Murderous medicine: the role of psychiatrists in genocide
“Where are you taking us?” So reads the inscription on the memorial of the infamous Grey buses which, during World War II, were used to transport psychiatric patients to their deaths at the hands of doctors and nurses.
“The grey bus is to the Aktion T4 [programme in which psychiatric patients were ‘euthanised’] what the cattle car… is to Auschwitz and the Shoah,” said Professor Michael Robertson, Health Ethics Associate at the University of Sydney.
Professor Robertson explained how the killings of psychiatric patients, often in gas chambers, later became the prototype for the chief murder method in concentration camps.
Robertson was speaking at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in Parktown. He explained how in October 1939, the SS Einsatzgruppe [mobile killing] detachments began the sporadic gassing of psychiatric patients in hospitals in Western Poland.
“From December 1939 through to January 1940, the first victims of Operation Aktion T4 died in a gas chamber built in a prison complex in Brandenburg.”
As part of this, “the Gemeinnützige Krankentransport – also known as the Gekrat – was a ‘benevolent’ transport company which was supposed to help transport people from institution to institution. What it was actually doing was taking them from psychiatric hospitals and facility care institutions to transitional [sites] – and then to their deaths.
“These buses would come into asylums and cause terror because patients knew that the people who left didn’t return.”
A replica of a grey bus now travels around Germany as a memorial to the atrocity, while another is placed in a fixed location in Ravensburg.
Robertson detailed how, by the end of the Aktion T4 programme, there were six euthanasia centres established in Austria and Germany. By 1941, these centres had also begun to murder prisoners from concentration camps who were too weak to work.
By then, more than 70 000 people had been killed in the scheme – and yet, its impact on the Holocaust was only just beginning.
After all, “after the cessation of the T4 programme, there were several hundred quite skilled mass killers who were unemployed”.
Soon, “these skilled killers were put to work on the much larger project of the elimination of the Jewish population”.
“Many of the Shoah’s most evil perpetrators… honed their craft during the T4 programme,” he said.
“The [T4 programme’s] process of identification of a group, their exclusion from the community… their mass transportation to their deaths in designated killing centres, and the disposal of their bodies, provided the ‘software and hardware for the Final Solution’,” said Robertson, quoting historian Henry Friedlander.
The direct link between the establishment of gas chambers in concentration camps and those originally conceived of by psychiatrists came about during a visit by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler to Minsk in August 1941.
“Himmler, and to a lesser extent [Reinhard] Heydrich, were concerned about the welfare of their men tasked with the elimination of enemies of the state – particularly when the decision was taken that woman and children were to be the victims. The anxieties of the senior ranks of the SS increased.”
The visit by Himmler to Minsk proved pivotal in finding ‘inspiration’ from the murder methodology of psychiatric patients.
“At one point when visiting the ghetto in Minsk, Himmler is shown a demonstration pit killing of a hundred people from the ghetto.
“Himmler is standing at the edge of the killing pit, and his tunic is sprayed with brain matter… from one of the people shot in front of him.
“Later that day, he travels to a psychiatric hospital in Minsk, witnesses the gassing of psychiatric patients, and he has a Damascus Moment that this is the way things must precede.”
During his discussion of this era of murderous medicine, Robertson noted that eugenics was prevalent in many parts of the world at that time: “In fact, eugenics had a much more virulent presence in the United States.”
Robertson added a caveat about the ideology of eugenics, warning that there was a danger of racial purity theories rising to prominence again.
“A failed state, a punished and shamed people, a public health crisis – all led to the potential for populism to take hold.
“This is a phenomenon that we are seeing now: economic instability, the struggle many have adapting to late capitalism. All are fertile ground for demogogues and populists who offer nostrums [schemes], whether they be racist exclusion, or whether they be, as in the case of National Socialism, biological nostrums.”
At a previous event at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, Robert Kaplan, Professor and Forensic Psychiatrist at the University of Wollongong, expanded on the role of doctors in the Armenian and Bosnian genocides.
“The 20th century is the most murderous century in history,” was his opening declaration.
He said that while the significance of the Holocaust was clear: “We can’t see the Holocaust in isolation; there have been genocides before and genocides since then.”
For example, the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915, was “a perfect prototype for the Holocaust”.
“The Nazis took very careful notice of what happened,” said Kaplan, pointing out that those behind the genocide were believed to have “set up the first known use of a primate gas chamber”.
As was the case with the Nazi party, “doctors were prominent in the central committee of the Ittihadist Party who came into power in 1908 in Turkey through a coup”.
Kaplan singled out a number of medical professionals central to the killings, including physicians Behaeddin Sakir and Mehmett Nazin. The latter – with sick irony – was a professor of ethical and judicial medicine at Istanbul medical hospital.
“Between them, they are credited with at least a million deaths. They drove the whole system.”
Kaplan explained that in the Armenian genocide, medical personnel not only planned killing methods, they participated in them directly.
“The Turkish doctors saw their duties as straight butchers.”
In fact, in one incident, four butchers were hired to slaughter victims; in other cases, abbatoirs were used as the site of killing.
