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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

Forgotten Victims of National Socialism: the names of 66 women with disabilities killed at Bernburg on March 31, 1941.

Updated: 17 hours ago



March 31, 1941, dawned snowy, unusual for an early spring day in central Germany. The staff would have woken early, focused on a busy day ahead of them. Their priority for the day was readying 75 female patients for transport from Altscherbitz Psychiatric Hospital to the Bernburg Psychiatric Hospital, specifically to the newly built Euthanasia Centre located there.  Ruth Rosa Luise Mühlmann was roused from her bed for the hour-long drive to Bernburg. 

Ruth, along with 74 other “useless eaters”, would die in the Bernburg gas chamber before the sun had set that evening.  

Ruth would have been dressed in her Anstaltskleid, the institutional ‘dressing gown’, which had been made soft from repeated washings and wearings.  Since it was flurrying, Ruth would have probably had a coat or jacket on as well and hopefully a hat to keep her warm.  A strip of Leukoplast tape with her name “Ruth Mühlmann” written on it would have been placed between her shoulder blades on her coat as patient processing protocol dictated. 


We know what the patient processing protocol would have been because of a letter written on Feb. 21, 1941, that was discovered and contained processing instructions for the transport of patients from the Abbey of Ottilienheim to the Grafeneck Killing Center. The Abbey of Ottilienheim was located in a small village of Absberg in Southern Germany and had been a home for people with disabilities for many years.  In the Fall of 1940, the Gekrat buses started coming for the residents of the Abbey.  “Never seen again, the villagers and the nuns were told by the local constable that the residents all died of influenza.”  Grafeneck was one of the six killing centers.


The Bernburg nursing staff would have had a busy morning, cleaning patients, gathering their scant possessions for the one way trip, making sure the patients’ name tags were affixed and their medical records organized to accompany them on their journey.  “All personnel reports and medical records had to accompany the patients; their personal belongings, money and valuables had to be ready and recorded on specially provided forms.” (This is the primary reason so few medical records exist for Aktion T4 victims. After exterminating the victims, the patient's records were forwarded to Berlin for compilation in order to document for the Führer how successfully the program was progressing.)


Ruth would have been helped on and off the Gekrat transport bus by one of seven male transport attendants who worked the transports between the institutions.

The attendants had participated in shipments from Altscherbitz to Bernburg of over 50 patients and over 70 each on the two previous Mondays: March 17 and March 24. There had been a smaller transfer of patients, just under 40 patients on Thursday, March 13, 1941. 

The transport attendants employed at Bernburg included Kurt Arndt, Erwin Braatz, Fritz Gӓbler, Oskar Kriescher, Egmont Küpper, Erwin Kurth, Hedwig Laudert, Frieda Lichtenstein, Edith Richter, Karl Paul Rost, Hildegard Sauer, Fritz and Otto Schmidt, Erna Schwarz, Frieda Störmer, Olga Ulrich, Klara and Walter Wagner, Christel Weiland, and Will Wuttke.  Only the male transport attendants helped with the Gekrat buses. 


NOTE: To our knowledge, there is no record on who exactly would have been on Ruth’s bus on March 31, 1941.


The Gekrat buses (mostly retrofitted Mercedes buses) had painted windows so the patients could not see out; and so no one could see in.  At first, some of the patients may have been excited.  Some asked “Wohin bringt Ihr uns?” (translated, “Where are you taking us?”) On the day of their deportation, the patients were told:

“that they were to embark on a surprise ‘Fahrt ins Blaue’…. suggesting a day trip “into the blue” (i.e. to an unknown destination.)”  

However, some patients, startled out of their normal routines, resisted.  Some had to be coaxed and, if that failed, forced onto the buses.  Some cried and held onto the staff members that they knew and trusted.  There are stories of straitjackets and handcuffs being used to force the most reluctant onboard the Gekrat Buses.     



