Exploring the art of prose


Stumbling over History by Kenny Fries

Moving in and out of historical research, travel writing, and memoir in his essay “Stumbling over History,” Kenny Fries investigates the “euthanasia” of people with disabilities in Nazi Germany and how it continues to resonate. The mass murder of 300,000 people with disabilities between 1939 and 1945 is a chapter in history that has largely been erased, “a history,” as Fries says in his author’s note, “that has no survivors, a history pieced together predominantly by medical records and perpetrator testimony.” Fries brings history alive in his account of journeying to Berlin to visit museums, cultural sites, hospitals, outdoor exhibits, and memorials. He records lists of names. In Berlin he literally stumbles over five stolpersteine in front of his hotel, miniature stone memorials to Jewish people killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz and elsewhere. Later he discovers more stolpersteine commemorating seven children with disabilities who were murdered at the Nervenklinik Wiesengrund, and a plaque in remembrance of “eighty-one children who were ‘mercilessly experimented on’ and killed in the ‘ward for expert care.’” The infamous Ward 3 contains thirty empty cribs, each with a name and a story. “My heart races; my breath shortens,” he writes. “I can’t stay in this room for long. The room evokes the first weeks of my own life.” As a memoirist who is Jewish, gay, and disabled (the “Nazi Trifecta,” as his boyfriend notes), Fries has a personal stake in the history he uncovers. “The ‘I’ seemed crucial” to what he calls “history as memoir.”  —CRAFT

A portion of this essay was published on the 80th Anniversary of Aktion T4 in The Believer (2019), and another was published in The New York Times (2017).


In May 1939, Adolf Hitler received a request from the parents of Gerhard Kretschmar, who was born blind and missing limbs. The Kretschmars wanted to kill their child. Hitler authorized his personal physician, SS officer Dr. Karl Brandt, to have Gerhard killed. Records show Gerhard died on July 15 of “heart weakness.” He was five months old.

Historians look at the murder of Gerhard Kretschmar as the beginning of Aktion T4, the Nazi “euthanasia” program. From January 1940 until the end of 1941, when Aktion T4 officially ended, 70,000 people with disabilities were murdered at six sites: Brandenburg, Bernburg, Grafeneck, Hartheim, Pirna-Sonnenstein, and Hadamar. Though T4 officially ended in 1941, 230,000 people with disabilities were killed by other means from 1941 until 1945.

Only three weeks after Gerhard Kretschmar was killed, Brandt and Philipp Bouhler, Chief of the Chancellery of the Führer, began the system for registering children with disabilities on August 18, 1939. Doctors were required to notify the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses—a panel of “expert” pediatricians, psychiatrists, and jurists—about children up to three years old who had mental and physical disabilities. The Committee was the central office that recorded and organized “child euthanasia.” They decided which of these children would be killed.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler signed a memo instructing Brandt and Bouhler to “broaden the powers of physicians designated by name, who will decide whether those who have—as far as can be humanly determined—incurable illnesses can, after the most careful evaluation, be granted a mercy death.” The memo was the official start of Aktion T4.

But evidence shows Hitler actually signed the memo in October 1939. He backdated it to September 1 so it would seem directly related to the war, which officially began that day. The planning and killing of sanatorium and nursing home patients had already been contemplated as early as 1935, but Hitler thought the killing of patients during wartime would be easier to conceal.

What might have been the fate of Gerhard Kretschmar if his parents had not taken it upon themselves to have their son killed?

When I arrive in Berlin, the Unter den Linden, like many parts of the city, is under construction. The median pedestrian promenade that divides the avenue, home to the trees for which the street is named, is torn apart. Yellow tractors, orange dump trucks, and hardhatted workers building a subway line extension that will connect transit hubs between what was East Berlin with Hauptbahnhof, the new modern central train station, block two lanes of traffic. Detours and temporary sidewalks make it difficult for cars and pedestrians to find their way.

The Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s wide main boulevards, extends from the Brandenburg Gate on the eastern edge of the Tiergarten to the Lustgarden, which is surrounded by the classical edifices near the site where once stood the Stadtschloss, the Prussian royal palace. From 1961 until 1989, the thoroughfare, originally a sixteenth-century bridle path, led from the western edge of East Berlin to the Berlin Wall, which stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, dividing not only Berliners but also the Cold War world.

I’ve come to Berlin to research the lives of those with disabilities who grew up in what was East Germany. I want to see if the different social structures of what was a divided country led to different lives for people with disabilities on either side of the divide. Would sharing a common culture while living under different social structures lead to different outcomes in the lives of disabled Germans?

At least that’s the official reason.

My wanting to live in Berlin surprised me. When I was a young child, I was afraid of Germany, a fear instilled by my Jewish family. When I told my father I was going to Berlin, he asked: “Will they let you in?”

I didn’t have my first inkling about what happened to those with disabilities during the Nazi regime until I was stunned watching the socially unresponsive Anna Weiss being taken away from her family in the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust.

Soon after, while I was studying in London, a German student befriended me. I wanted to know if I was the first disabled person she knew. Did she know about what had happened to those with disabilities in Germany? Did she know any Jews? I couldn’t stop wondering what her family had done during the war. But I never asked. I still don’t know if it was the social impropriety of my questions or the fear of her answers that kept me from asking.

Later, I always felt uneasy when I heard the accented voice of my boyfriend’s German father on our answering machine. When, because of a cheap flight, I landed in Munich on my way to Italy, my pulse quickened as I approached the German immigration officer.

Over the years, as I began to write about and became more comfortable with being a disabled gay Jew, I still recognized that I was, as my boyfriend coined, the Nazi Trifecta, a label I appropriated with both dread and defiance.

Walking the Unter den Linden on this crisp late summer day, I’m not thinking about any of this. I know from my map that across the street is Bebelplatz, where the infamous book burning took place on May 10, 1933. But I’m more interested in seeing Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture in the Neue Wache.

The dramatic presentation of Kollwitz’s Mother with Her Dead Son, an early twentieth century update of a pietà, stops me in the entrance. Displayed in an otherwise empty hall under an oculus, the sculpture looks as if it is a visitation.

Spotlit by natural light: Two weathered bronze figures—the grieving mother supports her dead son huddled on the ground between her knees—achieve an eternal balance of life and death, of life supporting death. A resonant grief is imparted in the gesture of the mother’s bent right hand covering her mouth as her left hand holds the tips of her dead son’s skeletal fingers. For a moment it seems as if the mother’s left hand moves, her thumb delicately touching the nail of her son’s ring finger. The son’s head arcs upward toward his mother with a look that could be either the first or last gaze of life.

Leaving the Neue Wache, I maneuver with my cane on another makeshift sidewalk until I reach the wide grass of the Lustgarden. I notice what looks like poster-strewn kiosks. Assuming the posters convey information about upcoming cultural events, I move closer to these six round columns, which could, if they had windows, be newspaper stands.

On each white poster is a large black calligraphic “X,” and Diversity Destroyed, Berlin 1933–1945, A City Remembers.

I realize I’ve arrived in Berlin eighty years after the Nazis took power, seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, the pogrom named after the glass from the broken windows of ransacked Jewish businesses whose debris lined city streets throughout Germany.

On the column are photographs of and text about political events held at the Lustgarden: Karl Liebknecht’s 1918 proclamation of the German Socialist Free Republic; 1933’s last demonstration of the Social Democrats and Goebbels’s speech preaching the boycott of Jewish businesses; the 1935 swearing in of new military recruits; the 1938 patriotic celebration of the Anschluss. It is difficult to imagine this tumultuous history happening here where couples loll about on the lawn of what now is a placid city square.

Other columns are filled with unfamiliar faces, enlarged black and white photos, with accompanying biographies of intellectuals associated with the Unter den Linden who, after 1933, could no longer work, who were attacked, who went into exile, who were killed.

This is not what I expected to find on my first stroll down the Unter den Linden during my first day in Berlin. Or perhaps I should be surprised that I expected otherwise. Overwhelmed and exhausted, I retire to the old-world charm of Café Einstein. Sipping a hot chocolate, I read about the Neue Wache in my guidebook.

