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*Editor’s Note: This is part XIII in a series from Dr. Grobman. You can read Part XII, here 

On June 8, 1941, the JTA reported the Herr Ludwig Fischer, Nazi Governor of the Warsaw District predicted all Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland would “be annihilated through starvation and disease.” He said, “the introduction of ghettos in Poland had broken the Jews morally, physically, and economically.” He predicted as soon as the charity they received would end, Jews would “die of hunger and disease.” After the war, Fischer was tried as a war criminal. A JTA dispatch on January 3, 1947 reported that Dr. M.R. Kopec, a medical expert testifying for the German government, said that 791,000 persons were murdered by the Germans in Warsaw under Fischer’s regime between October, 1939 and October, 1944, not including the hundreds of thousands sent to extermination camps. 

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Perhaps one of the significant revelations in this period appeared in the liberal weekly The New Republic on May 5, 1941. According to an unnamed dignitary of the Catholic Church, 85,000 blind, incurably ill or aged Germans were put to death by the Gestapo in September, October, and November of 1940.” They were murdered because they “could no longer manufacture guns in return for the food which they consumed; because the German hospitals were needed for wounded soldiers; and because their death was the ultimate logic of National Socialist doctrine of racial superiority and the survival of the physically fit.” At first, the Gestapo injected small quantities of poison into the veins of the old and incurably ill. When they discovered this method became too expensive, air bubbles were injected instead. 

Vatican’s Impeachable Sources 

With regard to the Catholic Church, historian Walter Laqueur pointed out that the Vatican knew more about events in Europe than anyone else. There were tens of thousands of Catholic priests throughout Poland, Slovakia and the rest of Europe. They were part of a very large and extended community who understood what transpired in these countries. The priests conveyed the information to their superiors in the Vatican through Polish bishops in Rome, via Filippo Bernardini, the Apostolic Nuncio in Switzerland or through Budapest.  

Most important, they were able to communicate to the Holy See through the Polish Government-in-exile, which had an ambassador at the Vatican during the war. Furthermore, the Vatican had direct or indirect means to communicate with every European country except Russia. The many millions of practicing Catholics in Germany, including priests serving in the army fighting in the East, was another important source of personal news. Laqueur notes that if some Catholic priests in Germany identified with the Nazis, many did not. In Poland and there were no Nazi sympathizers, and few in France. 

What Reasons Did the Germans Provide for Murdering incurably ill or aged Countrymen? 

In his Berlin Diary, William Shirer, the well-known American CBS radio correspondent, discussed the motives the Germans attributed themselves for these murders. In his entry on November 25, 1940, he wrote  

  1. They were designed to save food. 
  1. They were conducted to experiment with “poison gas and death rays.” 
  1. They were the result of the Nazi decision “to carry out their eugenics and sociological ideas.” 

He dismissed the first motive as ludicrous since, in a nation of 80,000,000 people, the death of 100,000 Germans would not save a significant amount of food. And in any event, there were no food shortages in the country. He viewed the second motive as possible but doubted it. “Poison gases,” he said, “may have been used in putting the unfortunates out of their way, but if so, the experimentation was only incidental.” He added that many Germans he consulted believed that some new gas which “disfigures the body has been used,” which is why the remains of these victims were cremated, although he could not find any actual confirmation of this.  

Shirer believed the third motive had the most validity. A group of “radical Nazi sociologists who were instrumental in putting through the Reich’s sterilization laws had pressed for a national policy of eliminating the mentally unfit.”  What Shirer did not understand is that in order for the Nazi eugenic and racial policies to be implemented, which the Nazi movement had advocated for years, they needed the “willing collaboration” of the professional classes in Germany including physicians. jurists, statisticians and racial scientists as historian Henry Friedlander pointed out in The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. During the years preceding the war, Friedlander said 300,000 is the agreed upon number of people sterilized. After 1939, it is estimated that an additional 75,000 were most likely sterilized. The conservative number of 375,000 represents approximately five percent of the German population. Historian Peter Longerich said that “slightly” more men than women were sterilized. 

When war in Europe began on September 1, 1939, the system to murder the handicapped had already been in position, and the murder began Friedlander noted. Murder of handicapped children, the children’s euthanasia program, stated first, followed by the murder of Jews and Gypsies.  

On July 18, The American Hebrew provided more details on who were killed and when. One fully substantiated eyewitness account described how 400 orphan children were killed because the were considered a “burden of the state.” The paper concluded “these reports about the Nazi elimination bear further proof as to the menace Nazism constitutes to the entire world, including the followers of Nazism.” 

American Jewish Response 

American Jews did not respond to each of these reports in the press, yet the effect of the relentless news about pogroms, persecutions, expulsions and killings had a devastating influence on them. According to Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, editor of The Jewish Spectator, an independent magazine, there was “widespread pessimism concerning the Jewish future.” In the May issue of The Jewish Spectator, she observed that American Jews were “showing signs of cracking up under the mental and physical strain of ‘news from Europe.’ Despair and discouragement” were “spreading fast among all classes and ages….” There were even “vociferous advocates of ‘voluntary racial suicide’ among young Jews,” who felt it was a “crime to give life to Jewish children in a world which hated and persecuted the Jews.”  

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.