for research after the war ended.
He maintained his innocence. “I’ve done nothing,” he began.
“Even though I was employed at Spiegelgrund, I had nothing
to do with the killing of those children. The court in 1951
cleared me of the charges. …
“I knew about the killings, but I wan’t involved with them.
Everybody who worked there knew about it. It was called
`killing of people whose lives were not worth living.’ It
was called `euthanasia.’ I didn’t agree with it, I didn’t
want to get involved, so I left to work in the Wehrmacht. My
colleague, the one who went to jail, carried out the
killings. Children were simply killed with sleeping pills.
There were children so mentally backward that they were
physically paralyzed. After the war I didn’t use the brains
for experiments, I just examined them. they were just like
the other brains I worked on.
“Do I feel remorse? Yes, of course. It was terrible, a
Spiegelgrund was one of 31 institutes that the health
ministry converted into euthanasia centres. A total of 6,000
children died at the centres between 1940 and 1945. At its
peak, Spiegelgrund was “accelaerating the deaths” of more
than 12 children a month.
Alois Kaufmann was sent to Spiegelgrund in 1943, when he was
nine, after a school psychiatrist diagnosed him as
“unreceptive” to National Socialism. ”
Twenty years ago Mr. Kaufmann, now 63, wrote a book on the
hospital’s secret operations. The brains had not yet been
discovedred; the book was ignored. For this article he
accompanied us to the Steinhof’s vault for the first time.
After recognizing two or three names on the specimen jars,
“There was a selection every 14 days or three weeks. We’d
been intentionally starved — I think we were given only 800
calories a day. And there was Dr. Gross. I remember him
distinctly as a diligent, quiet young man. And he came up
and pointed at some of us; he said, `You, you, you and you.’
These children were taken from the group.
“The first children they selected were the bed-wetters or
the harelips or the slow thinkers. That was the Nazi
ideology; the doctors’ instinct was that of an animal of
prey. They selected the weakest out of a large herd. We
didn’t dare ask where they were taken. We never saw them
again. But we learned they were taken to Pavilion 15. That
was where the killing was done.
Source: (c) The Globe and Mail, Saturday, December 6, 1997