The Valley of the Shadow of Death
When Becky came home from Mass General, it was to a room that had been utterly transformed to cater to her new, intimidating needs. Rather than the small upstairs bedroom that we’d set aside for her, we rearranged what had been a large guest room on the first floor. A metal shelving unit held an oximeter, a wire from which we would attach to one of her big toes whenever she was sleeping; if the ideal oxygen level in her blood fell below 95 percent, an alarm would go off, and we would rush in to see what the problem was. If it fell below 90, it was time to think about getting her to the hospital. There was a suction machine to remove mucus and phlegm from her trach tube, a procedure we had to perform dozens of times a day. A basket filled with little plastic containers of saline solution, which helped to loosen the mucus. Extra trach ties. An enormous humidifier that delivered heated mist to her trach opening. A big green oxygen tank for home and a little portable oxygen tank for road trips.
And there were people, lots of them. Home nurses, wonderful women who were with us for as much as eighteen hours a day at first, tending to Becky while we slept, showing us the nuances of how best to meet her needs when we were awake. Technicians from a medical-supply company, miserable human beings who seemed not to know or care what they were doing. Occupational and physical therapists, well-meaning people who’d let their narrow areas of expertise somehow transmogrify into a condescending, we-know-best attitude that left us perplexed and infuriated.
What was most important about all of this, though, was that Becky herself was taken seriously. When she was first diagnosed with achondroplasia, the message was consistent: She’ll be fine. During her two months in Mass General, we were told: She’ll be fine, once she gets through this. And after she came home, it was: She’ll be fine, you just need to be patient. A generation or two ago, the parents of a child just diagnosed with dwarfism were sometimes told that their baby might not live long (true enough in some cases), or could be mentally retarded, or might even be better off in an institution. By contrast, everyone we dealt with, even the ones we didn’t like, took Becky’s difference as a given, and treated her dwarfism not as a problem unto itself, but rather as a complication that made it difficult for her to breathe, or pick up a stuffed animal, or roll over, or sit up. Get her through all that, and yes, She’ll be fine.
It’s an attitude that’s made all the difference in her life. And it’s an attitude that would be inconceivable were we not a society that accepted difference — if not perfectly, if not in all cases, then at least to a far greater extent than we did a hundred years ago, when freak shows were giving way to science, and science, all too often, abandoned the pursuit of truth in favor of crackpot theories about genetic superiority that reflected nothing so much as the prejudices of those who espoused those theories. In the 1930s and 1940s these theories reached their logical, and terrible, conclusion in Nazi Germany, where conformity was held up as the highest ideal and difference was seen as something to fear, and to eliminate.
In a very real sense, the disability consciousness that came into being in the second half of the twentieth century, and which has done so much to enhance Becky’s life and improve her prospects, sprang from the ashes of death camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, where millions of innocent people met their fate. And at a little-remembered camp called Mauthausen, where one man’s life and death symbolizes the horrifying consequences of regarding human difference as pathology.
He looks at the camera straight on. He is dressed in the striped prison garb of the Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria. His face — grim but dignified, almost serene — betrays a terrible awareness. He knew what was coming next.
Sixty years ago Alexander Katan stared into the lens of a Nazi photographer’s camera. Today he stares into the eyes of anyone who visits a Web site that documents his final moments. Move the cursor on top of his picture and it’s replaced by something else: a skeleton, obviously that of a dwarf with limb deformities, propped up like a curiosity in a display case. It is the skeleton of Alexander Katan.
After poking around the Internet and gleaning a few details about Katan’s life and death, I wrote to the Mauthausen Memorial Archives, hoping to learn more. In response, I received a letter from Dr. Doris Wagner, an official with Austria’s Federal Ministry of the Interior. Katan, she wrote, was born in Rotterdam on November 18, 1899. After Germany overran the Netherlands, Katan was registered as a “Dutch Jew” (Jude NL). He was arrested and brought to Mauthausen on or about November 3, 1942. On January 27, 1943, camp officials ordered him killed with an injection to the heart — the better to preserve his remains — so that his skeleton could be displayed and photographed. Wagner did not say how the flesh was so neatly stripped from Katan’s bones, leaving behind nothing but a perfect skeleton. But mostly likely his dead body was dipped in a vat of caustic chemicals.
