THE TERRIBLE CRIMES committed against the Jews by the Nazis are well documented – and rightly so. Extermination camps such as Auschwitz still stand testimony to the wickedness that mankind can bestow upon mankind.
But what is less known is that between 1939 and 1941 some 100,000 people – primarily children – were exterminated by the Nazis on the grounds they were considered Lebensunwertes Leben (‘lives unworthy of life’).
They were children and adults with disabilities that meant they were dependent upon others to see them through life – for example, those with Down’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy.
The Nazis saw no economic justification for them. As one leading Nazi doctor said: ‘The idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth, must lose its life at the front in order that feebleminded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum.’
It is this regimented extermination of ‘lives unworthy of life’ that forms the backdrop to ‘All Our Children’, a debut play written by Stephen Unwin and showing at Jermyn Street Theatre in London until June 3. While the backdrop is fact, the play is a work of fiction. Faction at its best.
What makes this disturbing play even more poignant is that Mr Unwin has a severely disabled son himself. Mr Unwin is also chair of disabled children’s’ charity KIDS.
The play, set in Winkelheim, Cologne in early 1941, takes place in the office of Victor, a doctor responsible for deciding which children are to be exterminated. He is a troubled man as evidenced by his liking for a drink and a failure to control a hacking cough.
Indeed, we first see him at dawn, awaking after sleeping in his office chair all night. Remnants of food and drink lie close by, suggesting a heavy night has been enjoyed (or endured).
Into the room steps Martha, his housemaid. A deeply religious individual – and both protective of and caring towards Victor. An individual who has come to love the children under Victor’s wing, even the ones who sit in their chairs all day ‘dribbling’.
It is obvious that a deep affection exists between the two – Victor asking after her children and Martha lightly scolding him for not sleeping in his bed.
It is only when the vile Eric, Victor’s deputy and a member of the SS, enters the office that we begin to understand what the doctor is up to in his work. Eric, a young fervent Nazi with a predilection to scream ‘Heil Hitler’ at every opportunity, has been installed in Victor’s office to ensure he is enthusiastically carrying out his euthanasia duties.
He is everything you would expect a Nazi to be – loud, rude and fervent in his belief that the project they are part of is in the best interests of the fatherland. His testosterone levels are also running sky-high, much to Martha’s disgust and disquiet.
The scene where the doctor signs off the latest batch of children to be dispatched is chilling – Victor insisting that three of the 32 earmarked for extermination are given a stay of execution. Eric, all matter of fact, states: ‘That’s 29. I’m sure Berlin will understand. Clinical independence, and all that.’
He then says the condemned will be told they are being taken on a bus to view the castles that stand along the Rhine. The windows will be blackened, says Eric, ‘to protect the hard working families of the Third Reich from unwanted and disturbing sights’.
The play’s momentum is maintained by the arrival of Elizabetta, mother of one of the children under Victor’s wing. She has come to thank the doctor for looking after her son. What then unfurls is painful to watch.
Victor is also challenged by a visit from Bishop Van Galen – based on the real Bishop of Munster (the ‘Lion of Munster’) who was instrumental in bringing the murder of the disabled to an end in the summer of 1941.
What ensues is a fierce debate between the Bishop (‘this is the massacre of the Holy Innocents, nothing less’) and Victor (‘mercy killings, my reverence’). A discussion that prompts Victor into making a decision that will probably end his life before the illness he is fighting.
All Our Children is a moving play that works well in the claustrophobic Jermyn Street. The cast is led with aplomb by Colin Tierney (Victor), expertly supported by Rebecca Johnson (Martha), Edward Franklin (Eric), Lucy Speed (Elizabetta) and David Yelland (Bishop Von Galen).
It leaves you drained, angry and on occasion reaching for your handkerchief. An important play that I urge you to see.
Could a future society take a similar heartless view on the economically unproductive? Hopefully, no. But it is a question that Mr Unwin’s play plants in your mind.
‘Lives unworthy of life’. Never, never again.
The play runs until June 3.
Stephen Unwin (writer and director)
Ginny Schiller (casting director)
Colin Tierney (Victor)
Rebecca Johnson (Martha)
Edward Franklin (Eric)
Lucy Speed (Elizabetta)
David Yelland (Bishop Von Galen)
Find out more: www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
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