…well, at least some of what this Faculty Advisor does on leave.

This past week Professor David Mitchell, George Washington University, brought his “Disabled People and the Holocaust” class to Berlin. The class is especially interested in how what happened to those with disabilities in Germany under the Third Reich still affects people today, something I’m looking at in my current project, “Stumbling Over History.”

I met David and his wife, disability studies scholar Sharon L. Snyder, over twenty years ago at the This/Ability Conference at the University of Michigan, at which I became part of their film, “Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back” (you can watch the film on YouTube: link for Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5rWHA0KcFc; other links for the rest of the film can be found on YouTube.) When I arrived in Berlin in 2013, I realized many here knew of me through this film.

David invited me to read for his class while they were in Berlin and last Monday I read excerpts from most of my work, including the first public reading of pages from “Stumbling over History,” my current project that looks at disability in Germany, past and present. After the reading, there was a lively conversation led by questions from the students about the connections between the killing of disabled people in the Nazi T4 program and the Holocaust; my writing process (as many of my former Goddard advisees know my process is not a model I’d suggest others to follow); how I know what to research and who to talk to about what I’m writing; and questions about my work in Japan.

After the reading.
After the reading.

Then, on Wednesday, I accompanied the class to Gedenkstätte Bernburg, two and half hours southwest of Berlin, one of the six sites where disabled people were killed under the Nazi T4 program. At Bernburg, which is still a working psychiatric hospital, we listened to a talk about the underpinnings of Nazi eugenics and the history of the hospital under the Nazis. At each of the T4 sites I’ve visited, I learn something new. At Bernburg, I learned that after the T4 program was officially ended in 1941, concentration camp prisoners were sent to Bernburg to be killed, and that today hospital patients who have cancelled appointments are sometimes sent to the Gedenkstätte to hang out with student groups who are there to learn about the site.

Bernburg Gedenkstätte
Bernburg Gedenkstätte

After the talk, we toured the memorial, and talked with Frau Hoffmann, who did much of the research behind the memorial and is the founding director. Letting the group go ahead a bit, I was able to spend some time alone in the small gas chamber where thousands were killed, sixty to seventy at a time.

Gas chamber, Bernburg Gedenkstätte
Gas chamber, Bernburg Gedenkstätte

I walked on the same floor that still has the same tile covering to make it easy to drag the dead bodies down the corridor to the crematorium.

Tiled floor, corridor, Bernbug Gedenkstätte
Tiled floor, corridor, Bernbug Gedenkstätte

The crematorium is no longer extant. Nobody knows what happened to it. Beyond two brick arches, on which photos of T4 victims are placed, photos of crematoria from a concentration camp now hold the place where the Bernburg crematorium once was.

Crematorium, Bernburg Gedenkstätte
Crematorium, Bernburg Gedenkstätte

This is the third of the six T4 sites I’ve visited. I will visit a fourth, near Dresden, in early May, and then plan to visit the remaining two, which are far flung and more difficult to reach (Hartheim in Austria, and Grafeneck in southwest Germany). It is an odd feeling I have before visiting these sites. To say I’m “excited about” or “looking forward to” going are not quite the right phrases, and if I do use these phrases people might think I’m, well, you know what I mean.

After each visit, I feel as if I’ve recovered not only some history, but also some of the collective consciousness of disability. I don’t yet know how these visits will fit into the larger narrative of my book, but I know they will.

Memorial stone, Bernburg Gedenkstätte
Memorial stone, Bernburg Gedenkstätte
Some of What A Faculty Advisor Does on Leave . . .
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Kenny Fries is the author of The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory, which received the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, and Body, Remember: A Memoir, as well as the editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. His books of poems include Anesthesia and Desert Walking. In the Province of the Gods, for which he received the grant in innovative literature from Creative Capital, is forthcoming. He was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write the libretto for "The Memory Stone," which premiered at Asia Society Texas Center. He has been a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Scholar to Japan, and has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council. Stumbling over History, his current project, received a grant from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange).
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