Last week I wrote about Holocaust Education Week Coming Up and about the Grand Opening Ceremony of The Maxwell and Ruth Leroy Holocaust Remembrance Garden.
We are in Holocaust Education Week now, and I have permission to share this story, written by a woman of German descent, whose family was swept up in the tragedy that overtook Europe in that dark time.
The story was shared in a speech made at the grand opening, by Fran Kieselstein, the Chair of the Maxwell and Ruth Leroy Holocaust Education Committee. It had been sent to her by the woman who wrote it. I asked her for a copy and permission to share it and you will understand why when you read it.
I knew I had a brother who had died at the age of three. There were a few photos of him in the family album, a blond child sitting on my mother's knee. His name had been "Rainer," but on the rare occasions when she spoke of him, my mother always referred to him by the loving diminutive of "Rainerchen"--"small Rainer." My father never talked about him.
During my childhood, my mother was a lively, busy woman. She had to be. For much of the time (until I was almost eleven) we lived in rural Saskatchewan. Our first house had neither electricity nor running water, the second had electricity but still no running water, except what could be pumped up from the cistern under the kitchen floor.
My mother took care of the children, cooked meals, baked bread, washed and hung clothes out to dry, tended a large vegetable garden and sewed most of our clothes.
Usually she was in good spirits, although she would get irritable when she was overtired. But sometimes in the middle of an ordinary busy day, something would happen. It was as if a switch in her being had been clicked. Her face would become charged with emotion, her voice took on an edge and pitch that was quite different than her everyday speech. And her words would flow out in a short, intense outburst.
It was from one of these emotional outpourings that I first learned more than the bare fact that Rainerchen had lived and died. Some incidents cut deep memories. I know I was eight or nine at the time because this memory is clearly fixed in the kitchen of the house we lived in then. Mama is lighting the morning fire, taking wood from the full woodbox. I am peeling a mandarin, which means it must have been December.
Mama begins to talk with that intense edge to her voice: "The time I went to get Rainerchen's body from the hospital, they told me to go to the back and pointed out a little building, and when I went in there, the corpses were stacked like logs."
When she was in her early seventies, encouraged by her children, she wrote a thirty page memoir. She wrote in German. Although she had lived in Canada since the age of 36, and was fluent in English, when it came to writing, German was the language in which she felt competent. Although the words in the passages that follow are mine, the family information is taken from my mother's memoir, with the historical context taken from standard historical secondary sources.
During her third pregnancy, my mother developed jaundice. She was hospitalized and a miscarriage was avoided. Later the birth was difficult. Once the birth was over, it seemed that all was well and mother and child were discharged from hospital in the usual way. The child's birth certificate stated that he was born on February 9th, 1940, in Danzig, and, using the deceitful Nazi terminology, that his ancestry was "pure Aryan." He looked the part. He had blond curls, blue eyes, fair skin, and "the face of an angel."
At six weeks, when my mother was changing him, he had a small seizure. It passed. But at the nine month medical check-up, when the doctor held out a pencil, little Rainerchen did not reach for it. My mother was told he was developing too slowly. All this was recorded in his medical file, according to the best medical practice. What had nothing to do with medical practice was the the Nazi state now took great interest in the physical fitness of its citizens.
The Nazi eugenics program had begun in October, 1939. All individuals who were deemed "unworthy of life" were to be "eliminated." The Nazi leadership felt that the general German public was not yet sufficiently "hardened" to be told openly of the program, although the massive death toll at state hospitals could not be entirely hidden. No public discussion of the program was allowed. The men and women who carried out the killings, from the SS officers who did the planning, to the ordinary doctors, nurses, and orderlies, were told that the killings were necessary because the unfit used up crucial resources like food and clothing that were needed in wartime for the fighting and productive members of German society and further that it was necessary to eliminate "inferior stock" which might carry birth defects that could contaminate the "blood of the Aryan master race."
In 1943, my parents received several notices to bring their son to a state hospital for treatment. They ignored the notices. So while my father was at work, my sister at school, my mother went to the market and Rainerchen at home with the mother's help girl, the authorities came to the apartment and took the child "for treatment."
My father had contacts among those in Danzig who would speak critically of the Nazis to those they trusted. His contacts told him that if the child was from a poor workers' family the child would be put to death within a few days, but that since his family was well established, some show of treatment would be made. (I doubt if my father passed this information on to my mother until much later."
My mother was allowed to visit her little boy in the hospital a few times. On one occasion she found that his hands were deeply wrinkled, as if he had been immersed in water for a very long time. She always wondered if he had been the subject of an experiment.
A few weeks later, my parents received a telegram that their son Rainer Maria, born on February 9th, 1940, had died of "pneumonia." They had three days to pick up the body if they wished.
Deaths from "pneumonia" were extremely common at German hospitals at that time.
Post Script: Typing out this story, the impact I felt when I first heard it hit me again. I wish I could say that we have learned the lessons of history and that each human life has equal value now. That just isn't true...I pray that little Rainerchen's story serves as a grim warning of what can happen when the value of any is counted as less.