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  • Writer's pictureIlka Knüppel

Gekrat Buses - "Into the Blue"

“There goes the murder box!” children in Hadamar would shout when a gray bus went by.

Gekrat Buses Photograph.  Public Domain.

It was an open secret in Hadamar, a small town in southern Germany midway between Bonn and Frankfurt, even if the Nazis refused to think the populace had figured out their plan.  Local children in Hadamar would tease each other by shouting, “You’re crazy!  You’ll be sent to bake in the Hadamar ovens!!” 

Gekrat buses were the acronym for the vehicles of the ‘Gemeinnützige Krankentransport GmbH’, which caustically translates to ‘Charitable Foundation for the Transport of Patients, Inc.’ 

These buses were the main method of transporting euthanasia victims between institutions. The Gekrat buses were administered by a subdivision of the Aktion T4 organization, with about 140 people employed in the transportation departments.  They were located in Berlin at Potsdamer Platz 1 and they were an officially registered corporation. 

A Gekrat bus and staff waiting to load patients from the Liebenau Psychatric Hosptial. The photo was taken on Oct. 2, 1940. The patients were transported to the Grafeneck killing center and murdered.

Gekrat was headed by Reinhold Vorberg, a cousin of Victor Brack, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1930. After joining the Chancellery of the Führer in 1936, Vorberg was appointed to lead this transportation corporation.  At the beginning of the program, he ran Gekrat from his offices at the Grafeneck Euthanasia Centre, where he also resided.  Vorberg took it upon himself to personally inspect the transportation offices at the other killing centers, often coming into contact with intended victims by directing the transports himself.  He would be captured in 1962 and, in 1968, sentenced to a ten-year prison term for his role in Aktion T4.   

Per Holocaust Researcher Henry Friedlander, the company not only operated the buses themselves but also organized the transport lists, and notified families and agencies.

“The buses were comfortably outfitted.  Upholstered seats were 2x2, and each bus could carry 70 or so patients.  The buses were staffed by male nurses...they treated their patients kindly enough.  They gave them physical assistance onto and off the buses if this was needed.  If the trip was a long one, they made sure their patients had thermoses of hot coffee and sandwiches to see them through.  The nurses looked after the patients’ few personal effects - they had been discouraged from taking much more than toiletries - and the nurses were responsible for the patients’ medical charts and personal histories.”

Gekrat’s role was to make the operation and execution of the Aktion T4 program seamless. The first step to euthanasia was the selection of the victims themselves.  Gekrat would then spring into action.  Their role was logistics and they were grimly efficient in their work.  Schedules needed to be tightly maintained in order to ensure there were not too many or too few victims transported to one of the killing centers at any one time.  Their instruction from the Chancellery of the Führer required the corporation to maintain a “cost and labor effective killing operation.” 

In order to meet the goals set by the government, Gekrat required the feeder hospitals to have those scheduled to be transported ready on time.  “The names of the selected patients were sent to the Aktion T4 Transport Office, which then compiled the transport list.”  The transport lists would be sent to the hospital a few days prior to Gekrat’s arrival, and usually one day before the transport, a Transportleiter would arrive to go over the process with hospital officials.    

“Every day the gray buses with the victims who were to die drove through the city; every day the chimney of the crematorium billowed smoke and spread a visible, thick, dark smoke that was visible from a great distance.  Even the children knew what the institution was for:  they called the buses ‘murder boxes’ .

Loading of a patient onto a Gekrat bus. Photo in Public Domain.

The day of a scheduled transport, the Gekrat large gray buses would arrive.  Suspecting their fate, many of the patients had to be coerced into boarding.  Thereafter, the “surrendering institution” was provided receipts for those taken.  The buses themselves gained a lot of notoriety across Germany as they showed up unannounced at hospitals and loaded patients who the community would never see again.  When the public began to suspect the government’s involvement in the death of what Goebbels termed “burdensome lives,” the buses came to be called the “grey buses of the SS.”  

As early as February 1940, one month after the beginning of the killings in Grafeneck, rumors spread among the population... street workers took off their hats when the grey buses passed by.”

The patients themselves were aware of the buses.  “‘Wohin bringt ihr uns?’ (Where are you taking us?), the words reportedly spoken by a patient at Weißenau about to be transported to Grafeneck.”  In response to the patients’ nervous inquiries, the staff was reported to answer “Fahrt ins Blaue” (a day trip ‘into the blue’, i.e., to an unknown destination.)

However, the patients were not so easily duped.  Bus arrival created a “sinister mood” in the hospitals, with documented cases of patients being aware something terrible was to befall them. 

“Wild scenes” often took place when the buses arrived, with some patients requiring sedatives and others able to be tricked or deceived by a sense of normalcy to get on the bus. 

One of the nuns who worked at Ursber Home for Children with Mental Handicaps recalled “Some of the patients hung on to the nuns for dear life...It was terrible.  They cried and screamed.  Even the helpers and doctors cried.  It was heartbreaking.”  Friedlander’s research uncovered some very striking cases of those aware of their eventual fate.  One girl, about to board the bus, asked whether it was her fault that she was born as she was, and that she was now to be killed.  A male patient and WWI veteran was seen to put on his Iron Cross on the way to the bus, while another female once remarked “Yes we shall die, but Hitler will go to hell.”

Photo of Gekrat Bus and Driver - Doctors’ Trial Exhibit

Gekrat played an unwitting but also important role in the public awareness of the Aktion T4 program.  In late 1940,  families began to petition local prosecutors for information regarding their loved ones.  After being told to contact Gekrat directly, inquiries either were ignored or the response was that there was no Gekrat.  Written requests for information from the victims’ family members received replies from the killing centers themselves.  

Diagram of Gekrat Bus - Doctors’ Trial Exhibit

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