Wagner’s letter included images of some actual records pertaining to Katan’s imprisonment and death. The cause of death was described as Eitriger Dickdarmkatarrh, or ulcerative colitis. Wagner’s letter noted with clinical dispassion that “the given cause of death does not necessarily correlate with the actual reasons for the prisoner’s demise.”
Katan was not taken to Mauthausen because he was a dwarf, but because he was a Jew. Nor was he killed because he was a dwarf. The complex of camps that comprised Mauthausen, though not as well-remembered today as Auschwitz or Dachau, was a place of unimaginable cruelty, and only a small fragment of what went on was aimed at those who were physically different. An estimated 150,000 people were killed. Some were ordered to remove their clothes in subzero temperatures and then sprayed with water, freezing them to death. Some were hacked to pieces by pick-wielding sadists. Some were simply starved, left lying in pools of excrement until they stopped moving and, finally, stopped breathing.
But though Alexander Katan was imprisoned and killed because he was a Jew, the particular way in which he was killed — and the way his remains were displayed, ogled at, desecrated — had everything to do with the fact that he was a dwarf. The Nazis were obsessed with physical differences, seeing them as signs of weakness, of genetic impurities that needed to be stamped out. Such differences in a Jew were evidence — confirmation — of Nazi ideology, which held that Jews were racially inferior to the blond-haired, blue-eyed “Aryans” who were held up as the ideal of pure Germanic blood.
Perhaps Katan was killed on the orders of Dr. Eduard Krebsbach, who was reportedly the first Mauthausen physician to use heart injections to execute inmates whom he considered sick or otherwise unfit. Krebsbach’s notoriety was such that he was nicknamed “Dr. Spritzbach” — that is, “Dr. Injection.” His tenure at Mauthausen was cut short after he was caught shooting a hard-partying German soldier on holiday who, along with his friends, had disturbed the good doctor’s rest. But Dr. Injection and his fellow physicians left behind quite a legacy: 286 specimens of human organs, a collection that the camp assembled in collaboration with the SS Medical Academy, at the University of Graz. According to one account, the collection included “hearts, lungs, kidneys, faces, skeletons, and skulls” of inmates, murdered by heart injection “to preserve their anatomical ‘anomalies.’” The attractions also included an album of tattooed skin, as well as lampshades and furniture made out of human remains.
The story of Alexander Katan, in many respects, traces our cultural attitudes toward difference in the first half of the twentieth century. Gradually, disability’s place in social consciousness moved from the freak show to the laboratory, and not always for the good of the disabled. Under the guise of the then-new pseudoscience of eugenics, physical differences such as blindness, deafness, mental retardation (or “imbecility,” as it used to be known), and the like were seen as something to study, to classify, to categorize. And to eliminate.
Dwarfism — as it had always been, as it is today — was seen as somehow different from other disabilities. There is no record of dwarfs having been specifically targeted by the eugenicists. Nor is there any evidence that dwarfs who were both healthy and mobile were considered disabled, not even by the Nazis. Yet as Katan’s fate shows, dwarfs were not put in quite the same category as the able-bodied, either. Left alone in normal times, they were singled out for their difference during moments of social breakdown and cultural madness. Some, like Katan, suffered a fate worse than that of their average-size peers — worse not because he was killed (after all, he was hardly alone in that), but because of the way he was mocked even after his death. Some were allowed to live because they were different — as was the case with the Ovitzes, whom I will discuss later in this chapter, a family of Jewish dwarfs who survived Auschwitz only because the infamous Josef Mengele saved them for his experiments.
