Content Warning: Due to the nature of this content and subject matter, discretion is strongly advised.
>>DIANE WIENER: Good afternoon, everyone. We at the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute are honored to welcome you to our panel, “On Being a Vicarious Witness: Aktion T4 and Contesting the Erasure of Disability History,” featuring our distinguished panelists, Kenny Fries, Perel, and Quintan Ana Wikswo, and moderated by the incomparable Julia Watts Belser.
To begin, we acknowledge with respect the Onondaga Nation, firekeepers of the Haudenosaunee, the indigenous people on whose ancestral lands Syracuse University now stands.
I’m Diane Wiener, a Research Professor, and the Associate Director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute, and the lead editor of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature housed at Syracuse University.
I am a white Ashkenazi Jew. I am gender nonconforming. I have short salt and pepper hair and green-framed glasses, which I will adjust on my face as I say that. I’m wearing a gray-striped suit jacket over a teal, button-down, collared shirt, and am seated in my dining room in front of a maroon wall with various, brightly colored artwork.
This event is free and open to the public, and includes live captioning, American Sign Language interpretation, and image descriptions. I’ll say more about Zoom accessibility in a few moments.
Thanks to our American Sign Language interpreters, Katie Lambe and Kip Opperman, and thanks to Terre Slater of Empire Interpreting Service.
Thanks to our esteemed live captioner, Doreen Radin from Caption Advantage. Special thanks go to Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri, from the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach, and to Kyle Jaymes Davis and Joel Whitney, from our Syracuse University College of Law’s IT Services.
This event was made possible with generous support from the Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE) Grant Program, with additional support from Atrocity Studies and the Practices of Social Justice; the College of Visual and Performing Arts; the Department of History; the Department of Religion; Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition; Disability Studies; Hendricks Chapel; Jewish Studies; LGBTQ Studies; the LGBTQ Resource Center; and Syracuse Hillel.
A book discount for event participants is available via the Syracuse University Bookstore. A link will be provided in the chat. I want to thank our colleague Karen Spencer of the SU Bookstore, for her spirited collaboration, assistance, and engagement, as always.
Some Zoom accessibility specifics follow:
The chat function that allows folx to write to and chat with everyone here will be “disabled”, not turned on, during the panel. However, messages can be sent to and read by folx designated as Panelists – in our case, that means the event organizers and the leaders of our team here.
If you have any concerns with accessibility, any concerns at all, or anything else that you’re concerned about, please send a message using the chat function, and a team member will see it, who are the leads of this event – of this phenomenon. Quoting Quintan, who pointed that out earlier. It is a phenomenon. A team leader or member will get back to you if you have any concerns.
If you have a concern but are unable to access the chat function, you can use the “raise hand” feature, another wonderful term that’s complex because not everybody has hands to raise. But that’s what it’s called, that’s Zoom, not me. But we will not turn on mics and videos during the panel. We’ll find a way to communicate you and do our very best to address any concerns that you may have.
As noted, American Sign Language interpretation and live captioning will be provided, on-screen, throughout the gathering. You can “pin” interpreters or others, using Zoom, if you wish, by selecting this option in the Interpreter’s or others’ Zoom frames, on-screen.
Please note that we will be using the gallery view throughout this conversation. The panelists, moderator, and the ASL interpreter who is actively interpreting will be on screen at all times.
A transcript of the live captioning will also be available, throughout the event. You can enable subtitles by clicking on the Live Transcript button, depending on your Zoom interface, it is usually at the bottom of the screen, and select “Show Subtitles” from the resulting drop-down menu.
If you would prefer to view the full transcript in a side panel next to the meeting window, you can select “View Full Transcript” from that same menu. Additionally, participants can view captions with an adjustable font at the StreamText link provided in our chat. Should any visual content be shared, it will be accompanied by an image description. I described myself, for example, when I introduced myself to you.
During the discussion component of our event, if you want to ask a question or make a comment, we would prefer, if possible, that you please use the Q&A feature, which includes the option to remain anonymous.
You can also use the chat function, which we will turn on or “enable”, to make useful to us, to be able to interact with all participants during this part of the event in our virtual audience today. I should say our “digital audience”, you are actually here, just not in person.
A third option is to use the “raise hand” feature, and your mic and video will be momentarily turned on, so you can ask your question or make your comment if none of those other options work for you.
We will do our very best to respect and respond with the timing of this to address as many questions as we can given the time allotted. Julia will be our discussion moderator and will read aloud a variety of these questions and comments shared via the Q&A.
If you raise questions or comments in the chat, we will do our best to keep track of and share some of these questions and comments, as well. Questions and comments that are shared aloud will, in turn, be interpreted, and also will be available via the live captioning, meaning that they will be interpreted in American Sign Language and included in the live captioning.
Once the chat function has been made available to all participants, please consider using it only when truly necessary. For some folx, the usage of the chat has the possibility of changing the accessibility features of Zoom because it could block captioning and that can sometimes occur. So the chat function is not easily minimized on screen for everyone. So please, consider that when you’re using the chat.
So I know that people want to say “thank you, that was fascinating, we appreciate you,” and those are all beautiful things to share or any other comments, but I would prefer as our host, if you waited until the end to do that so that it is not as likely to interrupt the accessibility features of the event.
This event is being recorded. An accessible video will be made available publicly, once it’s available. Which should be relatively soon.
In order to provide some important context for our conversation, I was thinking with seriousness and open heartedness, how do you do a content warning for something like this? I think the word Nazi is an adequate content warning.
The critique that we’re going to give today is layered and complex but certainly the content is very difficult, and nuanced but also has the potential to be liberatory without idealization.
I ad libbed that so I hope it worked.
So, I will now share some information about AktionT4, and I know I’m pronouncing not fluently because I’m not a fluent German speaker. I want to thank Kenny Fries for providing some content for me to share with you, some historical background about this. Please forgive me again for my non-fluent pronunciation of the German.
