When the Nazis instituted their euthanasia program in January 1940, they began by distributing a questionnaire to the directors of institutions where potential victims might be housed. One of the key questions, from a historian's perspective, focused on whether a particular mentally or physically disabled person was productive in any way.
"These forms were sent to the directors by the Ministry of the Interior and were used by so-called experts in Berlin to decide who would be killed," said Susan Bachrach of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
"Often these decisions were made without patients being seen. The directors didn't know the purpose of the questionnaires, of course. Some thought it was a survey to determine untapped labor reserves and so deliberately underestimated these peoples' work capacities, which had deadly consequences.
" 'What is this person's productivity?' The question shows how this whole society was being judged by what it could produce. If these people weren't productive, they were considered useless eaters" — or, as the Nazis put it, "life unworthy of life."
Bachrach was the curator of the exhibit, "Deadly Science: Creating the Master Race," now on display at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Logan Square until July 8.
The traveling show was extracted from a larger exhibit, which first appeared at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., several years ago, and considers how the ideas behind eugenics — defined in the exhibit as "the study and practice of improving humans through selective reproduction," which included deadly solutions like euthanasia — informed much Nazi policy.
Other traveling exhibits from the museum have focused on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, book burning and hidden children.
These extracted exhibits are viewed by the museum as educational tools, said Bachrach, especially for the young who may not know of such terms as euthanasia and eugenics.
To coincide with the exhibit event, the library has scheduled a program on June 11, when William Meinecke, a Holocaust museum scholar, will discuss the part German physicians played in the Nazi party.
As "Deadly Medicine" makes clear through separate panels ordered chronologically, the Nazis ran a euthanasia program between January 1940 and August 1941, in which 70,000 handicapped children and adults, mostly Germans, were gassed. Gas chambers, disguised as showers, were part of six euthanasia facilities found throughout Germany and Austria.
Only citizen unrest in the form of protests put a stop to the gassing. But the euthanasia continued in other forms, with patients murdered by starvation diets or overdoses of medications. In all, 200,000 people were put to death as part of the euthanasia program by 1945.
The beginning of the euthanasia program, also known as Operation T-4, predated the Holocaust by several years.
But there's a definite link between the two Nazi policies, Bachrach said.
"Jewish patients were killed much more indiscriminately than Germans, 5,000 of them," she said, referring to the euthanasia scheme. "It was a definite bridge to the larger genocide. There wasn't the kind of selection that was done with German patients — none of the questionnaires and assessments."
But eugenics, and by association euthanasia, was not an invention of the Nazis, as the exhibit demonstrates. At the turn of the 20th century, the subject had many advocates, some who argued for forced sterilizations and other such practices meant to weed out "undesirable" hereditary traits from the human race.
Notions about eugenics were widespread; the exhibit provides examples from Norway, Sweden, Britain, Canada, Cuba, Argentina, Italy, France, Romania and the Soviet Union.
And America was not immune. Several panels in the exhibit provide examples:
· Mendocino State Hospital in California did eugenic sterilization between 1909-35.
· The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia's sterilization law in 1927.
· Eugenicists supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply curtailed immigration to the United States from eastern and southern Europe and Asia. The argument was that unfit immigrants with "bad heredity" would swamp native white Protestant stock.
"But the political difference between how America and Germany treated eugenics is very important to stress," Bachrach said. "In the United States, it was states that passed marriage and sterilization laws. Specific states — not the federal government."
The exhibit also emphasizes that Nazi doctors were not mad men released by the regime to do as they pleased with human beings.
"A major misconception is that the Nazi doctors were all quacks," she said. "It's important to counter that idea. The medical profession provided a great deal of support for these ideas and concepts. And some of the doctors were people with international reputations. In fact, doctors joined the Nazi party earlier and in higher numbers than any other professional group.
"These were highly educated people — that's an important aspect of the subject," she said. "A number of major institutions and professions failed in the Nazi era: the lawyers, the military, the police and, of course, the doctors."