Tag: 70273 T4 program

Action T4: Correspondence with Families Concerning Deaths


The ‘Black Triangle’ was worn by Aktion T4 (Tiergartenstraße 4) officials. The name is taken from a villa in the Berlin district of Tiergarten which housed the operation headquarters.

In a previous post we talked about the correspondence from family members desperate to know the whereabouts of their loved ones and the form letter responses sent by the T4 committee in response. Soon after the transfer of a person from the institution to the so-called receiving center, a letter was sent to the family. Typed on the stationery of the hospital and signed by the doctor “handling” the case, this personalized form letter would announce with great sadness the death of the patient. The cause of death was explained, condolences offered,  suitable disposition of the remains discussed, and reminders issued that because the patient’s tormented life was now ended, loved ones could rejoice and be glad.

A typical example of a condolence letter from one of the receiving centers:

My Dear Frau S . . . 

We are sincerely sorry to tell you that your daughter F. S., who had to be transferred to this institution in accordance with measures taken by the National Defense Commissioner, died suddenly and unexpectedly here of a tumor of the brain, on the 5th August 1940. The life of the decreased had been a torment to her on account of her severe mental trouble. You should, therefore, feel that her death was a happy release. As this institution is threatened by an epidemic at the present time, the police have ordered immediate cremation of th body. We would ask you to let us know to what cemetery we may arrange for the police to send the urn containing the mortal remains of the deceased. Any inquiries should be addressed to this institution in writing, visits being for the present forbidden as part of the police’s precautions against infection.

Dr. Koller

And another similar letter from a different receiving institution . . .

My dear Doctor  _______:

We regret to inform you that your son, who had to be transferred to our institution, has died here unexpectedly as a result of abscessed tonsils on 17 February. We are sorry to say that all our medical efforts were in vain. He died quietly and without any pain. With his serious and incurable disease, death means relief for him.

Due to the present danger of epidemic here, the body of the deceased had to be cremated immediately according to police request. We are asking you to inform us at your earliest convenience whether you want the urn with the earthly remains interred at any special cemetery. In that case we ask you to name the cemetery and give its correct address so that we can have the urn transferred to the administration of that cemetery. If you have no special wishes as to the burying or if you fail to inform us within a month, we will have th turn buried here free of charge. The belongings of the deceased had to be burned due to the danger of spreading of disease.

We enclose two copies of the death certificate which you will carefully keep in order to submit eventually to the authorities.

Heil Hitler
by order

Dr. Meyer

T4 leadership insisted the letters be “personalized” to deflect suspicion and thwart an onslaught of questions from families. In a Top Secret document, local authorities were directed to keep the letters the same, but different – to alter form letters just enough to avoid irritation, suspicion, questions.

Cause of death proved a sticky wicket for T4 officials. To avoid questions and suspicions, physicians took great pains to find a cause of death suitable to the patient. A guide was developed by the T4 leadership committee for use by doctors and staff preparing death letters and certificates. A list of acceptable causes of death was made, complete with notes of things to keep in mind to ensure that the cause of death assigned and medical history of the patient were consistent. For example, septicemia (also called sepsis) was on the list of acceptable causes of death for the mentally ill, with cautionary notes to avoid using this particular illness as a cause of death if the patient was known to be meticulously clean. Sepsis was preferable for “young, strong patients who smear readily.”  The notes, fairly thorough in their scope, also cautioned that if septicemia was used as a cause of death, care should be taken to remember that “seven to eight days have to be allowed for the illness to take effect.”

In the Nuremberg trials, one T4 physician testified that it would not have looked right for carbon monoxide asphyxiation to be given as the cause of death for all the patients in his care. It would have been “unprofessional”, he said, indirectly suggesting that T4 physicians maintained their sense of propriety by lying, fabricating credible causes of death for the patients they murdered.

It makes my heart hurt, this kind of “logic” that allowed T4 physicians to feel noble, live with themselves, and sleep at night.

Also at the Nuremberg trials, the director of one of the receiving centers insisted that the killing program known as T4 was fully, absolutely legal. As a follow-up question he was asked, “If that was the case, why bother with false death certificates?” to which he replied, “I did not want to scare the population by not filling in a diagnosis. I could not put down on the death certificate, ‘We killed them.'”