That morning, the buses had already driven from Bernburg to Altscherbitz to load the latest list of patients for the next ‘disinfection’.  Each killing center usually had three buses at their disposal.  The bus drivers may have had to traverse their route at a slower speed from Altscherbitz back to Bernburg due to the snowy road conditions, thereby increasing the normal one hour travel time.  Perhaps they drove the A-14 route as this was most direct.


For 75 patients, most likely two of the three Gekrat buses assigned to Bernburg were needed that day.  The patients were chosen not because of race or religion at this point, but simply because they were determined to be persons with disabilities and therefore, not contributing to society. The Nazis even coined their own special term for these people: useless eaters.


The bus drivers, depending on their work schedule, would have been either Erich Fuchs, August Kohler, or Walter Stephan.  On that day, I imagine Erich, August, or Walter at the wheel and how they would have driven the route, turning first left onto the hospital grounds from the road that would later be renamed Olga Benario Strasse after one of the more well-known victims. (See previous post on Olga Benario) The buses maneuvered in a large circle in order to cross the street again to get through the narrow gate, then proceeded down the narrow alleyway between the Krankengebäude, ‘Hospital Building’ and the HauptGebäude, ‘Main Building’.  Then they turned right and circled around the Fernheizwerk, ‘District Heating Plant’, and deposited their charges in the newly built garage next to the “Euthanasie” Anstalt, ‘Euthanasia Institution’, on the grounds of the Bernburg Psychiatric Hospital about 150 yards from the gate entrance. 


Explanatory schematic at Bernburg Memorial Center of the route taken by the buses on the hospital ground at Gedenkstätte für Opfer der NS-”Euthanasie” Bernburg in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. Author’s photograph.


Author’s Photograph in January 2020 of Bernburg Hospital. The memorial to the victims Gedenkstätte Für Opfer der NS “Euthanasie” is housed on the lower levels of the building.


Too many questions had been raised about the large number of people brought to Bernburg on buses who were not seen again after they had disembarked.  Rumors found their way through the halls of the facility about the hundreds of patients arriving biweekly who were only seen once and never observed leaving the facility:  where did these people go?  To solve that issue, Bernburg built a large garage off of the wing of the Euthanasie Anstalt that had been retrofitted for the euthanasia program.  The buses could be driven straight in the garage and the garage doors closed behind them so the patients could be offloaded safely hidden from prying eyes.


Ruth and her fellow patients were herded into the first floor receiving room where the nurses checked their names written on the tape between their shoulder blades and compared the names to their medical records.  Once names had been verified, “all personal belongings were taken from them.”  The victims’ possessions were only returned to their families when there was a direct request to the institution.


The arrival at Bernburg did not in itself immediately arouse any suspicions in the patients as there were no soldiers or SS there, only doctors and nurses whom they were accustomed to seeing.  Depending on who was on duty that day, the nurses would have been Pauline Kneissler, Rudolf Kobuch, Frieda Lichtenstein, Wilhelm Lokatis, Margot Rӓder-Grossmann, Otto Reuter, Hermann Schamlz, and Minna Zachow.  Either Wanda von Kolanowski or Lother Stuhl were sure to be there since they were the Head Nurses. 

The nurses reassuringly informed their charges that first they needed a shower and afterwards they would get a nice meal. 

Then these nurses assisted the patients to unrobe and walk down the stairs to the basement for their shower.  Shower rooms were often located in the cellars at German institutions so this process would still not have seemed unusual to the patients as they obediently made their way down the concrete stairs, one after another.


The floor plan of the Bernburg Killing Centre.


The ‘shower room’ was just large enough to cram 75 people into despite only having two showerheads.  It was at this moment in their journey that some of the patients started to resist, either from a sense of foreboding or fear of cramped spaces.  


Author’s photo of the east interior wall of the shower room, showing the slight slant to the north, where the drains were located at Gedenkstätte für Opfer der NS-”Euthanasie” Bernburg. Author’s photograph.


