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Austria Tries ‘grim Reaper’ Doctor for Nazi-era Euthanasia of Children

March 21, 2000
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Austria tries `Grim Reaper’ doctor for Nazi-era euthanasia of children A prominent Austrian neurologist was slated to go on trial this week for complicity in the murders of nine children when he served as a Nazi doctor during World War II.

Heinrich Gross is alleged to have participated in the killings at the Am Spiegelgrund Children’s Clinic in Vienna, where some 700 children deemed physically or mentally impaired by the Nazis were put to death as part of Hitler’s “euthanasia” program.

Gross, 84, is the first war crimes suspect to be charged in Austria since 1975.

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

In 1950 Gross 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 collaborators.

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

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.

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

For the past 14 months, Austrian prosecutors weighed the evidence, attempting to determine whether it was sufficient and whether the aging neurologist was fit to stand trial.

Despite vigorous opposition from Gross’ lawyers, the prosecutors decided to proceed with the case, which was scheduled to start Tuesday.

During the course of the trial, survivors are expected to testify to experiments that were conducted at the clinic. They will tell that they were wrapped in sheets soaked in freezing water and subjected to paralyzing injections that caused nausea and vomiting.

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.

This is not the view of the witnesses, among whom will be Johann Gross, a survivor of the clinic.

Johann Gross, now a 69-year-old retired painter and decorator, lives alone in a small flat in Vienna on a minimum pension.

He is not, he says, seeking revenge. Nor does he particularly want the doctor to be jailed. But he does want Gross to be stripped of the wealth he accumulated since the war and he does want to see justice done.

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

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 immediately after the war. Marianne Tuerk, another doctor, was jailed for 10 years.

Now, 40 years after his first trial, Heinrich Gross will face the retrial that Austria’s Supreme Court demanded nearly a half-century ago.

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

“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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