Students of Death Euthanasia Doctors Seek Existential Answers at Auschwitz



Part 2: Too Quick To Say Yes to Suicide?

Distelmans trains these physicians who help others die. He developed the system of LevensEinde InformatieForum (LEIF) doctors, who provide consulting and support to general practitioners across Belgium. LEIF doctors distribute euthanasia application forms to pharmacies and libraries. They hold the hands of people who are so far gone that all they can do is vomit. Their patients are sometimes still capable of walking, eating, drinking and speaking, but they can no longer deal with the fear.

On this particular day in Brussels, Distelmans attends a farewell party for Steve, a wheelchair-bound young man who has a daughter -- and is ready to leave this world. Distelmans' critics accuse him of being too quick to say yes. For instance, when he agreed to euthanize a man who was suffering from a botched sex change operation. Or when he helped two 43-year-old twin brothers, both born deaf, put an end to their lives after they found out that they might also go blind. A young man is suing Distelmans because the doctor euthanized his depressed mother upon her request.

Speaking in his office in Belgium before the trip to Auschwitz, Distelmans said: "We are the first generation that can artificially determine both the beginning and the end of life. People are getting older and machines allow them to live forever. We have to take responsibility for the fact that not every individual is willing to take this path." He says he opposes a dictatorship by machines.

'Good Death'

Back in Krakow, Distelmans and the physicians have finished their desert, and are slowly filing out of the restaurant. The next activity is a guided tour of the city, and they have received nametags. Distelmans pins his nametag to his T-shirt, places his scarf on top of it, and pulls his jacket over his scarf. "I don't know if I have any opponents here," he says. Before the trip, a picture of him appeared on Google. Someone had doctored the image and put an SS uniform over his sweater.

That evening, the group checks into the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel. In the marble lobby there is a sign that reads "Dying with Dignity." It is the evening before the visit to Auschwitz. "This way," says the tour guide, as he directs the Belgians toward a conference room. The idea is to find the right frame of mind for Auschwitz. Distelmans steps up to the podium. "We are here today to allow ourselves to reflect on dying with dignity," he says. "There were protests before our trip. But there is no better place than Auschwitz to ponder the meaning of dignity. When we deal with euthanasia, we must also come to terms with its opposite. In Belgium we use euthanasia in the original sense of the word: It means 'good death.' That's the problem. We will have to explain over and over that we intend the opposite of what occurred in Auschwitz."

Everyone applauds.

His girlfriend Sonja Snacken goes to the podium. She shows pictures of Abu Ghraib, photos of executed prisoners in Iran and images of tormented Syrians who were tortured in Assad's prisons. She says: If an individual is subordinate to someone else and, at the same time, dependent upon that person, they can end up being humiliated." She tells the notorious story of the Stanford prison experiment in the US, in which students played the roles of prisoners and guards to study what psychological effects this would have. The experiment had to be called off because the guards lost control and abused the prisoners.

"What does this mean to us?", Distelmans asks. "Many of us are doctors. We have power over other people. We know everything better. We were taught to preserve life. But we have to make sure that we do not continue to treat our patients, against their wills, when they actually want to die. Nobody should assume that they have the power to judge what a life is worth. We must become the servants of our patients, and when it comes to the end, we have to accept our failure as physicians."

'Who Are We to Put Oursleves Above Others?'

Manu Keirse, a short man with glasses, gray hair and a checkered shirt, takes the microphone. The psychologist, with 40 years experience working for Belgian hospitals, has visited numerous concentration camp memorials. His presentation is titled, "What Auschwitz Has Taught Me about Caring for Terminally Ill Patients." In it, he says, "We want to examine the injustice that was committed back then and transform it into justice. In Auschwitz the Nazis made people into numbers. They gave them striped clothing, took away their names, and tattooed them with numbers. What are we doing? In our hospitals we don't speak of people, but instead refer to them by their disease: the cancer back there, the lung over there, the intestine next door." Keirse pauses for effect. "Let's not do that," he says, adding: "Who are we to put ourselves above others like that?"

The next day, it takes one and a half hours to drive from Krakow to Auschwitz. During the trip, Keirse reads a book titled "The Enlightened Heart - The Psychological Impact of a Life in Extreme Fear." It was written by a concentration camp survivor. Guy Kleinblatt, the photographer whose family was killed in Auschwitz, has closed his eyes and is resting his head on his hands. Distelmans is watching a film about Auschwitz that is being shown in the bus. Outside, the marshland rolls by.

Outside the main camp at Auschwitz, boisterous classes of schoolchildren jostle at the entrance as more buses arrive. The Belgians step out of their bus and congregate in small groups on a nearby meadow and wait for their tour to begin.

They receive headphones and pass through metal turnstiles. The man who will give them a guided tour is standing in the inner courtyard. The doctors gather around him. They follow him through the same entrance that the Jews passed through, and stop for a moment and gaze at the gate with the cynical motto "Arbeit macht frei".

