Students of Death Euthanasia Doctors Seek Existential Answers at Auschwitz
A group of Belgium's leading practitioners of euthanasia recently visited the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial to learn more about death and humanity. The trip proved to be just as controversial for the doctors as it did insightful.
Wim Distelmans is responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people. He's a man who scrupulously studies his field of work. In London he visited the world's first modern hospice, and he toured the first home for the dying in Scotland. He has even flown as far afield as Moscow to gain a better understanding of how we deal with death and dying. Now, his next study tour will take him to Poland. Distelmans is a palliative doctor from Brussels -- a physician who helps people die. He's nervous. He didn't sleep well and he was up early. The prospect of visiting Auschwitz makes him feel uneasy.
On this October morning, Distelmans, 62, is standing at a gate at the Brussels Airport. He's a man with ice-blue eyes and gray hair that is slightly wavy at the neck. Distelmans is wearing a brown leather jacket over a T-shirt, hiking pants and a blue-and-white striped linen scarf -- and he's taller than the people around him -- and quieter. A few hours ago, at five in the morning, he received a call. A friend who is a concentration camp survivor, and had been planning to accompany the group to Auschwitz as a tour guide, has called off her trip because she has come down with a cold.
Distelmans gazes at the people flocking around him. "Good morning, how are you?" he says greeting them, as he slaps the men on the shoulder and kisses the women on the cheek. He says he isn't sure whether the tour guide's cancellation has anything to do with the destination of their five-day study tour.
Some 70 people gradually gather around Distelmans. The group consists of doctors, psychologists and nurses from Belgium, most of whom work in the area of euthanasia. One of them is Eric Vandevelde, who during the course of his career has killed 20 people at their own request even as he helps women give birth every day. He's accompanied by his wife Colette, who was instrumental in introducing Belgium's euthanasia law 12 years ago. Manu Keirse, a psychologist, is also on hand. He's the author of 35 books, nearly all of which are on the topic of mourning. There's also Bea Verbeeck, a psychiatrist who is currently examining a request by a manic depressive man who gambles away tousands during his manic phases. Distelmans, who is the chairman of the Belgian government's Euthanasia Commission, has invited all of them on a trip to Poland.
Death with Dignity
In Auschwitz he intends to reflect with them on the meaning of "death with dignity". That's also the title of the tour, which is printed on the program booklet. It has to do with existential questions: self-determination, fear and freedom -- and what these things mean to us today. And it concerns how far we go, should go, and should be allowed to go.
But the group is not limited to euthanasia specialists. A Belgian journalist is also standing at the gate. "I'm traveling as far as Birkenau, and when I have enough material, I'll go back home," he says. A tour operator accompanying the group says, "I normally do football trips." There's also a homeopath who says: "A well-balanced individual has no need for euthanasia." Some of the medical professionals have taken along their wives, who are looking forward to seeing the picturesque medieval city of Krakow. A Jewish photographer named Guy Kleinblatt is also there. Members of his family died in Auschwitz and he is visiting the site for the first time. What all of these people have in common is that they support euthanasia and a liberal society.
They are following Distelmans to Auschwitz, they say, to learn more respect for their fellow human beings. In Auschwitz they intend to find out why the right of the individual to decide over his own life is inalienable -- and why people must be absolutely free to make their own decisions in this respect. Auschwitz, they say, is the antithesis of everything that they hope to achieve, and they are seeking to reflect there upon what it means to kill out of humility and love.
Protesting 'Dr. Death'
There were protests in the run-up to this trip. The British Daily Mail Online dubbed Distelmans as "Dr. Death" and described his trip to Auschwitz as tasteless. Meanwhile, Belgian journalists have also picked up on the debate using the Dutch translation for the same moniker. In the northern Belgian city of Antwerp, ultraorthodox Jews staged protests to voice their outrage at Distelmans referring to Auschwitz in his travel itinerary as an "inspiring venue." They called him a "professional killer." Distelmans received an email from a German-speaking scholar that contained just one word: "murderer." After the trip was over, the deputy director of the Auschwitz memorial wrote an email in response to the protests in which he said: "We feel that the attempt to link the history of Auschwitz with the current debate about euthanasia is inappropriate."
There is not a cloud in the sky when the tour group arrives at the airport in Krakow, where a white double-decker bus awaits them. Distelmans steps out of the door of the arrival terminal, pulling a suitcase behind him. He is still somewhat subdued as he takes a seat on the bus next to his girlfriend, Sonja Snacken, a criminologist researching the degradation of people in captivity. Distelmans gazes out the window. As the bus pulls away from the curb, his girlfriend briefly places her hand on his.
The bus passes by gray, low-lying houses with crumbling plaster, a fast food stand where a corpulent man sells sausages, the Vistula River, a castle on a hill, a flock of pigeons under a tree, and numerous churches. Krakow is a city that attracts millions of tourists every year. They circulate in small, open electric vehicles emblazoned with advertising messages in red paint like "Ghetto," "Schindler's Factory" and "Last Minute Auschwitz Tour." When the Germans seized Krakow during World War II, they initially herded the Jews into a quarter of the city and sealed off the entrances with barbed wire. "Welcome," the tour guide says to the Belgians. He invites them to enter the Scandale Royal restaurant.
The restaurant is decked out in purple plush, with gilded mirrors hanging on the walls. The waitresses in miniskirts serve fish soup, and the sound of clattering dishes echoes from the kitchen. Distelmans sits down, without a word of welcome to his guests, without giving a speech. A woman from the group says: "Poland is a devoutly Catholic country. Perhaps we are not welcome." She glances at her neighbor and wonders if there will be more protests over the coming days. Distelmans eats.
He is familiar with all the allegations, and he senses the mistrust that took hold after he announced this trip to Auschwitz. The world is questioning his purpose here. Is a physician who practices euthanasia allowed to visit this place? Is he allowed to gaze into the abyss to assure himself of the moral fortitude of his actions? Is it possible to study one individual's suffering to ease that of another? Is that cynical? Absurd? Isn't it analogous to traveling to the North Pole to learn something about heat? Or staring at the color black to recognize the white canvas beneath it?
Two weeks earlier, Distelmans was walking around his assisted dying center near Brussels, one of the places in Belgium where people can come to find out more about euthanasia. Patients spend their time here, playing cards or simply sitting for hours in a chair and waiting for nothing. If someone says that he is going to die soon, and he knows the date and the time of day, the others throw a party for him with sparkling wine, chips and his favorite music.
Euthanasia in Belgium
Distelmans was relaxed on that day in Brussels -- and proud of his work. He talked about his favorite films by German director Wim Wenders, and introduced the asthmatic office dog, a pug. Then he rattled off a few facts about his country: Since 2002 it has been legal in Belgium for a physician to kill a terminally ill patient who wishes to die. Last year, 1,807 people received euthanasia, which amounts to 2 percent of all fatalities in the country. For the past few months, terminally ill children have also been able to apply, regardless of how old they are. Anyone who is terminally ill, and whose suffering has become unbearable, may receive assistance in dying. What is unbearable? "That's up to the patient to decide," Distelmans responded. He talked about Germany, and said that he felt sorry for every patient who has no money to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. His heart goes out to everyone who has to die alone.
In Belgium a person who wants to die with someone else's assistance must be of a sound state of mind. He has to write down his wish and express it on a number of occasions. Then an attending physician has to establish whether the patient is terminally ill, and explain what treatments are still possible. The law prescribes that the doctor and the patient have to come to the conclusion that there is no other viable solution. If the patient were going to die in the immediate future anyway, only two physicians are required to decide on his wish. If no prognosis can be made about his life expectancy, three physicians need to be consulted.