Harrowing account of girl with mental illness who died in a Nazi gas chamber

Young survivors at Auschwitz-Birkenau, liberated on 27th January 1945
Young survivors at Auschwitz-Birkenau, liberated on 27th January 1945

There have already been many memorial events leading up to tomorrow’s Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), some of them mentioned recently on Roamer’s page.

In the words of the HMD Trust, the charity that promotes and supports the annual commemorations, January 27 is “the day for everyone to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed in Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur”.

Helene Melanie Lebel

Helene Melanie Lebel

The date marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

There are many memorial events today and tomorrow, and into next week, all around Northern Ireland.

Details are on the Northern Ireland pages of the HMD website at www.hmd.org.uk – each event promoted by the organisers to remember and honour the dead and the survivors of genocide, and to “challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today”.

The HMD Trust says: “It’s a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented.”

Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. May-June 1944

Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. May-June 1944

The power of words is the theme for this year’s Memorial Day – spoken and written words from individuals, corporations, community organisations or the state, words which can have a huge impact, whether good or bad.

“The words that we see and hear all around us today” says the HMD Trust, “whether in newspapers, online or in conversations – all have an impact upon us and those around us.”

Roamer’s page has often made reference to Hitler’s holocaust during the annual memorial events.

Today I’m sharing the story of a young woman who died under the Nazi leader’s T4 Euthanasia programme, one of the numerous harrowing accounts that feature on the HMD website.

Helene Melanie Lebel was one of up to 250,000 people murdered by the Nazis because they were physically or mentally disabled.

From 1939 to 1941 the Nazis carried out their T4 Euthanasia programme to kill those with disabilities.

From August 18, 1939 German midwives and doctors were ordered to report any child known to them who was born deaf or blind, with paralysis or with a neurological disorder.

The reports were sent to the Reich Committee offices in Berlin and were marked with a plus or a minus sign. A plus sign meant that the child was to be murdered, usually in a special hospital ward.

Initially they were killed by lethal injection or starvation but when this proved too slow six killing centres were established to speed up the process using gas.

As the children’s killing programme continued the Nazis turned their attention to disabled adults.

Local officials were ordered to provide details of all institutions in their area which looked after “mental patients, epileptics and the feebleminded”.

Helene Melanie Lebel was born on September 15, 1911, and brought up in Vienna, Austria with her younger sister by her Jewish father and Catholic mother.

Her father died during First World War when Helene was just five years old.

She grew up and after school decided to study law.

In 1930, when Helene was 19 years old, she started showing the signs of mental illness.

By 1935, she had to give up both her studies and her job as a legal secretary – she had a breakdown, was diagnosed as having schizophrenia and put in a psychiatric hospital.

Following the Anschluss in 1938 – when Austria was annexed to Germany – Helene was forced to remain in a psychiatric hospital.

In August 1940, Helene’s mother was told that her daughter had been transferred to a hospital in Germany.

However, Helene was in fact taken to a converted prison, in Brandenburg in Germany, where she was gassed.

She was one of 9,772 people listed as being gassed at the Brandenburg centre in 1940.

Very little is known about the victims of the T4 forced euthanasia programme.

The programme was deliberately carried out covertly to stop the German public from protesting.

However, in 1941, as news of the T4 programme leaked out there were protests and opposition.

On August 3 1941, a Catholic Bishop, Clemens von Galen, delivered a passionate sermon in Münster Cathedral attacking the euthanasia programme, which he described as “plain murder”.

The bishop spoke of a terrible future for humanity if euthanasia became acceptable for those perceived to be weak.

Under pressure from public opinion Hitler ordered the closure of the official euthanasia programme but the murders did not cease, continuing instead in more secretive ways; patients were killed when drug overdoses were administered, or were deliberately starved to death.

The organs of many of the victims were removed for scientific research, and the bodies were buried in mass graves.

It is estimated that at least 5,000 disabled children and over 200,000 disabled adults were murdered under the Nazi regime.

The HMD Trust highlights the lesson we can learn today from such atrocities – we don’t know the names of those who died “but we can pause to reflect on their suffering and remember their untold stories.

“We can also make a clear promise to speak out against discrimination which judges some lives to be of less value than others today”.