The film about the the polish psychiatrist Dr. Karol Mikulski, which was posted a few days ago here, provoced a fierce reaction by our speaker Artur Hojan. He wrote an article responding to film, in which he challenges presumptions and conclusions drawn in the film. We are glad to be able to present it here, it was also published on Mr. Hojan’s blog and on the gedenkort-t4 blog. We invite you to discuss the matter by using the comment function.

Artur Hojan: Unfaithful to the oath

In the last few months a Warsaw group of intellectuals and journalists, associated with the conservative right wing, represented mainly by the Society of Teologia Polityczna, are trying to rewrite the history of the Nazi euthanasia programme in occupied Poland. Dr. Magdalena Gawin and others believe that the fundamental difference between  the „Aktion T4” in the Third Reich and the killing of mentally ill people in occupied Poland is that Polish psychiatrists were against this murderous program and tried to save their patients. In order to keep up historical accuracy, it is necessary to refute the view of the Warsaw group before it becomes orthodoxy in Poland.

Firstly they come up with only two examples out of the hundreds of Polish psychiatrists who were working in the asylums at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. Even these are suspect examples. Also, the Warsaw group forgets that some Polish pychiatrists were deeply involved themselves in the extermination of the mentally ill during the Nazi occupation. The Warsaw group is also trying to undermine the German idea for a new commemoration of the Nazi euthanasia victims. As a Polish historian, who has studied this subject in depth I cannot agree with the dangerous vision.

On November 6th 2012 the Warsaw premiere of the semi-documentary movie titled „Death of the Psychiatrist. Eugenics and Totalitarianism” took place. It presents the story of Dr. Karol Mikulski (1901-1940) who was a psychiatrist and head doctor of the psychiatric hospital in Gostynin, a small town between Warsaw and Poznan. He commited suicide on March 18th 1940 to protest – as the authors of this film believe – the murder of his patients planned by the Nazis. Before the war Dr. Mikulski was a member of the Polish Eugenics Society. During his travels in Europe in 1936 he met Professor Ernst Rüdin who is known as the  father of racial hygiene and Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, later known as the supervisor of Dr. Josef Mengele. He also had  contacts with Professor Karl Schneider, who was a senior researcher for the Heidelberg branch of Aktion T4.

The movie is mainly based on an interview with Mrs. Izabella Galicka, the daughter of Karol Mikulski. Shockingly one of the film’s directors, Mrs. Amelia Łukasiak said openly after the viewing that she was not interested in the topic at the beginning of her project. Mrs Łukasiak is a Polish journalist, not a historian and her knowledge about this case is residual. The film was supported by the Polish History Museum in Warsaw. It is shocking that nobody from this official Polish government institution checked on the content of the film.

Whether Dr. Mikulski really committed suicide for the reasons stated by the authors of the film has to be put in doubt. Mrs Izabela Galicka  was too young at this time and  her impressions about the whole dramatic event have to be seen as those of a very young eyewitness and are hence to be viewed as one view amongst many others. She is not able to confirm that her father spoke to any German doctor or not. Basing the whole movie on her vague memories is completely bogus. Dr. Magdalena Gawin believes , as she said in the movie and wrote in one of  her articles, that Dr. K. Mikulski was approached by a group of Nazi experts of racial hygiene to force  him to prepare a list of patients who should be liquidated.

I have researched the problem of the liquidation of mentally ill persons in occupied Poland for the last decade and have never came across any sources that said that any death list was created by a Polish doctor (except those who cooperated with the occupier). It was just impossible. The usual practice when the Germans took over an asylum looked like that:  Orders were given to prepare lists of all  patients and draw up a memorandum about the economic condition of the hospital. After this the Polish medical staff were dismissed from working. Not all, but the majority of the staff.

But in the  article „Faithful to the Oath”[1] Mrs Gawin spins literary visions of the meeting between Dr. Mikulski and the Germans who arrived at the hospital: „Their conversation was in German (…) Two doctors stood facing each other, two scientists educated at the same level who learned from the same academic books”. It could look somewhat heroic but it is very hard to believe that this ever happened. The situation described by Dr. Gawin looks like Dr. Mikulski was surprised by the unexpected visit of the Germans.  This is complete fiction. The administrative German team arrived two weeks earlier to the hospital and they did not trouble Dr. Mikulski and others. We know about this from the eyewintess account of Dr. Anna Kulikowska who worked in the Gostynin asylum. She wrote in a detailed statement about the arrival and the behavior of the Germans: „In the first days of March [1940], the Germans came to take control over the hospital (…) The Germans  acted very properly, they do not disturb anyone at work, they did not set any requirements. They only ordered that whole [Polish] staff should greet them first. Physicians were  instructed to prepare a patient record in the German language within a month” [2].

