When I started to think about what or who I wanted to write about this week, I looked to my list of subjects and I saw Dorothea Buck, someone that I had not heard of before and I wanted to learn more.
The word Holocaust brings to mind the six million murdered Jews, but we cannot forget that there were four million other victims: homosexuals, mentally impaired, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the gypsies. Dorothea, although German, fell victim to Nazi policies.
Born April 5, 1917 in Naumburg, Germany, Dorothea Buck was the daughter of Hermann Buck, a pastor, who had tension with the Nazis, and Anna, a former kindergarten teacher. In March 1936, as war loomed over Germany and Europe, the stress of it was to much for Dorothea and at the age of 19, she was hospitalized and diagnosed as schizophrenic.
She spent nine months is the hospital undergoing various “tests and treatments”, including being doused with cold water for disobeying, twenty-three-hour baths in canvas covered tubs with her neck held tightly in place, paraldehyde injections and being wrapped tightly in cold, wet sheets, unable to move.
In 1933 the Nazi government passed the Hereditary Health Law, which allowed for sterilization for certain diagnosis, including alcoholism.
Dorothea began to notice that many of her fellow patients had scars on their abdomens, they were told that it was for an appendectomy, when in fact they had been sterilized. Something that she, herself would undergo without her consent.
Having been sterilized, Dorothea would be unable to apply to university and fulfill her dream of being a kindergarten teacher.
She would be hospitalized a second time about midway through the war. During this time, the Nazis had begun Aktion T4 in which mentally impaired people, including children, were being systematically euthanized (for more information on Aktion T4, please see my archived blog post Aktion T4: Euthanasia, Killing of the Innocents dated February 5, 2019). By a miracle, she would escape that fate. An estimated 200,000 fell victim to this program.
In 1942 Dorothea enrolled at a private art school in Frankfurt. She hid her schizophrenia and her sterilization. She became a post war sculptor and an art teacher.
She would be hospitalized two more times and her final psychotic break would come in 1959. Between 1969-1982 she worked as a sculptor and teacher, however over come by her memories of mass murder of the mentally impaired and the poor handling of mentally ill patients in Germany, she became an activist. She did lectures, seminars, wrote books and started an organization in 1992 to protect the mentally ill and other survivors like herself.
Her sculpture of a mother and child stands outside the lecture hall of the Psychiatric Clinic of the Charite, a joint medical school of the Free University of Berlin and Humboldt University of Berlin, it was dedicated in 2008.
She and Dr. Thomas Bock are credited with creating the “trialogue”, where doctor, patient and patient’s family talk equally about the patient’s condition and how it is treated. Creating an open dialogue and a safe place to help the patient with all involved.
“I experienced the psychiatric system as being so inhuman because nobody spoke with us. A person cannot be more devalued that to be considered unworthy or incapable of conversation,” she said in a 2007 lecture.
In 2011 she created the Dorothea Buck Foundation, to support patients who help others recover from mental illness. Her most famous quote is “As long as we talk to each other, we don’t kill each other”, speaks volumes to the power of words in helping someone get better, either mentally or physically.
She was awarded two awards from her native Germany:
2008- Grand Cross of the Order of Merit (one of Germany’s highest honors)
2017- Recognized by the Hamburg Senate
Dorothea died in Hamburg, Germany on October 9, 2019 at the age of 102. Her life shows us that even though we go through tough times and horrible mistreatment we can come out the other side better human beings. We can take our trials and use what we have learned to help someone else, and isn’t that the reason we are here, to help others.
I hope that you have enjoyed learning about Dorothea as much as I have and that you have also found her story to be an inspiration for doing good in this world. Until next time my friends. Stay safe, stay healthy and stay happy.