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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

Bernburg Psychiatric Hospital - its beginning.

I have visited Bernburg, Germany twice. In January of 2020 (we literally first heard of "Wuhan, China" in the Doja Wellness Center apartment in Bernburg where we were staying!) and again in the summer of 2022.

The town of Bernburg is located in the central portion of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.  To the west of the center of town runs the River Saale, a tributary of the Elbe.  The town’s main square is called the Karlsplatz, which today is surrounded by local shops, restaurants, and businesses. 

On our first research trip, we stayed just to the southeast of the Karlsplatz on the Roschwitzer Straße.  This street is one of the largest in town.  The four other main streets are the Olga-Benario Straße (more on this street below), the Kustrenaer Straße, the Hallesche Straße, and the Grobziger Straße.  With the majority of the town located on the east and south sides of the Salle, these roads run generally south to north where they meet at a point just south of the Karlsplatz. 

The absolute BEST schnitzel I've had in Germany was at Karlplatz's in Bernburg!

The architecture of the town is quite interesting to note.  On one hand, you have the Bernburg Schloss (Castle) which sits on the east bank of the river. 

The castle dates from the 10th century, and served as the home of dukes of the Duchy of Anhalt-Bernburg at various points between 1251 and 1863.  A beautiful building, it also now serves as a museum and is a major tourist attraction.  The streets in the center of town, surrounding the Karlsplatz have a medieval feel.  They are mainly cobble, run narrow in spots, and are surrounded by the town’s older buildings.  As you fan out beyond the center of town, you begin to see a change in architecture.  There, you can find the influence of the drab, utilitarian Soviet style from Bernburg’s days as a town in East Germany.  

Bernburg was, and remains, a small town.  While we are unsure of the population during the Nazi period (the closest census was in 1938 and records are extremely difficult to find) today’s population barely exceeds 30,000.  Today, its economy continues to include manufacturing.  There are potash and salt mines and a soda plant located within town limits. 

On October 1, 1875, after three years of construction, a central psychiatric sanatorium and nursing home was opened for the Duchy of Anhalt. Initially designed for only 132 patients, the number quickly more than tripled and repeatedly led to extensions. The years of the First World War brought a serious turning point. Low financial resources, the occurrence of smallpox and typhus epidemics, and starvation towards the end of the war caused the occupancy rate to fall and the death rate to rise. It was not until the 1920's that the situation improved noticeably for patients.

Bernburg Psychiatric Hospital in 1900 (approximately).

All this history is to show that there was so much to Bernburg BEFORE THE NAZIS. However, their actions forever changed this small town.

Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre was used for the killing of Aktion T4 victims from the Winter of 1939 to September 1940. In 1940 the decision was made in the administrative headquarters of the Aktion T4 to relocate the Brandenburg Euthanasia Killing Center in Havel to Bernburg because of complaints by town inhabitants about the “unpleasant smell of burning flesh that engulfed the city” and rumors spreading of the killings taking place at Brandenburg.


Prior to 1940, the hospital, now known as the Bernburg State Hospital and Nursing Home, existed under the direction of Dr. Willi Enke.  When Brandenburg’s operations were switched to Bernburg, the Nazis confiscated a portion of the Bernburg institution for Aktion T4, remodeled the basement for the gas chamber and crematorium, and transferred the Brandenburg euthanasia staff.  “The old institution, which soon named itself the Anhalt Psychiatric Clinic in Bernburg, was called ‘Department Dr. Enke’ by the staff, while the killing center was referred to as ‘Department Dr. Eberl’.

Between November 21, 1940 and August 1941, more than 9,385 men, women, and children were murdered and their bodies burned here on the day of their arrival.

Olga-Benario Straße was named for a Brazilian German woman, Olga Benario, who was killed at the Bernburg Euthanasia Centre in 1942.  

Olga Benario

Much more on the Bernburg Euthanasia Centre in the next post.

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