The identity politics that has come to define the disability community in recent decades is, in a sense, a direct, ongoing response to the eugenics movement, and to the ugly end to which it came in the 1940s. They include the deaf activists who label cochlear implants “genocide”; the wheelchair-users who rail against Christopher Reeve for seeking a cure for his quadriplegia rather than raising political consciousness; and the parents who changed the term mongoloidism to Down’s syndrome and then later insisted that the possessive be dropped, lest it appear that those with the of the condition somehow were the property of the physician, Dr. J. Langdon Down, who first described it. Identity politics has also had an effect on the organized dwarf community, which at first rejected the disability label and then later embraced it as a way to advance its agenda of acceptance and access.
The overarching message voiced by all these activists is that disability is a difference, not a defect, and that difference is to be celebrated. From a purely scientific point of view, their logic is dubious. As Becky’s pulmonary specialist, Dr. Dan Shannon, once told me, it makes no more sense to place a positive value on dwarfism than on diabetes. Is someone whose pancreas can’t produce enough insulin an example of the rich tapestry of human diversity, or would her life instead be enhanced by the elimination of such diversity — that is, by a cure? The answer is obvious.
But illogical though the diversity model of disability may be, it has enormous worth in terms of politics and culture. Treating disability as though it were like race, sexual orientation, or religion — as something to be tolerated, accepted, protected, even celebrated — helps make this a more dignified, open, and just society. Treating it as a defect to be stamped out is divisive and deadening. At its worst, it leads to a display case in Mauthausen, where Nazi officials and doctors — members of the most thoroughly Nazified of all the German professions — peered thoughtfully at the skeleton of a deformed little man, the flesh stripped from his bones in just the right way so as not to interfere with their edification and amusement.
Eugenics was the bastard child of evolution and genetics. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, introduced such ideas as natural selection and the survival of the fittest. The development of living things was removed from the realm of theology and transferred to that of science. Humans were not made in God’s image — not directly, anyway — but, rather, evolved from ape-like ancestors millions of years ago, becoming more intelligent over time because intelligence gives humans an advantage over their competitors: predatory animals; the elements; and, most provocatively, less intelligent, and therefore less evolved, fellow humans.
Most scientists today believe that evolution is quite a bit more complicated and random than the onward-and-upward path described by Darwin, which bespoke a faith in progress every bit as theological, in its way, as the story of the Garden of Eden. In its time, though, Darwin’s theory of evolution had an explosive effect. The notion that humans are evolving into an ever more intelligent and powerful species was as dangerous as it was exhilarating.
A cruel political philosophy known as Social Darwinism became popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Its adherents believed that the poor were responsible for their plight, and that they were somehow inferior, from an evolutionary point of view, to those who were more successful. Worse, Social Darwinists believed that society should refrain from helping the poor, because all they would do is reproduce and drag humanity down the evolutionary ladder with them. Those whites who had never accepted blacks as fully human now claimed to have additional evidence, arguing that blacks had not risen as far from apehood as whites had. In pop culture, to cite just one example,
P. T. Barnum exploited the public’s hazy understanding of evolution by displaying a microcephalic black man named William Henry “Zip” Johnson, whom he billed as “What Is It?” and described as the missing link between humans and orangutans.
Eugenics was the scientific — or, rather, pseudoscientific — counterpart to Social Darwinism. Fittingly enough, it was first promulgated by a cousin of Darwin’s, Sir Francis Galton, who came up with the word and defined its purpose: to encourage those humans who were supposedly more evolved to reproduce as much as possible, and to discourage the lower sorts from breeding at all. His ideas about superiority matched up conveniently with his own ethnicity and social class. Though Galton was gifted enough as a scientist to develop the modern method of fingerprint identification, he could also be so sloppy and prejudiced that he actually sought to support his eugenics theory with data showing that successful people tend to be related to other successful people, as though that were the result of anything other than environment. (Then again, it’s not as though those ideas have gone away entirely. Witness those who argue that the poor performance of black children on standardized tests is evidence of intellectual inferiority rather than differences in family history and opportunity or a cultural bias in the tests themselves.)