Originally designed in 1813 as a guardhouse for the troops of the Crown Prince of Prussia, since 1931 the Neue Wache has been a war memorial. First it sheltered an oak wreath, displayed on a black marble plinth, under the oculus. After World II, the East German government transformed the Neue Wache into a remembrance for the victims of Fascism and militarism. In 1969, for the twentieth anniversary of the GDR, the government transformed the memorial, replacing the oak wreath with an eternal flame beneath which lay the remains of an unknown soldier and a nameless concentration camp victim.

After reunification, in 1993 the Neue Wache was once again rededicated as the central memorial for the victims of war and dictatorship. An enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz’s Mother with Her Dead Son was placed under the oculus; its exposure to the rain and snow symbolizes the suffering of civilians during World War II.

Back on the Unter den Linden I turn east, then west, trying to get a full view of the street from one end to the other but from every vantage point my view is blocked by some aspect of construction. Turning north on Friedrichstrasse to my apartment, I attempt to acclimate to the various strands of history I encountered this afternoon.

Here in Berlin, the history of one era is superimposed on another. But not like the ancient indigenous Aztec site in Mexico City on which the Catholic Cathedral was built, where one culture replaced another. Here one version, one vision, of the same culture has repeatedly replaced another, or for forty-five years after World War II lived simultaneously side by side.

The promenade of history that is the Unter den Linden happened within the last two hundred years.

Suddenly, it starts to rain. Ever since dislocating my right knee four years ago, I am afraid of slipping and reinjuring my knee. I walk slowly, carefully, across the bridge over the Spree. I’m almost home.

On the cobblestones outside the café on the ground floor of my building, I stumble. I check the ground to see if a stone has been dislodged. All seems in place. But in the rain, I see gold glistening in a group of five stones raised slightly from the surrounding cobbles. I bend down to read what the stones say.

As soon as I read the name—Max Kessler—on the first stone, I realize what caused me to stumble: right in front of the building where I’ll be living in Berlin are five stolpersteine, stumbling stones, each a miniature memorial to someone killed by the Nazis. Each stolpersteine looks like a tiny gravesite. Quickly, I write down the names, places, and dates from each stone:

Max Kessler, born 1882, deported 9.12.1942, murdered in Auschwitz

Phillipp Kessler, born 1918, deported 9.12.1942, murdered in Auschwitz

Rosalie Kessler, formerly Sommerfeldt, born 1889, deported 9.12 1942, murdered in Auschwitz

Max Sommerfeldt, born 1885, deported to Riga 27.11.1941, murdered 30.11.1941

Johanna Schöneberg, formerly Oestreich, born 1895, deported 3.1.1943, murdered in Auschwitz

As I write all this down, I begin to ask questions—why was Max Sommerfeldt, who I assume was Rosalie Kessler’s brother, deported before his sister? What happened in the intervening year between his deportation and that of the rest of the family? Was Johanna Schöneberg related to the Kesslers?

I want to know about their lives on Friedrichstrasse, where I now live. I have forgotten that I’m standing in the rain.

When I knew I would be in Berlin, I bought a ticket to hear my favorite pianist in concert at the Philharmonie, near Potsdamer Platz.

Potsdamer Platz is a half-mile south and west of the Brandenburg Gate, close to the southeastern edge of the Tiergarten. Potsdamer Platz’s heyday was after World War I, during the Weimar Republic, when it became the center of Berlin nightlife and the busiest traffic center in Europe. Nearby was Wertheim, one of Europe’s largest and most luxurious department stores. By 1939, the Jewish owner was forced to sell the store.

After the war, with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Potsdamer Platz was divided into two, becoming a no-man’s-land until after reunification when it was one of the first areas to be commercially redeveloped. Zigzagging through what is now once again one of Berlin’s busiest intersections is a row of cobblestones set into the pavement, outlining where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Not far away from Potsdamer Platz is my destination, the iconic Philharmonie, home of the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic. About to turn the corner to enter the Philharmonie, I pass a temporary outdoor exhibition. I am surprised the exhibit is about Aktion T4, the Nazi “euthanasia” program that systematically killed disabled people. I check the time and realize I must hurry. The concert will soon begin.

