International Holocaust Remembrance Day: do we remember?

Deadly Medicine exhibit at University of Louisville. The third row shows images of infant victims, including Gertrude.

Deadly Medicine exhibit at University of Louisville. The third row shows images of infant victims, including Gertrude.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But do we remember? 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is to honor the commitment of “Never Again.” In 2014, President Obama marked the day, stating:

May God bless the memory of the millions, and may God grant us the strength and courage to make real our solemn vow: Never forget. Never again.

But do we mean it? How many actually remembered the Holocaust today? And, what are we doing to ensure it happens never again?

Humanity has a bad tendency to only recognize an atrocity in hindsight. In my adult lifetime, there have been the Bosnia, Rwanda, and South Sudan genocides, where an ethnic majority eradicated an ethnic minority. That’s just since the 1990’s. And they all happened while the news covered them.

More personally, I remain haunted by the image of a baby girl with Down syndrome pictured as part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit, Deadly Medicine. While works like Elie Weisel’s Night, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List keep in the public’s mind the tragedy of the Holocaust, few appreciate that there were preceding steps that led to the systematic murder of European Jews.

It started with a public health program and preventive medicine.

The Deadly Medicine exhibit details how initially measures were advocated for taking proactive steps to minimize poor health, such as regular exposure to sunlight and fresh air for newborns. But the rationale for these preventive measures then progressed to justifications for eliminating disease, and then the diseased.

Individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities were the first victims of what would become the Holocaust. In fact, they were the guinea pigs the Third Reich used to try out their instruments of mass killings like the gas chambers.

Among these first victims was that baby girl, named Gertrude. She is lying on an examination table, head turned, eyes looking up. She shares so many characteristics of my own daughter as a newborn: a shock of dark hair, deep, beautiful eyes, and arms and legs splayed out from the hypotonia–low muscle tone–that most individuals with Down syndrome have. It’s heartbreaking thinking of that purely innocent little girl, just like my own, who was actively killed by doctors simply because she had an extra 21st Chromosome. She and so many like her were murdered to eliminate the burden they posed to the public health system and to society.

Today we say “never again,” but in 2013, bioethicists had published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (no less) an article arguing that it would be ethical for parents to kill their own children like Gertrude in what they bizarrely term “after-birth abortion.” In 2014, Professor Richard Dawkins went a step further and said it would be immoral to give birth to children like Gertrude if the parents knew she had Down syndrome prenatally.

Never again? Do we mean it? Do we remember? And, what are we doing so that we don’t look back in just a few years from now and wonder, “where did all the faces with Down syndrome go?”

This article was updated on January 27, 2015. The Deadly Medicine exhibit continues to tour the United States. To find out where it is being shown or to learn how to bring it to your town, visit this link.


  1. […] written previously about how the Holocaust didn’t just happen. The Nazi’s had a beta-test version called […]

  2. […] a “rehearsal” for the mass operation of the Holocaust. As I’ve written about previously, some of these victims included those with Down syndrome, even […]

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