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Nazi Persecution of the Disabled: Murder of the "Unfit" Browse

Patricia Heberer describes the experience of Paula B


I’ll tell you the story of Paula B, who died in the Hadamar facility in 1941. We’ll call her Paula B because German archival officials don’t allow us to disclose, in many cases, the last name of Euthanasia victims. Paula B was born in Amsterdam in 1892. She was a physically healthy individual, very intelligent, very active in sports. She became a secretary and was very capable in her work. Like many young girls, during World War I she volunteered for nursing duties and was stationed in Belgium at the front. During the course of her duties, the hospital where she was working came under very intense artillery bombardment. And at this time she suffered a nervous breakdown, and for the first time in her life suffered from epileptic seizures. She was removed to a hospital in the rear, transferred back to Germany, and in 1920 she had recovered sufficiently to marry. She joined her German husband in the northern German town of Hildesheim, where she bore him a child, and acted as a homemaker. But by the mid—1930s her very conventional life had begun to unravel. She began to experience repeated epileptic seizures. Now today, epilepsy is something that one can treat with medicine, and individuals with epilepsy can live ordinary lives. But in those days this was seen as an hereditary affliction. It was seen as a mental illness. And by 1935 Paula B was committed to a nearby mental institution in Hildesheim. In 1938 her husband divorced her, encouraged by National Socialist legal officials, who suggested that their marriage was endangering the German people — hereditary considerations, one shouldn’t be married to someone who had a so—called hereditary affliction. In the same year the medical director of the Hildesheim institution filed a suit to sterilize her on the grounds that she had hereditary epilepsy. Now bear in mind that she had her first epileptic episode when she was 25 years old. So today, medical officials would suggest that she had traumatic epilepsy; that in fact, her epilepsy was not hereditary. Which, indeed, she argued at the time. In the end, public health officials decided not to sterilize her, but not on the grounds that she had an hereditary affliction, but rather because she was beyond childbearing years and sterilization would have been moot. Her daughter, Margot, who was in her teens when her mother died, saw her mother for the last time in Easter of 1941. She visited her mother in Hildesheim. The mother and daughter spent the day together, and just as her daughter was about to leave for the day, her mother, Paula B, became very agitated. She pleaded with her daughter to work for her release from the facility. She said, “look, Margot, you’re very young, and maybe you don’t understand, but you must tell your father to release me immediately. I’ll work my fingers to the bones, but please get me out of here.” So it was with great consternation that Margot B, Paula B's daughter, received a death notification from the Hadamar facility in May of 1941. The death certificate suggested that Paula B had died of natural causes. But in fact, she had been transferred from her home institution in Hildesheim to the Hadamar facility, where within hours of her arrival she had perished, in the Hadamar gas chamber, in May 1941.

Patricia Heberer
Museum historian and subject matter expert [2002 interview]