Aktion T4 was the Nazi program that mass murdered 70,000 people with disabilities, those deemed “unworthy of life.” The program officially began with a memo written by Adolf Hitler, dated September 1, 1939. But research shows the memo was actually written on October 1, 1939, and backdated to September 1st so it coincided with the start of the war.
Six killing sites – Brandenburg, An der Havel, Bernburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Pirna-Sonnenstein, and Hartheim were set up to kill disabled people in gas chambers. In 1941, after the official end of Aktion T4, an additional 230,000 people with disabilities were killed, not only in gas chambers but also by other means such as starvation, medication overdose, and neglect.
T4 stood for Tiergartenstrasse 4, the Berlin address of the villa, which served as bureaucratic headquarters. The villa had been appropriated from the Jewish Liebermann family. After the war, what remained of the villa was destroyed. In its place the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic, was built. In 2014, the Memorial to the victims of national socialist “Euthanasia” killings, quote unquote, was opened on the site in front of the Philharmonie.
It is now my privilege and pleasure, having shared that historical content, it is now my distinct pleasure and privilege to introduce our esteemed moderator, Julia Watts Belser, who will then introduce our wonderful panelists. And I thank you all so much for being here.
As noted after the panel, we’ll have our discussion component and following the discussion, I will share some comments from university professor Steve Kuusisto, who is the director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach and a university professor here at Syracuse University, as well as a public intellectual. Many of you know Steve.
Julia Watts Belser is associate professor of Jewish Studies and core faculty in Disability Studies at Georgetown University. Her research centers on gender, sexuality, and disability in rabbinic literature, as well as queer feminist Jewish ethics. A rabbi and a longtime advocate for disability and gender justice, Belser writes queer feminist Jewish theology and brings disability arts and culture into conversation with Jewish tradition.
Please join me in warmly welcoming our distinguished guests, via Zoom, to Syracuse University.
And, I’m wishing you all a meaningful national Disability Employment Awareness month, and LGBTQ+ History month, today and always. Thank you.
>> JULIA WATTS BELSER: Thank you, Diane, thank you for all the work that you have done to make this extraordinary gathering possible. And for all the ways you work to build a more just world.
My name is Julia Watts Belser. I’m a white Jewish woman with curly brown hair wearing a shimmery grey-pink shirt and a crocheted handmade kippah, like a beret. I’m honored to moderate our event today and to introduce our speakers: Kenny Fries, Perel, and Quintan Ana Wikswo.
We have an extraordinary opportunity today to learn with three queer disabled Jewish artists and writers who are wrestling with the violence of T4, the state-sanctioned killing of Disabled people in Nazi Germany. The name itself “T4” is an abbreviation of the Berlin address Tiergartenstrasse 4 where, in 1939, the program was developed: the plan to systematically gather and kill disabled Germans, people with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, those deemed mad, chronically ill, or otherwise unfit – those who were deemed “life unworthy of life.” It is just so hard to even say those words. Many of the strategies that were used to exterminate Jews at Auschwitz and the other killing centers during the Holocaust, were first developed and worked out in Aktion T4.
There is a custom in Jewish culture to say of the dead, those loved ones who are no longer with us, Zichrono livracham. May their memories be for a blessing. It is difficult to hold those words alongside the intensity of T4’s violence, alongside the intensity of erasure and eugenics, alongside the refusals both historical and very much alive in our present moment to create and sustain the conditions where disabled people can live and thrive. It is difficult to hold those words, that wish: May their memories be for a blessing.
It is difficult to know what they mean, what they should mean, what they could mean. Kenny, Perel, Quintan, I have been moved deeply by your work which feels like a profound invitation to grapple with this question: How do we witness, acknowledge, mourn, grieve, testify, and create in ways that do honor to those who were murdered? In ways that name not only the horror of the killings themselves but the silence that has so long surrounded them?
How do we witness in ways that allow ourselves to be changed? We’ll hear now from our first speaker, Kenny Fries.
A writer and teacher who has done so much to center disability experience and whose work affirms the urgency of attending to disabled voices. Kenny is a celebrated author of many award-winning works including In the Province of the Gods for which he received a Creative Capital Literature Award and 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.
Kenny will speak today about his forthcoming book, Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, which documents his visits to the six Aktion T4 killing sites. His research and writing for the book has been supported by a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts and Literary Arts Fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship and several other prestigious grants, and excerpts from the book have appeared in The New York Times.
Kenny, thank you so much for envisioning this gathering for bringing us here today, and for thinking with us about your work.
>> KENNY FRIES: Hello. I’m here in Berlin where it is now 9:20 at night. So I am a white man with short, dark hair, wearing round reading glasses, which don’t help me see very much any more. And wearing a dark purple collared shirt and behind me is a very messy desk, very messy book shelf filled with books and a white back wall behind it. And I wanted to thank Diane, Steve and Rachael for all the work they did in helping to put this all together. It is something that I envisioned, and it is nice that it is actually happening and thanks to Katie and Kip, the interpreters, and our captioner, Doreen, and Kyle for all of his tech help.
So first I want to dedicate this evening to Marilyn Golden, an important disability activist who was instrumental in the passage and implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and long-time policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, who passed away on September 21.
Marilyn was my first disability mentor to whom I dedicated Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. Without knowing Marilyn none of the work I’ve done for the past decades would have happened.
As today’s event is about contesting the erasure of disability history, I wanted to bring Marilyn along with us tonight to emphasize the importance of our knowing our disability histories. I want to frame my talk tonight by saying that Aktion T4, like many aspects of disability histories, remains unknown, even in Germany.
In 2019, when I wrote a piece around the 80th “anniversary” of T4, an editor at a very well known publication responded to my query by saying he wasn’t interested in a piece commemorating something that nobody knows about.
My journey toward my work about Aktion T4 started in 2013, when I arrived in Berlin to research the lives of disabled people who grew up in what was East Germany. But very soon I realized I could not understand disability in a German context unless I went back further to the Nazi era, and even earlier.
