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Grafeneck euthanasia centre

  
  - darkometer rating:  6 -
 
One of the six "euthanasia" centres of Operation T4, the Nazis' programme of systematically murdering mentally ill and disabled people during the Third Reich. Grafeneck in south-west Germany was indeed the first institution to be given that specific function. Today's memorial is, however, only one of the smaller and less developed ones of its type.

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

    

More background info: "Aktion T4" was the internal code name for a programme of "mercy killings" of "incurable patients" who were suffering, in particular, from mental illness or other disabilities and in Nazi ideology were thus considered "unworthy of being alive" ('lebensunwertes Leben) and a burden to society. So it was decided to get rid of them, under the mantle of research as well as purifying society, through "euthanasia".
 
After the systematic killings were authorized by Hitler in 1940 (shortly after WWII had begun), preparations were made and the castle at Grafeneck, until then a Samaritan care home, was confiscated. It was to be the first place specifically given over to the purpose of implementing Operation T4 (in the end there were six such centres – cf. especially Hadamar and Hartheim). The previous occupants were forced to move out and the Nazis took over. A gas chamber was installed by specially adapting a shed with airtight steel doors.
 
Following initial "tests" at Brandenburg, the first "batches" of selected victims systematically chosen from various mental institutions in the region began to arrive at Grafeneck from spring 1940. They were collected by infamous grey buses, which soon acquired a sinister reputation amongst those who witnessed them (but mostly kept schtum about it, as usual, at least until 1941, when the programme was ended).
 
On arrival, the victims were bureaucratically processed and "examined" (not for medical purposes, of course, but mainly for ascertaining the identity of the victims). Those with gold teeth were specially marked by a sign on their back. The victims were then ordered to strip naked and enter the alleged "shower room", i.e. the gas chamber disguised with fake shower heads (a common trick later used in death camps too). The chamber was sealed and the authorized doctor on "duty" would then open the carbon monoxide gas valve. The gassing would usually take a torturous 20 to 30 minutes. The corpses were then searched for those specially marked, whose gold teeth were extracted (and sent away to be melted down), then the dead would be dispatched straight to the crematorium next door. Often the new arrivals would see and smell the smoke of the previous batch.
 
This systematic murder carried on in Grafeneck until December 1940, when the site was closed down, mainly because it had served its function "exhaustively". Around 10,000 people, not only seriously mentally ill ones, but also sufferers from physical illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, had been murdered at Grafeneck in less than a year. After its closure the killing personnel were mostly sent on to Hadamar, where they continued their gruesome task … The chief supervisor of Grafeneck, Christian Wirth, later gained particular additional notoriety in Operation Reinhard, especially for his role as the first commandant of the death camp Belzec.
 
After WWII, the Allies started investigations into what had happened at Grafeneck, but most perpetrators who were still alive either got away with it or were let off with comparatively light prison sentences. Of Grafeneck's "euthanasia" doctors who actually performed the killings, only one, Dr. Horst Schumann (who from 1941 had also worked at Auschwitz), survived the war but managed to flee abroad, where he continued his medical career. Eventually, he was extradited (from Ghana of all places!) to Germany in 1966 but was never sentenced in the trial against him that started in 1970, as he was deemed unfit for trial in 1971. It's a depressingly recurrent theme.
 
At Grafeneck itself, the whole story of the deadly "euthanasia" legacy was initially more or less forgotten and remained largely uncommemorated until quite recently. The French occupying forces first used the site but it was handed back to the Samaritans in 1947 who reopened the complex as a care home – which it still is today. Some find it a bit problematic to house disabled people again in a place with such a history, but others see it as a sign of overcoming this dark past. I am personally tending slightly towards seeing it in the latter way too. In a way their presence at the site, i.e. disabled people moving up and down the single road through Grafeneck, going about whatever their business may be, homes it in for visitor even more what a callous attitude it must have taken on the Nazis' part to commit the crimes against this target group with such inhumanity.  
 
Anyway, back to the post-war history of Grafeneck: it took a long time before any open commemoration of its evil past was included at the authentic site. A mere symbolic graveyard and monument were set up in 1963, but the actual authentic building in which the murders had taken place was demolished shortly after in 1965 to make space for the expansion of the on-site farm.
 
