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The Stumbling Blocks


In May 2008 the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig laid two “Stolpersteine” or “stumbling blocks” (a cobblestone-sized memorial for an individual victim of Nazism) in the entrance area of the Diakoniekrankenhaus Rotenburg, today Agaplesion Diakonieklinikum Rotenburg. The stumbling blocks commemorate Else Warnken and Adele Nöbeling, two young women who died of complications due to forced sterilization carried out at this place during the National-Socialist period.

Forced sterilization under National-Socialism

Eugenics, also referred to as hereditary health care or hereditary hygiene, developed in Europe beginning around 1900. The purpose of eugenics was to increase the proportion of positively assessed genetic factors and reduce negative ones by means of population and health policy.

The National Socialists implemented eugenics in a radical way. In 1933, the “Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses” (Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring) was enacted, according to which persons suffering from various diseases were to be sterilized. The law reads as follows: “For the purposes of this law, any person will be considered as hereditarily diseased who is suffering from any one of the following illnesses: congenital mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, hereditary epilepsy, hereditary chorea Huntington, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, any severe hereditary deformity”, as well as “severe alcoholism”.

Between 1933 and 1945, in Germany around 360,000 persons were sterilized on the basis of this law.

The situation in Rotenburg

The hospital affiliated with the nursing sisterhood “Diakonissen-Mutterhaus” was a Protestant, nongovernmental institution and as such not obliged to carry out sterilizations pursuant to the above law. Despite this fact, Pastor Buhrfeind, the director of the “Rotenburger Anstalten der Inneren Mission”, an institution for physically and mentally handicapped persons in Rotenburg and of the protestant nursing sisters’ home that ran the hospital, sought permission to perform sterilizations pursuant to the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” in 1934. In doing so, Buhrfeind followed a recommendation of the Central Board of the “Innere Mission” that Protestant hospitals should participate in voluntary sterilizations.

Between 1934 and 1945, 335 residents of the “Rotenburger Anstalten” were sterilized. Two women died from complications of these operations. For the Nazis, forced sterilization pursuant to the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” was only the first step towards murdering sick and handicapped persons at a later stage. Between 1940 and 1945, at least 547 residents of the “Rotenburger Anstalten” were murdered in the so-called Action T4 named after the address of the Berlin centre for the systematic extermination of so-called unworthy life at Tiergartenstrasse 4.

Else Warnken

Else Lisbeth Warnken was born in the district of Verden on 25 December 1923. Being a premature baby, she suffered from severe convulsive seizures for several weeks. She learnt to walk and speak late and had problems adapting to school due to extreme restlessness. The district physician diagnosed “congenital mental deficiency”. At the age of nine, Else was admitted to the “Rotenburger Anstalten”.

Her parents regularly asked for permission to bring their daughter home during the holidays. At Easter 1934, the director declined this request for the first time with reference to the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring”. A lengthy exchange of letters ensued. In the summer of 1934, the administration of the institution wrote: “We leave it to you to authorize us to apply to the competent hereditary health court for your daughter’s sterilization. Once she is sterilized, she may again be granted leave.” However, the parents did not give up and obtained special permission to take her home. At the end of 1934 they wrote that their daughter was feeling better and that they would like to “keep her at home forever.”

At Christmas in 1936 their daughter was permanently declined permission to visit her parents. In April 1937 the Hereditary Health Court of Verden ruled at the request of Pastor Buhrfeind, the director of the “Rotenburger Anstalten”, that the girl was to be sterilized. Else underwent sterilization on 22 June 1937 and died four days later at the age of 13 as a result of the operation.

Adele Nöbeling

Adelheid Maria Augusta Nöbeling, known as Adele, was born on 20 August 1902 in Hannover. At first her development was normal until she became ill with epilepsy at the age of 13. In the beginning the seizures only occurred in the morning, however over time they became more frequent. Her mother, a widow, was not able to cope with the care of her sick daughter and requested her admission to the “Rotenburger Anstalten”.

In the summer of 1935 the Adele Nöbeling’s seizures ceased after her medication had been changed. One of the last entries in her health file reads: “No seizures” […], no change of personality, balanced, friendly, no mental regression, physically healthy.”

In May 1935, the Hereditary Health Department of the Municipal Court of Verden ruled that Adele was to be sterilized due to “congenital epilepsy”. She was admitted to the hospital for sterilization on 17 July 1935 and underwent surgery two days later. After one day she developed a high fever and in the further course of her illness contracted pneumonia. Adele Nöbeling died on 25 July 1935 of the complications resulting from forced sterilization.

Stumbling Blocks

Click pictures to enlarge!

Temperature chart documenting the days from admission to the hospital until Adele Nöbeling’s death on 25 July 1935. (Archives of the Rotenburger Werke)

In a letter to the director of the “Rotenburger Anstalten” dated 19 July 1934, her father asks for permission to take his daughter home, referring to her young age. (Archives of the Rotenburger Werke)

Temperature chart of Else Warnken between 21 June and her death on 26 June 1937. (Federal State Archives of Lower Saxony – State Archives of Stade)

Ruling of the Hereditary Health Department of the Municipal Court of Verden regarding sterilization of Adele Nöbeling, May 1935. (Archives of the Rotenburger Werke)