Suffer the Children

  • Share
  • Read Later
The former patients of Heinrich Gross all remember one thing about the young Nazi doctor when he worked at Vienna's notorious Spiegelgrund clinic for handicapped and delinquent children in the early 1940s. Whenever he entered a ward, it grew suddenly quiet. "It was like a cold wind coming," recalls Johann Gross (no relation), 69, a housepainter who as a teenager spent three years in the clinic. Last week, the same chill descended on a waiting area outside a Vienna courtroom when Gross, now 84, arrived to face charges for complicity in the deaths of nine of 772 children allegedly killed at Spiegelgrund. Dressed in a loosely fitting woolen suit, he sat on a bench, bent over a cane, staring at the parquet floor in front of him. "There was evil in the room," says Waltraud Häupl, a teacher whose four-year-old sister died in Gross's care in 1942.

After 30 minutes of medical testimony and five minutes of deliberation, Judge Karlheinz Seewald suspended the trial "indefinitely," citing Gross's declining mental condition and apparent inability to defend himself. It was the third failed attempt in 55 years to convict Gross, who was in charge of the infant ward at Spiegelgrund from 1941 to 1943 and again in 1944. Upon hearing the decision, Gross, who had remained motionless, appeared suddenly to recover. He straightened, nodded to his lawyer, then produced a thin smile.

In Vienna, where the far-right Freedom Party's inclusion in government has sharpened the spotlight on the country's Nazi past, a prominent editorialist called the outcome "a farce." Karl Öllinger of Austria's Green Party said the country's political elite and justice system had protected Gross for decades as one of their own. Meanwhile, the surviving victims of Spiegelgrund, 17 of whom had come forward to testify, were forced to remain silent. "We lost and he won," said Johann Gross. "The children died for nothing."

Spiegelgrund was one of 30 to 40 child euthanasia clinics set up by the Third Reich to carry out the Nazi doctrine of "the eradication of the pathological genotype." Medical records kept in Gross's spidery handwriting show sudden and mysterious deterioration in patients' health, accompanied by notes about other family members suffering from supposedly inheritable diseases. In several cases, Gross refers to the "oriental features" of Jewish children. The recent medical graduate was obsessed with brain size and routinely conducted debilitating experiments to probe for neurological abnormalities. After patients died he preserved brain tissue and later used these specimens to launch a successful research career. Witnesses say children were put out on the balcony on freezing winter nights and given injections of sedatives and other drugs which lowered their resistance to disease. Häupl's younger sister Annemarie went to Spiegelgrund suffering from rickets in the summer of 1941. A photograph of the child, taken by Gross himself shortly after she entered his care, shows her naked on a sheet, weeping inconsolably. She lost 25% of her body weight within six months and died in September 1942. Her parents were told that she died of pneumonia.

After the war, all but one of Gross's colleagues were convicted of war crimes, and the head of the clinic, Ernst Illing, was hanged. Gross was finally brought to trial in 1950, but since Austria was an occupied country he was tried under German law, which until recently held that the killing of mentally handicapped people was not murder. Gross was convicted of manslaughter but never served his two-year sentence. He went on to fashion a distinguished career as a pediatric neurologist, joined the ruling Socialist Party and served as a court psychiatrist until 1997. In that year, a Viennese researcher published a report on the origins of the doctor's celebrated "brain library." Austria's Justice Minister ordered an investigation, and an examination of the tissue found traces of poison--the first objective evidence that the children had been murdered.

Gross has denied responsibility in the children's deaths and claims not to remember anything about the period. The court psychiatrist said he is suffering from the early stages of dementia and does not have the mental "flexibility" to respond to prolonged questioning. Even so, after the hearing, Gross gave a TV interview in which he answered detailed queries about his past, a metamorphosis that even Judge Seewald found "completely incomprehensible." Seewald is now considering whether to order another medical exam, but a full-fledged trial still seems unlikely. "He lived a good life," says Johann Gross. "He sleeps well at night." Perhaps. But for the relatives of those who died, the nightmare continues.