Aktion T4: Correspondence with Families


Aktion T4 generated a great deal of correspondence. While families and friends were anxious to locate their loved ones, T4 official were determined to keep the whereabouts of these patients secret. Thousands of desperate letters were sent by concerned loved ones to officials, pleading for news.

Here is a letter from an American, penned before the U.S. and Germany were at war and addressed to the therapeutic establishment of Warneck in Wurzburg:

November 1, 1940

I learned that my mother Frau Gertrud Sonder is supposed to be no longer in Warneck. As her only child and as an American citizen who has contributed to the costs of my mother’s upkeep, I request you kindly to give me an indication as to the present whereabouts of my mother. I should be very thankful if you would give me such indication by return airmail. Please charge any eventual expenses to my privileged frozen account.

Hans Sonder


and this letter in search of a cousin . . .


Mainz, 1 December 1940

To the Management of the therapeutic and Nursing Establishment

Eglfing Haar:
I beg to inquire herewith whether my cousin Herr Oswald Feis is in your establishment. He reported to me some time ago from the Therapeutic and Nursing Establishment in Ansbach that he was being transferred to Eglfing. I wrote him directly three times enclosing a stamped envelope for answer without receiving any news from him. A parcel sent to him was also returned to me. I request you kindly let me have some news as soon as possible as to the state of his health and whether he is still staying in your establishment. I would like to prepare a Christmas treat for him.

Most respectfully,


Regardless of where the letters of inquiry were sent, they were answered with the same form letter:


To:         Mrs. Johanna Sara Moritz
Subj:     Rubell Marin, you letter of 1 December 1940

We have forwarded your letter to the competent agency because the name of the receiving center is unknown to us.



Note that the form letters state that the loved one has disappeared into some nebulous “receiving center” and the letter is signed with only an initial. Vague, impersonal responses that leave families and friends in limbo.

There were occasional exceptions, however, like this letter from a loving mother:

Dachau, 14 December 1940

Greatly Honored Herr Direktor:
Please forgive me if I approach you personally with a heavy mother’s heart in these days which also for you must be full of suffering. On 2 December I received an announcement from the institution that my daughter Anny Wild, House 8, had been transferred because the house had to be cleared and that the receiving institution would notify me, but to date I have no heard anything. I beg you urgently to tell me as soon as possible where my daughter is now. At the same time I want to express to you, Venerated Herr Director, and to the other doctors who helped to care for my daughter in her many days of severe suffering, my deeply felt gratitude. If you realize that she has been bedridden for almost a whole year but now at this season had to go on a journey, you will understand my great solicitude; and also if you consider that the holidays are near the we would have liked to much to visit her. I beg you urgency for an immediate reply.

With German greeting.
Elise Strohmaier,
Hermannstrasse 10


To this moving plea, the infamous Dr. Pfannmuller replied at once, likely the only time he didn’t use the standard form (perhaps because of her use of terms like “Greatly Honored” and “Venerated”?):

Greatly Honored Mrs. Strohmier:
In reply to you letter of 14 December 1940, I regret not being able to tell you to which reception institution your daughter has been admitted, since I personally was not informed about the matter. However, I have been assured that you will be informed about the condition of your daughter, Anny Wild, in a short time by the receiving institution. The transfer of the patient occurred within the frame of a planned evacuation of the institution for the purpose of making room for evacuees upon the direction of the Commissioner for Defense of the Realm. The direction of this institution has no influence upon the transfer of patients.


It won’t surprise you to hear that Mrs. Strohmier’s daughter, Anny Wild, was murdered along with 70,272 others.

I can tell you firsthand from my experience with Nancy how agitating, aggravating, and totally unnerving (not to mention unacceptable) it is to not be able to talk to anybody at the institution where the patient resides and for your phone calls, emails, and letters to go unanswered. Poor communication still happens today, unfortunately, though it hasn’t happened a single time since we moved Nancy a few years ago. We are now in constant communication with her caregivers, and let me tell you: that means everything.

Next week we’ll talk about correspondence from the T4 committee to families and friends concerning the deaths of their loved ones.

I mean, the murders of their loved ones.


Speaking of communication, there are many ways you can stay in the loop with The 70273 Project:

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Clearing Backlogs


In celebration of the Fourth of July, I declare my independence from a bulging inbox and a tremendous backlog of facebook communications that beg a response. Having company and being out of pocket for 3 weeks in May and 2 weeks in June can really back things up, and justifiable as the reasons may be, it does nothing to relieve my feelings of embarrassment and guilt. The only way to rid myself of the guilt and embarrassment is to go through the emails and facebook comments/messages.