They continue to the buildings made of brick, where they see an urn filled with the ashes of the dead. Behind a pane of glass is a model of a gas chamber. The poison -- hydrogen cyanide in the form of Zyklon B -- was thrown through an opening in the ceiling. They walk by huge amounts of hair, spread out in a long row. It is the hair that was cut from the women's heads after they died. People made carpets out of it. They walk by a carpet. They see piles of eyeglasses with shattered lenses. One room has a floor littered with bowls. Another room has thousands of shoes, stacked on top of each other, with laces, heels and stiff leather uppers. The footwear is covered with dust and bits of earth. There is a row of crutches and a jumble of prostheses for children's legs. Tall stacks of suitcases are inscribed with names and dates: Hana Fuchs, orphan, June 3, 1936.

Distelmans' feet are heavy, and he almost stumbles as he makes his way across the cobblestones. He has been thinking about this place for months. He wanted to understand what drives people who eradicate other people. He wanted to make industrial mass murder into something that was personally tangible. He wanted to face the monstrous, abysmal truth to understand how this differed from killing out of respect and love. But he was also afraid to cross this threshold. Now, he senses the fear that hangs over this place, and is overwhelmed to the point that he cannot put his feelings into words. He says he understands nothing.

Kleinblatt, the Jewish photographer, walks by him, searching for his great-grandfather -- some sign of his great-grandfather. He roams the long corridors of the buildings, with floors covered in straw. On the walls are photos of men and women with their names. He gazes into their faces, sees their pain. Where is his great-grandfather?

The physicians walk downstairs to a basement. They see the cells that were so small that prisoners were forced to stand, and other cells where people were locked away to starve to death. The doctors walk through a gas chamber. There is an infirmary with a chamber where SS doctors performed experiments on inmates, sterilizing men and women, and injecting phenol into prisoners' hearts. The Belgian physicians remain standing in front of this chamber for a long time, transfixed by the sight of a stethoscope and a white doctor's smock on the table.

Distelmans and Keirse, the psychologist, go outside to get some air. Keirse says that the worst part for him is that many Nazis were animal lovers. He says: "Rudolf Hess loved dogs." A woman from the group is walking behind them. She says she would like to see euthanasia laws in Belgium extended to include people who are suicidal. She also doesn't think that children with terminal illnesses should require their parents' signatures if they want to end their lives.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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peskyvera 11/21/2014
I find this extremely distasteful and appalling. How can anyone of sane mind even think of comparing what happened at Auschwitz and other extermination camps with the humane actions of euthanasia doctors who try to assist people wishing to die to do so in a dignified way. This is sick and the doctor who thought of this idea is even sicker.
Inglenda2 11/23/2014
2. It would be better to think a little, before pointing fingers
That some of Belgium's leading practitioners of euthanasia should visit Auschwitz to learn more about death and humanity, is for those of us who lived through WW2 amazing, but unfortunately fits into the current European attitude towards humanity, health and life. There are many homepages in internet, for example that of the Tenhumberg family in Germany, which still continue to condemn nearly all Germans, for the actions taken by the Nazis, while at the same time, European medical authorities allow bodily parts to be removed from one person considered to be dead, but with living organs (how can that be?), to transplanted in another.
david.stibbs 11/23/2014
3. What? Get real guys, really.
I really think the doctors need to re-read their Hippocratic Oath before delving into euthanasia. Also, Auschwitz is the last place one goes to understand how to die with dignity, gas chambers aren't the way, guaranteed.
turnipseed 11/24/2014
4. Mercy killing, just plain killing, and Auschwitz killing
Ever since the news of the Final Solution finally penetrated into the thick skulls of westerners those opposed to abortion and to euthanasia have used the example of the Nazi exterminations for their own propaganda purposes. This is unworthy and malicious. There is no evidence that Christian religion did any more to stop the murder of Jews and other targets of National Socialism than any other ideology or faith. Many of those opposing the Nazis were Catholics and Protrestants and Orthodox; many were secular liberals, conservatives, and leftist of different kinds. You could not predict who would try to save Jews and who would drive them to their fate according to their beliefs about euthanasia, abortion, or the other social issues. Just look at the Catholic episcopate under Hitler: very little was ever said publicly about the Jews; a little was said about the killing of disabled gentiles. It would be nice to think people really live their beliefs and their faith, but this rarely happens. We should support or oppose mercy killing and abortion on the basis of arguments which convince us, but we have no right to assume that all those in favor of these measures are equal to Nazi racist fanatics and their helpers. And religious believers have every right not to be considered as evil as Spanish Inquisitors and heresy hunters. I suspect people's behaviors have to do with their inner demons and fears and not with ideological positions they adopt or pretend to adopt. I doubt most Christians really believe half of what the clergy tells them to believe. Most Communists hardly after a time believed what official Stalinist propaganda told them to believe. Everyone pretends when that is advantageous.
delia 11/28/2014
Any kind of use to which Auschwitz is put constitutes exploitation because, having been exploited in the extreme for decades, it can no longer generate an unambiguous meaning. The day Bibi Netanyahu gave a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York waving the blueprints for Auschwitz made it impossible to think of Auschwitz as anything but a handy weapon with which to beat down any opposition to Israeli Apartheid. That Auschwitz could be useful to euthanasia professionals for thinking through the argument in support of their profession completely escapes me.
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