Thursday 8 March 2018



Registered, persecuted, annihilated: the sick and disabled under National Socialism

Erfast, verfolgt, vernichtet—kranke und behinderte Menschen im Nationalsozialismus

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
President, Australian Human Rights Commission


Professor Gus Lehrer, Mr Norman Seligman, Associate Professor Michael Roberston, holocaust survivors, distinguished guests.

Thank you for allowing me to speak at the launch of this important travelling exhibition: Registered, persecuted, annihilated: the sick and disabled under National Socialism, or in its German—Erfast, verfolgt, vernichtet—kranke und behinderte Menschen im Nationalsozialismus. You do me a great honour in allowing me to speak tonight.

How fitting it is and timely to be holding such an exhibition in this 25th anniversary year of Australia’s enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act. On Friday last week, 1 March, we marked the day.

In recognition of other traditions, I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of this land, and to pay my respects to the elders, past and present, of the Eora people of the Gadigal nation, and I also acknowledge any Indigenous guests in the audience today.

How I learned about the holocaust

My parents were University students during the Second World War. They demonstrated on floats and burned effigies of Hitler—the kind of thing you would expect of university students. They have no Jewish heritage, but they were students of history. They wanted to ensure that their children would understand.

When I was 11 I went into the ‘Opportunity Class’ at Woollahra Demonstration School. It brought together kids from across the Eastern Suburbs for two years at the end of primary school.

One of my best friends was Evie Picker. Her parents had fled Germany because they were Jewish. They were imprisoned in a Russian prison camp because they were German. There they met. I don’t know much of their journey that brought them to Sydney, but there they were, living in Maroubra, playing (brilliantly) the piano accordion. We rode our bikes together at Blackheath, hurtling wildly around bush tracks, far removed from the Germany of the holocaust. Evie’s mum didn’t like our cockroaches – ‘Bertl Bertl, get the shoe!’

When I was 16 my parents took me and my sisters on a trip to Europe. They were going to ensure we learned history’s lessons. Part of our journey included a trip to Dachau concentration camp and to a war cemetery. They wanted us to understand about war and about the holocaust.

Dachau was the first ‘Konzentrationslager’. Across the gate, in 1930s block font, was ‘Arbeit macht frei’. There was also a memorial, including an urn with ashes of an unknown prisoner, and the words ‘Plus jamais’.

We went in winter. The black and white of the images in the museum were echoed in the landscape. I remember the snow on the crosses of the war graves, in their neat rows across a bleak winter field.

Never again. But, as the motto of the NSW RSL reminds us, ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

The undertone of ‘never again’ is ‘never forget’. And, as Michael Robertson quoted in his speech, ‘forgotten issues beget forgotten people’.

That’s where this museum plays such an important role — and where exhibitions of the kind that is opening tonight, of a horrifying chapter of the nazi campaigns, help in that ‘never forgetting’.

Throughout history, in all parts of the world, people with disability have fought to live independent and productive lives in a world saturated in stigma and discrimination.[1] People with disability, like everyone else, want the right to be treated with dignity.

People with disability in the holocaust

The Nazi persecution of people with disabilities in Germany was one component of public health policies that were designed to eradicate ‘unfit’ Germans.[2] The ideological justification was that people with disability threatened the Aryan genetic purity. It was an utter perversion of Darwin’s principles of ‘Natural Selection’.

On 14 July 1933 the German government passed the “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases” (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), mandating the forced sterilization of certain individuals with physical and mental disabilities. This new law provided a basis for the involuntary sterilization of people with physical and mental disabilities or mental illness, Roma (Gypsies), ‘asocial elements’, and Afro-Germans.

These strategies began with forced sterilisation and ultimately escalated to mass murder. Wartime, Adolf Hitler advised, “was the best time for the elimination of the incurably ill”.[3] Disabilities did not align with the Aryan biomedical vision which imagined a genetically pure race,[4] and therefore people with disability were targeted for the euthanasia program.[5]

Supported by propaganda, justifying first, sterilisation, then ‘mercy killing’: ‘Gnadentod’.