Throughout the concert, my mind wanders to the exhibit I didn’t have time for before the concert. Why is this T4 exhibit outside the Philharmonie?

After the concert it is too dark to learn anything from the unlit outdoor exhibit. I find information about the relationship between the Philharmonie and Aktion T4, which leads me to the expropriation by the Nazis of a villa owned by the Jewish Liebermann family. The expropriated villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 became the bureaucratic headquarters for T4. In the next days I piece together a history of the villa and its inhabitants.


Between 1888 and 1890, Jewish banker Valentin Weisbach built the white sandstone villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4. At the time, the area west of Potsdamer Platz, between the Tiergarten and the Landwehrkanal, was a dirt road. By the summer of 1909, when Georg Liebermann, a textile industrialist and older brother of the German Impressionist painter Max Liebermann, bought the villa for a million Reichsmark, the area had developed into a residential neighborhood. The Liebermanns were, like the Weisbachs, part of the liberal Jewish bourgeoisie, representative of the diverse and open society in which Jews played a prominent role in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany.

In 1926 Georg died. His son Dr. Hans Liebermann, an esteemed professor of organic chemistry at the Technical University of Berlin, inherited the villa. Dr. Liebermann’s non-Jewish wife, Clara, thought the house, decorated with carved doorframes and crystal chandeliers, too extravagant for living. She gave over much of its space to art exhibits.

Hitler became Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Soon after Hitler’s appointment, Dr. Hans Liebermann, along with many others, was expelled from his university position because he was Jewish. Without negotiating a lease, the Nazi paramilitary SA Group Berlin-Brandenburg, led by Karl Ernst, simply moved into the villa by March 1933.

On June 30, 1934, Karl Ernst was murdered, along with other SA leaders, during the Night of the Long Knives, a crucial event in Hitler’s consolidation of power. Numerous other Nazi suborganizations began working out of the Liebermann villa.

Dr. Hans Liebermann, unable to cope with what he described as his “humiliating circumstances,” committed suicide on September 11, 1938. His three sons, Heinrich and the twins Manfred and Wilhelm, inherited the villa. Heinrich fled to South Africa; Manfred and Wilhelm were conscripted into Organization Todt, the paramilitary construction unit, which used forced labor to build war-related projects, including the Western Wall, the German counter defense to the French Maginot Line.

By the start of the war in 1939, the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4 had been officially “leased” from Clara Liebermann, who was given 600 Reichsmark a month, as well as “substitute” housing in the Steglitz area of Berlin. The villa began to be used as the headquarters for Aktion T4, named for the villa’s address.

During the war, Manfred and Wilhelm Liebermann, being half-Jewish, were sent to the Kemna concentration camp near Wuppertal. In April 1945, liberated by the US Army, Manfred and Wilhelm walked the 325 miles from Wuppertal back to Berlin. In 1950, they were given restitution for the appropriation of the now destroyed villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4.

The villa was demolished, becoming the site for the Philharmonie, whose lobby shares a footprint with what was the Liebermann villa. The Philharmonie opened in 1963.

At the site all that commemorates the disabled people murdered at the six killing centers that comprised Aktion T4 is Richard Serra’s Berlin Curves. Serra’s steel sculpture consists of two curved walls of steel placed parallel to each other, leaving only a narrow passage in between. In the pavement near the sculpture is an information plaque explaining the rededication of the sculpture, which was created for an art exhibit. Unlike the Kollwitz sculpture in the Neue Wache, the original intention behind this sculpture was not as a memorial. In 1988, the Berlin Senate purchased the sculpture, moved it to the plaza outside of the Philharmonie, repurposed it by dedicating it as a memorial to the victims of T4. Berlin Curves seems aloof from both memory and suffering.

Now, as part of Diversity Destroyed, Tiergartenstrasse 4—History of a ‘Difficult’ Site has been set up as an open-air exhibit in what is an inoperative bus stop.