Meanwhile, we know that in the Gostynin Asylum no group arrived of the so-called by M. Gawin „Nazi experts of racial hygiene”. So, who really did arrive? One or two civil servants of the German administration, a member of the Gestapo and a professional provider from Rostock Asylum. They really were not a group of experts of racial hygiene.  The mystery of Dr. Karol Mikulski’s death is highlighted by the next fragment of  Dr. Anna Kulikowska statement: „A few days later, Dr. K. Mikulski returned [to the hospital]. Dr. M. has come a very long way on foot, so far from  Baranovichi; he was taken a  few times to the train and they attempted to expel him. Fortunately, he avoided this and returned to his hospital. He was very tired and deeply depressed because of the  hard journey and hard mental experiences. He did not believe in the restoration of independence, it seemed to him that Germans will kill all of us. For a long time he could not recover his  mental balance and he suffered from various physical ailments. He returned to work, but did not return to normal mental status and still thought over this national disaster”[3]. His suicide looked like the result of an unexpected mental breakdown.

Dr. Gawin is absolutely sure that the character of Dr. Mikulski and the dramatic events that happend in Gostynin asylum were the basis of at the novel „Hospital of Transfiguration”[4] by Stanisław Lem, the famous Polish science-fiction writer. It tells the story of a young doctor, Stefan Trzyniecki, who after graduation started  to work in a psychiatric hospital. The story takes place during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the Second World War. What is interesting is that Stanisław Lem himself never said that the main plot of the story is based on the Gostynin case.

After the viewing of the movie Dr. Magdalena Gawin said to the public: „I am afraid that the new monument [at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin] will commemorate only German victims and this use of nationalist criterion in the selection of eugenics victims, raises my biggest objection”. This is the perfect time to explain to Mrs Gawin that new memorial on the historic place on Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin will commemorate of course all the European victims of the Nazi euthanasia program.  Her statement is misleading to the Polish public and causes unnecessary confusion in Polish-German relationships. Dr. Gawin who represents the Polish Academy of Sciences should be more careful with her opinions voiced in public.

At the end of the previous year Dr. Magdalena Gawin wrote in the article „Faithful to the Oath” that Polish doctors died together with their patients during the liquidation of the asylums by the Nazis. In her imagination the Polish doctors died because they were strongly associated with the patients, they tried to protect and – as doctors – were faithful to the Hippocratic  Oath. This is her vision of Korczak’s character psychiatrist. Dr. Gawin recalls two doctors who died during the liquidation of the asylums by the Nazis: Dr. Józef Bednarz, the chief doctor of Świecie Asylum and the above mentioned Dr. Karol Mikulski. I do not want to be overly precise but if someone recalls the figure of Dr. J. Bednarz in this kind of discussion, he should know that this doctor did not came from Kocborowo Asylum in Starogard Gdański, as Gawin stated. He was the director of the Świecie Asylum, which is a totally different hospital. It is true that Dr. J. Bednarz died during the liquidation of the asylum undertaken by the SS-Wachsturmbann Eimann in September 1939, but it is not sure that he died with a group of his patients. Sources are contradictory on this issue. Dr A. Mielczarek in his text wrote that Dr. Bednarz died together with patients[5]. The same theory shows in his book Dr. Nasierowski[6]. But in a new elaboration by Stanisław Ilnicki it is stated that Dr. Bednarz was immediately arrested by Germans and killed with other citizens (not patients from the asylum) of Świecie[7]. It is also  an open secret that the Nazis gave him a choice.  It means that Dr. Bednarz could have survived. He did not want it and was faithful, in the old marine sense of duty whereby a  „Captain leaves the ship last”[8]. In this sense his death was his conscious choice. He joined one of the transports of patients and was shot in the forest. In the case of Dr. K. Mikulski the situation – as I wrote – is not so clear. As I wrote earlier most probably he commited suicide as a result of a sudden nervous breakdown. It is very hard to say that this dramatic gesture could have helped any patients.

Two deaths of psychiatrists (whereby one of these is a very questionable example – the Mikulski case) is really not enough of a contrast of death of more than 10 000 Polish patients to say that all Polish psychiatrists defended themselves in these dark times. Presenting so strong a thesis to the public as a general statement of an assumed Polish psychiatric position during World War II is a complete misunderstanding, and also a falsification of history.

