Bad Things Happen When Good People Do Nothing
By Sarah Pierce
Port Washington, NY


 

“Countless numbers of inferiors and those suffering from hereditary conditions are reproducing unrestrainedly while their sick and asocial offspring burden the community.”

The Sterilization Laws


After spending months studying the Holocaust in the eighth grade, I had had enough; I could not bring myself to watch yet another interview of a tearful survivor, or look at more black and white photos of emaciated, beaten concentration camp victims. And yet, I still could not grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, eleven million people “purged” from the world. My teachers invited an actual Holocaust survivor to come to speak with us. I came prepared with my box of tissues to hear a horrifying, first hand story of a young man who had his life taken away by a group of people who believed he was inferior. I watched the old man hobble into the room with the help of his cane and I tried to fit all of the pictures and movie clips together to imagine what this man must have experienced. I could not. I imagined that as a young man, he may have looked like pictures I have seen of my own Jewish great-great grandpa who fled from his village in Poland named Zuromin years before the Holocaust.

When the old man started his slide show, I braced myself to see sickening images of Nazi atrocities. But instead of projecting disturbing pictures, the old man projected a simple quote on the screen: “Bad things happen, when the good people do nothing.” In his heavy Polish accent, this man who had survived unspeakable horrors spent the next hour engraving these nine words into our minds. I did not even touch my tissue box. Instead of leaving with horrific images lingering in my head, I left with a new understanding of not only the Holocaust, but of any crime, from a school fight to a genocide. The message of the old Polish man was that although tragedies like the Holocaust stem from hatred, hatred can only succeed when those who do not hate do nothing. He explained that along with the six million Jews who were killed (some of them undoubtedly relatives of mine from Zuromin), almost half of the people killed in the Holocaust were not Jews, and therefore the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be attributed to Anti-Semitism alone. “Good” people also did nothing while five million non-Jewish so-called “inferior” people were rounded up and murdered.

I wondered about these “other” five million. I learned that they were a wide variety of groups, including those who Hitler believed were “unfit,” the disabled. I was so perplexed by the very idea that disabled people should be persecuted that I investigated this further. I came upon the story of a young deaf girl, Franziska Schwarz, who would once again reshape my view of the Holocaust.

Franziska (Franny) was born deaf into a mostly deaf family. She “never saw anything wrong with being deaf.” Hitler did. He believed that the mentally and physically disabled were “defective” and did not deserve to live. In July 1933, he declared the “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Defects” which stripped all persons who were blind, deaf, physically or mentally handicapped of the natural right to have a child. One day in 1935, after coming home from the Convent where Franny apprenticed, she found her mother crying over a letter that ordered her and Franny to report to the health office to be sterilized. The day of the hearing, Franny’s uncle petitioned the government arguing that the children of hereditarily deaf people are not always deaf, and that Franny was a healthy young woman who deserved the right of motherhood. The judges denied the petition and forced Franny to be sterilized. As she left the courtroom in tears Franny recalled taking long walks in the park with her boyfriend, Chrisitan Mikus, watching the children play and dreaming of one day having her own family with Christian. Franny screamed the whole way to the hospital until they locked her in a room with two other deaf teenagers where they cried all night. Although the Nazi doctors attempted to sterilize her, the operation apparently did not work because after a few years she became pregnant with Christian’s baby. But soon a note from the health office came, ordering Franny to come for an examination. The doctors forced Franny to take off her clothes and then locked her in a room with barred windows. After three days, the doctor came in, pointed to her stomach and mouthed “out.” (Friedman)

After trying unsuccessfully to take away her ability to have a baby, Hitler and the Nazis were now going to take away the baby she had been so desperately trying to have. They performed a forced abortion procedure, and once again tried to sterilize her. For the remainder of the war, Franny went into hiding, working on a farm. “Life after the war was better,” said Franny, “except for one thing: We could not have children. This caused us much pain and regret.” (Friedman)

Even before Hitler and the Nazis were taking the “inferior” out of their homes and cramming them into ghettos where they would await their death, they were targeting the “unfit” of their own Aryan race. Starting in 1934 under the “Sterilization Law” 300,000 to 400,000 “feebleminded,” schizophrenic, epileptic, deaf, blind and mute people were sterilized. Under various secret “euthanasia” operations such as Operation T4, a total of 200,000 to 300,000 were murdered. (Altman)

43 million, almost 1 out of 5 people in America suffer from a disability. (“Disability Statistics”) Although preventing future genocides and fundraising to send aid to victims of current genocides like Darfur are important lessons learned from the Holocaust, a different but equally important lesson is that we must become attuned to the daily acts of persecution committed all around us without our noticing because we are not members of the victimized group of people. When I see my fellow students mock those suffering from cerebral palsy or autism, or when I see people look at the homeless and mentally disabled with disgust and hatred, I think of Franny and of the message that the old man who visited my class was passionately trying to convey. “Bad things happen when the good people do nothing.” Just as the Holocaust began with countless, daily, small acts of Anti-Semitism that were met with indifference by those who were not necessarily Anti-Semitic, future genocides will only stem from the countless, seemingly “small” acts of hatred that are ignored by us today.

 

Bibliography


Altman, Linda J. The Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust. Enslow, 2003.

"Disability Statistics." CODI. 15 Apr. 2008 <http://codi.buffalo.edu/graph_based/.demographics/.statistics.htm>.

Friedman, Ina R. The Other Victims: First-Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by the Nazis. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

"Nazi Persecution of the Mentally and Physically Disabled." Jewish Virtual Library. 15 Apr. 2008 <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/disabled.html>.

 

 


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