It wasn't until the 1990s that more efforts were made, first with the inauguration of the memorial garden and symbolic open chapel, and with the display of the book of names in 1998. It took another seven years before the present documentation centre opened its doors in 2005, finally bringing Grafeneck more in line with the current state-of-the-art in terms of memorial museums in Germany. But compared to some of the other sites of its kind it's all still a rather small and low-key affair at Grafeneck – see below.
 
 
What there is to see:  not all that much and much of it is purely symbolic in nature.
 
By far the most visible part of Grafeneck is the old castle, a yellow-painted edifice of quite grand proportions sitting on a promontory overlooking the land around. However, apart from the knowledge that it was here that the Nazis operating the "euthanasia" centre back then would have resided, there's nothing for the present-day visitor to be had here. The building is now part of today's Samaritan care home and not accessible to the general public in any case (only the little cafeteria in the front garden is). The actual memorial is further down the road.
 
There's a general information panel by the access road to the castle as well as at the back of the complex by the open-air memorial garden, providing a brief synopsis of the place's history and a short description of the Samaritans' role as owners of the care home complex today.
 
The current core of the memorial site, however, is the relatively new documentation centre. Its permanent exhibition chronicles the history of the place, and of course especially its role as one of the six T4 "euthanasia" centres, by means of two sets of back-lit text-and-photo panels. Unfortunately, however, all texts are in German only, so if you can't read the language you won't get much out of this exhibition. When I visited the site there were no staff to be seen anywhere in the centre to provide information or guidance. You may, however, be able to arrange a guided tour in English in advance (see under access below). Otherwise you have to make do with briefly scanning the photos and then heading to the outdoor parts of the memorial.
 
These are located at the opposite end of the complex, away from the castle at the end of the road leading straight through the middle of the small care home village/settlement.
 
The main part of the little memorial garden complex on the edge of the forest is a kind of open chapel structure – basically just a roof supported by a steel frame over a kind of symbolic altar. A memorial stone dedicates the place to the 10,645 victims of "euthanasia" at Grafeneck.
 
The most unusual component of the open-air memorial site is the Book of Names. This is indeed a book – sheltered from the elements only by a perspex cover under which you can pull the book out on a metal drawer for closer inspection. The pages are laminated in plastic too, for further protection against rain and snow (there was still snow on the ground when I visited during Easter 2013). Apart from the plain alphabetical list of victims' names, there are also a few introductory pages about the project that brought the book about. Again, all this is in Germany only, however.
 
Part of the area is also a cemetery – and it's still in use (there were fresh graves when I was there). In addition, little plaques have been dotted around dedicated to individual groups of "euthanasia" victims", reflecting localized commemoration efforts in the region.
 
The rest of the memorial garden consists of sculptures, a row of wooden planks forming a sort-of fence, and an "alphabet garden". The latter is basically a patch of grass in which the 26 letters of the alphabet are represented by means of small stone-hewn letters strewn haphazardly about. There's some mediaeval religious/mystic background to this (explained by a panel by the book of names), but frankly I found this level of symbolic-ness a bit much to stomach. In general, the religious stamp put on some of the site's writings made the place a little difficult for me (as an agnostic). That does not, however, apply to the documentation centre, which was neutral, factual and sober enough and indeed very informative.
 
All in all, though, Grafeneck has to be regarded as one of the lesser sites of its kind. It's only worth the (considerable) detour for those with a profound special interest in the entire history of Aktion T4. For those less dedicated, but still interested in the topic, the much more richly commodified sites at Hadamar in Hesse and Hartheim in Austria are much more worth the while. In terms of authenticity of original remains, Bernburg in eastern Germany may also be a much better port of call for the dark tourist than Grafeneck, which is, as I said, only for the extraordinarily dedicated dark traveller.
 
 
Location: Grafeneck is located near Gomadingen in Baden-Württemberg in the south-west of Germany, a good 30 miles (50 km) south of Stuttgart.
   
Google maps locator:[48.3941,9.4309]
   
    
Access and costs: quite remote by German standards, but fairly easy to reach, even by public transport; free
 
Details: Remarkably for such a remote, provincial location, it is possible to reach Grafeneck by public transport – there is a tiny train station just at the foot of the hill that Grafeneck sits atop of. The station is served by a small, privately operated branch line called "Schwäbische Alb Bahn"which at Schelklingen connects to the general train network (with onward connections to e.g. Ulm – see combinations). There are only about five trains a day in both directions, but times would allow for visits of almost one and a half hours (see time required). The current train times are posted by the door in the memorial's exhibition. Make sure you're back at the station in time or else you may get stuck in this forlorn place. Also note that trains only stop on request – so give a clear signal that you want to embark!
 
