Wednesday, December 16, 2009

U.S. Knowledge of Nazi 'Euthanasia' Killings, 1940

Author: Jonathan Harrison
From the New York Times, July 29, 1999

U.S. Knew Early of Nazi Killings in Asylums, Official Documents Show
Published: July 29, 1999

WASHINGTON, July 27— The diplomats at the American consulate in Leipzig, Germany, noticed a lot of strange death notices in the local newspapers in the fall of 1940. Some of the deceased were old, some not so old, but their deaths had something in common.

They died at the Grafeneck asylum, an institution in Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany for people who were mentally feeble from age or war, or who had been born severely retarded or grotesquely malformed. And their relatives were not notified of their deaths until the remains had been cremated.

A death notice placed by a woman honoring her father, winner of an Iron Cross in World War I, was typical: ''After weeks of uncertainty, I received the unbelievable news of his sudden death and cremation.''

The Americans asked their German acquaintances what was happening. The Germans said they believed that the Third Reich was killing people it deemed useless. On Oct. 16, 1940, Vice Consul Paul H. Dutko cabled that information to his superiors at the American Embassy in Berlin and the State Department in Washington.

From the vantage point of the present, of course, there is nothing surprising about Mr. Dutko's cable. But many historians have assumed that the first hard evidence of Germany's ''euthanasia'' program, which killed thousands of people and was a precursor to the Holocaust, did not surface in the West until mid-1941, when it was described in William L. Shirer's ''Berlin Diary.''

Now researchers at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an educational and research organization in Los Angeles, have come upon documents, including Mr. Dutko's cable, which seem to show that high American officials knew, or should have known, about the killings by late 1940, if not before. Some of the material hints at the coming of the Holocaust itself.

Did a difference of a half-year or so really matter? Yes, argues the Wiesenthal Center's founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier. If high American officials had condemned the killing as soon as they learned of it, Rabbi Hier said, ''thousands of lives would have been saved.''

In interviews last week, Rabbi Hier said his researchers found the recently declassified documents in the National Archives and in State Department files while looking for data on the Nazis' treatment of slave labor.

One previously undisclosed document was a 10-page letter that the Evangelical bishop of Wurttemberg, Theophil Wurm, wrote on July 10, 1940, to the Reich Interior Ministry.

''The decision as to the time when the life of a suffering human being should end rests with the Almighty God,'' the Bishop admonished, expressing dismay at the euthanasia rumors he had heard.

A copy of the letter was obtained by Vice Consul Dutko early in 1941 and forwarded to his superiors, who apparently shelved it.

In August 1941, a prominent Roman Catholic Bishop, Clemens August Graf von Galen, delivered a sermon against euthanasia. Germans learned of the sermon by word of mouth, and Hitler was so worried about losing popular support, the rabbi said, that he called off the killing of Germans who were deemed inferior or useless.

Rabbi Hier argued that international condemnation of the domestic-killing program at its early stage could have saved lives. Perhaps public opinion might have turned against Hitler at home. Perhaps the full-scale Holocaust might have been delayed, and people everywhere might have recognized the reality of it earlier. Millions still might have died, he conceded, but hundreds of thousands might not have.

Many Americans were slow to accept reports of the wholesale slaughter of Jews and others in countries under Nazi control. As late as January 1943, fewer than half of those surveyed in a Gallup Poll believed reports that as many as two million European Jews had been killed. By then, the Holocaust had been under way for many months.

Geoffrey C. Ward, a historian who has written extensively on the Roosevelt era, said he doubted that early publicity about and condemnation of the killing of Germans deemed inferior would have made a difference, at least in the United States.

''Sad as it is,'' Mr. Ward said, the American people at that time would not have been willing to go to war to save the lives of Germans in asylums.

Vice Consul Dutko cabled his superiors in October 1940 of ''fantastic and gruesome'' stories from German civilians, stories of army trucks entering and leaving Grafeneck in the dead of night, of soldiers shooing away the curious. The local residents believed that some patients at Grafeneck were being used as guinea pigs for medical experiments and then killed. Other patients were regarded as useless, even for laboratory tests, the residents said, and were being killed outright.

Some Germans said doctors and nurses had whispered rumors about similar killings elsewhere in the country, some by electrocution.

''Our government is murdering masses of the spiritually ill and other sick persons in experimental stations with poison gas,'' read a letter from a nurse that reached the American Embassy in Berlin in 1941.

Rabbi Hier, like others who have studied the Holocaust and American attitudes toward Nazi Germany before the United States entered World War II, condemned the State Department's inaction. Some historians have said the State Department of that era was at best lukewarm to Jewish interests, at worst blatantly anti-Semitic.

Rabbi Hier did not blame Roosevelt directly for the United States' slowness to react. The President, after all, was trying to help Britain in 1940 and 1941 without stirring up his isolationist enemies and without getting his country into a war before it was ready. The rabbi said he had found no documents proving that Roosevelt knew the extent of his State Department's sloth.

William J. vanden Heuvel, president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and a former deputy permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations, differed with Rabbi Hier's assertions while calling them impossible to disprove.

Mr. vanden Heuvel said he believed that ''winning the war was the only way to stop Hitler,'' and that the Nazis demonstrated repeatedly that they were ''not at all susceptible to public opinion.'' He noted that Roosevelt was one of the earliest world leaders to denounce Hitler.

Condemning the anti-Jewish rampage of Kristallnacht in November 1938, the President said, ''I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th-century civilization.''

Among the earliest documents discovered by Rabbi Hier's researchers was a Feb. 23, 1940, memorandum to Secretary of State Cordell Hull from Assistant Secretary Adolf A. Berle Jr. Mr. Berle told of reports from the embassy in Berlin that Jews were being sent to ''unnamed concentration camps'' in Poland.

''I see no reason why we should not make our feelings known regarding a policy of seemingly calculated cruelty which is beginning to be apparent now,'' Mr. Berle said. (It was not yet known that the camps would soon be extermination centers.)

One of Mr. Berle's colleagues, Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long, wrote that he was ''thoroughly in sympathy with the sentiment'' in Mr. Berle's memorandum. But, he went on, ''this is a question entirely within the power of Germany,'' and he warned against any action that might involve the United States in the war in Europe.

The War Department, too, obtained information about the killings in Germany. In December 1940, it received a letter, originally sent in German to the National Broadcasting Company and just found by Rabbi Hier's staff, in which the writer said that ''thousands of patients are secretly murdered monthly, not only those who are public wards but also the paying inmates.''

The rabbi said it was not known how high in the department the letter went before it was shelved.

Rabbi Hier said there were few heroes in the whole sad episode, except for people like the anonymous German nurse and the person who wrote to NBC in December 1940, risking their lives.

''With your expressions of horror prevent further murders!'' the letter to NBC said. It was signed, ''a Christian who cannot bear to witness this any longer.''

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