The exhibit tells the story of Anna L., born in the Ruhr on August 2, 1915.  After attending a special school, she helped her mother take care of the household and the family shop. Because she was diagnosed with “congenital and heritable mental deficiency,” Anna L. was forcibly sterilized in 1935 under the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. In 1936 she was committed to a provincial psychiatric hospital for undetermined reasons. She was not only deemed “hereditarily inferior” but also deemed useless for the economy, thus fulfilling the criteria according to which a Berlin medical commission selected thousands of patients to be deported to the killing centers as “life unworthy of life.” On March 7, 1940 Anna L. was murdered in the gas chamber at Grafeneck. She was twenty-four years old.

A photograph shows one of the gray windowless vans in which those deemed unworthy of life were transported from hospitals to the killing sites. Beneath the photo is a reminder of how many people it took to enact what was the first centrally organized mass murder carried out by the Nazis. Not only did the killing require action by Nazi leaders and bureaucrats, but the doctors, nurses, as well as those who transported the disabled, most as nondescript as the vans themselves, were also complicit in killing 300,000 disabled men, women, and children.

Restitution was given to the Liebermann heirs. But for Anna L. and the other 300,000 disabled men, women, and children who were killed because they were deemed unworthy of life, there is still no restitution.

The Philharmonie is, like the sites on the Unter den Linden, layered with history. But at the Philharmonie the opportunity to give a more complete picture of the intertwining of Jewish and disabled history, as well as German history itself, is missed. There is no connection made between T4, the Jewish Liebermanns, and the Philharmonie.

Over my desk at my Friedrichstrasse apartment, I place a copy of the only known photo of the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4. With its semicircular double entrance stairway somewhat occluded by straggly trees, columned main door and asymmetrically placed windows with triangular pediments, wrought iron–lined oval balcony looming over the front door, and the urnlike plinths on the roof, the house looks haunted. All we can see in the windows is the reflection of trees from the Tiergarten.

The outdoor exhibits at the Lustgarden and outside the Philharmonie are not the only exhibits of Diversity Destroyed. Berlin streets, museums, and buildings are filled with memorials to the life that had made Berlin one of the most culturally diverse and lively cities in the world between the wars.

I take the train to Wittenau, a suburb of Berlin, to visit A Double Stigma—The Fate of Jewish Psychiatric Patients, an exhibit held at the Karl Bonhoeffer Nervenklinik, a psychiatric hospital originally known as Dalldorfer.

From the station, turning a corner and entering the grounds through wide and tall wrought iron gates, one could be entering a millionaire’s estate. On an early sunny morning, all is quiet on the wide paved road in what seems like a wooded park. This could be a walk on a New England college campus. Red brick buildings appear through the trees.

There is a small sign, on which is the recognizable black and white exhibit poster of two women, one seemingly younger than the other, each with her right hand held above her head.

The two women have their backs to the camera as they look out from a three-quarter full-length window. The arrow on the sign points to a building marked “10.”

Once inside Haus 10, the placidity of the outdoors is left behind. On the exhibit floor is a fluorescently lit institutional hallway and a wooden door.

Inside the door, fourteen close-up photographs of black and white faces stare back. From the middle of the room, it is necessary to pivot around to see all of them. A first name and an initial identifies each face:

Kurt H.

Martin M.

Salomon S.

Herbert G.

Israel S.

Ursula L.

Hilde G.

Marguerite H.

Walter D.

Bruno W.

Lilli S.

Detlef E.

Wally B.

Edith H.

There is a Jewish saying that you die twice. You die once when you die, and again when your name is no longer spoken. Most disabled victims, like Anna L. at the temporary exhibit outside the Philharmonie and the fourteen Jewish patients here in Wittenau, are not identified by their full names. The shame and stigma of families that had a relative with a disability relegates most victims to being identified not as a whole person but as a case study in a medical text.

From room to room, the exhibit takes the visitor through the history of mental health treatment in Germany. Yes, the exhibit relates to its title of how Jewish psychiatric patients were doubly stigmatized by being separated from other patients, denied pastoral care, cared for not at the expense of the Reich but by Jewish organizations. Jewish patients were singled out for early extermination; by December 1942 the destruction of the Jewish patient population at Wittenau was complete.