Darwin’s theory of evolution was a necessary but not wholly sufficient basis for eugenics. The other element was genetics — the discoveries of Gregor Mendel, the obscure Austrian monk whose experiments with peas showed how inherited characteristics were handed down from one generation to the next. Eugenics, then, was a toxic combination of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest and Mendel’s ideas about the mechanics of heredity. As Simon Mawer writes in his fine, quirky 1998 novel, Mendel’s Dwarf, “It was a science that would ultimately lead to the ovens of Auschwitz.”
Though eugenics reached its apex in Nazi Germany, it found a receptive home early on in the United States. Perhaps this is not surprising, given our belief in science and progress and self-improvement. Gradually, public display of the disabled came to be seen as barbaric. As Howard University’s Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes, “Looking at disability became inappropriate in the same way that public executions and torture came to be considered offensive by the nineteenth century.” It was around this time, Thomson observes, that the bleeding figure of Jesus began to disappear from the Protestant cross, a change that was emblematic of the “banishment of the image of disability.” The medicalization of disability, she adds, led to another, even more disturbing shift in cultural attitudes: rather than being viewed as “natural wonders,” the disabled came to be seen as something that was broken and therefore had to be fixed. Or cast aside. “The logic of ‘cure or kill,’ accompanied by today’s faith in technology,” writes Thomson, “posits that if the disabled body cannot be normalized, it must be eliminated.”
Among the earliest, and weirdest, proponents of such elimination was Dr. Harry Haiselden, a young surgeon from Chicago who burst on the scene in 1915 when he told the Chicago American, a mass-market Hearst newspaper, that he had let a disabled newborn baby die. Like a proto-Jack Kevorkian, Haiselden was investigated three times for refusing to save the lives of disabled infants. Unlike Kevorkian, he evaded official censure. Ultimately, though, he was kicked out of the Chicago Medical Society for espousing his views in newspaper articles and for making a bizarre and disturbing movie called The Black Stork. Its message was not subtle. The mother of a disabled newborn must decide whether to let a surgeon save her baby, or to let him die. She has a vision: her surgically repaired child grows up to become a criminal who has disabled kids of his own. Ultimately, he tracks down the doctor who saved his life and kills him. Mom makes what was, from Haiselden’s point of view, the right choice. As the film moves toward its conclusion, a faint image of Jesus is superimposed in the background, and the child’s soul leaps into his waiting arms.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the United States led the world in putting eugenics theory into practice. It has been estimated that more than thirty thousand people were systematically sterilized in twenty-nine states — about half of them in California — between 1907 and 1939. These sterilizations were aimed primarily at mentally retarded or mentally ill people living in institutions and prisons, sometimes without their knowledge, sometimes against their will.
A particularly notorious case involved an eighteen-year-old woman named Carrie Bruck, who was living in an institution for the “feebleminded” in Virginia. As described by the disability historian Joseph Shapiro, Bruck was the middle actor in a multigenerational tragedy: she had just given birth, and her mother was warehoused in the same institution. It’s likely that their real disability was poverty rather than any sort of mental deficiency, according to Shapiro. Nevertheless, state officials sought forcibly to sterilize Carrie Bruck, and the United States Supreme Court agreed. Wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the 1927 opinion: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough!”
By comparison, Germany had a lot of catching up to do — so much so, according to the historian Robert Jay Lifton, that a German geneticist named Fritz Lenz complained in 1923 that Germany was lagging well behind the United States in sterilizing its undesirables. The Weimar constitution, Lenz noted with disdain, forbade alterations to the human body, a category that included vasectomies. Worse, he complained, the country had no laws to prohibit people with disabilities such as mental retardation or epilepsy from getting married. That would soon change — and Lenz himself would become a top official in Nazi Germany’s eugenics programs.