Now I could tick an entire page full of boxes and elect to delete emails en masse, but I don’t, preferring instead to re-read each and every one. Though plowing through emails that are months old may leave me feeling quite unproductive at the end of the day,  the re-reading of them leaves me feeling much-loved and appreciated. It has been a heart-warming skip down memory lane as I re-read your funny, loving, touching, supportive messages. Thank you for your patience and your friendship . . . and for the bulging heart warmers folder that now stands ready for me to dip into next time I have one of Those Days.


The T4 program under which the 70,273 physically and mentally disabled people we commemorate with The 70273 Project were murdered generated a tremendous amount of paperwork as thousands and thousands and still more thousands of completed medical forms poured into headquarters. The 10-15 assessing physicians agreed to make evaluations on top of full time jobs and additional wartime responsibilities that were already in progress. One assessing physician, Hermann Pfannmuller, for example, was the manager of a rather large psychiatric institution. During his fifteen months of service – from January 1940 to April 1941 – Dr. Pfannmuller received 159 separate shipments of forms, each containing between 200-300 questionnaires.  159 shipments x 250 (splitting the difference) questionnaires = 39,750 evaluations in 15 months. He actually passed judgment on some 2,058 patients over an eighteen-day period during which he continued to fill the daily duties associated with his full-time job and his additional wartime responsibilities.

Think about that for a minute. This man worked his full-time job AND passed life and death judgments on 2,058 people in 2.5 weeks. Seems way short of careful consideration, doesn’t it?


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From the Book Shelf

StillFromIAccuseStill from the movie I, Accuse

Creation of the T4 program was not a spontaneous idea or an irrational impulse. It was the practical application of principles written and read about then widely discussed and debated in scientific and medical circles, and indeed in society in general for more than 50 years . . .

The nineteenth century was a time of great advances in the quality of life, the rise of democracy, the Industrial Revolution, improvement in the standard of living, optimism for the future, and the enthronement of science as The Key to unlock the mysteries of the universe. All these things (and more) contributed to a better and longer quality of life for all people, including those with special needs. Improvements in medicine – things like  anesthetics, germ theory, antisepsis – increased life expectancy. Safe water, indoor plumbing, central heating greatly improved the quality of lives. At the end of the century, the rise of orthopedics as a medical speciality increased mobility issues. Growth of charitable organizations spawned by the development of a concern for social welfare channeled food, money, and resources to those in need. Though they would certainly never be mistaken for a five-star hotel, hospitals, asylums, and schools were built to house and treat those with disabilities.

But all was not so rosy. Many books were published around this time, influential books that did much to undermine the improvements and goodness of the time.

Perhaps one of the pivotal tomes that fed the mindset that eventually created the T4 program was the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.  Looking at the world through the lens of “natural selection” as Darwin called it or  “survival of the fittest,” as his follower Herbert Spencer, called it, significantly and severely altered society’s attitude towards those with special needs. Take Darwinian theory, add the Mendelian laws of heredity and genetics, and you have a convincing cocktail of thought that some saw as the way to understand any and all of nature – a way of thinking that would soon enough be applied to human society and the making of social policy.

In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin said, “We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment . . . Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

Knowledge and insights provided by evolutionary theory and Mendelian law came together in the new field of eugenics in the early twentieth century. Eugenics, the cutting edge science of the time, was concerned with the study, evaluation, and ultimately the manipulation of human breeding practices. Eugenicists were determined to use their scientific findings to “make better” and “strengthen” the human race. Charles Davenport, a leader in the eugenic movement, explained eugenics as “the science of the improvement of the human race by a better breeding.”

Does this sound a bit arrogant to you, too?

For all their pretentiousness, the eugenicists and Darwinians made no distinctions within the ranks of the “unfit.” Crooks, prostitutes, the blind, the paralyzed, the mentally handicapped – all were products of “weak genes”; all were degenerates; all were flawed. In W. Duncan McKim’s book Heredity in Human Progress published in 1900, heredity is blamed for all sorts of things, including “insanity, idiocy, hysteria, epilepsy, alcoholism, drug addiction, imbecility, eccentricity, nervousness, diabetes, tuberculosis, cancer, deafness, blindness, deafness, color blindness, rheumatism.” Weak genes, wrote McKim, are the “fundamental cause of human wretchedness.”