But the exhibit also shows the killing of the disabled in Nazi Germany was an all too logical progression of how mental health patients had been treated in the years before 1933, making clear the step taken in Aktion T4 was not an aberration, but rather a continuance of an effort begun in the nineteenth century to figure out “what to do” with those deemed “unworthy of life” by the norms of  “mental hygiene.” As early as the 1920s, patients were not only institutionalized, but also chained down, treated with artificially induced malaria, subject to brain experiments, and kept in increasingly dire conditions.

Some of this also happened in other countries. Sterilizations took place in the United States, Canada, and the UK. In 1907, Indiana became the first US state to pass sterilization legislation (Michigan had introduced a law in 1897, which didn’t pass; the Pennsylvania legislature followed suit eight years later but the bill was vetoed by the governor). The 1927 US Supreme Court Buck v. Bell decision, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the infamous line “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” ruled compulsory sterilization of the “unfit” was constitutional. This decision has never been expressly overturned.

But why was it Germany that took the next step of state-sanctioned murder of the disabled? How does the killing of disabled people relate to the murder of Jews? What in all of this is distinctly German? How does this history affect the lives of the disabled today?

The window in the last room of the exhibit is the same window where once stood the two women in the exhibit poster, right hands held high, reminding us the Karl Bonhoeffer Nervenklinik, where these two unidentified women were killed, is still a psychiatric hospital today.

The exhibit at the Karl Bonhoeffer Nervenklinik mentioned Karl Binding and Alfred E. Hoche’s Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life, published in 1920. Binding was a jurist who promoted retributive justice, a theory of criminal justice based on the punishment of offenders rather than rehabilitation; Hoche was a German psychiatrist known for his writings about eugenics and euthanasia.

Binding wrote the first part of the book. He interprets the laws of 1920 Germany in two ways: as allowing suicide or deeming suicide neither legal nor illegal. Binding posits that nobody has the right to stop someone from committing suicide. Then, he takes this one step further. He says the right to suicide is transferable. In other words, anyone who acts on the behalf of a seriously ill person and kills this person has acted within the law.

In his second interpretation, Binding goes on to say a court should differentiate between “the taking of a healthy life” and taking the life of a “terminally ill person.” He thinks the act of euthanasia not as killing but as “saving the person from a terrible end.” He also includes the “terminally mentally ill” in the category of those ripe for euthanasia.

Binding accepts that many such killings might be “unjustifiable.” But this, he says, would be evident only after death. Thus, Binding recommends a law to make such killing “justifiable,” as well as a committee, consisting of a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a jurist, to decide, on a case-by-case basis, if such a killing was acting within the law.

In the shorter second part of the book, Hoche calls for the killing of those “mentally or intellectually dead” since birth or early childhood. He reminds readers of the current society of the 1920s, in which deaths by doctors were taken for granted, mentioning the risk taken by patients during operations, as well as the killing of a child during birth to save the life of the mother. These, according to Hoche, are examples of non-legal killings accepted by society.

Then, Hoche affirms Binding. He argues if killing a person would save the lives of others it would be justifiable. He believes killing of patients he claims “had neither value for society, nor for themselves” should be allowed.

Differentiating between those who enter “this condition later in life, after being mentally normal or at least average for a period of their life” and those “born into the condition” or where “the condition” had occurred in early childhood, Hoche feints to the importance of taking into account this difference, but still considers either case not “equated with killing another human being.”

He goes on to criticize the “modern endeavor” of “keeping the weakest of all alive” that blocks the “German duty” of “preventing at least the mentally dead from procreating.” He then argues for the killing of the disabled for purely financial reasons, calculating the “financial and moral burden” on “a person’s family, hospital, and state,” specifically mentioning “the national burden.”

Reading Binding and Hoche’s Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life, makes it clear how the Nazi system of killing the disabled was based on their writings. It also makes clear the danger of “the slippery slope” of “assisted suicide” laws. Despite statistics showing the misuse of these laws, the debate around these issues too often misses the link between “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia.”

