It is fairly well known that approximately six million Jews died at the hands of the government under Adolph Hitler in Germany and the countries it occupied between 1939 and 1945, before and during World War II. This is known as the Holocaust.
Perhaps less well known is that another five million died who belonged to such disparate groups as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals, and those who were intellectually disabled and permanently confined to mental institutions.
I attended a lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum given by Hugh Gregory Gallagher, author of By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians and the License to Kill in the Third Reich. In it, he describes the, first official, later unofficial, government policy in Germany during World War II to systematically empty out the mental institutions and kill the patients. There was such an outcry when the policy was first implemented that the government officially rescinded it. Instead, they transferred patients to hospitals that were no longer near their families, then killed them.
The policy was so ingrained in the hospitals that when an American doctor visited one of these hospitals after the war, he watched as a German doctor prepared to administer a lethal dose of drugs to one of the patients. He confronted the doctor, asking, “What are you doing?! The war is over. You can’t do that anymore.” The German doctor replied with the justification he had been given during the war. “They are a drain on society. We must eliminate them for the good of the rest of society.”
I asked Mr. Gallagher afterwards if, as he told us such chilling stories in the lecture, he didn’t have trouble reporting on such cold-blooded atrocities. He said that normally he does not as he feels it is important for everyone to understand what happened.
But, this time, he said, a woman in the front row had started quietly crying as soon as the outlines of his topic became clear, and tears ran silently down her cheeks throughout the entire lecture. He did not know if someone in her family might have qualified to be killed under this policy, as is likely. But, this little known chapter of the Holocaust touched her heart.
I visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum later and recommend it for anyone who wants to understand how even small acts that take away people’s rights can lead to horrifying results if left unchecked.
I was especially struck by a photograph of then General, later President, Dwight D. Eisenhower at one of the concentration camps shortly after the end of the war. Below the photograph was his quote,
“I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
In 1998, an eighth-grade teacher, at the request of her principal, started an after-school project to teach tolerance to her students, who lived in a small town in Tennessee. When she told them about the Holocaust, they asked if they could collect six million things to represent those who perished. She said yes, as long as it was something related to the Holocaust.
Eleven million paperclips are now housed at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial near the students’ school in Tennessee to represent both the Jews and the others who were persecuted and killed as part of the Holocaust. They are in a rail car that had once been used to transport Jews to concentration camps. The students have now collected more than 30 million paperclips.
It is hard to imagine the scope of killing six million or eleven million people in the span of six years. What came to be known as The Paperclip Project attempts to do this.
What stories did your parents tell you about World War II? Although many knew of Germany’s policy, most did not know or understand the scope of it until after the war.
Did your parents tell you how they came to learn of this? Did they know people who were affected by it? Have you ever met someone with a number burned into their forearm, the mark of a survivor of the camps?
Please tell your stories in the comments below. We would love to hear them.
And, so would your grandchildren.
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