Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Doctor Death

Doctor Death- the case of Heinrich Gross.

Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill

Killers come from all walks of life, on occasion even from the profession that is supposed to preserve life. During the war Doctor Heinrich Gross (1915-2005) was involved in state sanctioned murder as part of the Nazi’s euthanasia programme. Shockingly, he avoided imprisonment after the war and researched the brains of the murdered children, to critical acclaim.

On the outskirts of Vienna at Am Spiegelgrund is Austria’s largest psychiatric hospital, More than 772 children were murdered here during the war. The Nazis wanted a pure race and exterminated all those with real or imagined mental, physical or social disabilities. How many deaths Gross was directly responsible for has never been established. It could never be proven that he directly murdered anyone, but his signature appeared on 238 death certificates.

Friederich Zawrel was 10, when he was sent to the clinic. His father, an alcoholic communist disagreed with the Nazis making his son ‘anti-social’. Gross diagnosed him as being ’beyond reform’. The children at the clinic referred to Gross as Doctor Speiberl (Dr Vomit) because he administered injections as a disciplinary measure to ‘cheeky’ children’. The injections induced vomiting that would go on for days. Gross never regretted inflicting such pain and was still prepared to defend it at his brief trial in 1999. Zawrel spent nine months in solitary confinement in a cell that was completely bare. When he saw the dead bodies of other children being brought out he knew he had to escape and eventually did with the help of a nurse, who did not believe in murdering children.
Perfectly healthy children became ill while Gross treated them. Children were deliberately murdered through starvation or an overdose of sleeping tablets and a letter was sent to the family stating that their child had ‘died of fever’. Other children were subjected to painful x-rays to see what would happen when the cerebrospinal fluid was drained and air injected into the cavity. Ann-Marie Haupl, aged four was admitted to the hospital suffering from rickets. It was discovered that a distant relative had a brain disorder and Gross deduced from this that the child was mentally ill. She was murdered so he could dissect and study her brain and this research would make Gross Austria’s leading neurologist after the war.

The end of the war was kind to Gross. His boss at the clinic, Doctor Illing, was hanged for war crimes in 1946, but Gross, having been taken prisoner by the Russians, missed the euthanasia trial. He returned to Austria in 1948 and was put on trial for manslaughter. He received a two year sentence, but was released on a technicality a few months later and he resumed work at Am Spiegelgrund. Gross joined the league of socialist academics and also the socialist party, who would shield him from any harm and became one of Austria's most respected and highly-decorated neuro-psychiatrists and forensic experts. Postwar Austria suppressed its Nazi past and it was and still is considered bad taste to mention this period. It was a society that forgave the murderer and called the victim a liar. Thus nobody was unaware of the man’s horrible past and nobody wanted to know.
He published five articles between 1955 and 1965 based on research using the preserved brains of children murdered because he had deemed them handicapped or antisocial. This ‘left over material’, numbering 417 brains in total, was preserved in jars of formaldehyde at a room in the clinic to which only Gross had access. His research was so highly regarded that in 1968 he was given his own research institute. In honour of his work in the field of arts and Science the Austrian government awarded him the Austrian Cross of Honour in 1975. Research was carried out on these brains as late as 1978 and nobody ever asked where they had come from.
Meanwhile Zawrel had survived the war, though not without emotional scars. He never spoke about the horrors he had experienced until he was involved in a minor property dispute and had to go to court in 1975. The court wanted a psychiatric examination of Zawrel and to his horror Zawrel once more came face to face with ‘Dr Vomit’. The war was long over but the victims still had much to fear. Gross was shocked that one of his patients had survived to tell unwanted tales. Using his notes from the war he judged Zawrel to be a psychopath and had him incarcerated for seven years.
In 1979 Doctor Werner Vogt accused Gross of being involved in the euthanasia programme at Am Spiegelgrund. Gross sued for defamation and denied ever working there, but this was revealed to be a lie. Vogt was proven correct but miraculously the investigation into Gross’s past was also quietly dropped and he emerged unscathed. It was obvious that he had friends in high places and he had nothing to fear from the Austrian judicial system. He retired in 1989 but still gave court appraisals until 1997.

When the East German Stasi files were opened a file on Doctor Gross was uncovered. His medical notes for a one-month period in the summer of 1944 were found, a time when he said he had left the hospital and was in the army. In these notes he had described how he starved children to death.
Relatives of murdered German children, who had been deported to their death in Vienna, had been enquiring about their loved ones for years. Their requests for information met with no response from the Austrian authorities. The existence of the preserved brains was denied, but after international pressure mounted, they were suddenly ‘found’ and their existence made public in 1997.

The state prosecutor brought charges against Gross in 1999 after the horrific events had gained worldwide media attention and it was no longer possible to suppress his war time activities, but the trial quickly turned into a farce, lasting less than an hour. The 84 year old was charged with the murder of nine children, but all charges were dismissed as the judge felt Gross suffered from dementia and could not understand the charges against him. The court overlooked that he had been still giving court testimonies until 1997. Immediately after the trial, Gross held interviews with the media, showing no regret or any indication of dementia. He was an embarrassment to the Austrian legal system and once more the case was quietly dropped.
Gross avoided the limelight thereafter. It was not until 2003 that he was finally stripped of his state award. The mortal remains of those murdered had finally been put to rest at a low-key ceremony the previous year. He died in December 2005, never once expressing remorse and never having to do penance for his crimes against humanity.

Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill lived in Vienna for five years, where he lectured in English at BOKU, one of the city’s universities. He currently resides in Dublin where he teaches German.

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