In 2013, Quintan Ana Wikswo, who I had met through Creative Capital, the foundation that has supported our work, came to Berlin for their show at the Jewish Museum. One night, I gathered a group of disability activists, writers, scholars, and artists in my apartment so Quintan could share her work on disability, which was not featured at the museum. That night, I asked my German colleagues what they thought of Americans coming to Germany to Work on this German disability history. The consensus response was that what we were working on were not German issues but human issues. At the end of the night, Quintan privately warned me that working on T4 would cause depression and nightmares. What transpired that night can found online at Creative Capital when Quintan and I interviewed each other about that evening.
After meeting Andreas Hechler, the great grandson of Emilie Rau, who was killed at Hadamar, and whose grandmother was instrumental in bringing to public attention what happened at Hadamar, I decided to visit the six T4 killing sites, some of which are still psychiatric institutions today.
These visits became the core narrative of Stumbling Over History. After my last visit, a colleague asked me how I felt. I couldn’t immediately answer her question. Then, I read Susanne Knittel’s The Historical Uncanny, in which she writes about Grafeneck, one of the T4 killing sites, and its relationship to Risiera di San Sabba, an internment camp in Trieste, Italy.
It was in Knittel’s book that I first encountered the idea of being a “vicarious witness.” This is a very short excerpt from the book.
“Unlike the Holocaust, there are no T4 survivors. We know about T4 and its aftermath mainly through medical records and from the perpetrators. Aktion T4 does not have its Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi.”
That is the main reason I write about what happened to disabled people during the Third Reich. I want to be what Susanne Knittel and other scholars call a “vicarious witness.” Knittel describes this not as “an act of speaking for and thus appropriating the memory and story of someone else, but rather an attempt to bridge the silence through narrative means.” This is my way of bridging the silence, of keeping alive something that is too often forgotten.
Also important was learning from Knittel about multi directional memory: in order to understand what happened it is sometimes necessary to go back to events that took place before, as well as ahead to future events. I do this in Stumbling Over History by going back to the 1923 Melzer survey of the parents of his disabled patients. 73% said they would be okay if their disabled children were killed if they didn’t know about it. And earlier eugenics prevalent in the US, Canada and the U.K.
And I also go forward to discussing the similarities and difference in societal reaction and protest/lack of protest to T4 and the early years of HIV/AIDS. Yehuda Bauer, professor and honorary chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance makes a distinction between historical denial, and historical distortion. Though both are obviously problematic, Bauer said it is more difficult to deal with the distortion than denial. Quote “distortion of the past rests on a combination of truth and invention.”
I encountered this difficulty when writing about the so-called test killing at Brandenburg which was the first T4 killing site. In my book, I write: “I’m not surprise surprised that some of the perpetrator’s testimony is contradictory.”
In his diary, Dr. Ebril, the medical director at Brandenburg mentions January 18, 1940 as the date of the test killing. However, Dr. Shuman who we know to have been present at the event was on that day at Grafeneck, where he would oversee mass killings. The first of which occurred on January 18.
Another T4 employee said the murder of patients in Grafeneck started about 14 days after the test killing in Brandenburg. It seems Ebil mixed up the dates of the two killings. After he was arrested in 1959, Werner Hyde, a psychiatrist and the medical director of the T4 program, placed the test killing at the beginning of January 1940. He confessed to being only an observer. The German Meteorological Office records the first major snowfall of the 1939-40 winter in Brandenburg on new year’s eve, 1939. December had been relatively dry. Victor Brock, in his testimony, was very clear about the snow on the ground at Brandenburg for the test killing. By deduction, it seemed that the first Brandenburg mass murder took place during the first days of January 1940. You see how — one has to conjure and deduce these things, because the historical record isn’t clear.
So along the way on my journey, Perel, who I met Berlin, invited me to be their special guest for Life (Un)Worthy of Life, first in Berlin, then in Hamburg. This past year, we collaborated on a virtual version for Chicago because we could not do the show there live because of the pandemic. You can watch the 35-minute video on my YouTube channel. Using excerpts from Stumbling Over History, as well as photographs I took at the T4 sites, combined with historical photographs, I created What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940? a video series about my T4 visits (which also can be viewed on my YouTube channel). As I researched, I was always aware of Quintan’s warning. But my work didn’t cause depression or nightmares until the coronavirus pandemic, when it became clear eugenics is not something of the past but alive and well and killing people today through triage protocols, and the ways social distancing and other pandemic measures such as masks, are rightly promulgated but without much thought on the disparate effects on disabled people.
Besides the pandemic, the 2016 killing of 19 disabled people in Sagimahara, Japan and the 2021 killing of four disabled people at an institution in Potsdam, outside of Berlin, both killers were formerly working at or presently working at the institution at the time of the killings, is evidence enough of how eugenics remains a prevalent issue. I use these experiences in my accessible audiotext, “Disability Can Save Your Life” the only thing I have been really able to write during the pandemic.
I learned from being on stage together with Perel that no longer being a lone disabled person contesting the erasure of disability history can be powerful. On stage, Perel and I were two. Today, along with Quintan and Julia, we are 4, made even more powerful by all 4 of us identifying as Jewish, queer, and disabled.
Today’s event is another step in the process of contesting the erasure of disability histories. And behind us and with us, are those who were killed. At one of the six killing sites, there are few remnants that remain. But the memorial exhibit is haunting. And I’ll end with a brief passage again from my book.
The basement is rough, the floors are brick. If looked at closely, there is a notch in the wall where once the gas chamber door had been hinged. In one room are square black and white photos of some who were killed here. The photos are mounted on top of metal poles. All at an equal height, the faces, facing inward, are placed in two rows facing each other. From the end of the room, it is as if the parade of the patients to the gas chamber is ghostly, though at a stand-still, reenacted. Standing between the rows in the multi-arched room, it is as if one has entered a silent, yet never ending conversation between those caught between lives both led and lost.
>> JULIA WATTS BELSER: Thank you. Thank you for the work that you have been doing. The painstaking work that you have been doing to document and reconstruct this history, and also for the way that you acknowledge how haunting it is. You’ve already in some ways, set the stage for our next speaker.
