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Rezori: The short life and sinister end of a girl named Brunhild

09/21/2014 08:46 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:03 EDT
After more than 50 years living in Newfoundland, Gudrun Williams, née Stobbe, still speaks English with a slight German accent.

The first time I met her she was already involved with the fair trade organization Ten Thousand Villages. Later she was part of the group that supported Latvian refugee Alexi Kolosov while he was holed up in a St. John's church for four years hoping to be allowed to stay in Canada. Just a brief conversation with Williams and you know she cares.

Caring has its pitfalls. If you care enough, you ask questions. If you ask enough questions, you find out. If you find out enough, you may see things that shake you to the core.

 And that's what happened to Gudrun Williams.

Williams grew up in Hamburg during and after the Second World War. When her parents divorced, her father Felix Stobbe moved to Newfoundland to manage Terra Nova Textiles, one of Premier Joey Smallwood's manufacturing plants.

Williams's older sister followed him first; sometime later Williams made the move herself to be reunited with her sister.

There was once a third sister, but only for a very short time.

Outside a former hospital in Hamburg, set right into the pavement of the sidewalk, are 35 cobblestone-sized plaques of brass with names of patients who died inside between 1940 and 1945.

One of the "stumbling stones," as the plaques are called, reads in translation:

Brunhilde Stobbe

​Born 5.4.1944

Murdered 1.11.1944

An entrance like pure magic 

All Williams remembers is her joy at the arrival of a little sister. She was 3½ years old herself. Brunhild (the plaque misspells her name) entered her life like pure magic — a living doll. But that's where it ended.

Ten days into her brief life, Brunhild developed cramps and difficulties drinking. She was admitted to hospital eight days later. Williams never saw her again.

Seven months later a notice arrived that listed pneumonia and idiocy as the cause of Brunhild's death.

And so the mystery of an unsolved crime started to haunt the family.

"My mother always talked about my sister. I think it was the tragedy of her life. She realized that Brunhild’s death had been a violent death. And yet in those days you could not speak about it. I remember my grandmother saying to my mother, 'You be careful what you say.'

"When my father came back from the war, he wanted to sue the doctor that had killed her. I remember how angry he was. He had been fighting for the Reich in Russia while they were killing his daughter.

"And my mother gave me all of Brunhild's papers about a year before she died. She said, 'You need to take them with you.'"

Included were the death notice, two pictures, and a small diary kept by the nurse who cared for Brunhild during her stay in hospital.

A long-held secret

And that's where things stayed for close to seven decades.

Then, last year, Williams's son Johann Erich came upon a website that documents the extermination of thousands of German children considered unworthy under the Nazi policy of genetic hygiene.

The website included the stories of individual victims. And there she was — Brunhild Stobbe.

Admitted at the age of 18 days. Given treatments that made her worse. Developed anemia and pneumonia. Shortly before her death, the nurse looking after her noticed a puncture wound, suggesting she had been injected with some substance.

Williams said there was a perfectly good explanation why Brunhild had issues early on.

She was Rh negative, a blood condition that can cause serious problems in newborns. Even though the condition was known by then, Brunhild was treated for abnormal brain development.

Hence the verdict of the death notice — pneumonia and idiocy.

A sinister turn

And now things get very sinister. They take us back to the early days of Nazism and its policy of racial superiority and purity, where the stated goal was to eliminate unworthy life.

As early as 1929, Adolf Hitler was recorded saying that the annual elimination of close to a million of the weakest lives would mean an increase in the power of the nation, not a weakening.

By 1935, the Fuehrer had appointed a medical leader to "eliminate the incurably insane."

Even Hitler recognized it was a delicate issue, because unlike his extermination camps, which were kept out of public view, the wards in which the children were to be assessed and killed would have to be set up in regular hospitals.

And that's how this particular killing machine came into being.

Under orders to report

All medical practitioners in Germany were under orders to report any children with developmental issues. Especially targeted were cases of Down syndrome, abnormal brain development, malformed spines and cerebral palsy.

The files were passed on to a special ministry that decided whether the cases warranted further attention.

If they did, the parents were contacted and promised special treatment for their children, who were then admitted to special wards in hospitals across the country.

Like Brunhild, most of them never made it home. The standard procedure was to inject them with phenobarbital, which caused a slow death with symptoms resembling routine illnesses like pneumonia, tuberculosis and typhus.

According to the official estimate, more than 5,000 children were killed that way over five years.

It was all news to Williams. What shocked her even more was that all of the physicians who participated at the Hamburg hospital were women.

"To me, it was unbelievable that women could kill small children. My sister was only seven months old, you know?"

A rose on the stumbling stone

This spring, Williams travelled to Germany to visit the spot where her sister's name is engraved on one of the stumbling stones.

"It was horrible for me to see that word 'murdered.' And I cried. I looked at the other little stones, and they said murdered, murdered, murdered. And it really shocked me."

She placed a rose on Brunhild's stone. She and a group of friends recited a prayer, then laid more flowers.

"But the one thing I couldn't do was look at the windows of the hospital knowing what had happened behind them."

Ever since, Williams has been experiencing shock, sorrow and relief, all at the same time.

Shock that the murders happened in the first place, and that none of the physicians who participated were ever prosecuted.

Sorrow that she was so completely unaware of it all, and that it took so long to find closure to her sister's death.

Relief that the story is finally being told, written as it is now on thousands of stumbling stones all over the streets of Germany.

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