>Being the day after the March for Life, I would like to share with you, gentle reader, a little about the lives of two artists whom you have probably never heard of, yet whose stories show us why we should never discount the human soul. Their lives were as different as their art, and yet both suffered the same fate. For in the end, the world lost their artistic creativity as a result of legalized selfishness.
In the 1930’s German artist Gertrud Fleck was in her 60’s, and had been a resident of the Sonnenstein Castle Nursing Home in Prina, a beautiful hospital campus located outside of her native Dresden, for many decades. As a young woman from a middle-class family, she attended art school and worked part-time in a professional photographer’s studio in the hope of finding a full-time job as an art teacher, but with no success. This frustration in combination with other factors led to some type of a mental breakdown, and her family had to have her institutionalized.
Although she never recovered from her condition to the point where she could go back to leading a normal life, with medication and counseling Gertrud was able to function to some degree. In fact, its success with patients like Gertrud helped to establish the reputation of Sonnenstein as the most advanced, progressive, and successful mental institution then in the country, and visitors from around the world came to study their methods. Doctors noted that while Gertrud had difficulty processing what people said to her, and sometimes had mood swings or spoke gibberish, she was characterized as generally chatty and friendly, and she even kept and cared for a pet canary.
Gertrud’s family continued to regularly visit her at the sanatorium, and her treatment notes refer to the fact that Gertrud kept up with her drawing and painting, often commenting on how accomplished her artwork was. Indeed, for Christmas in 1933 Gertrud painted a large, beautiful floral still life in oils on canvas, which she gave to the director of the nursing home and his wife with a note expressing her gratitude for caring for her for so many years. Much to Gertrud’s joy, they expressed their gratitude in return by hanging the painting in the formal salon of the hospital for visitors to admire.
Around the same time that Gertrud painted her Christmas present, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler had been institutionalized for several years in a less-pleasant state-run sanitorium in the village of Arnsdorf. A fellow native of Dresden, who had also come from a bourgeois background and been to art school, Elfriede was from a younger generation born at the turn of the 20th century. She spent much of her youth in the 1920’s experiencing the scandalous, bohemian wildness of that era along with her artist-musician husband, themes which she often examined in her painting.
Unlike Gertrud and her pretty, somewhat decorative style, Elfriede was a modernist exploring difficult subjects, beginning with Secessionism and eventually leading to Expressionism. Her work was often raw; if Gertrud’s work reminds us of Fantin-Latour, Elfriede’s evokes Egon Schiele. Elfriede was also friendly with numerous important German artists of the age, including fellow Secessionist Otto Dix, and she became involved in artistic societies for women painters as well as having her works exhibited publicly in group shows of contemporary art.
Whereas Gertrud’s mental illness was primarily triggered by her failure to find a path for her life, Elfriede suffered through an abusive marriage, and later financial ruin. She ultimately experienced a mental breakdown and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Even when she was institutionalized in the 1930’s however, she was able to function, and continued to develop her art, which provided a therapeutic outlet for her illness. She often painted portraits or studies of other patients and staff members at the sanatorium; indeed, her output actually increased during her convalescence when she was able to focus on her art.
While as young girls these two artists had shared somewhat similar backgrounds, as adults their paths differed significantly; their respective works show distinct differences in training, style, and outlook. The reader is, of course, free to like or dislike either or both of their artistic outputs. Yet whatever one thinks of their art, I would hope that the reader will react as I did in learning that these two incredibly talented, but emotionally wounded women were put to death by their government, under a program known as “Action T4”.
The T4 program, which grew out of public policy concepts pushed by people like Margaret Sanger of Planned Parenthood and adopted with great enthusiasm by Adolf Hitler, began with the assumption that those who are mentally or physically handicapped are an unjustifiable drain on the resources of the state. A key public health goal of the State therefore, was to have those suffering from such handicaps and still physically capable of reproduction be medically sterilized, in order to reduce the possibility of their passing on these genes to their children and into the population at large, thereby increasing health care and social welfare costs. Hitler of course, after implementing a public sterilization program, over time took this policy a step further to its logical conclusion, decreeing that all people suffering from mental and physical handicaps needed to be eliminated completely. After all, there was no need to sterilize people who were already dead.
The end result for our two artists was tragically predictable. Elfriede, who was still of child-bearing years, was forcibly sterilized in 1935, and was so traumatized afterwards that she was never able to paint or draw again. And the beautiful Sonnenstein hospital where Gertrud had lived happily for so many years was turned into a gas chamber. There, both of these ladies were murdered in 1940, along with an estimated 15,000 other persons from mental institutions around the Third Reich. It is further estimated that as many as a quarter of a million mentally or physically handicapped people may have been killed under the T4 program.
The days are coming, and indeed they are already here, when the idea that killing off human beings who are a drain on our resources will be acceptable in many American households. Through advanced scientific technology, we learn that our unborn children will be born with mental or physical handicaps, and learn so at an increasingly earlier stage of development in which abortion is not only feasible, but recommended. We are already seeing the acceptance in some states of a so-called “Right to Die”, in which people with incurable or long-term illnesses decide to have themselves killed – and the next step, of course, is having the State make a decision about this supposed right on behalf of those whom it finds incapable of making a decision for themselves. One wonders how long will it be before it becomes acceptable thinking to say that those who cannot possibly recover from a debilitating mental or physical handicap should be euthanized by the State.
Too often those of us who are Pro-Life are slammed for being more concerned about the child than the mother, and that somehow we are a one-issue interest group. Yet being Pro-Life is about caring for our entire species: it is about respecting the lives of the poor, the aged, and the mentally and physically handicapped. It is about those whose lives are themselves increasingly under threat, thanks to polices and philosophies which tart up evil in the trappings of personal freedom and economic efficiency. It is about getting women like Gertrud and Elfriede the care and love that they need, when they are not able to care for themselves, so that they can continue to astound us with their remarkable art – art they managed to create notwithstanding their handicaps, or their economic undesirability.