But let me take a moment to introduce Perel, an Interdisciplinary artist whose work centers on disability and queerness in relation to care, consent, and sexuality as well as personal and historic trauma.
Perel is a Ford and Mellon Foundation Disability Futures Fellow and they are the creator of a powerful talk show Life (Un)Worthy of Life – which takes up and reconfigures the terminology the Nazi regime used to designate disabled people as fit only for death. They’ve performed the show at the No Limits Festival in Berlin in Hamburg and in a virtual version for Chicago’s Bodies of Work Festival, with Kenny Fries. The show works to create an intimate and evocative space to discuss and examine the legacies of oppression. Thank you, Perel.
>>PEREL: Thank you so much, Julia, and thank you so much, Kenny that was so beautiful, and I wanted to say that I — what I appreciate about knowing Kenny and talking with Kenny is that, he will always go to the details of things in order to point at the larger implications in this exquisite way that is very unique to him. And I really appreciate that.
My relationship to Aktion T4 has been taking shape in the past few years, physically. And I say “physically” because I can tangibly say that 2018 was the year that I began to visit both former killing sites and also concentration camps. But psychically, or psychologically, or spiritually, I can say that I have been living in its legacy since before I was conscious of it. It is a legacy of absence, and of erasure. I have found myself occupying that space, and learning to find ways to co-exist with its silence.
In 2019, I created Life (Un Worthy of Life: A Queer Dis-Crip Talk Show as way to bring attention to this history. It premiered in Berlin and has since only been performed in Germany.
In the show, I talk about the anti-Semitism I grew up with in my town, and also the inundation of Holocaust narratives that I read privately. Even though I am clear about the violence and oppression I learned to live with as a Jew, I also acknowledge the complete lack of historic knowledge I received about disability.
In the 2020 iteration of the show, I use an empty chair as symbol for this absence, and as I tell my own stories, I cyclically pause at the chair as a way to bring awareness to the stories that are not there. In the following video clip, I walk from the front of the stage to the back of the stage to stand behind an empty wooden chair.
I am wearing a leather shirt, my short hair is bleached. I have the microphone in one hand, and my silver cane in the other. As I stand behind the chair, the lights go down until there is only one spotlight over it.
You so can play the video clip now.
>>Whenever I have gone to memorials or sites, I really try to imagine any kind of story that I could just making them up in my mind really of people with full lives who knew what was happening to them and had no choice. And I wondered about ways that they might have tried to resist however small or large. I wondered about ways that they might have tried to comfort themselves when they had to face their deaths from a bunch of people who pretended to be caring for them.
>>PEREL: So I guess the clip ended there, but after the spotlight comes down, there is a full few minutes of pause that is just in silence on the chair. And I was thinking about the symbolism again in preparation for this panel. And how I see the chair working in a non-linear way in relationship to my body. The chair not only symbolizes the absence of disabled survivors or voices from that time, but it is also an acknowledgment of the dead, and an invitation for the dead to join me there. So my presence is a continuation of their absence. In this sense, I am myself no longer a symbol for disabled people to the audience, but an embodiment of a history.
Throughout the performance, I also ask the audience questions about their own relationship to this history. That’s the nature of it being a talk show. The following video clip is from the same show, I am standing at the front of the stage having a dialogue with an audience member, so you will be hearing a voice off screen from someone there answering my question. The stage is lit with lavender and blue tones, giving a late night cabaret feel. Please play that clip.
>>Do you learn anything about what happens what happened to disabled people specifically, or —
>> Just about —
>> I remember learning about, called Limbs Born this initiative where they were trying to breed the perfect mix of Aryans or whatever. And yes, there was definitely like alongside that it was mentioned that there were other forms of, like other forms of life that were not deemed fit. And that if babies were born looking a certain way, for example that they were euthanized.
>> But yeah, I seem to remember learning that in school.
>> Anyone else want to say what they have learned? Go ahead.
>> Very close to where I grew up was actually in, I think the English word is asylum, and like a living or like a hospital, I don’t know, for disabled people and people with mental illnesses. And of course, that’s during the second word war, that’s the place where these people were euthanized. Like, beforehand, they just lived there or were treated and then just turned into like a mini concentration camp. And in school, we learned about that because it is very close, and it is within the area.
>> Where was it?
>> It is in the middle of Germany, it is near Frankfurt.
>> And what was the —
>> The place is called Hadamar. And I remember that when I learned that in school and we had like, talks with people who worked for this place, it is now a museum. And like people worked with that and taught us about it. I went home and asked my grandma about it, like, did you remember this happening? And she said like, oh, well, you know, there was always smoke coming out of the chimney. We were wondering about that. Like — yeah. That was peculiar back then. But like the typical thing, we didn’t know anything. And I think I was also like 13 or 14 or something like that. Didn’t really understand that she was pretending to not know. I just believed her when she said they didn’t know anything. But much later, I understood what this was actually like.
>>PEREL: It is very hard to follow up that dialogue with something more to say as it is a very powerful, real life example of the legacy of silence and its lasting devastating effects, the alienation that is shared among generations, and even among those born from accessories to the killings.
In closing, I would like to share that Kenny has played an important role in my work here. He was a guest interviewee in all of the Life (Un) Worthy shows and together we created an on-line discussion about eugenics, Aktion T4, and the pandemic with a group of disabled artists, scholars, and activists that premiered in June this year. We will share the link to the video. Distinguish we shared the link to earlier. I am really grateful for our intergenerational bond, and am aware of its rarity given the historical conditions of our kind. So thank you very much.
>> JULIA WATTS BELSER: Perel, thank you. You speak so powerfully to the significance of creating a space and holding a space to mark that empty chair. It acknowledges not just the history of violence and erasure but also the ongoing effects of silence. The way that alienation is carried and passed through generations, and you model powerfully some of the ways that silence and alienation can be disrupted, the way it we can be present, here and now, to legacies of and the realities of loss.
With all of that in mind, I’ll invite us to third now to our third speaker, Quintan Ana Wikswo, an author and visual artist whose critically-acclaimed work integrates literature with photography and other media.
