Students of Death Euthanasia Doctors Seek Existential Answers at Auschwitz

Maria Feck/ DER SPIEGEL

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Part 3: A Place without Hope


Distelmans and Keirse enter a bookstore at the entrance and both purchase a work by Miklós Nyiszli titled "Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account." Nyiszli was a prisoner in a Sonderkommando, and he worked under the notorious SS doctor Joseph Mengele. The former inmate describes how he had to boil corpses in barrels to prepare their bones, and how he once found a woman alive under a pile of corpses.

Distelmans looks at the pages of the book and says that he wants to understand.

The group drives to an international meeting center near Auschwitz for a meal, though some of the group members have no appetite. Distelmans sits on a wooden bench next to his girlfriend. Later, the doctors take a group photo in the garden under the trees. It's a bright, sunny day. The tour guide says: "We are going to start driving again now so we can be in Birkenau by sundown."

Here, in the former Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, prisoners arrived by train. They had to stand in rows after they disembarked. Distelmans and his colleagues walk along the rails, while the low-lying sun bathes the premises in golden light. A railway car without windows stands on the tracks.

The complex is extensive, and bright green grass is growing on the ground. Distelmans walks by some barbed wire. He's now ready to speak. He talks about the false paternalism of doctors. A paternalistic doctor is a doctor who forces life upon an individual -- someone who always knows better, and tries to convince the patient to accept treatment, instead of merely informing him of his options. A paternalistic doctor is a power monger. Distelmans' hands move in opposite directions to demonstrate his point. The patient is the lower hand, the doctor is the upper one. Distelmans hates power. He says that as a child he attended a Jesuit school where they were awarded points if they snitched on other children.

Keirse walks up from behind. The two men have known each other for 20 years. Keirse is Catholic; Distelmans is an atheist. Keirse says that he had to sit down in front of the ruins of a gas chamber because he just couldn't go on, because this is a place without hope. Keirse goes on to say that when he counsels terminally ill patients, he always tries to encourage them to choose in favor of life. "They are so lonely in their pain. I have to give them something to look forward to: another birthday, a wedding, one last trip to the seaside, and taking another person by the hand, things like that. Otherwise the fear becomes too much to bear. You know, Distelmans," says Keirse, "otherwise, the fear becomes too much."

The doctors leave the premises. In this place they have witnessed the extreme limitation of freedom in a bid to discover what limitless freedom means. Most of the doctors, including Distelmans, say after their visit that Auschwitz has moved them, and that they can now be better, more sympathetic human beings in their interactions with patients.

In contrast to the others, though, Distelmans came to Auschwitz with an agenda: He wanted his colleagues to understand his definition of freedom -- and he hoped they would admit that there can only be freedom if people can liberate themselves from the power of others. Distelmans is a radical, and he thinks in absolute terms. He doesn't see that the freedom to decide about one's own life can be overwhelming for a patient. He doesn't see that an individual who is hesitating on the threshold between life and death might want someone who says: Don't go.

It is quiet in the bus on the drive back to Krakow. Darkness has descended and the forest casts shadows into the vehicle's headlights. A little bit earlier, while he was still standing in front of the ruins of the gas chamber, Distelmans received a phone call from a family in Belgium, asking him to put an end to the life of an incurable patient who had fallen into a coma. He told them that he could do nothing as long as the patient had not put his wishes in writing. Then he switched off his mobile phone.

Distelmans was annoyed by the family's attitude, and he noted that if this person were still conscious he would have the impression that he was disturbing his family so much that it would be better if he died. "We don't sort out people. We need the freedom to die, but this also entails the freedom not to exercise that right."

Euthanasia for a Nazi?

On the last evening in Poland, Distelmans accompanies his group to a restaurant in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, where they are served vodka and herring. A man plays the violin and the atmosphere is good. The doctors talk about their children and vacation trips to Sweden. Later, around midnight, the conversation returns to their work. They discuss the case of a colleague in the group who asked if he is allowed to kill a Nazi. The patient in question is paralyzed on one side and is a former member of the Waffen-SS. In fact, a portrait of Hitler hangs over his sofa. The colleague refused to perform euthanasia because he doesn't feel the Nazi deserves a painless, gentle death. His neighbor at the table says: "I could have no empathy for his suffering as an individual because the guy doesn't tick the way a normal person does. If I killed him, I would feel like a murderer."

Distelmans sits nearby and says nothing.

Back at work in Belgium on Monday of the following week, he thinks back to that conversation. He is once again wearing his doctor's smock and standing in a hospital room in Brussels. Outside the window, trees drenched with rain are losing their leaves. This is where he brings his patients before he gives them a deadly injection. They can see the trees, and there is room on the broad window sill for friends to sit. Distelmans says that he often has to clear away champagne bottles here.

He looks out the window and his breath steams up the glass. Distelmans reflects for a moment on the Nazi, and then says that he would perform euthanasia if the request where commensurate with the law. He says that he would do it out of respect for the man's pain and humanity -- as an act of unconditional love.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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peskyvera 11/21/2014
1.
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
5.
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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