Turning to the example of the Bosnian Genocide, which took place from 1992 to 1995 in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kaplan said that psychiatrists used their professions as a propaganda tool for propelling hatred and division – linking mental disturbance to different nationalities.
“As the temperature heated up, psychiatrists on both sides – Serbian and Croatian – went into battle, making statements and writing papers.”
“Psychiatric jargon is the driving force for ethnic cleansing,” he said.
Freedom Day fight for Liliesleaf’s survival
Nicholas Wolpe, the founder and chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust, is a man on a sad, lonely mission.
Out of desperation, he has become the mouthpiece for the arts, heritage, and culture sector, one which in his view is dismally neglected and forgotten about.
Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, described as the “nerve centre of the liberation movement”, is hanging by a thread and facing permanent closure due to a funding crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
Once a hive of activity frequented by many Jewish struggle stalwarts and their famous brothers in arms during the height of the struggle, the secret safehouse turned internationally renowned place of memory, now stands forlorn and overgrown.
It was at Liliesleaf that a group of dedicated activists including Nelson Mandela were arrested during a police raid in 1963 for planning to overthrow the apartheid government. The raid led to the Rivonia Treason Trial.
Among the freedom fighters was Nicholas’ father, Harold Wolpe, Arthur Goldreich, Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, and James Kantor.
“The Jewish population made up a miniscule percentage of the population and here, these activists comprised 40% of those arrested,” Wolpe told the SA Jewish Report this week.
The once popular tourist attraction hasn’t been open since last March, and like many struggle heritage sites in the country, risks closure.
“Many of our historical sites of memory, including Robben Island, have deteriorated and are a shadow of their former selves,” said Wolpe.
Like Liliesleaf, they are “either on life support or are being forced to close their doors. Some even consider auction in the hope of securing a benefactor who will ensure their survival”, he said.
Many historical sites are dilapidated and falling apart. Wolpe emphasises the repercussions should these crucial places of memory be threatened with closure.
This week, on Freedom Day, 27 April, Liliesleaf launched a crowdfunding campaign in a last-ditch attempt to keep this vital place of history afloat.
“It’s crucial that we keep the memory of the struggle against apartheid alive,” he said.
Wolpe was a baby when police raided Liliesleaf Farm on 11 July 1963, arresting the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. His father, Harold, was one of them.
It led to the famous Rivonia Trial at which eight accused, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Raymond Mhlaba, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Wolpe’s parents, Harold and AnnMarie, fled into exile shortly after Harold escaped from the Marshall Square police headquarters in Johannesburg by bribing a young warder, just before the start of the Rivonia Trial. Nicholas returned to South Africa as a young man on a mission to bring those defining moments in the history of South Africa to life. He went back to Liliesleaf Farm, and created an independent site of memory.
In spite of many funding challenges, he has shown steadfast commitment and dedication to ensuring that “a unique and seminal epoch in our struggle for freedom isn’t lost and forgotten, but remembered and honoured”.
It hasn’t been easy for Wolpe.
“There exists an indifference to preserving the memory of our struggle. Current government policy doesn’t recognise independent heritage sites so they are denied access to much-needed government funding,” he said.
Places like Liliesleaf rely on donations, tourism, entrance fees, and school visits, all hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I fear that our liberation history will fade from our collective consciousness and will hold little meaning, particularly for our youth and future generations,” he said.
“Historical sites like Liliesleaf should be given the attention they deserve and the funding they desperately need. This way, the men and women who sacrificed their own lives so that the South Africans of today could enjoy the fruits of freedom will be honoured.”
He said Liliesleaf recognised the unique, ethical, and principled group of leaders who rose above self-interest and aspirations.
“Service was a fundamental aspect of what they were doing. It’s what drove them as a collective. They didn’t seek affirmation, reward, or publicity. They fought for a free, equal, just society. Together they symbolised the essence of being a servant of the people,” he said.
“South Africa is grappling with corruption, self-interest, and state capture – the very antithesis of the ideals, principles, beliefs, and aspirations of struggle heroes. Places like Liliesleaf stand as a reminder to the youth of the importance of what underpinned our struggle and what can be achieved through a unified commitment defined and underpinned by self-dedication.
“Arts, culture, and heritage is the soul of our nation, and theatres and many places like Liliesleaf are our link to the past, our connection to the present, and our bridge to our future,” Wolpe said.
“Liliesleaf has a crucial and indispensable role to play in highlighting that the Freedom Charter was not merely a statement, but a statement of intent. It was a reality as highlighted by the role individuals across the colour bar played in the fight for freedom, justice, equality, and democracy. This is why we must take a stand before it’s too late.”
The crowdfunding campaign will help to meet basic operating costs such as staff salaries and utilities. It asks people to donate R27 or R60 to commemorate 27 years of democracy, the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in prison, and the 60th anniversary, this August, since Liliesleaf was purchased. Donations can be made via the Liliesleaf website.
Kramer quits COVID advisory over “community flouting protocols”
One of the community’s top COVID-19 advisors this week lashed out at the community for flouting rules and putting lives at risk. Professor Efraim Kramer said he could no longer contribute to the safety of the community during the pandemic in light of this brazen behaviour.