It did not take long for Germany to assume a leadership position. Lifton makes an important point about the difference between the United States and Britain (another leading center of enthusiasm for eugenics) on the one hand and Germany on the other. The United States and Britain, with their open political systems and ingrained respect for individual rights, had self-correcting mechanisms in place that held the eugenic impulse at least somewhat in check. In Germany, where the Nazis quickly established a totalitarian state after rising to power in 1933, eugenics was imposed forcibly from above. Hitler himself once said that the state “must see to it that only the healthy beget children. . . . It must declare unfit for propagation all who are in any way visibly sick or who have inherited a disease and can therefore pass it on.” His deputy, Rudolf Hess, put it more simply: “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”
This applied biology took the form of two programs: mass sterilizations, which began in 1934, and direct killing — “euthanasia,” as it was euphemistically called — which began in 1939. Using these means the Germans eliminated what they called lebensunwerten Leben — “life unworthy of life.” The “euthanasia” program, in particular, was a dress rehearsal for the Final Solution. As the physician-murderers refined their techniques, they eventually hit upon an efficient system for doing away with the institutionalized disabled who were supposedly under their care: they would kill them with gas, then burn their bodies in a crematorium. The so-called euthanasia program was supposed to be kept a secret, but German opinion became inflamed as fact and rumor began to spread. In 1941 Hitler officially ended it, although it continued surreptitiously until the end of the war. The killing technology — the gas equipment and the ovens — were simply packed up and shipped to the death camps, where six million Jews and millions of others met their fates.
Overall, it has been estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 people were sterilized during the Nazi era, and perhaps as many as 200,000 to 250,000 were killed under the various “euthanasia” programs.
But as terrible as these crimes were, it appears that dwarfs were largely spared. Sterilization and “euthanasia” were aimed almost exclusively at severely disabled people living in institutions. Above all, the Nazis were obsessed with mental conditions. Schizophrenia, epilepsy, manic-depressive illness, mental retardation, and the like accounted for well over half the cases of those who were murdered. Dwarfism was not mentioned in the list of physical conditions that the Nazis sought to eliminate, such as hereditary blindness or deafness. Certainly some severely disabled dwarfs already living in institutions may have been killed, since they would have been considered “life unworthy of life.” But there is no evidence that healthy German dwarfs, living and working alongside their average-size fellow citizens, were singled out in any systematic way for sterilization or death. Still, there may have been exceptions.
The disability historian Hugh Gregory Gallagher has written in considerable detail about precisely which mental and physical disabilities the Nazis targeted for elimination, and although the list does not include dwarfism, he mentions dwarfs’ being killed almost in passing. When I contacted Gallagher, he told me he had no specific documentation. But that doesn’t mean that no dwarfs were targeted. Gallagher writes that, at its worst, “euthanasia” was meted out to anyone who didn’t conform — a category far-reaching enough to encompass children in orphanages who had bad skin. Or bad attitudes. It seems possible that some dwarfs were victimized during this time simply because of their dwarfism, perhaps under the guise that they had severe hereditary physical disabilities, a catchall category that the Nazis also made use of. What really happened, though, remains a mystery.
One afternoon I paid a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., to interview Patricia Heberer, a historian of the Nazi war against the disabled. I was accompanied by Cara Egan, a woman with achondroplasia who has studied the role of the dwarf community in the disability-rights movement. “There’s no consistent targeting of dwarfs or little people for the ‘euthanasia’ program,’” Heberer told us. “‘Euthanasia’ doesn’t go beyond the bounds of the custodial setting. What they’re doing is getting rid of a population in an institutional setting, and they’re not concerned with people who can function, or who are outside that.”
