Vienna buries remains of Nazi victims
Thursday, May 10, 2012
VIENNA (AP) — They were starved, tortured, and killed because they were considered inferior to the Aryan ideal set by Adolf Hitler. Then their organs were put in jars and displayed for research by the doctors accused of causing their deaths under the Nazis.
Shutting the books on one of Vienna’s darkest chapters, black-clad workers on Wednesday placed a small metal urn into the ground at the city’s Central Cemetery. It contained what municipal officials say were the last known unburied remains of victims “treated to death” on the Austrian capital’s psychiatric wards during the Hitler era.
The Nazis called them “unworthy lives” — those deemed too sick, weak or handicapped to fit Fuehrer’s image of the master race.
More than 70,000 were killed, gassed to death or otherwise murdered between 1939 and 1941. Public protests stopped the wholesale massacres then, but thousands more of those deemed inferior lost their lives at the hands of sadistic doctors and nurses until the end of the war.
Of those, about 3,500 died in Vienna institutions, among them nearly 800 children and juveniles. Thousands of brains, uteruses with fetuses and other organs and parts were then preserved in jars and used for medical research until 1978, when they were put under lock and key amid growing Austrian sensitivity to the crimes committed while the country was Hitler’s ally.
Hundreds of the children’s remains were already buried 10 years ago, but many adult specimens were kept available until recently for experts trying to trace their histories and identify them. They were successful in linking remains to names in 61 cases. Sixty sets of identified victims were buried along with unidentified ones in a nonpublic ceremony late last month.
Under a clear blue sky, the 61st was put to rest Wednesday, accompanied by the mournful music of a string quartet, speeches by dignitaries and the cawing of a lone crow perched on a beech tree near the grave.
“They were neglected, undernourished, exposed to infectious disease and killed at the very place that they should have been treated, healed and taken care of,” declared Austrian President Heinz Fischer.
Because Austria was slow to recognize that it was more a Nazi ally than a victim, some of the doctors suspected of complicity in the killings worked as renowned researchers into the 1970s based in part on their activities during the Hitler era.
Typical was Dr. Hans Bertha, the head of Am Steinhof, Vienna’s main wartime psychiatric hospital. Although most of the 3,500 adults and children were found “worthless” and killed by the Nazis under his tenure, he went on to become a professor of medicine in the southern Austrian city of Graz after the war, dying in a 1961 car accident without ever being brought to justice.
Hundreds of bottled specimens were used for research until 1978, when they were put under lock and key by the city.
While some medical personnel were subsequently implicated, few were prosecuted — formally because of age-related health reasons.
Among those escaping legal action was Heinrich Gross. Basing his research on the preserved brains of the children killed at the hospital, he published nearly a dozen articles, received a high state award and served as an expert witness in hundreds of court cases up to the mid-1980s.
Accused in the deaths of some of those children, Gross’ trial was broken off in 2000 after an expert witness said he suffered from dementia — a finding called into question a few weeks later when he lucidly answered questions put to him by journalists. He died five years later.
Vienna Mayor Michael Haeupl said he was angered that many perpetrators escaped punishment.
“It makes me furious to know that these criminals could work, practice and conduct research after the end of the war,” he told the graveside gathering of about 100 — a mixture of Austrian and German officials elderly survivors of the psychiatric wards with a story to tell.
The son of an alcoholic father, Friedrich Zawrel, 83, said he was ordered ostracized at school by the Nazis because of his “asocial origins.” Kicked out of the Hitler Youth, he was brought to Am Steinhof in 1940 at age 11 after being accused of homosexuality.
Zawrel now walks slowly with the aid of a cane. But the years have not dimmed his memory of his ordeal: torture, humiliation, and bouts of solitary confinement for four years.
He spoke of vomit-inducing injections, of orderlies forcing his head under water until he blacked out and the “Wrap Treatment” — being bound in two sheets dripping with cold water and then two dry sheets, after which he was left until his body warmth dried the sheets.
“Sometimes that took up to two days without food or water,” he said.
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