Quintan’s books include The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, and A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be. Quintain is also a Creative Capital Awardee. And they received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to research, document, and create work about the way the German and US doctors colluded together to develop and implement the Nazi eugenics program at the Center for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Virginia and in California, New York, and the Southern United States.
Quintan, thank you for being here today.
Quintan, you’re muted.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: Am I here? Okay. I’m Quintan Ana Wikswo. Our effort here is holy. At age 12 and Europe in the United States. Today I’ll I will present those to you alongside my speaking voice, photographs of eugenics sites and video performances from my exhibitions, at the Berlin Jewish museum and elsewhere.
I’m speaking to with you with long silver hair and pale skin wearing black, in front of stacks of books.
The erasure of disability history. Are we erasing, or are we keeping secrets?
In Latin, SECRETUM and SECERNERE – to set apart through a sieve. Secrecy – a tool used to set apart, to sift and separate and divide, isolating – or someone – out of the way. There are survivors and victims of Aktion t4.
There are perpetrators and proponents of Aktion T4. Who is secret here? Are they? Are we? Who is we? Who is a secret? Aktion T4 is still happening. It preceded the Nazis, and it gains speed today.
We have a slice in time, like a glance through a window, where the murders of disabled people were documented – the Third Reich. But these atrocities against disabled people still happen. The window moves. It is 1866. It is 1776. It is 2006. It is the year 2021. Who is separated by this window of witness and victim, perpetrator and survivor? Who is whom? Are they? Are we? Who is we? What is our witnessed secret? Kyle, could you play it.
>>KYLE JAYMES DAVIS: Just so everybody knows, I will be popping in occasionally when there is text on the screen to read it out loud. I’m not going to do a description of myself because my video is not on. And apologies for mispronouncing anything.
So this first slide that is up right now, says autobiographical project in photography, essay, film and performance regarding queer women affected by the Aktion T4 and lengthy careers of doctor, teachers and their students at the hospital from 1920 to today.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: Invoke in your mind’s eye a gathering of people in a city square – laughing, talking, working, watching, enjoying a rich and full life. You look away for a moment. When you look back, everything seems the same.
A voice announces: WE CELEBRATE HEALTH AND WELLBEING. You feel a sense of security. After all the turmoil and anxiety that haunts you, you can relax. A small child is next to you, and whispers, they searched for us and they killed us. You reply, who? The child responds, I’m not supposed to say. WHY? they said we were unworthy of life. WHEN – [whisper] in that moment, when you looked away, they took us. HOW? it’s a secret. I’m not supposed to tell anyone about our lives. Nobody has even noticed that we’re gone. Why? Who? How? When? The child disappears. Leaves behind a scent, an echo, faint reminders of its presence
>>KYLE JAYMES DAVIS: Text on the screen says: On the murder of the infant Gerhard Herbert Kretschmar in the Aktion T4 Bavarian section.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: Today we are here with that child, and all the human beings for whom it speaks. We are sitting in our chairs and incumbent on us is to listen to the questions and the answers, and examine our role today. Let’s look for the secret. Let’s tell the secrets. Our own. In 1680, My ancestors arrive from Scotland into the British colonies of America in Charleston, South Carolina. A large well-connected clan who establish plantations, purchase human beings to imprison for slave labor, and dwell in large and beautiful mansions and – later, when our blood is mixed – also in the rough slave quarter huts of prisoners.
Year after year, men from my family rape these prisoners. Children are born, who are less than human. It is 1973. I am one of these children. All witnesses claim vicariousness. The secrecy brings my ancestors money. Shame. Land. Erotic pleasure. Profit. The witnesses were vicarious. For four centuries and counting. In 1910, great-grandfather Lafayette is born mixed race with one leg, syphilis and epilepsy.
>>KYLE JAYMES DAVIS: This text reads, four strategies for filing. An autobiographical project on the taxonomy of Jewish body specimens in performance, poems and photographs from my work in the archives of the Vienna T4 body parts archive (secret, concealed, existence).
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: Lafayette is born mixed race with one leg, syphilis and epilepsy. In 1962, he is taken to the Virginia Center for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, selected for a treatment he is not intended to survive. He dies with vicarious witnesses holding his hand, signing the death card, shaking the hand of the doctors. He is in a mass grave at the institution. In 1980, my family story is whispered to me as a child. I am committed to secrecy. Yet as I grow up as a human rights worker in the South, as I learn that I have extensive physical and neurological disabilities, I have autism, I learn this process of sorting out disabled and queer and mixed race people is called “a mountain sweep.”
Selecting anyone less than human, collecting them, and taking them someplace secret from which they will never return. My family secret is the secret of every family, perpetrator and prey that I have ever met.
In 1986, there is talk about removing my uterus, ovaries, and any diseased parts of me that might one day bear children. I am sixteen. I have never had consensual sex, and they tell me they plan to remove my organs so that I cannot pass on my genes. Although, they say, it is unlikely that I am healthy enough or desirable enough to have children anyway.
I hitchhike to Memphis where I take a train to New Orleans and disappear. The memory of their threat is now a secret. A woman who cannot have children? A useless eater. In 1998, I visit my Swiss boyfriend directing the particle collider of CERN. He shows me the tunnels, and in them we have sex, the condom breaks. He seems undisturbed. He invites me to a lunch later, with friends.
The lunch is an appointment with a Swiss-German gynecologist. She explains to me in German that it is impossible for someone of his career promise to have the burden of a disabled child.
>KYLE JAYMES DAVIS: Six nights in Ignaz Günther Haus. Autobiographical commission regarding fetishization, eroticization, and othering of the Jewish disabled body in historical and contemporary German society.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: He explains to me in Italian that fathering a half Jewish child would forfeit his own inheritance even though he thinks that I’m sexy. Nobody knows whether or not I am pregnant, but I am ordered to have an abortion. The diploma on the gynecologist’s wall bears her name – she graduated from the Charité Hospital in Berlin.
I begin my official work on Aktion T4 in 2000 after conducting an extensive interview with one of the surviving Mengele Twins. I learn that my family story intersects with her family story and secrets and fear and shame and rebellion.
