Thursday, April 20, 2017

`Where the Mind Wanders To'

The twenty children came from Poland, France, Yugoslavia, Italy and the Netherlands. They ranged in age from five to twelve. All were Jewish and had been held in Auschwitz until they were selected by Josef Mengele for transport to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Heissmeyer, a physician, wished to test a theory. He intended to prove that the injection of live tuberculosis bacilli into subjects would serve as a vaccine, a hypothesis discredited years before. Heissmeyer also believed that if he could immunize Jews, who were naturally weaker and less disease-resistant than Aryans, his theory would be further substantiated. Heissmeyer began experimenting on adult subjects in Neuengamme in June 1944. He infected some one-hundred camp inmates, observed them for a month and hanged them in preparation for their autopsies.

In spring 1945, the twenty children from Auschwitz were transferred to Neuengamme, where they were given subcutaneous injections of tubercle bacteria. All became ill. After a month, Heissmeyer, who was not a surgeon, ordered a Czech inmate surgeon to perform lymph node dissections on the children. As Patton’s Third Army advanced into Germany, the children were taken from Neuengamme to a school on Bullenhuser Damm in the Rothenburgsort district of Hamburg. On the evening of April 20, 1945, their physicians and caretakers were hanged in the former school’s basement, and then each child was injected with morphine and hanged from a hook in the wall. Some were so frail and had lost so much weight, the guards hugged and pulled down on their bodies until the nooses tightened and they asphyxiated. Their bodies were cremated the following night in Neuengamme.

Heissmeyer returned to his home in Magdeburg in East Germany after the war and had a successful practice as a lung and tuberculosis specialist. His identity was uncovered in 1959, and in 1966 he was sentenced to life in prison. He died the following year.

The story of Heissmeyer, his colleagues and the twenty children is systematically documented in The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm: The SS Doctor and the Children by the German journalist Günther Schwarberg (trans. Erna Baber Rosenfeld and Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1984). The final words in Schwarberg’s book are the names, ages and countries of origin of the twenty children.

Inevitably, this reader thinks of Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek” (The Transparent Man, 1990) and its pivotal line: “No one else knows where the mind wanders to.” The sestina recalls Aug. 5, 1942, when Polish writer-educator Janusz Korczak accompanied two-hundred children from his Jewish orphanage under Nazi guard, choosing to die with them two days later in Treblinka. The school in Hamburg where the twenty children were murdered has been renamed the Janusz Korczak School. Hecht served in the infantry company that liberated the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, an annex to Buchenwald.

April 20, 1945, the day the children were murdered, was Adolf Hitler’s fifty-sixth and final birthday.

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