Hadamar from the inside

by Christoph Schneider
 
When U.S. troops advanced to Hadamar, a little village in the Northern part of the Federal State of Hessen right at the border to North-Rhine-Westphalia, in late March 1945, they encountered a Nazi "euthanasia" killing facility. Unlike a concentration camp, which ceased to exist at the moment of liberation, the institution remained in function. Initially, very few people were arrested: the head physician and also the head nurse. The head of administration had escaped. This means that in the first months after liberation - at least until June, in some cases until November 1945 -, patients were often confronted with the same personnel as before. However, patients could now escape with impunity, and the U.S. military administration increased food rations for the often extremely debilitated inmates. Nevertheless, the word "liberation" promises a caesura that did not exist in Hadamar.
 
There were survivors of Hadamar, but in fact these people were not labeled or addressed as “suvivors” neither in the postwar period nor in the scholarly debate that started much later,  around the 1980s. They were denied the status of someone who had only narrowly escaped Nazi terror and who could now, after the Nazi regime had been defeated, therefore expect support, solidarity and sympathy. Until today, testimonials and biographical literature, such as we have become familiar with from concentration camp survivors, is only available in exceptional cases concerning this victim group. "Euthanasia" survivors were not recognized as Nazi victims under the 1953 Federal Compensation Act (BEG).
 
Lt. Alexander J. Wedderburn, photographer with the 28th Infantry Division, First US.Army, questions elderly survivors who are lying in bed at the Hadamar Institute.
The photograph was taken by an American military photographer soon after the liberation.

Photographer: Troy A. Peters / Date: 1945 April 05.

Testimonies of relatives and survivors

In the fall of 1945, seven persons involved in the crime in Hadamar were accused and sentenced in a in a U.S. Army military court-martial. In January 1947, a trial followed before the Frankfurt Regional Court against 25 of those also involved in the crime.[1] Survivors of Hadamar and relatives of the victims approached the judiciary or were questioned by the police and by a public prosecutor in the first two years after liberation. However, they were not summoned as witnesses to the main public trial. Their testimonies disappeared in the files, later sotried in the Hessian Main State Archives as part of the procedural files of the Hadamar trial (50 volumes). I have now transcribed, annotated and compiled these letters, statements and interrogation protocols in a book. Hadamar von innen ("Hadamar from the inside") (Schneider 2020) contains reports from relatives and testimonies from survivors of this Nazi "euthanasia" killing facility. From the inside denotes in some cases the place of speech – for example for Theophil Henning, who managed to send postcards from the scene of the crime to Bremen. Likewise for the survivors who spoke out from liberated Hadamar. In other cases, it is the relatives who have been able to see behind the facade of false certifications and lies.

First and second murder phase

Hadamar was one of the six killing institutions of "Aktion T4" from January to August 1941. During this first phase, patients were brought to Hadamar in buses and murdered in the gas chamber on the same day. The bodies were burned in specially constructed crematorium ovens. After arrival, the people were individually examined for the last time. If it was assumed that there had been a misapplication of the selection criteria, the person in question was removed from the procedure and taken back to an Zwischenanstalt ("intermediate institution") the following day. Being "put back" often meant only a postponement, because the procedure was reported to Berlin to the Zentraldienststelle (“Central Service Office") at Tiergartenstrasse 4, and often the person was sent on transport a second time. Among the approximately 100 patients deferred in the first murder phase, there were probably no more than 30 who ultimately survived National Socialism. So Klara Schröder: On March 17, 1941, she was transferred to Hadamar with 70 other patients. "The transfer had not been announced to us beforehand, nor had we been told where we were being transferred to. I tried to evade the transfer and hid, but was found. The transport took place in 2 or 3 large red-painted omnibuses, which were fully occupied. The windows were covered so that we could not see anything." (Ibid.: 79)

In August 1941, "Aktion T4" was aborted after protests by Cardinal von Galen. The asylum in Hadamar was empty und was reoccupied with patients again on August 13 and 14, 1942. It was filled with 126 men from Bremen and 368 women from Kloster Hoven. In the following two and a half years, until the liberation in March 1945, patients were constantly admitted and patients were constantly killed. The chance to survive this second murder phase was greater than in 1941, but still small. Statistically, 400 patients out of 4400 survived this second phase.