Afterwards, Andy Hollinger, a museum official, took Egan and me to an exhibit on the fate of the disabled under the Nazis. We saw a miserable little bed, body restraints, a physician’s smock. Behind all this was an enormous photo of the crematory smokestack at the Hadamar mental institution, belching out the ashes of human remains — the setting for a surreal celebration of speechmaking and beer-drinking, vividly described by Hugh Gallagher, upon the occasion of the ten thousandth victim’s death. There were photos, too, of mentally retarded children just before they were killed, of buses with the windows painted over so that no one could see in or out, of a doctor examining the body of a child who’d been “euthanized,” supposedly so that he could study the genetic basis of disease.
Particulars are important. It’s worth knowing whether dwarfs were or were not singled out by the Nazis. But it’s even more important not to lose sight of the overarching horror of what took place.
Liebe Perla (“Dear Perla”), a 1999 film by the Israeli documentarian Shahar Rozen, is deceptively low-key. Its subject is a ten-member family of Hungarian-Jewish entertainers — seven of them dwarfs — who survived Auschwitz because of Josef Mengele’s perverted curiosity. One of the survivors, an elderly dwarf named Perla Ovitz, is interviewed in her Haifa home by a German researcher, Hannelore Witkofski, who is herself disabled. Near the beginning of the film, Ovitz makes what the narrator calls “an unusual request.” During their time in Auschwitz, Mengele had ordered the entire Ovitz family to be photographed naked. Perla Ovitz asks Witkofski to find the photo and bring it to her so that it can’t be viewed by anyone else.
We follow Witkofski as she tries to track the photo down, in German archives and at the Auschwitz memorial. Apparently it is lost forever. What we do see, though, is profoundly chilling.
At one point we see a film clip of Jews being herded into Auschwitz, a dwarf clearly visible. At another, Perla receives word from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, that her family’s musical instruments have been found; she and Witkofsky make an emotional trip to see, to touch, the instruments upon the latter’s return to Israel. Then there is Perla’s ambivalence about Mengele — an ambivalence that is shocking given the evil he did to her family and to countless thousands of others. She recalls Mengele’s eyeing the seven dwarfs when they arrived at Auschwitz and saying gleefully, “I’ve got work for twenty years.” She remembers thinking: “God, I don’t want to live twenty years.” Yet she could not let go of the notion that it was Mengele who had saved them, that it was his interest in their dwarfism that allowed them to live. She tells Witkofski that she cried when she learned Mengele had died in Uruguay. “I can’t say anything bad about him,” she says. We see her nephews arguing with her, telling her it is unimaginable that she could hold such views about a monster such as Mengele.
In an interview with the journalist Yehuda Koren published after the film was released, Ovitz offered more details. She said that shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, her family was actually dragged off to the gas chambers against Mengele’s orders. He rescued them, giving them milk so they would vomit out the poison that had already entered their bodies. They were poked and prodded, injected and inspected; Mengele took blood, marrow, teeth from them, but he never took their lives. “We were the only family who entered a death camp and emerged together,” she told Koren. “If ever I questioned why I was born a dwarf, my answer must be that my handicap, my deformity, was God’s way of keeping me alive.” Mengele, she recalled, even made up a rhyme that he would chant: “Over the hills and seven mountains, there my seven dwarfs do dwell.” After the war ended, they performed in Israel as the “Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz.”
For some in the dwarf community, it is an article of faith that the Nazis sought to eliminate all dwarfs. As Rika Esser, an official with BundesselbsthilfeVerband Kleinwüchsiger Menschen, the German little people’s association, said to me in an e-mail, “I read quite a number of books on the Third Reich in general, and the fate of short people was only mentioned as a footnote, if ever. But: since the goal of the regime was to keep the ‘German genes’ as much Aryan (TALL, blond, blue-eyed) as possible, and since this is not reconcilable with being short, I guess that this in itself is a reason to prosecute dwarfs.” Indeed, after I saw Liebe Perla at a screening with a couple of dozen Little People of America members, there was a heated discussion about that very topic. One person went so far as to say that, after World War II, there were few dwarfs left in Europe because Hitler had killed nearly all of them. There is no evidence of that — not in Robert Jay Lifton’s or Hugh Gregory Gallagher’s books, and not in any of the voluminous records that the Nazis kept about their evil deeds. Patricia Heberer, the Holocaust Museum historian, told Cara Egan and me that the dwarfs who were sent to the death camps were Jews, or perhaps members of some other persecuted group, mainly the Roma, better known as Gypsies.