In 2003, I find the name of the doctor who had issued the order for the murder of my great-grandfather. I learn he studied in Germany with Aktion T4 doctors before there was an T4. On an ancestry site, I tracked down the doctor’s descendants. One is a psychologist in San Francisco, and I call and he is taking new patients and for two years I pay him for treatment surrounding the still-secret abuses and atrocities I have survived. He is a sympathetic man. He learns my family history and realizes his father murdered my great-grandfather. He guards his secret. He guards his father’s secret. I never tell him I know, and that I will eventually tell everyone that I hunted him down to witness him – not vicariously.
In 2004, At one desperate hour of suffering, he forcibly institutionalizes me. The panel of doctors discusses at length the value of a chemical lobotomy. I have filed a medical protective order. I am not lobotomized. In 2005 I receive a letter from the Harvard Brain Bank, telling me that the psychiatrists in San Francisco had identified my brain as aberrant, and submitted it to Harvard for posthumous study. This is more or less a form letter, Kyle.
>>KYLE JAYMES DAVIS: The slide reads Carrie Buried Beneath Catala Leaves, an autobiographical project in photographs and poems documenting my encounters and arrests while investigating the Aktion T4.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: …with a space for my signature that would permit the removal of my brain post-mortem, and its cataloging. I do not sign my name. In 2006, I begin research on my therapist’s family to see where in Germany they had studied. It was at a major institution in Berlin – Charité Hospital. I research the names of the instructors.
They train students in the Neurology, Psychiatry, and Gynecology. They lecture and recruit widely for the Nazi party and for medicine, especially in the United States. When the Virginia doctor travelled home from Germany, he sits in his their and examined my great grandfather.
He looks out the window for a second before writing out the order for treatment -A death sentence. Perhaps he looked out the window afterwards. Somewhere in there, my ancestor disappeared. It is 1966. The Holocaust was a memory. My grandfather’s grave was initially unmarked. For my 9th birthday, my grandmother bought me a grave. She was concerned because many of our family had died without marked graves. We would go for picnics on my grave.
The butter biscuits with verboten country ham were a secret, and delicious. We were vicariously witnessing my death in advance. I am still alive.(sighing).
During this time our brain causes some strange things. I receive an email confirmation of a one-way ticket to Germany, non-refundable. A few moments later I return to discover a subsequent email. Non-refundable email of test private home of a career at the hospital. In 2009 I fly alone to Berlin and I walk the streets surrounding there. Reading the names of the doctors on the walls.
These are names that I recognize. The doctors, the clinics and Aryan specialization. I become so depressed that friends from New York promise to visit me but never arrive. When questioned, they are vicarious witnesses and tell me go to a doctor or a hospital.
My window looks out on the neurological ward so I don’t leave the house. I play chess with the janitor. In 2010 I go for a date with a woman in who I found very attractive. I invite her for drinks at the ball house. Halfway into the date I tell her that I’m researching the Nazi gynecologist who murder mid-ancestors. Kyle.
>>>>KYLE JAYMES DAVIS: Slide reads, Nonagon for the Dead Who are Rising. A call to arms for murdered people who are disabled and a tribute to disability activist, Robin Kilson, around an tract of exploration.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: Halfway into the date, I tell her that I’m researching the gynecologist who murdered my ancestors. They said that was my mother’s gynecologist and child doctor in east Berlin a pediatrician, a good man. She was in 1985. I could not stop thinking of her belly button, how he must have tied it off with satisfaction. Are you disabled, I ask her? No of course not, she says. I feel badly for disabled people though. All that can be eliminated with prenatal testing. My mother had three abortions because of that. My brothers and I are quite healthy.
In this massive collection of photographs, essays, poems, short stories, films, I am here. I am not a vicarious witness. I do not sit silent with my legs spread on the gynecologist’s tables. I am not a witness. I hold my hands to each side of my head at the neurology clinics. I will not keep secrets. Aktion T4 isn’t over. It is only beginning. We are living and dying, surviving and being murdered in a complex ecology where the pencil that records these crimes against disabled people has an eraser that has been used so heavily there is none of it left. We must not replace the pencil. We must remain aware of the absent eraser. We must each take that pencil and the sharp point, the part that writes, that tells, that speaks, that records – it is the pencil we must work with. The pencil that only writes, and can no longer erase.
Thank you very much.
>>JULIA WATTS BELSER: Thank you. Thank you. The stories that you have shared here, here are haunting and powerful. So you trace the sigh erasure and intimate and intricate connections. The architecture of violence and euthanasia. That was not meant to be seen. I’m deeply moved by your work and that the work that all three of you are doing. The work that you are doing to document, to sift and to recover stories and histories that have been erased. We’ll move into some conversation with the audience.
So, I’ll invite those of you who are with us here today, to please, offer your questions in the — using the Q&A feature. If you prefer or if it is more accessible to you, you can also pose them in the chat.
As a first invitation, I would like to pose a question to the panel. Perel, I’m thinking about the story that was told during the clip that you shared. The story about the smoke that rose from the chimneys. I think all three of you, Kenny, Quintan, Perel, all three of you have made the choice to ask about the smoke. To trace its flows. To look at what causes it. To grapple with violence that also has deeply profoundly personal implications. So, I would like to ask, what anchors you as you do this work? What allow you to be present as you do it. What holds you.
>>KENNY FRIES: I can start. I think actually, visiting these places makes me — this is — I don’t know how this is going to sound. I might have to unpack how this sounds. It feels like going home. It feels like being able to – like, rejoin in a type of community, and that is something that I have learned from this is that, community is not only among the living, and we’re not in community only amongst the living. And there are ways in which when I visit these sites, that actually I feel deeper embodiment than I do in my daily life.
Or in the world that is like the material apparent world. So that’s one thing that actually grounds me. But then also, I feel like I have this understanding that I am part of this continuum. Like, a medium or a CONDUIT of these things. And even I think, I mean, Quintan touched on this many times in their talk. But, the ways in which to be able to unpack the cycles of violence, and look at them.
