Friday, December 23, 2005

Something to Remember

Now, I know 'tis not really the season to think of starvation, war, and atrocity. Or Nazis.

But sometimes those things resurface, and their timing's not so good. Today, another Nazi collaborator resurfaced, or rather his obituary did. His name was Heinrich Gross, he was 90 years old, Austrian, and died of natural causes in his native Vienna. He was a psychiatrist who worked in a clinic where the Nazis killed and conducted experiments on thousands of children who were considered handicapped or antisocial.

It is eerie to me that there are still former Nazis and Nazi collaborators out there. Nazis seem practically surreal to me, unthinkable caricatures of inhumanity, symbols of evil that hardly seem possible. In the 50 years since the Holocaust, the Nazi regime has been canonized as the greatest horror ever to befall the modern world. But as such, it exists--and I'm embarassed to confess it--only as an abstraction to me. I've heard the countless unimaginable stories, I've seen Shoah, I've read Primo Levi. But who were these people really? How did they really happen?

Well, they were this guy. That's why, as the ghost of his past resurfaces quietly, even stealthily, and before it's allowed to disappear forever with him in death, that's why I think it's important to think about him for a minute. And to think about the unbelievableness of what he was allowed to get away with. He did this, lived, prospered and died getting away with it.

Dr. Gross was a prominent psychiatrist at this Vienna hospital. He was accused of complicity in nine deaths of children as part of the Nazi campaign to eliminate worthless lives. Over the course of his life, he was tried three times. And never convicted. After the war, in 1975, he was even awarded the Austria Honorary Cross for Science and Art. I guess the passage of time forgives all, huh? Evidence presented at one of his later trials even showed that the doctor had done research in the 1950's using the preserved brains of some of those children killed by the Nazis. He published five articles using that research. Five articles that earned him a national honor. I guess science forgives all, huh?

In 2003, he was stripped of that honorary title, after his third trial was suspended when Dr. Gross was deemed unfit for trial because of dementia. This was over fifty years after he helped kill "worthless" kids.

So Dr. Gross was an old, old man when he died last week. An old man probably like hundreds of other old men you know and see everyday. The difference is that this old man killed nine worthless kids and got away with it.


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