“In a nutshell, I’m fed up,” Kramer told the SA Jewish Report. He said while the first surge “brought out the best in the community”, the second wave “brought out the worst in us”. His frustration has been mounting for some weeks in light of the number of deaths in the community. Last week, two members of his family passed away from COVID-19.
“I don’t care if I upset people. My aim is just to save lives. I don’t want to implicate anybody. The final straw came this week when President Cyril Ramaphosa allowed faith gatherings to take place, and people went to shul the next day. Where was the consultation? No meetings were held on how best to re-open shuls.”
Kramer is the head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and Professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University. He has specialised in emergency medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the Soccer World Cup in 2018. Along with other experts, he has advised the office of the chief rabbi on matters related to COVID-19 and shuls.
“I have written at least eight different protocols for things like weddings, Barmitzvahs, yom tov [gatherings], and shuls and it seems that everyone is doing what they like,” he said. “Come December, in the middle of a raging pandemic, people got in their cars or on flights and headed straight for hotspots. They flew home knowing they were infected. The results have been devastating, people have died. We’ve done this to ourselves. We’re doing it to our own.”
He said the communal leadership was “paralysed”. In a strongly worded message he sent to Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and members of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, he wrote, “Please note, with regret, that I have withdrawn from all community COVID-19 commitments and communications due to the total disregard and ignoring of the various safety protocols developed for the shuls and the community by many. I will no longer consult on any COVID-19 issue because it generally amounts to nothing as most people are still intent on doing their own thing anyway, in spite of advice to the contrary. But then, who am I to give advice anyway.”
Kramer said he had received countless complaints from members of the community afraid to attend large simchas which had been taking place “as if things are normal”. On Wednesday, he received another complaint from a community member who lamented that while a caterer was following protocols, guests were dancing, hugging, and behaving as if it was a pre-COVID-19 wedding.
“I drive past a shul every day and see countless cars outside. There have been minyanim taking place. The shuls have relaxed their protocols. I went into a bakery last week, and things were haywire. People were on top of each other using the same tongs and there was no safe distancing. It was a disgrace. As a doctor, I can’t fight this anymore. I’m going back to hospitals where at least the patients appreciate what I’m doing.
“While many people are being very careful, there are those who don’t care about the next guy. They think they are ‘holier than thou’ and Hashem will listen to their prayers. When you add up all the incidences, you get a picture of a community that doesn’t care for one another anymore. And where is the leadership when this is happening? How come nothing was said when shuls continued to open when it was against the law to do so and unsafe?”
Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at Wits and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said, “This is very disappointing news. Professor Kramer has been an absolutely invaluable member of our community medical advisory team and has devoted an incredible amount of his time and energy in drawing up protocols, inspecting shuls, and looking after the safety of functions. He is an international authority on mass gatherings and has world-class credentials which have been so valuable in managing the COVID-19 epidemic. I’m sad at the decision he has taken, but I do understand the intense frustration he is feeling at the attitudes he has come across in a small minority of our community and the disregarding of protocols to safeguard our community by a small minority of shuls and minyanim.”
Leading pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman said she understood Kramer’s frustration. “We’re all frustrated by people’s complete disregard for safety protocols as it’s so simple to follow the rules. We’re absolutely exhausted, and are tired of watching people struggle for each and every breath knowing that they should have worn a mask/should have kept a safe distance/should have avoided the gathering, and could have avoided getting COVID-19. You realise that you can give the same advice till you’re blue in the face, and people will choose to do what they want. We don’t act as judge, and never compromise our standard of care, going all out to fight for our patients’ lives.”
Said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, “I was disappointed and surprised to receive Professor Kramer’s resignation on the eve of the president’s announcement allowing for the reopening of shuls, which have been closed for more than a month. I have asked to meet with Professor Kramer to understand his specific concerns because the reports I have received since the reopening of our shuls in August 2020 indicate that the overwhelming majority of shuls have been outstanding and totally dedicated to the implementation of the health and safety protocols drafted by our full medical team.
“As a community, we will continue to be guided by Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, who remain on our medical team, as we go forward to ensure the highest standards of safety for our community. On behalf of our community, I want to thank Professor Kramer for his months of tireless volunteer work to train and prepare our shuls to function safely in this pandemic.”
Wendy Kahn, the executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “We have no knowledge about Professor Kramer’s resignation or the reasons for it. We commend him for his amazing contribution to our community.”
Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, said he was “shocked, surprised, and upset” when he received Kramer’s message. “We are so grateful for his service, and he is so respected. He sat with every rabbi and advised us. And even though he was very strict, we listened to him!
“I know that all shuls have followed his protocols with proper distancing, screening, hand sanitising, and masks – this is being enforced. I also know there have been private minyanim not under our jurisdiction where I believe there were minimal to nil protocols. On behalf of the rabbonim and shuls, I say that we are doing the best we can. It’s sad that people have acted this way leading to this decision, but we will continue to be vigilant.”
Joburg – city of architects and dreamers
In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.
Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.
The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.
“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.
It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.
Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.
Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.
“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.
One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.
Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.
Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.
Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.
Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.
Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.
Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.
Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.
Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.
He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).
Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.
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