I can easily recall the dark examples of Polish psychiatrists who passed to the dark side of the occupier’s medicine. I think about Dr. Wiktor Ratka – a Silesian Pole, director of the „Dziekanka” Asylum in Gniezno who identified himself as a German immediately after the start of the war. Together with Dr. Stefan Galon, a psychiatrist from the same asylum, they both played a key role in the extermination of the patients from „Dziekanka” asylum; Dr. Ratka was also included in the German team of experts of Aktion T4. In Pomerania Dr. Waldemar Szymański also joined the occupiers. He changed his name from Szymański to Schimanski aka Siemens and was personally responsible for the mass killing of patients from the „Kocborowo” asylum in Starogard Gdański. Sometimes also lower –grade Polish medical staff were involved with the liquidation of the mentally ill –  for example there was a nurse from Kościan asylum who gave lethal injections to her patients[9].

Generally speaking, the Polish psychaitric staff during the extermination of the mentally ill in occupied Poland can be divided intro three groups:

a) the resistance group, including Dr. Bednarz or Dr. Kopicz who were killed by the Germans during „euthanasia actions”; also into this group we can include the people who – as Dr. Zdzisław Jaroszewski – tried to collect  evidence of the crimes committed by the Germans;

b) the collaboration group, including the likes of  Dr. Ratka or Dr. Szymański, who became  Germans and were personally involved with the mass crimes carried out in the hospitals; also to this group we can include those bystanders who orally supported the liquidation actions; They were in my opinion unfaithful to the Hipocratic Oath they swore;

c) the largest part of the Polish medical staff were – according to the classical definition of Raul Hilberg – in the group of „bystanders”[10], whose behavior was indifferent to the crimes. A quite large group of Polish doctors stayed in the psychiatric hospitals and saw what happened to their patients. And they did nothing. They did not join the resistance and did not try to help the patients. But in my opinion we should not accuse them today. These doctors were in deep shock, lived in fear and were afraid of potential repressions.

Dr. Gawin is inconsistent in her theory. At some point during the movie Mrs. Galicka said that her father and also the rest of the Polish eugenics movement did not know how far the murderous asprirations of the German eugenics would end. But in her own text „Faithful to the Oath” she wrote that the Polish eugenics society knew perfectly well in the mid-1930’s  that after the politics of forced sterilizations the Germans would seek out the total extermination of the mentally ill.  Here the question is if they really knew this six toseven years before the war, why would Polish eugenicists such as Dr. Karol Mikulski cooperate so strongly with their German partners? This remains to be solved.

I understand that Dr. Magdalena Gawin would like to see our common Polish-German history only in black and white colours. But the problem is that history is not black and white. It presents itself in many colours.. As a historian she should keep this in mind. Unfortunately, her unbalanced theories, her mythologizing of questionable characters, and her radical anti-German tone are unworthy of Poland and the circle of people who care for the worthy commemoration of the menatlly ill people killed during these dark and brutal Nazi times.

Artur Hojan

[1] M. Gawin, Wierni przysiędze [in:] „Na poważnie” No 5-6/2012, p. 36.

[2] A. Kulikowska, Okupacyjne wspomnienia ze Szpitala Psychiatrycznego w Gostyninie [in:] „Przegląd Lekarski” No 1(34)/1977, p. 213.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Based on the novel Edward Żebrowski a movie with the same title was produced in 1978.

[5] A. Milczarek, Świecie nad Wisłą [in:] Zagłada chorych psychicznie w Polsce 1939-1945/Die Ermordung der Geistekranken in Polen 1939-1945, edit. Z. Jaroszewski, Warszawa 1993, p. 72.

[6] T. Nasierowski, Zagłada osób chorych psychicznie z zaburzeniami psychicznymi w okupowanej Polsce: Początek ludobójstwa, Warszawa 2008, p. 68.

[7] St. Ilnicki, Straty wśród psychiatrów polskich podczas II wojny światowej [in:] Zagłada chorych psychicznie. Pamięć i historia, Warszawa 2012, p. 171-172.

[8] M. Petelski, Dr Józef Bednarz [in:] „Przegląd Lekarski No 1/1981, p. 173-175 and Józef Bednarz. Wspomnienie pośmiertne [in:] „Neurologia, Neurochirurgia i Psychiartia Polska” No 3/1960, p. 394-396.

[9] AIPN Po 803/227, Akta prokuratora przeciwko Zofii Matuszewskiej.

[10] R. Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945, London 1993.