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Austria Struggles With Sins of Its Past

Nazis: As Vienna inters euthanized children's remains, survivors and relatives say nation has also tried to bury its citizens' crimes.

April 28, 2002|GEORGE JAHN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

VIENNA, Austria — Friedrich Zawrel realized he could be the next child on the Nazis' death list when he peeked from his hospital cell and saw two orderlies walking toward a hearse with small bodies clamped under their arms.

For another man, Walter Zehetner, the same grisly truth--that the Nazis killed children they deemed less than perfect--lay hidden at the bottom of a drawer until 1997. Going through papers after his mother's death, he discovered that a brother also had been a victim of this policy.

The Nazis called these human beings "worthless lives." Across Europe, at least 100,000 people, including 5,000 children, were killed for real or imagined mental, physical or social disabilities.

Vienna's city government now hopes to close a particularly gruesome chapter in this book of horrors. It recently buried most of the brains and other remains of about 600 children who were killed at a city hospital by the Nazis and used until 1978 for medical research.

Remains Used for Years

Now, after a search for relatives of the victims, the last two brains are being buried Sunday in Vienna's Central Cemetery, at a public service attended by political leaders and other dignitaries.

Austria has long depicted itself as Hitler's first innocent victim, overrun and annexed by Germany in 1938. Sunday's ceremony, however, reflects the now general recognition inside Austria that the country must accept responsibility for Nazi horrors committed in Austria by Austrians.

"A dark part of our history is being brought to a final and dignified conclusion," with the burials and other events linked to the killing of children at the Am Steinhof hospital, Vienna City Councilor Elisabeth Pittermann said.

But not all wounds are healed.

For one thing, the remains of the children were still being used in medical research more than 30 years after World War II ended.

Then there is the bitter knowledge, for survivors like Zawrel, that some of those linked to the killings survived and even thrived in postwar Austria.

Typical was Dr. Hans Bertha, the head of Am Steinhof. Although 3,500 adults and children were judged "worthless" and killed by the Nazis under his tenure, he went on to become a professor of medicine in the southern Austrian city of Graz after the war, dying in a 1961 car accident without ever facing justice.

"There is a certain closure through the burials," said Zawrel. "But we can never forget that some of those responsible for the horrors were subsequently honored citizens in good standing for decades."

Ostracized by Nazis

Zawrel, now 73, experienced those horrors firsthand.

The son of an alcoholic father, he was ordered ostracized at school by the Nazis because of his "asocial origins." He was brought to Am Steinhof in 1940 at age 11 after being accused of homosexuality.

Over espresso and marzipan cake at a Vienna coffeehouse, Zawrel spoke with a gentle smile that belied his ordeal: torture, humiliation, solitary confinement for four years and the daily fear of death.

"The 'wrap treatment' was one of the worst," he said. Orderlies would bind him first in two sheets soaked in icy cold water and then two dry sheets.

"Then they'd leave me, and wait until my body warmth dried the sheets," he said. "It took two days, and during that time they gave me nothing to eat or drink."

Another horror was "the dunk." Orderlies grabbed Zawrel by the hair and slammed his head into a tub of cold water, keeping it there until he blacked out. Other days brought beatings, "puke injections" or other torture by the needle, leaving him with a throbbing headache and unable to walk for days.

Johann Gross, another survivor, remembered "crawling on my hands, dragging my legs behind me because they were devoid of sensation" after the injections. "Or I would throw up, again and again."

Did they ever ask their torturers why they were doing this? Zawrel laughed mirthlessly.

"If you asked you got beaten," he said.

The fear of death, fed by whispered rumors of killings at the hospital, grew on the day in 1940 when he peeked out of his cell's small barred window to a yard and saw two orderlies walking to a hearse with their limp burdens.

"Each had a child clamped under each arm," he said. "[The bodies] were wrapped up in sheets, but their hands and feet were dangling free.

"As of that day, I knew that they were killing children."

Gross, the other survivor, remembered some infants' being left on hospital balconies on winter nights, naked or thinly dressed.

The balconies were only 30 to 40 yards from his dormitory, he recalled. "I heard them whimpering--and then I heard the parents got a letter saying their child had died of pneumonia."

Children Euthanized

For Zehetner, 54, the realization that his brother was one such victim came much later. Born after the war, he recalled asking his mother about "Gerli"--his brother who had died in 1942.

A framed photo showed Gerhard laughing in his mother's lap. But when Zehetner asked about it, his mother would grow tearful and silence his questions.

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