Erwin Lambert had built the gas chamber with a sloping floor design.  A secondary door with a drain directly outside made removing the body fluids easy.  Due to their terror and ensuing panic, patients would vomit, urinate, and defecate on themselves; however, all could be efficiently swept away due to the ingenious design of the gas chamber.  The design was so efficient; it would be used in Nazi concentration camps across German occupied areas. 

This is why Christian Wirth assembled most of this staff for the concentration camps from the former euthanasia killing centers to work at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor.  He also hired the stone mason Erwin Lambert, who had supervised the construction of gas chambers and crematoria for most of the Aktion T4 killing centers, to continue his work in the Treblinka and Sobibor Extermination Camps.

Nurses who testified at later criminal investigations mostly told stories of how patients were led in like lambs to their ‘merciful’ deaths.  However, this story was repudiated by other eyewitness accounts, including Erna Schwarz (Bernburg transport attendant mentioned above) who related “The people inside were desperate and trying to get out of this room.


Testimony from a transport attendant who worked at Hadamar Euthanasia Centre, Erich Moos, contained an admission, “I brought unruly people into the gas chamber using physical force.


The heavy metal door was forced closed behind Ruth and the others and sealed tight.  



[Correction] This "shower" door at Bernburg is a replica of the original door. Author’s photograph 2020.


An attendant walked over to the tanks hidden in the closet area next to the shower room and turned the nozzles starting the carbon monoxide gas flow into the room via the showerheads.



One of the three original showerheads in the Gas Chamber at Gedenkstätte für Opfer der NS-”Euthanasie” Bernburg. Author’s photograph 2020.


Unconsciousness arrived within three - four minutes after the gas started being pumped in.  


Death arrived 10-15 minutes later.

***********************************

To ensure Bernburg staff was not affected by the gas, they would keep watch through the tiny window in the wall and, after about an hour, staff would begin ventilating the room.  


Author’s 2020 photograph of the window in the thick wall through which the attendant would verify no one was moving. Gedenkstätte für Opfer der NS-”Euthanasie” Bernburg in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. 


After it was certain the room had been well ventilated, staff entered and began the process of moving the 75 women to either the dissecting room or the mortuary. 


Upon their initial medical exam upon arrival, when the patients had undressed, the doctors sought interesting diseases among the patients for one purpose:  dissection after their impending death.  An example of what they would determine to be an interesting disease would have been a diagnosis of epilepsy.  The Bernburg staff was able to confirm to me that my Tante Ruth was not chosen for dissection. But Hermann Michel and Otto Stadie, the Bernburg dissectors, probably had a busy day with those cases which were considered intriguing.  From the data available, we know that between May and August of 1941, there were a total of at least 181 patients dissected at Bernburg on the two dissection tables.


 A photograph of a replica of a dissection table in the Dissection Room at Gedenkstätte für Opfer der NS-”Euthanasie” Bernburg in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. The whereabouts of the original two tables located in the dissection room at Bernburg are as follows: one of the tables was removed when the building was returned to the psychiatric hospital and the other table was removed later when the room was used as a basket weaving room for therapeutic purposes.


After carrying the bodies out of the gas chamber, if the corpse had not been tagged for dissection, the corpse burner would stack them in the mortuary room.  Eighteen people were employed at Bernburg for the job of corpse burner.  Found in the pits at the archaeological excavation at Hartheim Euthanasia Center were asbestos gloves probably worn by the corpse burners.


Many of these corpse burners would go on to work at concentration camps as well.  Loyal employees were valued by the National Socialists.  It takes one to three hours to cremate a human body depending on the size.  One of the burners wryly observed, “How little remains of a human being...when all burned.” These employees would have been working around the clock on March 31, 1941, to have all 75 bodies cremated as soon as possible.  Town residents were not unobservant and could hardly fail to notice how the chimney would be emitting smoke for days after the arrival of the Gekrat buses.  In fact, it was due to this community awareness of the suspicious, horribly smelling, gray smoke from the chimneys of Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre that led to it being shut down in 1940 and Bernburg Euthanasia Centre being built as its replacement. 