‘Leben nur als Last’ – life only as a burden
‘Ist das noch Leben?’ – is this really life?
‘lebensunwertes Leben’ – life unworthy of life

Such labels were of people considered as not worthy of life and that were targeted for euthanasia under a secret program called Aktion T4, conducted from 1939 to the end of the war (Tiergartenstrasse 4 – the street address of the Chancellery department set up in 1940 to oversee the program). People in government and church-run sanitoria and nursing homes were assessed: ‘+’ in red meant death; ‘-‘ in blue meant life; ‘?’ meant additional assessment. Those to die were administered a mercy death. But the scale increased and they were bussed to killing centres to be gassed, in prototypes of the later ones used in the ‘final solution’. These ‘mercy deaths’ were conducted by medical professionals.

In order to administer forced sterilisation and euthanasia, cooperation from German doctors was required. Doctors reviewed the medical files of patients in institutions to determine which people with disabilities should be sterilised and which should be killed. The doctors supervised the actual killings.[6] These crimes were perpetrated by the state through the agency of medical, nursing and legal professionals.

Meticulous records were kept. 70,273 were gassed, including 5000 Jews. All Jewish mental patients were killed. The reports on the killings included estimated economic ‘savings’ of the deaths.

The Nuremberg trials revealed that 200,000 – 250,000 people with disabilities were murdered under the T4 and other euthanasia programs.[7] The targeted crimes against people with disabilities is a relatively neglected aspect of the Holocaust history. The men, women and children murdered in the euthanasia program are among the most invisible of some 6 million murder victims.[8]

What the exhibition reminds us is that we should ‘never forget’.

Current issues

The first clause of Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in 2008 affirms that ‘persons with disabilities have the right to recognition as persons before the law’. This was only 10 years ago and, even then, it was necessary to state this in the convention—because people with disability are not always given such recognition in the world.

Current issues that are still concerning involve the sterilization of women and girls with disabilities.[9] Women with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, as well as those placed in institutions, are particularly vulnerable to forced sterilization. In many countries, including many signatories of the CRPD, the laws allow third parties to decide over life-changing procedures on behalf of girls and young women with disabilities, as well as for people with intersex variations.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently building on the existing body of work in a project that explores ways in which mechanisms to address and prevent violence against people with disability in institutional settings can be strengthened.[10]


The Nazi persecution of people with disability reminds us about our own attitudes towards people living with disability today. I was deeply troubled during the discussion about the legislation in Victoria concerning ‘assisted dying’. I was privileged at the Australian Law Reform Commission to lead an inquiry on disability, and then, in my last inquiry, on elder abuse. Stakeholders in that inquiry expressed concerns about the potential dangers for them in a regime of ‘assisted dying’, that might see them considered as ‘useless’ and therefore ‘should be put out of their misery’.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum urges that, ‘in an age of genetic engineering and renewed controversy over mercy killings of the incurably ill, ethical and moral issues of concern to physicians, scientists and lay persons alike remain vital’. The Nazi persecution of people with disability did not, after all, take place in a vacuum.[11]

Never again. Never forget. The Sydney Jewish Museum is a place ‘where history has a voice’. This exhibition gives voice to the stories of people with disability under the Nazi regime. We must listen to their stories.

I duly declare the exhibition officially ‘launched.

[1] Hiranandani, Vanmala, ‘Towards a Critical Theory of Disability in Social Work’, Critical Social Work, 2005 Vol. 6, No. 1, available at <>
[2] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Nazi Persecution of the Disabled: Murder of the “Unfit””, available at <>.
[3] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Murder of the Handicapped”, available at <>.
[4] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Nazi Persecution of the Disabled: Murder of the “Unfit””, available at <>.
[5] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Murder of the Handicapped”, available at <>.
[6] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Murder of the Handicapped”, available at <>.
[7] ‘Euathansie im Dritten Reich’,
[8] Henry Friedlander, ‘The origins of Nazi genocide: from euthanasia to the final solution’, (1995), University of North Carolina Press, pg. 175.
[9] L. Servais, R. Leach, D. Jacques and J. P. Roussaux, ‘Sterilisation of intellectually disabled women’, European Psychiatry, vol. 19, No. 7 (November 2004).
[10] Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Violence against people with disability in institutional settings – Draft’, February 2018, pg. 2.
[11] Henry Friedlander, ‘The origins of Nazi genocide : from euthanasia to the final solution’, (1995), University of North Carolina Press, pg. 21.