As I was reading the biography of Judith Heumann this morning, a piece of history fell into my consciousness that was so disturbing it caused me to put the book down. How am I to process this terrible knowledge? How does it relate to the disturbing, frightening daily onslaught against the health and safety of my country and my fellow citizens?
Heumann contracted polio in 1949 when she was two years old and became paralyzed. Her parents were advised to put her in an institution. Both her mother and father had been born in Germany, but as Hitler’s power grew ever more dangerous, their families sent these young Jewish teenagers to the United States, and thus they survived. To explain why her parents would not follow the doctor’s advice, Heumann says:
“If I’d been born just ten years earlier and become disabled in Germany, it is almost certain that the German doctor would also have advised that I be institutionalized. The difference is … I would have been taken to a special clinic, and at that special clinic, I would have been killed.”
I dropped the book as if it had burst into flames.
“First they came ….” The words of Martin Niemöller are familiar. It is not clear exactly where and when he first said them and who he indicated were the first targets. There are many variations, beginning with “trade unionists,” “socialists,” “communists,” “Jews,” “disabled persons,” “gays,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The list could go on forever.
Niemöller was a Lutheran minister who initially supported the Third Reich, but became increasingly disillusioned as he began to fully understand the scope of their willingness to eliminate anyone and everyone that stained their concept of a pure Ayrian race, or in any way opposed any of their precepts. He was eventually arrested and held as a political prisoner until the end of World War II.
Doing a short Internet search, undertaken because I desperately wanted it not to be true, I found numerous sources that confirmed what Heumann stated: “Hitler’s pilot project for what would ultimately become mass genocide started with disabled children.”
My God, it started with children, disabled children?
While I have never been unaware of the horror of the Nazi paradigm, and those of numerous other vicious and hateful regimes from ancient times to modern days, somehow this significant fact had just never risen to the surface of my understanding.
The exact order of who went into the void first may not have been extremely important to Niemöller, and it does not change the most important part of his message–that they eventually came for him. We may not speak out against the making of any one group into the Other, demonizing them and calling for their extinction simply because we do not belong to that group. The nature of the beast, however, is that as soon as it devours one group, it searches for another, and then another, and then another to satisfy its unending hunger for power.
Today, I am wrestling with the idea that maybe it does matter who comes first. It is one thing to wage battle against an equal adversary. It is entirely another to make an enemy of the weakest and most vulnerable, who have no hope of defense or salvation. If we can become comfortable with the murder of innocent living children, then it will become so much easier to close our eyes to the pain and suffering of everyone else.
I am not going to list the ways in which I feel the current political and social situation in this country has chosen our children to bear the brunt of the disasters that weigh on us at every turn. The daily news cycle and social media feeds provide limitless choices from sloppy school openings to lack of food and health care.
I am going to point once again to the traditional greeting of the Masai people and suggest that we are in desperate need for this to become our daily focus.* “Kasserian Ingera?” “How are the Children?” Even the Masai warriors who had no children would ask this question, and give the traditional response, “All the children are well.”
When we cannot answer “all the children are well,” we are in very deep trouble.
©Martha Hurwitz, 8/2/20
*See my post almost two years ago on this same subject.