And once you started to look, you don’t stop looking. And so, it is sort of this choreography of like, you look at something and it makes you turn. And then you look at something else and it makes you turn again. And I think that that’s the way working through this trauma moves through me. So that’s not necessarily like about self care or comfort or certain other things that one might say is grounding.
Spirituality is grounding. But, I think that ground itself in literal sense is grounding too.
I think that it is so interesting to be doing this event with both Perel and Quintan who have been instrumental in my grounding over the time that I have been working on this. I mean, Quintan at the very beginning back in 2013, and Perel more recently, and I think that, all the work that they do and the other work, I mean, you know, Susanne Knittel’s work and, that I’m not doing this alone, I think, is really very important. Although when I write my book, I’m sitting there with my computer alone. But that’s a very grounding thing to have, knowing that they are out there and doing this work in different ways, is very, very important to me.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: I would say that my answer is identical to Kenny’s but opposite. Because what keeps me grounded is finding all of the people who are doing this, and while I feel tremendous solidarity with other disabled folks, I feel a stronger mission to inhibit the work of predators. That’s why I keep going.
>>JULIA WATTS BELSER: We’ll take a question now. I’ll read a question from Heidi Haus. Heidi says, thank you all for your beautiful work and for sharing yourselves with us. What has been the most impactful memorable part of sharing your art with audiences?
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: Quick. My quick answer would be, as an exhibiting artist in institution, you get head counts rather Holocaustish. There’s great bureaucracy especially in Germany around the attendance of his stores. How long they stay, what they do and how they engage. At the end of each exhibition, you get a report back. And I didn’t really expect much from this as Kenny pointed out. It’s not exactly at the top of people’s priorities.
And yet, what I found was that in the history of these museums, these exhibitions had the most repeat visitors of any other. So the same people came multiple times. And people who did not identify self-identify disabled or Jewish or queer, came the most often. And the guards reported an enormous amount of crying. And I think of that also in the context of white tears. So I say for food for thought, it was fascinating to me this moved outside of the community of disabled, queer, Jewish activists and into the population of European German civilian tourist at art museums. And tears resulted. The pondering of that phenomenon has stayed with me and will always stay with me.
And there isn’t — I will never have an answer for it. But I think that it is — it has left me with a resounding hesitancy to keep this conversation, these conversations to ourselves as within the disabled community or within the non-disabled community, or to silo ourselves because one never knows exactly who is out there who has done or experienced or knows what.
So the more people in the conversation, the more complex and representative we can actually be.
>> DIANE WIENER: I’m just going to quickly interject, this is Diane here, and say that in the spirit of accessibility and I know we only have a few moments so I’ll be brief. All of the links that have been shared in the chat, all of the resources that have been discussed, all of the images and their accompanying image descriptions with permission from the participants and panelists, any other resources that we have gathered, we will put together in a kind of packet, digitally and accessibly, that will be shared with an accessible video link and all of that listen publicly posted and also shared with everyone who registered to join us today. Even if people didn’t physically or digitally manifest, we’ll make sure that all participants whether they pre-registered or couldn’t come, whatever the case, so, I hope that that answers people’s questions about that and I’m going to back up now and so we have a couple other ones left. Thank you.
>> JULIA WATTS BELSER: Wonderful. Thank you very much. Perel, did you have something that you wanted to comment?
>> PEREL: Yeah, I mean, I would say that, every time I do, (Un)Worthy of Life, the talk show, when it is live, I feel that it is very transformative. And when I say that, it means like, it has all of the levels of impact that happen at one time. Like, the most excruciating types of silence that replicate this historic silence and then sometimes, somebody wants to talk about their relative that they know, was a German soldier, or the story that was in the video that I showed, of dismissal, yet, implication, and then, there are people who really do want to engage with the material and that — and this reality, either because they themselves are disabled or because they are coming to terms with their history or their family’s history here. And in Hamburg, I had separate room after each show where people could come and drink beer, and, talk just to talk about what came up in the show. And, any other thing that they feel relates to this. And I feel like there is always something that I can feel as starting to shift in people from these shows. Even if that is a feeling of people, even if that is people feeling attacked or defensive, there is a shift that begins to occur. And that now, I feel like there’s this transformative work that I am able to touch into and access. And so these are just like some examples of the impact of that.
>> JULIA WATTS BELSER: And we’ll take a question from Beth. Beth asks, I am struck by the notion of refusal and willful ignorance to which you all speak. The refusal to remember, to know, acknowledge and see this history even when so much has been documented, when the smoke was visible. How do you see your work as artists, writers, creatives, humanists, how do you see your work as providing a way to intervene in ways that cannot be refused?
>>KENNY FRIES: That’s a very interesting. That’s a very good question but, I just want to tweak it a little bit. Because I am always very interested, and it is something that Perel has asked in their show and asked people in the video version of it, of how people learn about T4, if they learn. It is not a child’s fault that it is not on the school curriculum. Right? And I think that that’s where some of this begins. This lack of knowing about it. It is not a system. It is not something that is taught on a regular basis. Whether it is in Germany or in the U.S. or every — wherever it is. So sometimes, the refusal born out of the silence or to use Quintan’s word, a secret in a lot of ways. I mean, I who knows more about disability history than most of the people of generic person, you know, out there, I did not know the depth of what happened until I came to Germany and did the research. I knew that disabled people were killed. But I didn’t know the mechanism. I didn’t know about the whole program, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. So it is very, very interesting for me to learn about how people actually learn about T4 if they have.
And, when Perel and I talked with this group in Chicago that was the basis for this video, it went from, I didn’t know about it until today! Or until I learned there is one person who learned in school when they were younger. But, most people learned in graduate school or in their research. And these are people who are actively searching out and exploring their disability identities. So that Al really is interesting. I don’t know if refusal is in a lot of ways the right word to use.
There are people, and the Berlin, American academy in Berlin, I was sitting next to a board member. And it was at some event. And they asked me what I was writing about. And I said, you know, basically Nazis killing disabled people. And she looked at me and said, that happened? [Laughter] So is that a refusal or is that — I mean, I don’t know. It is a silence, it is a secret. But I see more than a refusal. I think there’s a refusal to come to terms with it and what it might mean. If that makes sense.
