Anna Lehnkering developed normally until she was four years old. Born in Germany in 1915 at the height of World War I, she had lived in the city of Oberhausen, near a riverbank in the Ruhr district. She had two older siblings, and two more were born after her. Her mother noticed Anna’s odd behavior when the little girl began crawling into her bed at night, frightened and trembling. Later on, in school, she had difficulty reading and writing. For that reason she never learned a trade but remained at home, helping her mother.
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In 1936, three years after the Nazis came to power, Anna was forcibly sent to a mental institution. During her stay there, which lasted for four years, the Nazis sterilized her according to the Nazi Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases. On April 23, 1940 Anna was gassed to death at the Grafeneck Euthanasia Center in Grafeneck Castle, south of Stuttgart. She was one of 70,000 Germans with disabilities such as developmental delay or mental illness whom the Nazis murdered as part of their euthanasia program, which was code-named T4. An estimated 300,000 people throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were put to death in this program.
A monument commemorating the euthanasia program’s victims will be dedicated in Berlin this week, which marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The monument was built at 4 Tiergartenstrasse, the address of the villa where the euthanasia program was planned. The program’s code-name, T4, is a shortened form of the address of the building, which had previously belonged to Jews and had been “Aryanized.” The building at 4 Tiergartenstrasse is next to the current home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Dozens of physicians participated in this program of mass murder, which lasted between 1939 and 1941. While the program was stopped in the wake of public protest, the killing continued secretly until the end of the war. Children and teenagers such as Anna were forcibly taken from their families to one of six Nazi-operated “health centers,” where they were murdered. The families then received letters stating falsely that their children had died of disease. Later on, the Nazis used the experience in mass killing that they had gained in this operation to murder the Jews of Europe.
The euthanasia program was a product of Nazi ideology, which saw sick and weak people as a nuisance that interfered with the fulfillment of the Germans’ vision of a healthy nation. The new memorial comprises a wall of blue glass 24 meters (79 feet) long that rises skyward from the ground, symbolizing the memory of the victims. Beside it are panels containing historical information about that dark chapter in German history.
The memorial joins four other sites, within walking distance, that commemorate the Nazis’ victims. The first, which was constructed in 2005, is the memorial to the Jews of Europe, better known as the Holocaust memorial. The memorial to homosexual victims of Nazi persecution was dedicated three years later, in 2008. The memorial to the members of the Roma community murdered in the Holocaust – built by Israeli sculptor and Israel Prize laureate Dani Karavan – was dedicated in 2012.
How is it that the memorial to the Nazis’ euthanasia victims has been dedicated only now, in late 2014? The Berlin-based newspaper Der Tagesspiegel noted last year that they had lacked a strong lobby. “Many of them were forgotten for decades and still are, even by their own families.” The stigma that attached to families of disabled children remained long after the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945. Interest in the euthanasia victims revived only some decades later, when their grandchildren and great-grandchildren began to search for information about their fate.
That was what happened to Anna, whose family had kept her existence hidden for about 60 years until all memory of her disappeared. A decade ago, completely by accident, she was rediscovered by her niece Sigrid Falkenstein, a teacher from Berlin. Falkenstein, who was born after the war, never knew her aunt Anna. She encountered Anna’s name for the first time when she searched on Google for information about her grandmother, who bore the same name. Astonished to find her aunt’s name on a list of victims of the Nazis’ euthanasia program, she embarked on a painful search through archival and historical material that resulted in a book and a website dedicated to Anna’s memory.
Yet while Anna Lehnkering has been rescued from oblivion – her name will be among those commemorated on the new memorial in Berlin – the names of many other victims of the euthanasia program remain unknown to this day.