[Editor’s note: This is a commentary on the Hadamar exhibit, a depiction of the disability holocaust, which was introduced in the October issue of Access Press.]
On Wednesday, November 7, I attended an exhibition at Augsburg College entitled “Verlagt nach Hadamar,” which translates into English as “Committed to Hadamar.” The exhibit vividly depicts the destiny of two hundred thousand people with physical and mental disabilities who were so needlessly killed during the Holocaust. Karl-Johan Johansen and Per Frederiksen, who represent a Norwegian disability organization known as PROFF, spoke about their recent personal experiences of staying at Hadamar; this gave them a better understanding of what victims went through during their time in the camp.
It is common knowledge that Hitler systematically killed 6 million Jews during World War II.
But why is it we seldom hear of the disabled population that was put to death in Hadamar, Germany? These victims were considered useless as a result of their disabilities. Unfortunately, the attitude toward disabled people today remains much the same. Even with the ADA and the IDEA, educators and employers are still hesitant to work with us because of the prevalent, underlying belief that if someone uses a wheelchair, his or her brain does not function normally.
The only hope for salvation during the Holocaust was the ability to do work. Those who were unable to perform were automatically put to death. As a member of the disability community, it horrified me and brought tears to my eyes to see the photos of the innocent men, women, and children who were sent to the gas chamber and the crematorium. Some of the discarded bodies were even brought to the dissection room where the brains were extracted from the victims in order to further medical research at Wurzburg and Frankfurt am Main.
I can’t imagine being one of the prisoners in the camp. I would constantly wonder if today was the day I was going to die, or if my life would be spared for just one more week, one more day, one more hour. At least today when I go to the doctor, I can rest assured that I will be cared for properly, and that if there are any complications, the doctor will face harsh consequences. This right came much too late for the victims at Hadamar, whose doctors firmly believed that they were allowing their patients to die a “beautiful death,” their translation of “euthanasia.”
The photographs in the exhibit were not released to the public until the spring of 1991. This first exhibition was held in the Hessen district of Germany, where the mass killings took place. The first question that went through my mind was, “How could they wait so long to expose such devastation?” Then, I thought about my own recent experiences in traveling abroad. While many countries have made significant advances in disability awareness and accessibility, it is still customary to institutionalize the disabled in order to keep them out of the way of the general public. This is similar to what happened at Hadamar in that the public may have been aware of what was happening, but they were too ashamed or afraid to admit and confront their faults.
It is the responsibility of the disability community, as difficult as it is, to keep working toward the abolition of the many prejudices that the general public still holds against people with disabilities by educating people and getting them to understand that we are a valuable assent to society. The atrocity that occurred not so many years ago at Hadamar must never happen again.
As a final note, I must ask myself whether the exhibit was truly meant to make the disabled community more aware of our history. If so, why were the posters hung so high and the captions printed so small? Or was the exhibit’s purpose to make the able-bodied community aware of how we’ve been treated for so many years? Even when the public tries to reach out to us, they don’t stop to consider our needs.
The following feedback was compiled from other visitors to the Hadamar exhibit:
After being told by Professor O’Connor how moving these photos were, I was anxious to go to this event. The initial presentation was given in the beautiful chapel at Augsburg where it somehow made it easier for me to view the slide show and listen to the presenters describe the atrocities at Hadamar. While in the chapel it all seemed like a history lesson, something that happened long ago. Though terrible, I was surprised that Hadamar had such little effect on me.
Yet hearing how only one woman, years later, spoke out about these atrocities and brought them to the attention of the whole world, made me think of the effect that one person can have.
Rolling over to the exhibit, I was almost looking forward to seeing more details. As I started into the room, I noticed one large picture of Adolf Hitler; my stomach turned and I felt my eyes filling with tears. Hitler represents such evil. Not only did this man kill millions of Jews, he also killed thousands of people with disabilities. And he made people believe it was right.
All around us there are bad things happening and we look past them. It’s so much easier to keep quiet and not take the risk that you’ll be scorned as non-patriotic, cowardly, or some kind of weirdo. But we must all be willing to risk humiliation and speak out when we believe something is wrong.
Karl-Johan Johansen and Per Frederiksen from Norway have a powerful presentation. However, in the history of the world I find one person’s cruelty to another, or to another group, is never a surprise! In fact, we still find persons living in awful institutions around the U.S. and
Minnesota’s state institutions have only recently been closed. The horrible conditions that individuals had to live in has been well-documented, regardless of how strongly denied by the powers-that-be: legislators, administrators of the institutions, and workers within the institutions. Even today, many persons living in group homes or on their own, but receiving services to develop independent living skills, are still being treated in a demeaning manner. So the experimentation on and the extermination of individuals with disabilities by the Nazis during
WWII is only one of those historical facts.
One thing Hadamar tells us, as ACT’s Remembering With Dignity does, is that we must remember our history in order to prevent these things from happening again. If we are preventing some methods of cruelty, great! But we must continue to remove many forms of
injustice and cruelty to persons with disabilities.
I knew that Jews, homosexuals, and other religious and political opponents of the Nazis were put in concentration camps and exterminated. Why didn’t I know that people with disabilities were killed as well? This is why I went to see the exhibit about Hadamar. I am of German descent, and was planning to go to Germany this fall to learn more about my “people,” but did not go due to a diagnosis of cancer this last spring. After cancer surgery I didn’t expect to be disabled but, although it may not be readily noticeable, I am. The feelings about that came hard, so I am always making connections and learning. The Hadamar presentation inspired me to want to go to a concentration camp when I do go to Germany maybe Hadamar.
It is important to make real, especially now that we are at war, that this should never happen again.
I know that the Nazi project had a lot to do with defining everyone outside of the mythological Aryan ideal as “other.” Going to see the Hadamar exhibit at Augsburg College was a chilling reminder of how dangerous this kind of thinking is. As I looked at the panels I also thought about how the struggle for disability rights and dignity is about challenging that thinking in our own time. I thought of how the urge to get rid of the “other” whether by locking people away in institutions or by refusing to make public spaces accessible to all is alive in my own culture, in my own time. Never again!