I am startled how Binding and Hoche’s discussion of “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” has not changed much in the decades since the publication of Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life. The similarity to the arguments of contemporary bioethicists and philosophers, such as Peter Singer, who espouse Practical Ethics, is frightening.

Soon after Singer’s appointment as an endowed chair of bioethics at Princeton University, there were numerous protests by disability rights activists in the US. In his writings, Singer raises his argument about the disabled’s drain on “resources,” echoing that of Hoche’s “financial and moral burden.”

In Germany, the naming of a prize for Peter Singer, who is also a well-known advocate for preventing cruelty to animals, was met with public demonstrations throughout Berlin, leading to the cancellation of the prize ceremony.

When I talk about what Singer and others advocate, many tell me he doesn’t mean what he says. “It’s only philosophy,” I’m told.

I return to Wittenau, this time to the Heimat-Museum-Reinickendorf. I am the only visitor at the exhibit The Child Responds to Friendly Encouragement with A Smile.

In 1941, Wiesengrund housed the psychiatric wards of the Municipal Hospital for Children. The building housing the Heimat-Museum-Reinickendorf was once part of Wiesengrund.

In the exhibit, there is a small glass display case. The display is colorful and neatly arranged. Six small faded cardboard boxes: a yellow square with thin red letters; a rectangular yellow box with thicker red letters beneath an arc design; a thin off-white rectangle with red letters surrounded by a blue step design; a thicker light-orange box with red letters; a larger yellow rectangle with brown letters surrounded by a diamond pattern; and a brown and orange square with yellow script letters. These could be the seductive old boxes of candy in a retro store or product design exhibit.

Thin letters on the labels read: Luminal-Natrium; Morphin-Scapolomin; Morphinhydrochloric; Veronal; Sterile Ampullenfullung von Morphin-hydrochloric; Cardiozol. Despite their appearance, these are not candy boxes. These are the drugs used to kill the estimated 5,000 infants and children murdered in the thirty-one “wards for expert care” established in pediatric clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes.

And these were not “wards for expert care.” The misleading name was given because it sounded scientific and gave parents and family members a feeling of trust. The parents believed their children were in the hands of well-trained specialists. Like the attractive packaging of the drugs, the Nazis wanted to soothe the parents and family members of the children sent to the wards to be killed by an overdose of sedatives or starvation.

In 1923, physician Ewald Meltzer surveyed the parents of the disabled children in his care. The parents were asked: “Would you agree definitely in a painless shortcut of your child’s life, after it is determined by experts that it is incurably stupid?” The results, which surprised Meltzer, were published in 1925: 73% responded they were willing to have their children killed if they weren’t told about it. Meltzer’s work became a basis for the implementation of the philosophies the Nazis espoused.

Down a fluorescently lit hall, in a white-walled room, are thirty wooden cribs. On each of the cribs is written a history of a young child, some as young as a few months old. Each child is identified by a first name and initial. On the white walls are small color photographs of fixtures—a ceiling lamp, a water pipe, a faucet. One photograph seems to be of peeling paint. This is the room in which these infants and children were experimented on and killed: the thirty-bed Ward 3, the “ward for expert care” at Wiesengrund.

The history of Hans D. W., admitted to Wiesengrund on March 9, 1942, is on one of the cribs. Suspected of “cerebral palsy with idiocy,” Hans was diagnosed by Dr. Gertrud Reuter: “[T]he child responds to friendly encouragement with a smile. He does not grasp objects held out to him; but if one touches his little hands, he clutches them firmly and does not let go.”

On April 29, Hans was subjected to a risky and invasive examination, which led to circulatory problems and breathing disorders. Two weeks later, ten-month-old Hans died.

My heart races; my breath shortens. I can’t stay in this room for long. The room evokes the first weeks of my own life.

I need air.