Besides my great aunt, Ruth Rosa Luise Mühlmann, here are the names of 65 women that also perished in Bernburg Killing Center on March 31, 1941. (We have not been able to uncover the names of the nine other women killed that day thus far in our research.)


Name of Patient and Year of Birth

  1. Gerda Ackermann 1916

  2. Minna Ansinn 1904

  3. Elisabeth Arndt 1880

  4. Berta (Schmidt) Ast 1888

  5. Ursula Hildegard Bauer 1928

  6. Martha Becker 1913

  7. Erna Behrendt 1904

  8. Charlotte Böttcher 1916

  9. Dora Brandt 1928

  10. Hildegard Brockmann 1901

  11. Elise Buchterkirchen 1874

  12. Elisabeth Denecke 1905

  13. Elli Diesner* 1903

  14. Minna Dietrich 1912

  15. Margarethe Dillsner 1911

  16. Helene Ebeling 1910

  17. Erika Faldinski 1927

  18. Elfriede Feick 1920

  19. Charlotte Feilner 1920

  20. Ella Fettköter 1889

  21. Elsbeth Flieβ 1906

  22. Hildegard Geiβdörfer 1905

  23. Elsa Gerzmehle 1915

  24. Frieda Geserick 1911

  25. Anna Giza 1886

  26. Meta Goedecke 1911

  27. Hildegard Gorsler 1915

  28. Elfriede Graupner 1928

  29. Irma Grunert 1917

  30. Erika Günther 1917

  31. Maria Hahn DOB unknown (admitted 1894)

  32. Irma Herold 1913

  33. Käthe Heyer 1923

  34. Wally Hofmann 1918

  35. Wilhelmine Honigmund 1877

  36. Martha Kamieth* 1918

  37. Ingeborg Kessler* 1925

  38. Frieda Klaus DOB unknown (admitted 1920)

  39. Hanni Koch DOB unknown (admitted 1925)

  40. Marie Lieschen Kratzien 1922

  41. Ilse Kückelmann 1919

  42. Ilse Leuthold 1927

  43. Anneliese Liehr 1927

  44. Wally Lücke 1908

  45. Frieda Maurer 1917

  46. Marta Meyer 1916

  47. Rosa Meyer DOB unknown (admitted 1914)

  48. Ruth Mühlmann 1920

  49. Ida Peter DOB unknown (admitted 1923)

  50. Margareta Plattner DOB unknown (admitted 1937)

  51. Linda Rupprecht 1916

  52. Frieda Schluster 1913

  53. Frieda Schmidt 1911

  54. Marianne Schüler 1924

  55. Else Seemann 1926

  56. Berta (Richert) Seidel 1879

  57. Linda Spickermann 1924

  58. Frieda Stengler 1887

  59. Luise Vetter 1912

  60. Lucie Voigt 1922

  61. Margarete Völker 1910

  62. Elli Wagner 1893

  63. Erna Wagner DOB unknown (admitted 1924)

  64. Irmgard Wiegand 1920

  65. Charlotte Wüstling 1921

  66. Elisabeth Zacke 1903

 

LET US NEVER FORGET.



Next post: What happened to their ashes?


 

Sources:


Hall, Mair, and Philip Lambert.  “Faith Communities and Inclusion of People with Developmental Disabilities.”  Report for the National Resource Center on Community Integration, Center on Human Policy, School of Education, Syracuse, NY, April 1998, p. 2. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED420945.pdf


Aly, Götz, Editor.  Aktion T4 1939-1945:  Die >>Euthansie<< Zentrale in der Tiergartenstraẞe 4, Edition Hentrich, Berlin, 1989,  p. 151.



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