In fact, Liebe Perla underscores the uniquely Jewish character of the Holocaust. Perla Ovitz told Koren that she and her family were able to continue touring and performing for several years during the war because they had hidden the fact that they were Jews. After Germany invaded Hungary, she recalled, “the Nazis gave us a hand, lifted us onto the packed train, and helped us find some space.” Only later, when the authorities learned that the Ovitzes were Jews, were they sent to Auschwitz. Alexander Katan’s papers identified him as a “Dutch Jew,” and made no mention of his dwarfism. The same was presumably true of Lya Graf, a Jewish dwarf who performed in American circuses in the 1920s and 1930s and who became briefly famous when she was photographed sitting in the lap of the financier J. P. Morgan. Graf and her parents returned to their native Germany in the 1930s, and she died, along with her parents, at Auschwitz in 1941.
In her 1985 memoir of her time in Auschwitz, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk tells a story about a family of dwarfs that is almost unbearable to read. It is about another family of Hungarian-Jewish entertainers, circus performers in this case, comprising three dwarf women, two average-size women married to dwarfs, and a three-year-old boy who was the son of a dwarf but who was apparently average-size himself. The family members slobber all over Mengele, thanking him for saving them, but he will have none of it. Instead, he is inflamed with demented curiosity over their sex lives, particularly between the average-size women and the dwarf men. “You will tell me if the little one is the midget’s son, or did you have him with somebody else?” he leers. Later, he takes the three-year-old and dissects him, while still alive. “Without blinking an eye,” Nomberg-Przytyk writes, “Mengele was inflicting physical agonies on a three-year-old child who had not the least understanding of what was happening.” The boy died that night.
So much has been written and said about Mengele that it is hard to know what more can be added. In reading about his life and career, two things struck me in particular. The first was his basic lack of intelligence. Mengele is often portrayed as some sort of evil genius, as in Gregory Peck’s depiction in the 1978 film The Boys from Brazil. But as Gerald Posner and John Ware make clear in their biography of Mengele, the Angel of Death was really a hardworking B-student type who had convinced himself that his sadistic and worthless experiments — especially on twins, but to a lesser extent on dwarfs and others — would win him a university professorship after the war.
The other aspect of Mengele’s personality worth noting was his simultaneous kindness and cruelty toward his victims, a quality that is sometimes cited as evidence of deep psychological problems. He may well have had such problems, but it seems more plausible to me that he was just evil. Having already thoroughly dehumanized his subjects, he simply thought of them as laboratory mice. A good scientist will keep his mice warm and well-fed, and maybe even murmur sweet nothings into their little ears from time to time. But that’s not going to stop him from poking their eyes out, injecting them with poisons, and cutting them open when they’re still alive so that he can see the effects of his experiments.
It is not entirely clear why Mengele was interested in dwarfs. Twins, yes: he wanted to learn the secret of multiple births so that he could help the German race multiply. But why dwarfs? It’s thought that he saw dwarfism and other physical disabilities among Jews as evidence of racial inferiority, although that raises the question of what he made of Germans with the same conditions. He was also short himself, and on one occasion he reportedly drew a line on a wall in the children’s block — at about the five-foot-two mark — with everyone under the line being sent to the gas chambers and those over it allowed to live another day. Was there a connection in his mind between his own mild short stature and the profound short stature of the dwarfs whom he tortured?