Outside, I stumble over stolpersteine. In front of Eichborndamm 238/240, the stones commemorate seven children, ranging from two to fifteen years old, killed at Wiesengrund:

Werner Burthz
Born 1929
Committed to Nervenklinik Wiesengrund March 1942
Murdered 10.11.1942

Paul Hohlmann
Born 1927
From 1936 was a patient in many care homes
Placed in the Wittenau Wiesengrund Child Care Division 24.8.1942
Murdered 26.8.1942

Erich Korepka
Born 1941
Murdered 4.5.1943 at the Nervenklinik Wiesengrund

Manfred Röglin
Born 1941
Murdered 27.2.1943 at the Nervenklinik Wiesengrund

Sigrid Röhling
Born 1941
Murdered 21.7.1943 at the Nervenklinik Wiesengrund

Dagmer Ullrich
Born 1941
Murdered 10.1.1943 at the Nervenklinik Wiesengrund

Dieter Ziegler
Born 1941
Murdered 16.8.1943 at the Nervenklinik Wiesengrund

Most stolpersteine are placed where Jews once lived. But here, in front of Eichborndamm 238/240, the memorialized are not Jews.

People pass by the pallid gray and faded brown building at Eichborndamm 238/240. If not for the plaque outside the museum the building could be mistaken for a nondescript country inn. The plaque remembers the eighty-one children who were “mercilessly experimented on” and killed in the “ward for expert care” at Wiesengrund.

Because of being born premature and missing bones in my legs, I spent the first four weeks of my life in an incubator. Nobody knew if I would live or die.

Turning to leave, I know if I had been born at a different time, in a different country, my fate would have been the same as those children.


KENNY FRIES is the author of In the Province of the Gods (Creative Capital Literature Award); The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory (Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights); and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write the libretto for The Memory Stone. His books of poems include In the Gardens of JapanDesert Walking, and Anesthesia. His work has appeared in numerous places including The New York TimesGrantaThe BelieverKyoto JournalLos Angeles Review of Books, and on Lit Hub. He created the Fries Test for disability representation in literature and film, and was the Disability Beat columnist for How We Get to Next. Twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), he received a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts and Literary Arts Fellowship and was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is currently a DAICOR Fellow, a program on diverse and inclusive transatlantic public remembrance funded by Cultural Vistas and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and has received grants from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange), Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. His current work in progress is Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, excerpts of which form the basis of his video series What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?. kennyfries.com


Featured image by Hans Braxmeier courtesy of Pixabay


Author’s Note

When writing “Stumbling over History,” some form of which will probably be part of my forthcoming book Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, I was confronted by many craft challenges. Though the essay, and the book, focuses on a part of disability history that is not as well known as it should be, it also is about how this history resonates today. This is why I chose to forefront my particular discovery of and journey with this history, often describing the voice of the work as “history as memoir.”

Balancing the history with the “I” was an important concern. So, why not just write a straightforward history? In fact, a well-known editor at a well-known NYC publisher suggested this. But the “I” seemed crucial to include for a history that has no survivors, a history pieced together predominantly by medical records and perpetrator testimony. The erasure of disabled people and disability history is an urgent absence. This history involves the mass murder of 300,000. To end the silencing of these voices, the narrative had to be impacted by the experience of the narrator.

I also had to find ways to activate the historical information, embedding it into a personal and collective narrative as much as possible. Throughout, I am guided by my role as a “vicarious witness,” which memory studies scholar Susanne C. Knittel describes as not “an act of speaking for and thus appropriating the memory and story of someone else but rather an attempt to bridge the silence through narrative means.” “Stumbling over History,” and Stumbling over History, is my way of bridging the silence, of keeping alive something that is too often forgotten.


KENNY FRIES is the author of In the Province of the Gods (Creative Capital Literature Award); The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory (Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights); and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write the libretto for The Memory Stone. His books of poems include In the Gardens of JapanDesert Walking, and Anesthesia. His work has appeared in numerous places including The New York TimesGrantaThe BelieverKyoto JournalLos Angeles Review of Books, and on Lit Hub. He created the Fries Test for disability representation in literature and film, and was the Disability Beat columnist for How We Get to Next. Twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), he received a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts and Literary Arts Fellowship and was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is currently a DAICOR Fellow, a program on diverse and inclusive transatlantic public remembrance funded by Cultural Vistas and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and has received grants from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange), Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. His current work in progress is Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, excerpts of which form the basis of his video series What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?. kennyfries.com