Oral History

Paul Eggert, Helga Gross, and Dorothea Buck describe forced sterilization

Paul Eggert was categorized as "feeble-minded." At age 11, he was institutionalized and sterilized without his knowledge. Helga Gross attended a school for the deaf in Hamburg, Germany. She was sterilized in 1939, aged 16. At age 19, Dorothea Buck was diagnosed as schizophrenic and sterilized without her knowledge.

[Photo credits: Getty Images, New York City; Yad Vashem, Jerusalem; Max-Planck-Institut für Psychiatrie (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Psychiatrie), Historisches Archiv, Bildersammlung GDA, Munich; Bundesarchiv Koblenz, Germany; Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes, Vienna; Kriemhild Synder: Die Landesheilanstalt Uchtspringe und ihre Verstrickung in nationalsozialistische Verbrechen; HHStAW Abt. 461, Nr. 32442/12; Privat Collection L. Orth, APG Bonn.]


We were thirteen children. My father drank a lot and worked little. My mother barely took care of us. I had to beg a lot for food from the farmers so that my brothers and sisters would have something to eat. My brothers and sisters went to school. I was the only one who didn't. Then one morning I was taken to the city hospital in Bielefeld. I was operated on there. They told me nothing. I really felt crushed. We wanted very much to have children but we could not, because of my operation in Bielefeld.

They explained to the deaf children that they didn’t want deaf children, that they had to be sterilized because they didn’t want deaf children to have children who would grow up and be deaf as well. We were young, we really didn't understand. Then a man came from the government to our school and told the teacher to choose which children that we should send to the hospital for sterilization. Then as the time became near, I was in the kitchen and I was cleaning. My mother came and said, “Helga, sit down.” And she explained, “You have to go to the hospital in two days.” My father cried. He refused to see me. He didn’t want to hug me before I left home to go to the hospital. Not until later, years later, I saw my baby sister, she had a beautiful baby. And the baby was so beautiful and I got to hold the baby and that morning my sister was feeding the baby and then I realized what I felt when I realized I couldn’t have any children. I started to cry and I, I ran into the bathroom and just cried and cried. When I came back out my sister said, “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” I said, oh I’m just crying because I’m happy for you because you have a beautiful child.

I was simply taken away from home and I received no visitors but I did not know that they were not allowed to visit me and so I felt totally abandoned. When I learned that I had been sterilized, I realized I could never work in a kindergarten as I had planned, or have any social profession. I was devastated. My life’s dream was destroyed. Now I could not marry, could not have children. Everything was ruined. Besides, I would be marked by the stigma of inferiority for the rest of my life. One was sterilized because one was considered inferior. I then discovered pottery, that interested me a lot. I could sculpt and work with clay. So through my professional work I again found some happiness. This sculpture, “Pain,” emerged as if by itself, and very quickly too. It was very unpleasant for me, because it strongly expresses my pain, that I had to keep hidden, because one couldn’t talk to anyone about the agony of forced sterilization. Being forcibly sterilized for a mental illness was a much too clear indication of your mental incompetence.


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