Within the dwarf community, one of the most celebrated books of recent years is Ursula Hegi’s 1994 novel, Stones from the River. The lead character, Trudi Montag, is an achondroplastic dwarf — a Zwerg — whose life we follow from World War I until just after World War II, from childhood to early middle age. In literary terms, Trudi’s dwarfism serves to make her a permanent outsider — a keen observer who is in, but never quite of, her time and place. Only once does her dwarfism put her at risk, even though other people with disabilities have disappeared from her village, never to be seen again. She is taken prisoner, and fears it is because the authorities have learned that she and her father have been hiding Jews in their basement. It turns out that she had been picked up because of an offhand remark she’d made, and, after three weeks, she is released — but not before this exchange with a Gestapo officer:
He said: “The rules that used to temper curiosity no longer exist.”
She waited, confused.
“Do you understand what I say?”
“You should. Don’t you know what can happen to someone like you in our country?”
The Buttgereit boy . . . the man-who-touches-his-heart . . . the Heidenreich daughter . . . No, she was not like them.
“You become an experiment . . . a medical experiment for the almighty profession,” he said, and told her of operations performed on twins, on people afflicted with otherness. “Because the rules that used to temper curiosity no longer exist . . . Some people might even tell you that a Zwerg has no right to live.”
She felt her back seize up on her. Bracing herself against the familiar heaviness at the base of her spine, she asked, “And you? Is that what you believe?”
He looked at her, evenly, and she read in his eyes what she’d known four years before — that he didn’t believe in anything or anyone.
In such a context it hardly matters that dwarfism was not among the differences that had been singled out as no longer being bound by “the rules that used to temper curiosity.” It could be used as a threat. If today the deaf were at risk of being exterminated and dwarfs were not, well, what of tomorrow? And what would happen to someone like Trudi if she fell afoul of the authorities because of her opposition to the Nazis?
There were, after all, Germans who ended up at the death camps, too — political dissidents, gays and lesbians, and various and assorted misfits. If Trudi had been taken to Auschwitz for her political beliefs, forced to labor beneath the metal gate emblazoned with Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Brings Freedom”), well, what would have happened to her then? Would she have fallen into Mengele’s clutches? Would she have been killed under the 14f13 program, in which physicians who were veterans of the “euthanasia” movement were sent to the death camps to weed out those who were physically unable to perform their share of the work?
In the crematoria of Auschwitz and Mauthausen and the other death camps, millions died — and an ideology died as well. A half-century of trying to eliminate difference reached its logical, terrible conclusion. In the nineteenth century, the disabled were displayed as freaks of nature. In the first part of the twentieth, they were regarded as contaminants in the gene pool. Eugenics, finally, was exposed as the fraud and the evil that it was.
In 2000, the Dutch documentarian Hedda van Gennep made a film called Dood Spoor? (“Dead End?”), with a subtitle that translates as “A Son Seeks His Father.” Van Gennep tells the story of Alphons Katan, Alexander Katan’s son, and his successful quest to persuade officials at the Mauthausen Memorial to remove photographs of his father, several of which were taken after he had been stripped of his clothes. We learn some details of Alexander Katan’s life — of his work as a tutor, of his strict observance of the Sabbath, of his and his wife’s arrest and imprisonment. Alphons Katan’s story is moving, even heartbreaking. But I cannot agree with his crusade. We must bear moral witness, even when it’s painful, even when it’s intrusive, even when we might rather look away. Think of the haunted faces in those images from the killing fields of Cambodia, or of the piled-up bodies outside the churchyard in Rwanda. Avoiding the true nature of evil only increases the chance that it will happen again.
The photographs that were taken of Alexander Katan in his last moments are more than a document of one man. They are a message, a warning of what happens when we turn human variation into pathology, difference into defect — when we look at a person with a disability and see only the disability.
Alexander Katan belongs to the ages. He belongs to us, if we’re capable of understanding what he’s telling us.