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Israel's Answer to Aktion T4 - The Nazi Solution for Disability

Prof. Joav Merrick accompanied a group of intellectually disabled Israelis at the March of the Living. Hitler had a solution for them, too.
By Professor Joav Merrick
First Publish: 4/8/2013, 8:57 AM

March of the Living
March of the Living
Israel news photo: Flash 90


Joav Merrick, who made aliyah from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1989, is professor of child health and human development affiliated with Kentucky Children’s Hospital, University of Kentucky, Lexington, United States and the Division of Pediatrics, Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center, Mt Scopus Campus, Jerusalem, Israel and since 1991 the medical director of the Health Services of the Division for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services, Jerusalem and also the founder and director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Israel. Received the Peter Sabroe Child Award for outstanding work on behalf of Danish Children in 1985 and the International LEGO-Prize (“The Children’s Nobel Prize”) for an extraordinary contribution towards improvement in child welfare and well-being in 1987

The Holocaust of our people can in some ways be traced back to the case of a severely handicapped German child, Gerhard Kretschmar, from late 1938. Gerhard Kretschmar was born in Pomssen, a village south-east of Leipzig, to Richard Kretschmar, a farm labourer and his wife Lina Kretschmar, who both were Nazis followers.

This child was born blind, with either no legs or one leg, and with one arm, had convulsions and apparently also severe intellectual disability (once called mental retardation. but the original medical records are lost). The father took the newborn to Dr Werner Catel, a pediatrician at the University Children's Clinic in Leipzig, and asked that his son be "put to sleep", but the pediatrician informed him that this procedure would be illegal.

Since the parents were Nazis, the father wrote directly to Hitler, asking him to investigate the case and overrule the law that prevented "this monster" from being killed.

Hitler had already in his book (Mein Kampf 1924) written that “He who is bodily and mentally not sound and deserving may not perpetuate this misfortune in the bodies of his children. The people’s State has to perform the most gigantic rearing-task here. One day, however, it will appear as a deed greater than the most victorious wars of our present bourgeois era” and already in 1933 the Nazi regime had implemented a “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarely Diseased Offspring” that made it possible to sterilize people with, for example, schizophrenia, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease and imbecility.

Hitler instructed his personal physician Karl Brandt to investigate the case and if the child was as severely handicapped as described, Hitler authorised Brandt to have Gerhard killed, in consultation with the local doctors, and to make sure that if any legal action were taken, it would be thrown out of court.

Brandt examined the child and consulted with the pediatrician Werner Catel and another physician, Helmut Kohl, and also visited the parents. Brandt informed the Leipzig doctors of Hitler's instructions and they agreed that Gerhard Kretschmar should be killed, although they knew this was illegal. The church records states that Gerhard Kretschmar died at Pomssen of "heart weakness" on 25 July 1939 (just five months old).

This case and the ideology of Hitler paved the way for Aktion T4 (or action T4, derived from the villa in Berlin on Tiergartenstrasse 4, where the head of Hitler’s private chancellery, Philipp Bouhler, and the physician Karl Brandt started the euthanasia program).

This program took place officially from September 1939 until August 1941, but in reality continued til the end of 1945. Officially 70,273 disabled persons were “mercy” killed by Austrian and German physicians, but the real numbers are closer to 300,000.

Now why do I bring this up at this time? Because April 8th is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and in the morning at the Cinematheque in Jerusalem, there will be a special gathering of three groups of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In 2010, the Division for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services in Israel received permission from the minister (at the time Isaac Herzog) and the director general (at the time Nachum Itzkovitz) to intiate a pilot project as part of the annual Ministry of Education delegation to Poland.

So since 2010, annually a group of about 25 people with intellectual disabilities and about ten staff members (coined the Hashakhar - dawn - delegation by the people with intellectual disabilities themselves to symbolize the dawn of a new day when people with a disability can also participate in these annual educational trips together with the youth of Israel) have become a special group in the March of the Living together with the group of about 800 youth who go to Poland for this purpose for a week each year.

In fact, the first group in 2010 participated along with the group of students led by Rabbi Shai Moshe Piron, who now is Israel's Minister of Education.

Every year since 2010, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services has gathered the groups for a special event on Holocaust Remembrance Day and this year they will see the movie that the 2011 delegation (Hashakhar 2) created during their week in Poland, when I had the privilege to be their accompanying physician.