Holocaust Education Week: Remembering Aktion T4, the Nazi Euthanasia Program

A few years ago, I went with Mel Kirzner, a man with an intellectual disability who welcomed me to L’Arche in 1985, to visit the Maxwell and Ruth Leroy Holocaust Remembrance Garden at the Reena Community Residence in Vaughan.

By John Guido

A few years ago, I went with Mel Kirzner, a man with an intellectual disability who welcomed me to L’Arche in 1985, to visit the Maxwell and Ruth Leroy Holocaust Remembrance Garden at the Reena Community Residence in Vaughan. Reena is an organization supporting persons with intellectual disabilities “within a framework of Jewish culture and values.” The remembrance garden honours the men, women and children with mental illness or physical and intellectual disabilities who were among the first victims of Nazi mass murder. It is important that we remember them and work to build a culture of respect for vulnerability and diversity in the human family.

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In 1998, during a trip to the L’Arche Sledziejowice in Poland, I went to Auschwitz, the infamous death camps where over a million men, women and children were brutally murdered. They were mostly Jews though other people deemed undesirable also perished. It is deeply disturbing to visit the site of such cruelty and inhumanity, yet it is important that we remember the victims, their humanity as well as their deaths, and that we honour them by working to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

This experience was especially powerful because I went with Mel. Mel, who died in June of this year, was a Jewish man who had just had his bar mitzvah a few years earlier. After our visit to Poland, we would be going on to France then Israel. He was aware of the genocide committed against the Jewish people by the Nazis, yet being at Auschwitz made it terribly real. Usually outgoing and talkative, Mel became silent.

One of the first things we saw was the site of the gas chamber set up while the larger, permanent ones were being built. It had been moved from an institution where it was used to kill persons with disabilities and mental illness in the early years of the war. Personnel from the killing centres for the disabled were put in charge of the gas chambers at the death camps – a direct and terrible link between the two programs.

On hearing this, Mel was visibly shaken. He was born in 1942. If he had been born in central Europe instead of Canada, he might have been killed for his disability or for being Jewish. It was a lot to take in. For years afterwards, whenever we shared about this experience, Mel would say, “They had all the children’s shoes,” referring to a case of little shoes taken from the children. It was a simple remark said from deep within that captured some of the vast pain and loss that he would never forget.

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These memories swept over me as I attended a lecture on the Aktion 4 – the Nazi “Euthanasia” Program, on November 3 as part of Holocaust Education week. Alanna Sheinburg and Ellen Rajzman presented a shortened version of the course that is taught at Reena to learn about and remember the “Nazi initiative that identified and exterminated people with mental, physical and developmental disabilities at killing centres, which were a precursor to the death camps.”

The presentation showed the ways in which years of propaganda by the government and medical professionals had convinced many people that individuals with disabilities were “unworthy of living,” a financial burden to society, and would be “better off dead.” These are some of the same argument being made today that threatens the lives of persons with disabilities and mental illness at every stage of their lives. It is important that we learn from the past, that we remember the victims, and that we work to protect vulnerable persons and create opportunities for them to flourish.

A Hero Behind the Scenes

Beyond firefighters, medical staff, social workers and police officers, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that there are even more heroes among us. Truck drivers, grocery store clerks, cooks and couriers now rightfully hold an esteemed place in our collective consciousness as they put their health at risk to keep society functioning.

From Hyderabad to Lethbridge Who Would’ve Thought?

After Roop Chittineni finished high school in his hometown of Hyderabad, India he moved to Southern Ontario to pursue a degree in Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. He liked exercising and thought that if he learned more about the human body he could use that knowledge to elevate everyone’s life experience.

Memory Box: Pinewood Floorboards

What does a set of 1940s floorboards have to teach us about COVID living?

Stepping Up

When Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer stated that non-medical masks limit the transmission of COVID-19, L’Arche Saskatoon’s artsy residents also got to work. Out came the fabrics, scissors, thread and needles. Brock wanted to contribute using two of his greatest assets: his feet.

A Light Ahead

The social distancing caused by the pandemic has been trying. Thankfully, aside from those who have donated their time, money and ingenuity to help L’Arche, there are the health care workers, grocery store clerks and all those on the front line who are helping the L’Arche community get through this crisis. With their help, it won’t be long until the Gathering Place opens again and the community starts making new memories.

Second Life

Kris first met Joanna in L’Arche London, Ontario. She encouraged Kris to join L’Arche, and he did. They lived and worked side-by-side for six years until Kris moved to Nova Scotia. Still, they managed to see each other a few times a year and occasionally called one another about matters of life and faith. But this call was different.

The Gift of Dance

Dance is a profound gift; it’s an artistic expression, a mood enhancer, a workout, a surefire way to impress a date and a form of magic. A dancer can transform into a flower, a lion or their favourite pop star. Above all, dance is an act of joy. (We dare you to wiggle around for a minute and not feel happier than you were before.) The gift of dance, and all it provides, has found its way into L’Arche.

Life’s Tough Obstacles

It was late June. A park in Edmonton had been reserved. Food was stacked on picnic tables. Local students of all ages were dressed in taekwondo uniforms, preparing for their annual Break-a-thon. The Break-a-thon is an innovative fundraiser where martial arts students showcase their skills by breaking boards. For each broken board, donations are pledged and raised for L’Arche.

Taking our place in the inclusion movement

It is an important time for the accessibility and inclusion movement in Canada and the world, and L’Arche Canada is developing our capacity to take our place.

Silent encounter with the “man who repairs women”

Denis Mukwege begs us empathetically to remain attentive, to listen deeply to what is inherent in our human condition: our sensitivity and vulnerability.