Trial of ‘Grim Reaper’ doctor halted


LONDON, March 21 (JTA) — Holocaust survivors had hoped that an Austrian court would finally bring a Nazi doctor to justice — and perhaps help ease their terrible memories.

But their hopes were dashed when the trial of a prominent Austrian neurologist was postponed indefinitely because he suffers from dementia.

Heinrich Gross, 84, was alleged to have participated in the killings of nine children at the Am Spiegelgrund Children’s Clinic in wartime Vienna, where some 772 children deemed physically or mentally impaired by the Nazis were put to death as part of Hitler’s “euthanasia” program.

But less than a half-hour after the trial began Tuesday, Judge Karlheinz Seewald ordered an indefinite suspension after a psychiatrist testified that Gross’s dementia had worsened since two previous examinations in 1998.

The judge declared that “Gross’ ability to understand what is going on is limited. He cannot fully make use of his rights as a defendant.”

It is now considered unlikely that the trial — which would have been the first significant war crimes case in Austria since 1975 — will ever resume.

This week’s court appearance was not the first for Gross, who became known to the clinic’s inmates as “The Scythe” — a reference to the Grim Reaper.

In 1950, he was tried and convicted on a single count of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail. But the following year, the verdict and sentence were overturned by the Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial.

By that time, however, Austrian officials had decided it was time to bury their country’s Nazi past. They quietly dropped the case and Gross was allowed to resume his medical career.

In subsequent decades, Austrians were slow to own up to their Nazi past, preferring to portray themselves as helpless victims of Hitler rather than as active collaborators.

As the years wore on, Gross, still practicing in the same clinic, won a reputation as one of Austria’s most eminent neurologists and respected scientists.

In recognition of his work, he was presented with his own institute, where he continued conducting research on the brains of children who had perished at the clinic during the war.

But four years ago, Austrian prosecutors reopened the Gross case after fresh evidence became available to the Justice Ministry from the previously sealed files of the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany.

In February 1998, Austrian police raided Gross’ institute, where they seized thousands of papers, as well as the brains of 400 children from the doctor’s “private collection.”

In an interview last year, Gross insisted that he remembered little of his wartime experiences, although he did recall that windows were left open to study the effect of cold weather on the children.

He also admitted referring children to the Nazi euthanasia board. But he flatly denied that he himself had ever killed anyone.

Some saw the trial of one of Vienna’s most eminent scientists as an attempt by Austria, finally, to come to terms with its Nazi past rather than persist with the fiction that it was the innocent victim of Hitler’s expansionist ambitions.

Others saw the decision to go ahead with the trial, in the aftermath of the electoral success of Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party, as a demonstration of Austria’s determination to expiate its wartime guilt.

All that is of little comfort to Johann Gross — no relation to the defendant — a retired painter and decorator who lives alone in a small apartment on a minimum pension.

Before the trial opened, Johann Gross said was not seeking revenge. Nor did he particularly want the doctor to be jailed. But he did want Heinrich Gross to be stripped of the wealth he had accumulated since the war and he did want to see justice done.

He also wanted the “chance to face him across the courtroom and ask him if he sleeps well at night.”

During the trial, Johann Gross and other survivors were expected to have described experiments that were conducted at the clinic — how the young inmates were wrapped in sheets soaked in freezing water and subjected to paralyzing injections that caused nausea and vomiting.

Johann Gross’ mother abandoned him when he was a baby. He was left in the care of his father, an invalid and an alcoholic.

As a young boy, he dressed in the uniform of the Nazi youth movement and went out to collect money for the Nazi troops.

He landed in trouble, however, when, at the age of 9, he decided to give some of the money he had raised to a woman who had once looked after him. The boy was caught, handed over to Nazi officials and branded “anti-social.”

In 1940, as a punishment, he was sent to a Nazi children’s home and the following year, after repeatedly trying to escape, he was sent to Am Spiegelgrund, one of 30 Nazi euthanasia clinics for the “disabled.”

Among the first people he encountered at the clinic, he says, was Heinrich Gross, who examined him and measured his shaven head.

Continued escape attempts landed the young Gross in the clinic’s punishment wing, where he now says he was regularly injected by the experimenting Nazi doctor.

Some of the injections made him sick for weeks. Once the substance took effect, he now recalls, it was “like a hard blow in the stomach.”

Then the nausea started, and he remembers thinking, “This is what dying is like. I was convinced that I’d been injected with a deadly poison.”

On another occasion, he was given a yellow fluid — what he describes as “the sulphur treatment” — that left him unable to walk and in great pain for two weeks.

But it is the memory of children’s bodies piled up in wagons that continues to haunt Johann Gross.

He remembers seeing the cadavers “lying all over each other, like dolls that had been thrown away, with their limbs in unnatural positions. Most of their bodies had a strange green-blue color.”

And he remembers the nurses warning the young survivors that such would be their fate, too, if they misbehaved.

Drugs that precipitated attacks of pneumonia accelerated the deaths of many of the clinic’s 700 young victims. The illness would be left untreated and the resulting deaths would be invariably attributed to “natural causes.”

Dr. Ernst Illing, the clinic’s head, was executed for his part in the killings in 1946. Marianne Tuerk, another doctor, was jailed for 10 years.

Now, Heinrich Gross appears yet again to have eluded the retrial that Austria’s Supreme Court demanded nearly a half-century ago.

“For decades, the victims of Am Spiegelgrund have kept quiet and did not dare go public with their stories,” says Austrian historian Wolfgang Neugebauer.

“After being branded ‘anti-social’ and ‘prone to crime’ by the Nazis, they were also discriminated against after 1945 and had to watch how former Nazis made careers for themselves in postwar Austria.”

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