Theophil Henning

Theophil Henning arrived with the first transport in mid-August 1942 from Bremen-Ellen to Hadamar. He managed to send postcards to a friend, Gustav Gerdes. After the end of the Nazi regime, Gerdes provided copies of the postcards to the public prosecutor's office. These transcripts are also found in the files and I would like to quote a longer piece. In the following card from the beginning of December 1942 – the third of eight postcards in this collection – Henning names the essential features that characterized the asylum in the fall of 1942. The institution is located on the outskirts and slightly above the town of Hadamar.
“Dear Gustav!
I received [your] dear letter together with a card [,] the mistake was that you left out the word Landesheilanstalt, because I do not have my own apartment in Hadamar, so the card had to go back [,] I am not yet as well known in Hadamar as in Bremen-Ellen or in Wesermünde. Have only been here a good quarter of a year; [...]. I also come down to Hadamar very little. I would certainly not like to be a letter carrier in Hadamar and climbing up and down thousands of steps every day is really no fun. Of the 127 people who arrived here from [Bremen-]Ellen, only 82 are lying in the institution cemetery, so you can get an idea, 45 more so far, if this goes on, not a single one will come back, soon more will die here than soldiers in the field. Those listed are only men, the women and girls are at least as many. Of the 82, many were employed here as cave diggers and corpse bearers. If you think that you alone have so much work, you are wrong, there are only 5-6 nurses here, all the work is done by the patients. There is a shoemaker, a carter on the estate, a locksmith and a carpenter who is also a truck driver. A gardener, an estate manager [,] ½ dtz. nurses who are cooking and washerwomen and flatterwomen. [...] In the whole of Hadamar there is no longer a blacksmith or locksmith. Many come to us, even peasants from the surrounding area, for help and advice. We are just everything here [,] only horse shoeing we have not done yet. [...] Many greetings to you and all friends there, as many as remember me, from your Theophil Henning.
All life flows from him, the only true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he is highly praised in eternity. Amen."

(Typescript copy of 3rd card from Theophil Henning to Gustav Gerdes, 8 Dec. 1942; HHStA Wiesbaden, Dept. 461, No. 32061, Vol. 6, Bl. 1091)

From these lines, one learns essentials about Hadamar during the second murder phase: There is hardly any staff to take care of the patients, "here are only 5-6 nurses[,] all the work is done by the patients". The men who are "fit for work" and therefore remained alive for the time being, worked in the workshops and in agriculture, the women as providers in the kitchen, in the laundry and in the sewing room. Men and women who are able to work, were are also employed in other institutions, in business and by private individuals in the village, which means that these patients have worked directly for the benefit of the surrounding village. The population also had insight into the institution; they could visit the workshops.

Henning also describes that Hadamar is once again an extermination facility. In December 1942, 45 of the 127 men who had arrived from Bremen in August of the same year, were still alive. Some of them worked as "cave diggers and corpse bearers." They had to dig deep pits in the newly constructed institutional cemetery. Several corpses at a time were thrown into a grave without a coffin.
During the second murder phase, the chance of staying alive for a longer period of time through the work performed was not great. Henning's last card reached its addressee in Bremen on May 26, 1943: "Many already have to work for private individuals in the city. Must suddenly do earthwork. Many greetings also to all friends and acquaintances there." (Ibid.: 1092RS)

Theophil Henning probably had managed to send these postcards because he was working outside the institution. The day before this 8th and last postcard arrived in Bremen, Theophil Henning was murdered after a ten-months-stay in Hadamar on May 25, 1943.
 
Three survivors rest in their beds at the Hadamar Institute.
The photograph was taken by an American military photographer soon after the liberation.
Photographer: Troy A. Peters / Date: 1945 April 05

Unknown perspective

Making the relatives' reports and survivors' testimonies accessible today, does not primarily follow an historical-ethical imperative. From these concrete, sometimes small-scale, often vivid descriptions, we learn something about Hadamar that we cannot learn by other documents: about the everyday conditions, the casualness of the killings, about the atmosphere and the forms of interaction. And we learn something about the manifold forms of involvement and interaction between “Hadamar” as an institution and the village of Hadamar. This unknown every-day perspective sheds light on the “normalcy” of the Nazi "euthanasia" in Hadamar.

[1] Only 11 of them were convicted. Between June 1949 and October 1953, they were released from prison, either on parole or by pardon. One doctor remained in prison until January 1958, when he was pardoned.

Christoph Schneider is a freelance author and cultural scientist. He has been working on the history and post-history of Nazi "euthanasia" for many years. He has a lectureship at the University of Gießen.

_____________________

References:
Hadamar von innen. Überlebendenzeugnisse und Angehörigenberichte. Ed. by Christoph Schneider. Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2020. Studies and Documents on Holocaust and Camp Literature, vol. 10.

Recommended citation:
Christoph Schneider (2021): Hadamar from the inside. In: Public Disability History 6 (2021) 7.

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