International Day of Mourning and Memory--Remembering Rainerchen

Today, in recognition of the International Day of Mourning and Memory I am re-posting a story that I didn't write, but heard during  Holocaust Education week this year. I am postponing the continuing story of Mum's stroke recovery for one day to remember a little boy who should have lived much longer than he did. His story should be told over and over. I am sorry that I'm posting late in the day!

                                 Remembering Rainerchen

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 by Belinda: Typing out this story, the impact I felt when I first heard it hit me. 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. 


joanne said…
Thank you for sharing, it is so heartbreaking. I hope we have learned somewhat.
My gosh, what a story. It breaks my heart to read it but it would be tragedy if the story were not told. He lives again in the words of this post - something entirely appropriate for this blog.
Belinda said…
Thank you Joanne. I am so glad to have had this chance to repost this sad, sad, story, of a child who was loved, but not allowed to live. It is a horror story that was lived in real life.
Belinda said…
Dave, thank you for your grace in allowing me to join so late in the day with the International Day of Mourning and Memory.
Anonymous said…
We must never forget, in an age of "austerity" where the pressure is to reassess and think of finance rather than the needs of individuals I fear greatly we will head back to this horror of the past (of the past?) When my managers refer to service users by their numbers (all about confidentiality of course)I always remember the tattoos of Austwich and they are alway Mr or Mrs.

If my son, blond and blue eyed had been born in Germany then he two would have been removed from the gene pool so I refuse to depersonalise people because it is then we head back easily towards these atrocities - but then I get pulled up for "caring too much."

Thanks for sharing Rainer's story, his parents suffering must have been terrible.
Belinda said…
Dear Anonymous, I agree that times such as ours are exactly the times when assessment of who is most worthy of receiving resources becomes a question based on their "usefulness." We need to guard against any insidious insertion of that thinking as being acceptable.
Angcat said…
The sad thing is that Quebec is trying so hard to pass a law in favor of 'assisted suicide' (no matter what they call it) for those suffering at the end of their lives. And it's already happening in Europe (Belgium).
God help us all.
Belinda said…
Ang, I just found your comment. I worry about assisted suicide, mainly because who is to say who has decided their life is ended? One of Mum's best friends, in Holland, who lived in a nursing home, died this way, when she apparently decided her life was over. I always wondered if it was truly her choice. She was Roman Catholic and it seemed to go against what she would have believed. It is a scary, slippery slope.

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