Ernest Haeckel, a famed biologist and social scientist, published his book The Riddle of the Universe in 1899, a book that quickly became one of the most widely read science books of the time. More than 100,000 copies were sold in its first year of publication, and ten editions were published before 1919. By 1933, well over half a million copies had been sold. Haeckel held to the hereditary theory with great conviction. From his belief that  deformities and chronic and incurable diseases were passed down from generation to generation, Haeckel warned that prolonging lives did little more than put an unnecessary drain on the economy and a growing danger to the health of society. “The longer the diseased parents, with medical assistance, can drag on their sickly existence,” he wrote, “the more numerous are the descendants who will inherit incurable evils, and the greater will be the number of individuals again, and over the succeeding generations, thanks to that artificial ‘medical selection’ who will be infected by their parents’ lingering, hereditary disease.”  Haeckel didn’t shy away from putting forth what ought to be done. “We are not bound under all circumstances to maintain and prolong life even when it becomes utterly useless.” He went on to propose that a commission be wet up in Germany to determine which of the deformed, chronically insane, and diseased should be allowed to live and which should die. A “redemption from evil” he called it, and never one to put forth an incomplete idea, he suggested that death should be by means of a “quick and rapid poison.”

Haeckel and other authors were considered wise men by German society. Their books and their theories were not restricted to science or scholarly circles but embraced by society in general.

In Moral der Kraft, a  popular book published in 1920,  author Ernst Mann expressed his concern for the economic chaos that followed World War I. His solution? Mann called upon veterans of The Great War to perform one “last heroic deed” and kill themselves, thus sparing the state the burden of their pensions. “It’s not right to spend the millions of marks on the cripples, the diseased, and the incurable, when hundreds of thousands of the healthy blow their brains out because of the economic crisis,” he wrote. Mann’s book was a best seller when first published, and it sold quite well when republished in 1933.

The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life, a popular book published in 1920 and written by psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and lawyer Karl Binding – both professors of good reputation and considerable importance – presented a carefully reasoned argument that certain people should be exterminated for racially “hygienic” purposes. Physicians, they felt, should participate in health giving and death making. Death, the two authors believed, should be painless and expertly administered by a physician. The right to “grant death” was a natural extension of the responsibilities of physicians, they believed. Knowing what we know now, it will not surprise you to learn that Hitler read a good deal about eugenics prior to writing Mein Kampf. It may surprise you, however, to learn that Hitler allowed his name to be used in advertisements for Hoche’s books. On second thought, maybe not.

Textbooks used in Nazi classrooms encouraged the devaluation of disabled lives in subtle and not so subtle ways. This problem was found in Mathematics in the Service of National Political Education: “If the building of a lunatic asylum costs six million marks and it costs fifteen thousand marks to build each dwelling on a housing estate, how many of the latter could be built for the price of one asylum?” Another math problem asked how many marriage-allowance loans could be given to young couples for the amount of money the state spent to care for “the crippled, criminal, and insane.”

Ah, and there was a movie we should take note of that became popular about the time these books were published. (See the photo above.) I Accuse was the story of a young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her husband – a doctor – engages in a little soul searching then kills his wife as a fellow physician softly plays the piano in the next room. So popular was this movie that it was often screened at gatherings of physicians  and at a Nazi Party meeting in 1935.

Considering the prevalent thought, popular books, and widespread discussions of the time, Is it any wonder that people with special needs and their families were stigmatized? Isn’t it real easy to see why they felt inferior, undesirable, and ashamed?  Does anyone find it surprising that those not deemed “perfect” were kept at home, hidden from view? These books, these theories, these discussions may have taken place in the days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but their effects and appeal (if you want to call it that) reached far and wide and held on for a long, long time.

This is why it’s imperative that we teach critical and independent thinking skills. Encourage questions. And model compassion. It’s the best thing we can do for future generations. It is a fine legacy.


Because I don’t want to wait till I’ve exhausted every avenue available to me, I am sharing my research now, in bits and pieces, not necessarily in chronological or logical order.

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Allow me to introduce myself . . .

Hey, Sugar! I'm Jeanne Hewell-Chambers: writer ~ stitcher ~ storyteller ~ one-woman performer ~ creator & founder of The 70273 Project, and I'm mighty glad you're here. Make yourself at home, and if you have any questions, just holler.

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