>>QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: I think I agree fully with Kenny. It is important to note in the post war period, Germany was divided between east and west. And to this day, a lot of when you’re in Germany working on this subject matter, it was mandated by the allies in the victory that many aspects of the Holocaust and T4 were taught in school in the former USSR especially east Germany and east Berlin, this was not mandated. And so often times, I can — you know, kind of correlate exactly to Kenny’s point. It is not the child’s fault for not being taught. And so some people are growing up in an environment in which this is inaccessible information.
How we can make a long-term difference to me, is impediment but I think we have to look at the amount of shame representation, and atrocity that exists within the female identified reproductive. Like, historically, female bodied, now that is changing. Reproductive medical establishment that is full of shame, of being the bad mother, of being the mother of — you did something wrong if your baby is not right. You didn’t eat the right thing. You smoked a cigarette. There is so much shame when I tried to have much of this work exhibited in Germany. And I met with refusal. I would take the women, powerful women in positions of great authority in the industries of academia and art. And they said, you know what? We’ve all — this is too personal and it is opening up a mole hill of shame and guilt and racism that has happened to all of us through the medical profession. So unless we’re also willing to take this conversation to the doctors who are shaming people who are raising children who are gay, people who are raising children who are — and those of us living in that, the denial is also going to be a secret but it is also going to be shame and embarrassment that there’s something wrong with this life that I’m responsible for. Be it mine or PRODIGY and that’s literally deadly.
>>JULIA WATTS BELSER: Thank you and I want to acknowledge that your answer there also really speaks to Diane Coleman’s question who asked about the importance of and the ways of bringing this history to medical education. So thank you. We’re going to turn now Ma’ayan Simon. I’ll get you here in Zoom to unmute.
>> MA’AYAN SIMON: Hi and thank you. You can hear me, yes?
>>JULIA WATTS BELSER: Yes.
>> MA’AYAN SIMON: Hi, thank you so much. This work is stunning. And I just feel like it is a travesty on so many levels but also that I am queer and Jewish and disabled and have not been familiar with any of you and your work. I also wanted to share, and I have a question related to this, that I have two younger brothers who are in their late 20s now who I grew up with who are both adopted from Jewish families. And they both have Down syndrome and other disabilities. At birth we only knew about the Down syndrome. One is ashcans city and other is — But one of my brothers, his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and got in touch with our family and said, he never knew what happened to my brother. He knew that his daughter had a baby, and then, the baby wasn’t around any more. You know, because the baby was adopted by our family fortunately and not institutionalized. I’m not trying to say our family is like so fantastic but, there are other alternatives that could have been much worse, right. But, I guess I’m just wondering if any of you have observed any of those connections of people who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the Holocaust, how it has affected their relationship with disability. I also think of the erasure in my brother’s case with his biological siblings. He has two younger biological siblings who have no idea that he exists so he was essentially erased from his family’s history. According to him, he has the best siblings ever, you know, in our — in my family that he grew up with. So but anyway, I’m just curious because to me, I see the work that you’ll doing in terms of research and I see it directly connected to Jewish families potentially. I’m not saying always but giving up their children who have apparent disabilities for adoption. And I’m just sort of curious if you have reflections on that or if any of your work has explored any of that. And thank you for give leg the grace of a long sort of sharing question.
>> JULIA WATTS BELSER: Thank you very much, Ma’ayan. Are there panelists that would like to speak?
>> I mean, just I think just because — I think it goes back to what Quintan touched on is the whole idea of shame and the whole idea of shame around disability, you know, travels amongst everyone. Through class, race, gender, et cetera, et cetera. And the idea, one of the reasons that historically the way people who are killed in T4 have been remembered are by the first name and an initial. And that has a lot to do with the shame of the surviving families and also some medical privacy laws in Germany which I think are also basically shame based. But the whole idea of.
>> We can spend the whole course on the differences and similarities between the Holocaust and the killing of Jews, and, but I think that what ties a lot of this together, is shame. But, especially around the disability and killing of disabled people.
>>JULIA WATTS BELSER: Thank you so much. Kenny, Quintan, Perel, thank you to everyone who has asked such profound and striking questions – as anticipated we have more questions than time. And so I’ll turn it over to Diane to offer closing words and also share an opportunity for those who still have questions, to reach out afterwards. Thank you.
>>DIANE WIENER: Thank you so much. I’m processing the complexities and power of everyone’s respectful remarks and depth of feeling and the gravity of it, and, as also a Jewish queer disabled person, I’m aware of the nuances of my own perceptions as a host and also as a listener. So, I want to share briefly that, we did of course take notice of the fact that there were numerous comments and questions that we did not have an opportunity to get to we also have run over a little bit here or rolled continuously. And, we don’t want to not respect people’s time. So, what I want to do is see if any of you had question or comment that wasn’t addressed we have access to the Q&A function and we’ll be able to save a copy of that and also the chat, and any of the communications that have occur there. And I’ll ask the panelists and Julia as our moderator if anyone has the opportunity, I can’t expect that of people, but I’ll ask if anyone wishes to, if they have the band width and the spoons as some might say or articulate otherwise, to, they are welcome to comment and so, we’ll do that. I hope that helps. And, I want to share these remarks Steve Kuusisto. These are on Steve’s behalf and this is his language quoting in parts.
As we bring to a close this remarkable and timely panel on Aktion T4 and its ongoing legacies, I want to share a quote from Judith Butler I’ve long admired. She was essentially writing about the connections between emotional intelligence and activism. Butler said: “You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.”
I repeated a line because of my bifocals, but hopefully that made sense. The lives of the disabled are under fresh attacks. And this is Steve again. From medical science, Social Darwinism 2.0 (with its revamping of “useless eaters”) and today’s discussion reflects our work ahead, to recognize our histories and struggles as we lend that knowledge to others with sound critical judgment. Thank you for joining us. I think we can turn off the recording.