It is naturally easier and more flexible to get there by car.  Coming from Ulm, first take the B28 trunk road heading west, then near Heroldstadt turn left onto the L230 road towards Münsingen, drive through it on the through road now merged with the B465. On the town's western edge turn left to stay on the L230 now headed for Gomadingen and Engstingen. The 465, by the way, also connects north, if you're coming from, say, Stuttgart or Reutlingen. After about 2 miles (3 km) on the L230 the road splits and you want to keep left here. Grafeneck appears shortly after on a hill to your right. It is signposted "Gedenkstätte Grafeneck" and/or "Samariterstift Grafeneck". The dedicated access road takes you up the hill at a fairly steep gradient and then takes a sharp turn past the castle. Just a few yards on, there are free parking spaces for visitors right opposite the documentation centre.   
 
Opening times: the documentation centre is open daily between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.; the open-air parts of the memorial complex are in theory freely accessible at all times (but only daytime makes sense, naturally).
 
Admission free.
 
According to the memorial committee's website it should in theory be possible to pre-arrange guided tours, perhaps also in English. But if the quality of the English translations on the website is anything to go by (gedenkstaette-grafeneck.de/342.htm) I wouldn't expect too much on that front. But you never know. Might be worth trying if you're really interested (contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).
  
 
Time required:
Seeing the open-air parts of Grafeneck takes about half an hour or a little longer, depending on walking speed and how intently you want to study the book of names. The documentation centre takes another half an hour or so, provided you can read German. Otherwise you can just as well skip it altogether or just pop in for a quick look at the photos. In total, an hour to an hour and a half may be sufficient – and if you're here by train you may just have enough time to make it to the next train back ... but bear in mind the time for walking up/down that steep hillside access road.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing in the vicinity or even the wider area. The "nearest" places of interest to the dark tourist would be Munich and Dachau, some 130 miles (200 km) to the east, or Natzweiler-Struthof over the border in France, a similar distance to the west.
 
The other T4 "euthanasia" centre memorial sites are all too far away to make for an easy combination – the most significant of these, Hadamar, is over 200 miles (300 km) to the north, and Hartheim in Austria almost 300 miles (450 km) to the east. They might just about be reachable in a day, but trying to exhaustively visit two of them in a single day would be difficult (and would really constitute crazily hard-core "T4 dark tourism"!).
 
In general see under Germany.
   
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The part of Germany that Grafeneck is located in is called the Schwäbische Alb and is ideal for people who are into hiking and/or cycling in the calm, wooded hinterland of Swabia, if for little else. The nearest larger urban places of note are Reutlingen to the north-west and in particular Ulm to the east.
 
The latter is rightly famous for its Gothic cathedral – or 'minster' to give it its theologically correct designation (Ulmer Münster) – which sports the highest church steeple in the world at 530 feet (161.5 m). That alone makes a trip to Ulm worthwhile. Historic Ulm, like so many places in Germany, was severely hit by Allied aerial bombing towards the end of WWII, but the minster was largely spared – unlike about 80% of the rest of the town (which was rebuilt in that drab, cheap, boxy, post-war style). Still some parts of the old town that also survived – or were faithfully reconstructed after the war – fit the typical German cliché of charmingly crooked, half-timbered houses. One of these, known simply as "schiefes Haus" ('literally 'crooked house') and now a hotel, is actually a record-breaker in terms of crookedness – leaning at a dramatic 10 degrees it is listed as "the world's most crooked hotel" in the Guinness Book of Records.  
   
   
 
  • Grafeneck 1 - old and new buildingsGrafeneck 1 - old and new buildings
  • Grafeneck 2 - new documentation centreGrafeneck 2 - new documentation centre
  • Grafeneck 3 - older memorial designGrafeneck 3 - older memorial design
  • Grafeneck 4 - book of remembranceGrafeneck 4 - book of remembrance
  • Grafeneck 5 - cemeteryGrafeneck 5 - cemetery
  • Grafeneck 6 - remote and ruralGrafeneck 6 - remote and rural
  • Grafeneck 7 - gate to the castleGrafeneck 7 - gate to the castle
  • Grafeneck 8 - info panelGrafeneck 8 - info panel
  • Grafeneck 9 - castleGrafeneck 9 - castle
  

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