Sunday, December 26, 2010

I Know Who Baby Knauer Was

[Trigger warning for discussion of (historical) violence against disabled people.]

Finals week was a weird time to be knocked down by history.

I'd been researching and writing a final paper for my German history class (weeks overdue) on a topic that I've studied before: disabled people in the Nazi regime. Really sad, grim stuff, and I knew that going in.

But here's the thing that I've learned from three years of genocide studies and a lifetime of Holocaust-related neuroses: you know that saying? The one every history major has heard several thousand times? That one death is a tragedy, and a million deaths is a statistic?

Well, it's kind of true.

Not that you can't feel sad about a million deaths. But for me personally, there's something abstract, something incomprehensible about deaths that are presented only as numbers. One death is easier to understand, because all around me are individuals I love, and I know how crushed I would be if one of them died. It's somehow easier for me to conceptualize a death if I know some details about the person who died: their name, something about their life story.

The person I knew as baby Knauer lived for such a short time, there was very little of his life story to tell. Until finals week, I didn't know that story. Now I do. And where before I had been outraged at the injustice of baby Knauer's death, now I feel utter grief.

Let me explain.

Probably everyone who has done research on the Nazi 'euthanasia' program knows about the Knauer case. The basic facts are: a man who for a long time was only known as Herr Knauer petitioned Hitler to have his infant child killed after his child was born blind and with some physical deformities. Hitler sent his personal physician, Karl Brandt, to assess the baby. If Brandt deemed the child "unworthy of life," he was authorized to have the child killed. Brandt decided baby Knauer should die, and baby Knauer did. Soon after this, the children's killing program began, and then the T4 adult killing program. Baby Knauer was the first victim of Nazi 'euthanasia.'

Then, in 2007, historian Ulf Schmidt published a biography of Karl Brandt. In this biography, Schmidt revealed the details of baby Knauer's life, saying that he didn't feel it was right to "place the justifiable claim of the parents for anonymity above the personality and suffering of the first 'euthanasia' victim."

In my school library, I found Schmidt's book and read the section on the Knauer case. Here's what I learned:

Gerhard Herbert Kretschmar was born on February 20th, 1939, in a village called PomĪ²en. He was blind, and "lacked one leg and part of an arm." Some doctors speculated that he was "feeble-minded" but realistically they probably couldn't have known this at his age. His parents, Richard Gerhardt Kretschmar and Lina Sonja Kretschmar, believed strongly in Nazi ideology, and his father wanted him dead.

Schmidt writes that Richard Kretschmar took Gerhardt to the Leipzig Children's Clinic "in the spring of 1939" -- when Gerhardt was just one or two months old -- and had him institutionalized there. Werner Catel, the head of the clinic, later testified that Herr Kretschmar had wanted him to kill Gerhardt right then, but Catel refused because of legal concerns. (As an aside here, Catel took part in the T4 program later, so when he refused to kill Gerhardt he didn't have any moral problems with infanticide -- he was just concerned about going to jail.) When Catel would not kill Gerhardt, Herr Kretschmar or perhaps one of his relatives petitioned Hitler directly to end the child's life. Hitler sent Karl Brandt to examine Gerhard and decide whether he should live or die. After confirming that Gerhard was blind and physically disabled, Brandt authorized the clinic staff to kill the baby, and Gerhard was murdered on July 25, 1939. He was five months old.

Once I read those names and dates, I couldn't get them out of my head for days. It's strange to think that these few details -- Gerhard's name, his assigned sex, his birth and death dates -- would change my perception of the case. I wish that it didn't matter, that I would feel just as much grief for a nameless child murdered 70 years ago as I would for a named one, but somehow the name is important to me. Today, when parents continue to murder their children, when people call themselves part of the disability community while dreaming of a world without us, it seems vitally important to hold on to that name.


  1. I learned a LOT from this post. Hadn't known anything about this... thanks for sharing, however horrible it may be!

  2. *Today, when parents continue to murder their children, when people call themselves part of the disability community while dreaming of a world without us, it seems vitally important to hold on to that name.*


  3. I also study History, although at AS Level, studying antisemitism 1919-45, so of course Euthanasia is key to the acceleration of the Nazi policy and antisemitism itself. Did not know more than the name of the case and the condition of the child.

    I have to say reading this, knowing that little bit more does make it more realistic as you mentioned. Sad. And utterly bewildering.